New York Times gives media biz section the boot

Seven years after carving a media business staff out of its cultural and business news departments, the New York Times has thrown in the towel on the nomadic cadre, abolishing the media business department and the role of its pugnacious leader, media editor Martin Arnold.

The department was one of the final inspirations of former Times executive editor Max Frankel (who has since gone on to write a media column for the paper’s Sunday Magazine). But from the outset in 1988, reporters were dependent for story placement on the largesse of section editors loath to give up valued space or control over copy. No one found the setup particularly workable, including the current executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, who called it “a halfway house” in a lengthy “Memo to the Staff” posted recently in the West 43rd Street newsroom.

Henceforth, Lelyveld wrote, the culture and business editors will have “joint sovereignty over media” and will be asked “to achieve a level of teamwork and close consultation to make it all work.” Editors Alex Ward, from the culture desk, and Barbara Strauch, from business, were designated “media point persons” who will “tailor the new structure to fit each writer as comfortably as possible.” (“That’ll last two weeks,” one optimistic Times veteran observed.)

Like crowd-counting and Kremlinology, deciphering “Memos to the Staff’ of the Times requires a skeptical eye and an ear for discerning what has gone unspoken. Though changes at the paper are rarely announced before all the fallen dominoes have been rearranged, Lelyveld’s memo concluded with an apology to Arnold for not yet having found a new place for him. Translation: Every plan we’ve come up with so far has met with fierce opposition from one party or another.

The changes probably won’t have much impact on the paper’s expanding media and entertainment business coverage. It’s the staff that’s feeling somewhat adrift.

At a meeting Lelyveld held with media reporters and editors before the memo was posted, someone asked to whom they would file their expense reports. Ignoring the question behind the question, Lelyveld responded with a look that made it clear such pedestrian concerns were beneath consideration, according to one who was there. Arnold, a fighter for his writers with easily as many enemies as friends at the paper, had lost the day. Times insiders said the winner was cultural news editor Dan Lewis, who adamantly refused to make Arnold a deputy on his desk.

“Marty’s a survivor, and he’ll be all right,” a staffer said. For his part, Arnold, a 30-year veteran of the paper, was taking it all in stride.

Seven years ago, he said, “We started paying attention to these developments in an adventurous and exciting way, and now we’ve decided to go in a different direction.” He declined further comment.

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