Times tries to catch pop wave

Papers in NY, LA shift editors in revamp of showbiz coverage

Read all about it: The Times, they are a-changin’.

Emboldened by new leadership, scrutinized by Wall Street and seeking more sizzle, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times are overhauling their coverage of showbiz and pop culture. On both coasts, the transition has been bumpy.

In Gotham, the Gray Lady is riling high-culture avatars by hiking up her skirts a bit. New executive editor Howell Raines has summed up the mission as “less Peking Opera, more Britney Spears.”

The L.A. Times, while certainly improved since its acquisition by the Tribune Co., is still trying to close the gap between downtown and uptown.

Despite the fact that editor John Carroll says “the paper should reflect our area; it’s too much like an East Coast paper,” it has enlisted several veterans of the New York Times.

The two papers are feeling a similar need for change but for opposite reasons.

In search of more edge, the high-end N.Y. Times is slumming a bit with Page One stories on Mariah Carey and Botox; the L.A. Times is aiming for more gravitas.Lending a sense of urgency to these shifts are more fundamental questions: How do newspapers stay relevant in today’s media-saturated universe? Does an older institution risk breaking its brittle bones by trying to get younger and hipper?

On the West Coast, top Timesmen readily assented to interviews to explain their points of view. N.Y. Times honchos, on the other hand, stonewalled Variety.

It is hardly surprising, then, that L.A. is where the more positive spin can be found. Such is the disposition of a team with nowhere to go but up.

“We should own the entertainment beat, the way the Wall Street Journal owns Wall Street or the Washington Post owns Congress,” says John Montorio, the deputy managing editor in charge of features who headed west last August after a 15-year run at the New York Times. “We should cover entertainment the way the Des Moines Register covers Iowa.”

The L.A. Times has not yet reached that plateau. It has ushered in the start-up City of Angles society feature with frequent goofs. An item on the 20th anniversary of “E.T.,” for example, said the film came out in 1980. And a major post-Grammy package misidentified pretty much every attendee except Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

Beyond factual errors, some coverage has raised larger questions about the paper’s direction.

In one case last summer, a business story on Peter Schneider’s exit as Disney’s studio chief led to a 150-word correction/editor’s note after angry calls from Mouse House brass. It said the piece “contained some characterizations about Schneider and Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner that were not sufficiently supported by information in the story.”

Then, at the height of Oscar season in February, Calendar’s regular “Counterpunch” feature showcased an angry 700-word letter from Miramax publicists blasting a “mean” column by Patrick Goldstein.

On the whole, though, Hollywood flacks and others dealing with the L.A. Times are fairly complimentary, even if they toss some of the bouquets backhand.

“For the first time in recent memory, they have become a real newspaper,” offers one major-studio publicity topper.

“There is no reason the paper had to be as bad as it was,” adds another.

Recent stories on film producer Mario Kassar and nascent high-art landmarks Disney Hall and the L.A. County Museum of Art garnered positive feedback.

PR partisans and fellow journos alike still see three problems with the way the L.A. Times approaches showbiz news: deciding how to play stories, imbuing stories with a sense of savvy, and fully utilizing the reporting staff (to avoid the Times-reporter syndrome of filing a story every new moon).

To help with those and other needs, Montorio recently announced yet another new editorial layer: the internal hire of Lennie La Guire, a hard-news specialist, as entertainment editor. She will report to senior Calendar editor Bret Israel. Joel Sappell, a Metro vet known for his enterprise skills, has come to the business section to oversee showbiz coverage, supplanting Glenn Bunting.

In the middle of the staff realignment, the moustachioed Montorio, 53, is overseeing the paper’s 10 features sections, including the Sunday magazine and Calendar sections.

Due to Sept. 11, he is still getting his bearings. Barely a month into the job, global events forced him onto the national desk, where he sorted story ideas from hundreds of reporters from Pakistan to the Pacific Palisades.

A New Jersey native and son of a bricklayer, Montorio graduated from Seton Hall and later got a Master’s in English literature from the U. of Virginia. Like many Times editors past and present, he lives in the bedroom community of South Pasadena, with his wife of 25 years.

With a genial mix of journalistic vigor and urban refinement, Montorio is effusive about his decision to take the job he had turned down six months earlier.

Long memories

“I find people quoting L.A. Times stories back to me and I’m shocked at the collective memory the town has of every story that runs,” he says, sitting in a spartan office in the Times’ renovated features floor. “There has been a perception that we have been soft on Hollywood and I’m not sure if that was true before. I know it’s not true now.

“It’s going to take us some time to convince people that we’re not press-release driven, that our chain is not being jerked by every publicity agent with a star client. We have to show that we’re probing and provocative. And that takes time.”

The town’s long memory cuts both ways. Along with the scoops, it also recalls previous Times regimes’ herky-jerky progress, as Dennis McDougal notes in his recent biography of Times scion Otis Chandler.

On one hand, the L.A. Times started the nation’s first regular film page and gave space to trend-setting columnist Stella the Star Gazer. On the other, it too readily assumed a boosterish role, helping to publicize the movie biz as one of Southern California’s lures for tourists and home buyers rather than covering it like a business.

As Hollywood grew, the Times enjoyed several stretches of excellence.

In the 1970s, under Charles Champlin, Calendar often rivaled the sturdy reportage found elsewhere in the paper, with analyses from critics spurring debate across town. (That was when the Herald-Examiner still existed to provide competition.)

But when David Begelman was found to have embezzled from Columbia Pictures in 1976, the paper carried only a few lines while other media outlets pounced. (Variety, it must be noted, was just as slow on the draw.)In the hushed, green-carpeted Times newsroom in downtown L.A., one gets the sense that Begelman’s ghost hasn’t entirely been exorcised.

“We’re not going to cover every sparrow that falls in Hollywood,” concedes editor John Carroll, the gray-haired South Carolina native who seems straight from Central Casting. “Our goal is to be the foremost general-interest publication covering Hollywood.”

Features editor Rick Flaste, who worked with Montorio at the New York Times and co-wrote L.A. lawyer Leslie Abramson’s memoir, has faith in the “powers of a fresh eye.”

Yet new perspectives carry a potential price, he warns: “There is a danger of being generic and not being Los Angeles. We have to remember where our home is.”

Carroll and his team (including managing editor Dean Baquet, another ex-N.Y. Timesman) are eager to erase the image created by past editors like Shelby Coffey III, whose view of Hollywood was encapsulated by his infamous stroll around the newsroom with an arm around Sylvester Stallone.

One telling initiative is a planned realignment of the Calendar and business areas of the newsroom. Currently, the sections are on different floors and reporters rarely mingle despite their overlapping sources.

Carroll killed the business section’s Company Town column, an editorial product whose ambitious ad-sales potential was never realized. The editor objected to the brand’s tendency to speak “only to those in that community.”

That was and is the Times’ challenge: how to speak both to an industry crowd and to a wider readership.

One tool may be more staff. Montorio hopes to bolster the film and TV reporting corps and maybe add a gossip columnist and a third film critic.

Sensitive Spot

Reviews have been a point of vulnerability for both the L.A. and N.Y. Times. Lead film critic Kenneth Turan and veteran backup Kevin Thomas still share duties at the L.A. Times, but the paper’s theater critic post has been a bit of a revolving door in recent years.

The N.Y. Times’ policy on critics will doubtless also get new scrutiny. For the first time, there is no lead film critic, with chores split among three people.

“This simply isn’t working,” says one top Timesman. “You need a Bosley Crowther or Vincent Canby to carry the brand.”

In L.A., any new positions would be added amid Tribune’s plans to take a charge of $20 million-$30 million against first-quarter earnings by cutting jobs in 2002. The company’s stock, though, is up 18% in the past year.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times Co., stock is trading near a 52-week high despite a persistent sense of disorganization in its culture coverage.

“It’s hard to change direction of anything that big,” says Ira Stoll, who edits smartertimes.com and is managing editor of the New York Sun, a new daily. “It’s not like driving a sports car. It’s more like a Winnebago.”

Despite cosmetic changes under Raines, there still are some major wrinkles: The newspaper has not had a bureau chief in Los Angeles since Todd Purdum moved to D.C. last September.

Similarly, N.Y. Times Arts & Leisure section editor John Rockwell — who last December announced that he was leaving — has not been replaced. One would think that such a plum job would be a cinch to fill.

Though Rockwell only edited the Sunday section, the vacuum has left arts staffers and N.Y. Times Kremlinologists reading the tea leaves. What does his departure mean for the direction of arts coverage?

Rockwell has insisted that Raines was going to lean toward pop culture — a prospect that made for irreconcilable differences between them. An editor with a penchant for the alternative and the esoteric, Rockwell came to the job from a directorship at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1998.

Though there has been no concrete directive from above, many staffers echo Rockwell.

“Howell Raines wants the section to be more mainstream and egalitarian,” says one. “The Mariah Carey coverage wouldn’t have happened under the old guard.”

At the highbrow level, some of the section’s editorial decisions seem puzzling. Occasionally, the Times seems more at home with coverage of stories that are likely spoon-feeds, such as the Gerhard Richter exhibit at the MOMA.

But when controversies such as the Jewish Museum’s recent Holocaust exhibit start brewing months before the show bowed, the paper took almost three weeks to acknowledge the flap, which was even covered by a smalltown daily in Illinois before the Times got to it.

Montorio of the L.A. Times believes that the N.Y. Times had started to seem “esoteric, dense, irrelevant. That perception is a killer.”

So where does the N.Y. Times’s cultural coverage go from here?

Ask staffers and they’ll tell you that they honestly don’t know. But as the new regime uproots reporters and transfers some to other bureaus (the Times is famous for its reluctance to fire people), confusion abounds.

“If someone tells you they know what’s going on, they’re lying,” says one. Muses another, “If you find out anything, let me know.”

As a man of both Times, Montorio sees the pendulum swing at his former shop as nothing more than cyclical.

“Administrations change,” he says. “Sections are like people. They need to change every so often.”

Lifestyle specialist

Former colleagues describe Montorio as more of a specialist in lifestyle subjects than high culture, and indeed one of his legacies was the infusion of a New York Observer-ish flair typified by the media chronicles of Alex Kuczynski. (Several Times reporters, including Kuczynski, came from the Observer.)

It remains to be seen if that sensibility will migrate to the West Coast.

“There are great stories to be written that are vaguely ‘Me Decade’ and sort of prurient,” Montorio says.

“Before I read about the Middle East on the front page, I read about Botox — because I’ll need Botox before I’ll need Israel.”

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