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The Times are changing — and it’s overdue

FOR SEGMENTS of those two august journalistic institutions, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, the end of Oscar season is a mixed blessing. The folks who sell ads hate to bid farewell to those bountiful double-truck Oscar spreads. The newsmen, on the other hand, are relieved to see an end to an emotional campaign that all but succumbed to Internet-bred gossip.

The problems of Oscar coverage proved especially daunting given the broader problems of the moment. As this week Variety‘s Page One story illustrates, both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are in the throes of a major rethinking of their arts coverage. It’s a process that’s causing angst among their reporters, among major players in the arts community (and the press agents who represent them) and, to be sure, among readers.

Though neither newspaper is eager to discuss specifics, the issues include these: Should arts coverage be news or feature oriented? Should the emphasis be on “high culture” or pop culture? To what degree should the demands of celebrity journalism be catered to? How should stories that link business to the arts be played?

IN GOTHAM, Howell Raines, the new executive editor, seems to be an unabashed populist, having said at one point that he wants his newspaper to reflect “less Peking Opera, more Britney Spears.” Not only has he splashed stories about David Letterman, Botox and Mariah Carey on Page One, but he also is looking for a replacement for his estimable Sunday Arts & Leisure editor, John Rockwell. A full-fledged culture cat, Rockwell says that Raines found his section “esoteric and boring.”

Raines and his associates are so uptight about their reassessment, however, that they stonewalled inquiries from a Variety reporter. Indeed, they first asked for a list of questions, then declined to acknowledge them.

While the New York Times seems frozen, the Los Angeles Times, by contrast, has been busily hiring a phalanx of new editors (some from the New York Times) and launching new initiatives. Though its new editor, John Carroll, a gracious and thoughtful Baltimore transplant, has set forth his objectives, many players in the showbiz community remain baffled by the paper’s shifts in personnel and point of view.

All this comes at a time when media critics are sending up warning flags about cutbacks in staffing and coverage stemming from the advertising downturn. A new book by two editors of the Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, argues that the pursuit of the mighty dollar is steadily compromising standards of major newspapers around the country. Entitled “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril,” the book says that “the proprietors who experimented with journalistic fashions of the ’90s usually avoided one obvious avenue to improvement: spending more money on covering the news.”

APART FROM financial pressures, both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times seem to be wrestling with three basic tensions involving the world of the arts.

When the New York Times suddenly became festooned with separate sections, the emphasis implicitly drifted from news to magazine-style features labeled “Arts in America” or “At Home With …” Or “Watching Movies With…” Inevitably, these thumb-suckers occupied enormous acreage, eliminating pieces that tried to advance the cause of news. The rumor mill suggests that both newspapers now intend to refocus on the entertainment-news business.

But the news stories themselves increasingly have defied traditional rules of placement. Given the ever-increasing domination of the pop arts by giant corporate players, virtually every pop culture story has also become a business story — witness Letterman or Carey. This poses problems for both newspapers, whose business and arts sections are rigidly autonomous. Yet at the Los Angeles Times, several so-called business reporters are clearly better qualified to cover pop culture news than those in the Calendar section, which is a separate bureaucracy.

The bottom line: Editors have been slow to assimilate the fact that “show business” has become more “business” than “show.” Since abandoning its once-heralded “Company Town” section, the Los Angeles Times has been extraordinarily spotty in its efforts to cover the entertainment industry, apparently putting more emphasis on flaccid features than on news.

WHILE SOME may criticize the “arts” coverage of the two newspapers, the fact that they are reassessing their philosophies should be applauded by readers. The complexion of our culture and pop culture is always changing, thus requiring modifications in coverage.

A personal example: I was originally sent to California by the New York Times in the mid-1960s with a deliciously vague mandate from my editor. The energy currents in our pop culture suddenly are flowing from West to East, he told me. Something’s going on with the music, the movies, even what people wear — a phenomenon that New Yorkers don’t quite get.

His assignment: Tell us about all that.

I did my best. My marching orders put me out of step with the East Coast. Every once in a while, one of my editors at the Times would read my stories and tactfully ask me, “Are you smoking something?”

But times were changing, and the Times wanted to know about it. That’s what newspapers do. That’s why they’re read.

So I applaud these current painful reassessments, because it’s vital that these newspapers continue to be read.

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