Coverage aims to become more industry-savvy while broadening its pop appeal

Last week, the New York Times celebrated its annual Arts & Leisure weekend by showcasing a parade of Hollywood stars: Robert Redford, Edie Falco, Viggo Mortensen and nearly the entire cast of HBO’s “Entourage.”

The event was more than an excuse for reporters to interview celebs — it reflected the paper’s desire to dramatize its commitment to Hollywood.

For decades, the Gray Lady eschewed celebrity and the movie biz (very different from film culture). While there had been notable attempts in past decades to cover entertainment — Tom Pryor, for example — more recently, under figures like former Sunday Arts & Leisure editor John Rockwell, readers were fed a diet of fine-arts coverage and cone-headed film pieces.

But last spring a very un-Timesian upheaval swept in the section’s third regime in little more than a year. Sam Sifton and his deputy, Jim Schachter, were handed a tricky mission, one that began with former topper Howell Raines: Make the Times’ coverage more industry-savvy while broadening its pop appeal.

“The paper has realized it no longer has the luxury of covering A and not B,” says Seth Mnookin, author of the Times book “Hard News.”

Epitomizing the changes is Schachter, a former business editor at the L.A. Times and N.Y. Times, who compares arts reporting to “covering the automotive or aerospace industries,” with all the requisite rigor.

This has led to influential front-page stories about, say, power broker John Sloss at Sundance. It also led to last month’s long piece about the suicide of a Golden Globes voter, Nick Douglas, one in a series of pieces on the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. Like Frank Rich’s crusade against Mel Gibson, the HFPA coverage represents the strange tangents the section can sometimes take.

As circulation has begun to tilt toward a national readership, arts coverage also has shifted toward celebrity and pop-culture stories that play outside media power centers.

In December the Arts & Leisure section ran a gargantuan cover package about telenovelas — 3,400 words and nine photos . And the Directions page, a quippy medley of items about celebrity-photo blogs and Chinese movie English, represents a departure from the traditional essay and feature formats.

The newfound ambition has, in some cases, led to turmoil.

Last summer, A&L editor Jodi Kantor, a young Slate staffer hired by Raines in a bid at hippification, left the section for a reporting gig. Kantor had been responsible for bringing in younger writers, but she reportedly clashed with Sifton.

The paper has more than editorial incentive to make changes: Studio coin is one of the most important revenue sources at the Times; one insider put the movie ad-sales group in the top five among the paper’s dozens of groups.

As studios slice their marketing budgets, an overhaul has become critical. “There’s a feeling that a lot of innovations have to be done just not to lose ground,” says one business-side staffer.

The paper recently started two pubs — a repurposed review mag called OnMovies and a kudos-season blog dubbed Red Carpet. One came out of the business side and the other from editorial, but both achieve the goal of increasing reach and advertising (consumer for OnMovies and trade for Red Carpet).

The paper says it sees no contradiction in its wide sweep of stories.

“The movie industry and the Metropolitan Opera — they both fit into the plan,” Schachter says. The paper can pull it off, he adds, because of a reorg that put editors in charge of subject areas instead of relying on a general pool.

But just when things seem to be settling down, the section again is bracing for change: The paper will soon begin re-thinking its Friday Weekend section.

(Michael Learmonth contributed to this report.)

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