Times to unwind its gossip page

Even as the entertainment world wrings its hands over the New York Post’s Page Six scandal, a gossip column at another Gotham paper is facing the ax.

The New York Times is making plans to terminate its own gossip section, Boldface Names, dispatching topper Campbell Robertson to the theater desk in the Arts section.

The Times created Boldface Names, a daily column that ran in the paper’s metro section, in part as a response to the success of Page Six. But it struggled to define itself as a section that would feed the appetite for gossip created by the tabs while continuing to speak with the broadsheet’s traditional voice.

Hollywood’s publicity pros, meanwhile, reacted with fascination — and, in some cases, glee — over the Post controversy, in which gossip columnist Jared Paul Stern is alleged to have solicited payments from billionaire Ron Burkle in exchange for not running negative items about him. Stern has been suspended from the paper, though no criminal charges have been filed.

The publicists said they would make only minor tweaks in managing the complicated relationship between celebs and the columns. Many took pleasure in recalling their own experiences when they say Page Six ran an inaccurate article or didn’t check on an item before publication. One publicist expressed a mixture of satisfaction and disbelief at the scandal — and then launched into a recollection of when the column had done her wrong.

But among the mavens, there was little strategizing taking place — largely because of the belief that the scandal would change little about the typical gossip column’s reporting methods, which can involve negotiation and aggressiveness beyond the normal standards of reporting.

“Will this affect things? Temporarily,” said premier Hollywood publicist Pat Kingsley. “Remember when Princess Di (was killed) and they said this is the end of paparazzi as we know it? How long did that last?”

The blogs and gossip columns — and especially the Post’s Page Six — have increasingly served as both a publicist’s best friend and worst enemy. On Tuesday, insiders said the DNA of pop culture could inhibit any changes the paper could make.

“People love gossip, no matter what, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks,” said Steven Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy. “People read Page Six as much for entertainment as anything else, and the paper is not going to stop giving that to them.”

The perception that the tabs won’t change their methods may explain why even celebs known to be antagonistic to gossip coverage were pointedly staying away from the controversy.

George Clooney recently suggested stars’ reps swamp Gawker.com’s Gawker Stalker, which lets fans post sightings of their stars and track them on maps, and has led boycotts of tabloid news shows.

But Clooney has stayed mum so far on the Post case.

Clooney rep Stan Rosenfield said that the star had declined numerous requests from various publications for comment on the Post issue because it did not directly involve him. “George has not been the darling of Page Six, we know that,” Rosenfield said. “Then again, the last thing written about him was very positive.”

In an age of media fragmentation, Page Six has managed to command the water cooler. It does this primarily by coming up with genuine scoops, as well as the occasional outlandish item, such as the recent bit suggesting that Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter could replace Paramount’s Brad Grey.

Like Page Six, Boldface employed a system of more experienced editors coordinating coverage among younger reporters, and its failure may reflect the same gossip-column dilemma that led to the Post’s controversy: offering readers the sensational bits they crave without straining a newspaper’s journalistic responsibility.

While the Post’s Richard Johnson remained on his honeymoon Tuesday, speculation abounded about whether his job is in jeopardy.

Whatever the outcome, publicity experts say the consequences may be overstated. It’s no longer the era of Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper, they said; blogging and abundant media gossip have diluted the influence of gossip columnists. “There are more places to answer bad publicity with good publicity,” Kingsley said. “It keeps the balance of power away from a particular outlet.”

(Ian Mohr in New York contributed to this report.)

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