Paper's coverage has to do more with less

Doing more with less is the mantra for newspapers and magazines these days. Editorial staffs are shrinking, as is the news hole in most major daily papers. Reporters and editors are under 24/7 pressure to funnel fresh news-meat into the maw of the Web.

Showbizzers are wondering how the print biz’s woes will affect the coverage that matters most to Hollywood: reviews, on-set visits, profiles and sundry puff pieces. It was an ominous sign of the times last month when Hollywood’s hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, dropped to one full-time film critic on staff (compared to a high of four a few years ago) after its most recent round of layoffs.

Since then, it’s been noted in biz circles that the Times is picking up more reviews from its Chicago Tribune sibling; in recent weeks, Tribune film critic Michael Phillips opined in the Times’ pages on “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” “Role Models,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” and “Soul Men.”

Is it inherently a bad thing to have a Chi-based critic weighing in on Hollywood’s handiwork? Not necessarily, but it is … different.

Showbiz praisers and studio PR mavens say things have felt unsettled at the Times ever since the place was rocked during the summer by the mass layoff of 250 staffers, about 130 of them from editorial. (Last month, 75 more reporters were pinkslipped as parent company Tribune grapples with sharply declining revenues — dropping staff levels to around 650, a precipitous drop from the paper’s high of 1,200 in 2000.)

Certainly, the Times is not alone in dealing with the upheaval. The layoff ax has swung far and wide, and even at such once-untouchable pubs as Entertainment Weekly and glitzy titles in the Conde Nast (Men’s Vogue, Portfolio) fold. Even the venerable Gray Lady has had to cut staffers and pages in recent months.

Publicists lament that it’s getting harder to keep track of the comings and goings, and harder to pitch stories or secure review commitments when longtime contacts and mags and newspapers are suddenly no longer employed.

There’s also the space crunch. Hollywood’s core businesses of film and TV will still get a lot of column inches, as the popcorn of the arts world and the biggest draws for advertisers and Internet traffic. More esoteric artsy fare — classical music, dance, modern art, photography, etc. — is another story, or not, as the case may be, especially for daily newspapers. Indeed, many of the entertainment-centric layoffs at newspapers have come in the area of arts and culture specialists. (Yet the L.A. Times has been surprised by the strong response to its artsy blog, Culture Monster.)

It’s understood that the L.A. Times is looking to make the most of its diminished resources by establishing an uber-entertainment editor post to help coordinate the efforts of its reporters and editors writing for the paper’s Calendar and Business sections, as well as for the online operation.

Industryites who deal with the Times say that step is long overdue. It’s no secret that some on the Calendar and Business staffs have sparred with one another, and a lack of cross-section coordination has been an ongoing lament by top editors — though past efforts at greater harmony have seldom yielded lasting results.

Tribune’s new regime is paying close attention to how the L.A. Times covers entertainment. Sam Zell‘s efficiency campaign envisions the Times becoming the central hub that feeds entertainment coverage to all of Tribune’s papers.

Lee Abrams, the Tribune chief innovation officer who is tasked with helping to “reinvent” the company’s newspapers, was politic about the Times’ showbiz quandary in a Q&A sesh hosted by the Los Angeles Press Club earlier this month.

“They should be to the entertainment business what the Wall Street Journal is to Wall Street — the center of the universe for the entertainment business,” Abrams said. He suggested that the Times would do better to “compartmentalize” all its entertainment features and news coverage in one section instead of spreading them between Calendar, which remains a cash-cow section for the paper, and Business.

However, insiders note that the L.A. Times can only fight so many wars at once. More likely in the short term is the appointment of a senior showbiz field marshal to better coordinate the remaining ground forces. An L.A. Times rep notes that the paper’s entertainment editorial staff is second in size only to its metro staff.

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