State of Mind: The LA Times and the Business of Culture

by Casey Dolan

It’s almost too obvious what must be said about the recent promotions at the Los Angeles Times in Calendar. The media news and job resource website, http://www.mediabistro.com/, says “It’s not about slashing jobs so…we like it,” but even a cursory examination of the dual appointments of Sallie Hofmeister and Craig Turner should raise some concern.

Neither come from specifically arts backgrounds. In an office-wide memo sent by editor Russ Stanton yesterday, he gives away the game in his first sentence: “Entertainment is Southern California’s signature industry and biggest global export.” Hofmeister had been a Business reporter and editor. She is now the assistant managing editor/arts & entertainment and will report to the managing editor, Davan Maharaj, himself a refugee from the Business desk. Turner had been a metro editor and reporter, a Foreign reporter and the weekend editor. He will become the new arts and entertainment editor.

Of course, the familiar argument is that if you’re a good writer or editor, you can adapt to any situation. I don’t buy it. I say put people in positions in which they have some expertise, but this is beside the point. The question is one of emphasis.

Stanton clearly states that Hofmeister and Turner will oversee a unification between the Business and Calendar desks. 

Combining the teams in Calendar and Business will broaden the reach, breadth and depth of our multimedia coverage. The goal remains to produce a high-quality and unique base of content that can be distributed to different audiences through different mediums. We will continue to write authoritatively about industry trends for our large print and online audiences, and look for smart and entertaining ways to cover Hollywood’s movers and shakers and the celebrities who make Southern California their home. As part of this combination, we are bringing back Company Town, a package of stories and other data focused on the business of entertainment, to the Business section.

There’s no question that the Times has been missing in action for several years on the pop music industry front; the glory days of Chuck Philips, long before the Diddy debacle, are gone. The paper has needed that chair filled, but installing two hard news people in command of the arts and entertainment division  is like trying to atone for past sins by becoming a Trappist monk.

It’s far easier to talk about the dollars and cents of art than to look at its actual creative production. Journalism can attach itself like a lamprey to the great whale of economic ebb and flow because it is empirically reportable. Sure, there is a degree of mysticism involved in the prognostication of economies, but basically it’s a bunch of numbers. Making the editorial decision on whether something or someone is worth covering, perhaps in spite of declining sales or a degree of anonymity but based on quality, is far more difficult and exactly the kind of thing that makes people uncomfortable, exactly the kind of thing that a newspaper with shrinking space would tend to jettison. (Never forget that many journalists are squares. Get them to talk about music other than how great Bruce’s “60 Minutes” interview was and you are in for a dull conversation).

Let’s not mince words here. The Times has always had questions of what is newsworthy, relevant and meaningful in its arts reportage. The segregation of TV, film and pop music into “Entertainment” and thrusting the fine arts, theater, architecture, classical music and dance into “Arts” — neat, simple and dumb categorizations — should give everyone a good idea of what yahoos run that place.

An anecdote might be appropriate:

One of my several duties at the Times was to edit the Sunday Calendar letters. Last June, in response to a Rachel Abramowitz profile of film director, M. Night Shyamalan, writer Grant Nemirow complained about Abramowitz’ vocabulary and elitist perspective. He listed a number of words whose meaning he didn’t know (including “aesthetic”) and suggested that this was precisely the reason that the Times was losing readers. I didn’t agree with a single word he wrote, but I thought it was a good letter and addressed one of the single most crucial and talked-about issues facing the Times.

Sunday Calendar Editor Bret Israel thought so, too, and we decided to make it the pullout letter with (Bret’s suggestion here) a picture of a dictionary. I’ll confess that this amused me and was the easy retort to Nemirow — “Go get a dictionary.” Many readers who would respond to his letter said just that. I followed standard policy and wrote Nemirow an email asking permission to use the letter. This was on a Monday or Tuesday. Early afternoon on Wednesday was deadline.

By Wednesday morning, I had received no answer from Nemirow. Ordinarily, that would have kicked it out and I would have had to find another pullout. But I didn’t want to let this go; I knew it would create a furor. The photo had been shot, so I did some internet detective work and found the city for exactly one person with that name and we ran the letter without permission.

In my almost four years of editing the letters, literally hundreds of letters, I had done that about five or six times, correctly banking that the writer intended publication. When I arrived at my desk Thursday morning, the Sunday Calendar section had been on the street for about 12 hours and my red phone message light was lit up. I listened back and it was Grant Nemirow saying that he couldn’t believe I ran his letter without permission and to call him back immediately. I thought, “Oh boy, just my luck. OK, time to do some apologies.”

When I called, he began the conversation with the classic ominous phrase: “Do you know who I am?” I admitted that I didn’t and he proceeded to tell me that he was the president of the second largest media advertising agency in the country, Terry Hines and Associates, and the principal vendor from whom we received all our movie ads in Calendar. Universal, Warner Brothers, they all went through him. I recall thinking, “Right. I’m about to lose my job.” (As it turned out, I was a month premature). The conversation which followed was more like an obscenity-laced harangue during which he took pot shots at every aspect of our arts coverage.

He couldn’t understand why we were even bothering to review dance or opera (“Nobody goes”), why we cover obscure Polish films at the Cannes film festival (“Nobody cares about that shit”) and not do more blockbusters. He accused the writers and editors of being in ivory towers and said that if you asked anyone waiting in a line for a film in Hollywood whether they knew those words, they would universally say “No!” He said it was no wonder that advertisers were pulling away from the Times; nobody understood what we were writing about. He said we were putting him out of business, that he was forced to lay off staff. He said, “Am I making you sweat? I’ll bet you’re sweating.” He said that he had weekly meetings with Lynne Segall, the vice president of entertainment advertising. He wanted the firewall that existed between advertising and editorial to be breached. Etc., etc.

When I got a word in edgewise, I actually was able to make him laugh. I tried, unsuccessfully, to pursuade him of the necessities of keeping up cultural standards and that part of our mandate in the media was to inform the public on everything of importance and that no one had a monopoly in deciding what was most newsworthy, certainly not him. The conversation ended on a conciliatory note for both parties, but the call lasted well over an hour and I was drained at the end. It was definitely an example of crude, boorish power throwing around its weight.

After a few days of thought (there was nothing to do about the letter, it was a done deal), I went to Leo Wolinsky, then Features Editor, and told him what happened. If anyone should be apprised about this little dust-up, he should. Leo sat back and said, “Hmm…Grant Nemirow, Grant Nemirow, why do I know that name? Ohhh, I know! I’m meeting with him tomorrow!” I was later told that it was a standard meeting, but my name was brought up and Nemirow did give one of his lectures on what was wrong with the Times. 

I mention this story only to suggest those who hold the real purse strings at the L.A. Times and what level of sophistication is in their profiles (Nemirow had never been to Disney Hall). Film advertising is directly concerned with the business of art (film is an art to me) and when that advertising is run by yahoos and the firewall between the editorial and advertising divisions is breached, then you will start to see yahoos making the editorial choices.

When Russ Stanton suggests a merger between Business and Calendar, it will be more than just an increase in box office stories or filling a gap in industry coverage. It will be a slant, an emphasis. It will be more than looking at the third quarter earnings of Paramount. It will be a loss of coverage for independent films, small dance companies, independent record companies and struggling bands, painters and poets. There is already that but, under Hofmeister and Turner, I predict it will increase.

Both Hofmeister and Turner are respected journalists. They are anything but yahoos. Stanton made a point in his memo for Turner being an advocate for arts-oriented Page One stories and Hofmeister had the TV and cable business beat for a long time when she was a reporter on the Business desk. But the fact is that they are assuming roles of directing all arts coverage and their backgrounds imply that they will stress the business of the business and not the art and that’s not good news for critics or writers who want to write about something beyond what is the biggest grossing movie three weekends in a row. And, most importantly, it won’t be good for readers.

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