Arts of the Timeses: Tribune Pales in Coast Comparison

The Tribune is rethinking its arts coverage. Back around July 1, a handful of editors there formed a panel to evaluate the paper’s arts coverage and work on improving it. Part of that process, according to Tempo editor John Twohey, who’s heading the group, is an analysis of entertainment coverage at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, the two U.S. dailies in whose pages the arts arguably enjoy their most extensive coverage. What resources do those two papers bring to their coverage? What philosophies guide them in their reporting? We called the chief cultural editors at both papers to find out.

Paul Goldberger, the cultural news editor at the New York Times, oversees a staff of 60 editors and reporters whose sole job is covering the arts in New York and, increasingly, around the world. Goldberger doesn’t expect his staff to grow in upcoming months, though some familiar bylines will leave and new ones will appear. Since architecture critic Goldberger became chief cultural editor in mid-1990, he has been trying to make the paper’s arts reporting as strong as its criticism. “We have the strongest cadre of critics in the country,” he says. “We’re trying to do much more aggressive, enterprising reporting.” He’s aiming for a mix of features, hard news, investigative pieces, and business coverage.

Goldberger’s approach is readily apparent in the addition last year of theater reporter Alex Witchel, the former arts editor and hard-hitting columnist for the defunct 7 Days magazine. Her Friday theater column, filled with juicy and insightful insider news, has angered some New York theater producers and other industry executives used to having their pronouncements reprinted without question. (Witchel is also married to New York Times chief drama critic Frank Rich, which only rankles her detractors more. The Tribune often reprints her column in Thursday’s Tempo, taking up precious space that otherwise might be devoted to local coverage.)

Unfortunately, the arts section Chicagoans see in the Times’s weekday national edition, usually at least four or more pages, is an abridged version of the one available to New Yorkers. “The national desk edits the culture pages considerably,” noted Goldberger, though the amount of cutting varies from day to day. Some stories are edited down, others are edited out completely.

At the Los Angeles Times, arts coverage is getting more emphasis in response to what John Lindsay, executive editor of the Calendar section, sees as “a proliferation in the amount of [entertainment] coverage and the outlets for it” nationwide. Most of the arts coverage in the Los Angeles Times is found in the Calendar section, which unlike Tempo is devoted exclusively to entertainment, and Lindsay is in charge of a staff of 60 editors and reporters. The Calendar is printed in broadsheet format Monday through Saturday and usually runs 12 to 30 pages; on Sunday, the section is a tabloid and runs between 90 and 100 pages. Last Sunday’s Tribune Arts section totaled 28 tabloid pages. Lindsay, like Goldberger, says he rarely sees the Tribune’s arts coverage.

Variety recently reported that there had been some discussion at the LA Times about changing its entertainment coverage. Some editors, it reported, were pushing for more soft celebrity profiles, while many of the reporters wanted to maintain an aggressive stance. Lindsay says there is no such debate, and that the Calendar will continue to include both profiles and more hard-nosed reporting. He also says his department will continue to be particularly interested in stories that explain how the business side of the entertainment industry affects the product. Lately the television industry has been coming under closer scrutiny as well.

Twohey was reluctant to say how many Tribune staffers are exclusively assigned to entertainment coverage, because the paper’s cultural staff isn’t organized into one well-defined department. He eventually came up with a total of 54 staffers, a figure that includes editors, reporters, and clerks. The only discrete sections devoted exclusively to the arts are the Arts section on Sunday and the Friday section. Most of the arts stories, which lean heavily toward profiles, are mixed in with general interest features and columns in Tempo (which totaled ten pages last Monday). The effect of mixing arts and nonarts features this way is usually to dilute whatever impact the arts coverage might have had.

Twohey said it still was too early in the review process to discuss any specific changes in the Tribune’s arts coverage. His panel will deliver its recommendations to editor in chief Jack Fuller on October 1, and Twohey said he expects Fuller to begin acting on those recommendations soon thereafter.

Arriving at Remains

The unconventional Remains Theatre has chosen its new producing director from the ranks of the film industry. R.P. (Randall Paul) Sekon, a 32-year-old graduate of New York University’s film and TV department, spent five years working his way up to producer with the now defunct Atlantic Entertainment Group in Los Angeles before becoming disenchanted with life there and deciding to move to Chicago last year. “Creatively, Los Angeles is a pretty dead place,” he says. From August 1990 to March of this year Sekon worked as a production supervisor with filmmaker John Hughes. But when Sekon heard Remains was looking for someone; a latent interest in cutting-edge theater surfaced in him. He admits he has a lot to learn about the business, but is hopeful his prior administrative experience in film–budgeting, casting–will help him.

Meanwhile, look for Remains to announce a change in its $10-at-all-times ticket policy soon; next season some reserved seats will be available at a higher price.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.