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Invasion of the Body Snatchers Part Deux 

WEB UPDATE: War between New York Times and L.A. Times goes nuclear on Spring Street

Thursday, Jul 1 2004
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WHAT WAS ALL-OUT WAR is now a nuclear nightmare for the Los Angeles Times.

L.A. Weekly learned that The New York Times has pillaged yet another star journalist from Spring Street — its fourth in one week — this time hiring Michael Cieply to be its new movie editor. Cieply has been the LAT business section’s highest-profile reporter/editor on the entertainment industry beat.

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A veteran of Forbes and the Wall Street Journal and Inside.com, Cieply was in the midst of his second stint at the LAT. In the early ’90s, Cieply left a high-profile job in the LAT’s Calendar section because of too many run-ins with then-in-charge Shelby Coffey III, known for his Industry cronyism. (The two famously fought over a long-held and then much-softened investigation into Bush 41’s best friend in Hollywood, producer Jerry Weintraub.) Telling friends he’d rather work for whores who at least knew they were whores, or words to that effect, Cieply tried movie-making. Based at then-embattled Sony, first in the offices of film producer Steve Roth and then producer Ray Stark, Cieply after a decade found the taste of Hollywood failure to be far worse than any frustration journalism could dish up.

He was coaxed into overseeing the L.A. office of Inside.com. When the start-up flopped, he wrote freelance articles for Esquire, The New Yorker and the NYT business section while deciding his next move. In November 2002, the NYT thought to pair Cieply with its then-neophyte Hollywood correspondent Rick Lyman, thinking he’d benefit from the presence of a veteran on the beat. But NYT budget pressures and management changes caused the new slot to be put on hold. Instead of waiting, Cieply rejoined the LAT, which by then was under new ownership and newsroom administration.

Cieply, who will be based at the NYT headquarters, was by all accounts thoroughly enjoying his LAT return because he was given total freedom and receiving a fat salary. But once again, as with the other recent defectors, the siren call of the NYT proved too strong. Most recently, Cieply led the LAT’s coverage of a much-ballyhooed investigation into Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s ties to Hollywood.

In the past week, the NYT captured three other high-profile entertainment/culture writers from the LAT — film critic Manohla Dargis, music business writer Jeff Leeds and architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. Already in the dumps over parent company Tribune Co.–ordered layoffs, the LAT newsroom was in a bunker mentality anticipating the dampening effect the NYT’s body snatching would have on its Pulitzer-pumped national prestige. And someone needs to argue with the LAT’s bean counters that the year-old controversial subscription model for its online Calendar coverage may be sending at least some of its superstar scribblers into the arms of the enemy.

The latest NYT moves on the LAT are part of a carefully thought-out campaign to make circulation inroads in the West and gain even more exposure in Hollywood. This does not come as a surprise to the LAT staff, either.

As one Calendar source rues, “We’d always heard that once it got its act together [post-Raines] The New York Times was coming to get us.”

But, without doubt, the biggest blow to the LAT was the loss of the edgiest writer ever to appear on the pages of the big-city snooze fest. The moment Dargis, a former L.A. Weekly film editor, accepted the NYT offer to replace Elvis Mitchell, speculation swirled as to who might be her replacement. Inside Calendar, LAT editors began calling hither and yon and compiling an informal list of possibilities. “I don’t think they’re in a position to be that choosy,” one LAT insider says, remembering his paper’s lengthy and humiliating process of trying to woo a TV critic. “It stands to reason that they want a smart, original voice and also someone younger than Kenny [Turan].”

The delicate challenge is to hire someone who can both complement Turan, the LAT’s senior reviewer, but also eventually replace him. “Rightly or wrongly, they love Kenny. They really value him. And they treat him with kid gloves. Anyone they hired they’d have to run by him,” an LAT source confides. That may rule out, as payback, going after the infamous Elvis, who has an ego bigger than, well, the real Elvis.

Jeez, the Lakers’ mess is easier to handicap.

Speaking of Shaq and greener pastures, how bizarre that not one of the three LATers could be induced to stay. No doubt, given the Tribune Co.’s budget and petty tightfistedness, there weren’t any more perks or privileges to hand out since the trio already had the best deals possible. “What’s depressing about Manohla’s leaving, especially, is that we treated her fantastically,” one LAT source says. “She got to do everything she wanted to do. She’s never been unhappy. But the lure of the NYT was too strong, I guess.”

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