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Invasion of the Body Snatchers Part Deux

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.

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.”

In an e-mail Tuesday to L.A. Weekly, Dargis admitted as much. “I made the move to The New York Times because if I hadn’t I would have regretted it. I didn’t make the move because I was unhappy at the Los Angeles Times — far from it. The Los Angeles Times has been wonderful and extremely generous to me — it’s a great place to work, filled with wonderful, talented, kind people, and I’ve never been happier at a job.”

Echoing that sentiment, Jeff Leeds told L.A. Weekly Friday that it was an “absolutely gut-wrenching decision” to leave the LAT, where “I would take a bullet for Joel Sappell,” who is the business-section editor overseeing entertainment coverage. “I am excited and humbled by the opportunity that’s been presented to me.”

Both hires came just hours after Thursday’s announcement that LAT architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, a Pulitzer finalist in criticism for two years running and who has family considerations in New York, would replace NYT lead architecture writer Herbert Muschamp, who asked to leave the beat but remain at the paper. Ouroussoff, who did not return L.A. Weekly’s calls and e-mails, was perceived to be more interested in the national architectural scene than in L.A.’s. Nevertheless, he enjoyed an enviably close relationship with deputy managing editor and features czar John Montorio, himself a NYT defector. “Nic was one of the few allowed to just go in and chatter away when John was in his office,” an LAT insider recounts.

However, the Calendar staff is known to be peeved about the “let’s-try-to-make-a-buck” decision to change online viewing of Calendar’s articles and reviews from free to subscription. LAT sources say Ouroussoff nagged bitterly and repeatedly about it. As for Dargis, in the words of one colleague, “She was very aware of being cut off from the world because Web sites that compile reviews would not have access to her work. And in the current environment out there, the Internet is where reviews are really bandied about.” That issue, though, “had nothing to do with my decision to leave,” says Dargis.

In an unusual step showing just how much they wanted her, the NYT not only allowed Dargis to remain in Los Angeles, not only gave her an unprecedented title as West Coast film critic, but also made her equal in status to A.O. “Tony” Scott, the NYT’s newly named lead reviewer.

According to NYT sources, Dargis turned down the first overture, but subsequent talks with Scott helped convince her to come over. (The two met a few years ago at the Cannes film festival and became fast friends.) As the NYT’s culture news editor Jonathan Landman gushed in an over-the-top staff memo, “Nobody is more excited about this arrangement than Tony, and we could never have snagged Manohla without his enthusiasm, leadership and generosity. Tony wanted to work with, and be challenged by, the most interesting critic he knew, and that was Manohla.”

Dargis is known for maintaining a strong voice both in and out of the newspaper. She’s the former president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, yet she takes the unpopular position of opposing the group’s annual awards.

“Nobody could ever accuse her of being Pauline Kael lite. She is her own free thinker,” says David Poland, the blogging editor of Movie City News Web site. “Sometimes you think she’s insane, and sometimes you think she’s the most brilliant thing in the world.” Both an intellectual and pop-culture addict, Dargis is known for her eclectic taste in movies. “She’s told me repeatedly her favorite films are good Joel Silver movies,” laughs Poland.

For its part, the NYT especially wanted Dargis “not just for her reviews but even more for her essays about Hollywood,” one NYT insider says. Indeed, in that effusive memo, the NYT’s Landman announced Dargis’ arrival Friday by presenting what he called “clips from [her] highlight reel . . . as lively, intelligent and passionate a picture show as you’re likely to find this side of Tony Scott.”

Dargis will start on August 2. “Tickets cost a buck,” Landman ends.

Like Dargis, Leeds will also be based in the NYT’s Los Angeles bureau. A one-time LAT intern who went on the music-industry beat in 2001 and eventually took over day-to-day coverage from Pulitzer-winning Chuck Philips, Leeds was first approached by the NYT many months ago. “It was a long process, and it was not entirely clear until [last] week that the job would be offered to him, or that he would take it,” an insider says.

Since the arrival of LAT editor John Carroll and especially his No. 2, NYT defector and LAT managing editor Dean Baquet, there has been considerable to-and-fro-ing between both newspapers. In May, Benedict Carey left for the NYT’s Science Times section, headed up by the NYT-LAT-back-to-NYT features editor Rick Flaste. And, before that, the LAT stole editors Michalene Buscio, Kevin Sack and Doug Frantz from the NYT.

The NYT also was smarting recently after the LAT routed it in the recent Pulitzer derby. And, as L.A. Weekly reported in May, NYT editor Bill Keller ordered his newspaper to match an in-the-works LAT investigation into Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s financial relationship with Hollywood that was going on right under the NYT’s nose.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the NYT announced that media editor Lorne Manly will become the paper's chief media writer. It's part of what the memo called "expanding and reorganizing our media coverage -- a move designed to focus more attention on media industries, issues, content and personalities." Manly, whose new gig starts later this summer, will cover trends and issues across television, music, movies and publishing, writing for both the culture and business sections as well as Page One, according to the announcement.

The media editor's job will be left vacant, NYT sources say. But, as part of this radical expansion of media coverage, now the NYT is looking to fill another editor position -- a TV editor with vast knowledge of the beat. Stay tuned.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.


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