It’s full-on war between The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. On Thursday, the NYT snatched away three high-profile entertainment/culture writers from the LAT. Already in the dumps over the recent round of parent company Tribune Co.-ordered budget and personnel slashing, the LAT newsroom was in an uproar, worrying what effect the NYT’s bold aggression would have on their newspaper’s national prestige.

The biggest blow to the LAT was the loss of Manohla Dargis, the free-spirited film reviewer, who accepted the NYT offer to replace Elvis Mitchell. In an unusual step, the NYT is allowing her to remain in Los Angeles. NYT sources say that Dargis at first turned down an overture, but subsequent talks with her friend, the NYT’s newly named lead film critic, A.O. “Tony” Scott, helped convince her to come over. The NYT especially wanted Dargis “not just for her reviews, but even more for her essays about Hollywood,” one NYT insider says. Despite personal lobbying from NYT editor Bill Keller, Mitchell resigned in a huff at the start of May when Scott was given the promotion over him.

Still another high-profile writer snapped up by the NYT was music-business reporter Jeff Leeds, who also will be based in the NYT’s Los Angeles bureau. Leeds, who began on the beat in 2001 and eventually took over the day-to-day coverage of the music industry from Pulitzer-winning Chuck Philips, was first approached by the NYT many months ago, sources say. “It was a long process and it was not entirely clear until this week that the job would be offered to him, or that he would take it,” an insider says.

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

Like Dargis, Leeds is considered a catch. But it was the defection of Dargis that hit hardest. “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.” Before joining the LAT, Dargis was L.A. Weekly’s film editor.

In an effusive memo distributed to staff, NYT culture news
editor Jonathan Landman announced Dargis' arrival Friday afternoon 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.”
Noting the NYT “looked high, we looked low. We looked east, north and south.
And west, which is where we found [her],” he named her the NYT's first-ever
chief West Coast movie critic, and noted that Scott will retain his title of
chief critic “and share the role with her.”

Talking about the two critics' friendship, Landman stresses, “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. He was determined to help build the most exciting team of critics anywhere,
and was happy to share the prerogatives of his position to do it.”

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

Both hirings follow on the heels of Thursday’s announcement that LAT architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, a Pulitzer finalist in criticism for two years running, will replace NYT lead architecture writer Herbert Muschamp, who asked to leave the beat but will remain at the newspaper. In May, LAT staff writer Benedict Carey left to write about psychology and human behavior for the NYT's Science Times section, and, two months earlier, LAT features editor Rick Flaste returned to the NYT to become an associate editor over that science section.

L.A. Weekly’s calls and e-mails to Dargis and Ouroussoff were not returned.

It’s well known that the NYT was smarting after the LAT routed them in the recent Pulitzer derby. And, as L.A. Weekly reported in May, 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. 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, NYT sources maintain. 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], that The New York Times was coming to get us.”

For Nikki Finke’s current Deadline Hollywood column about an ill-advised remake of The Graduate, click here.

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