New York Times Names New Culture Editor

BREAKING… It’s Travel Editor Danielle Mattoon, whose name only recently joined a small list of four candidates for the high-profile New York Times Culture Editor job which directs coverage of Hollywood as well as high-brow. This one-time Arts & Leisure deputy editor became the paper’s replacement for Stuart Emmrich who moved from Travel to take over the Style section. She was senior editor at Tina Brown’s short-lived Talk magazine before landing as deputy culture editor at the NYT. Before that, she was an editor at Rolling Stone. I’ve always thought the NYT Travel section one of the truly bright spots in an otherwise increasingly grey and uninteresting Sunday read. Also Spin veteran Sia Michel was upped from deputy editor to the new editor for Arts & Leisure, succeeding Scott Veale who ran it for 5 years and will soon be named to a new editing role.

Executive Editor Jill Abramson‘s announcement today was nearly 4 weeks late according to her own timetable for naming a new Culture Editor. Then again, she has a lot on her plate because her publication is beset by financial problems, editorial buyouts, stiff competition, not to mention conservative critics who want to put what they see as the Liberal Paper Of Record out of business. Abramson was replacing Jonathan Landman who took a voluntary January buyout intended to reduce staff, then bid a private Culture department–only goodbye on February 1st at a farewell bash at a bar in the Woolworth Building with Bill Keller, Sam Sifton, and others in attendance. (Seems there were many speeches and Landman was presented with a big gag crown.)

My sources identified 4 main candidates including Mattoon for the Culture Editor job whom Abramson had expected to name by February 11th: onetime wonderkind Jodi Kantor, respected film critic AO Scott, and web editor Julie Bloom. The latter was the most interesting candidate: currently Bloom is the NYT’s Culture Web Editor at New York Times Digital, and my sources believed her appointment would have signaled a seismic shift in the paper’s treatment of the web as a second-class citizen vis a vis print. There was nearly universal surprise when Scott threw his hat into the ring. But Kantor was widely considered the favorite if not a shoo-in.

Actually, what surprises me more than Mattoon’s appointment is that this Culture Editor search caused barely a blip on the radar of the media which used to hone in on all things NYT. But those days are gone. The most damning thing to say about the NYT’s Culture section is that Hollywood doesn’t read it much anymore. That’s because the showbiz ink has dwindled and become divided between the Business, Culture, Arts & Leisure, Magazine and even Style sections. How is it determined which article goes where? “If you can find out that answer, please tell me,” one onsider admits to me. The departed Lynn Hirschberg singlehandedly made the NYT magazine irrelevant in Hollywood by profiling filmmakers repped by producers or publicists who were her pals yet whose movies didn’t have a prayer of Oscar nods. (Remember her piece on Jarhead?) Now the Arts & Leisure section is making itself irrelevant by publishing overly long breathless pieces about movies that don’t break ground or deliver grosses. (One recent example was a tribute to Gangster Squad, which everyone else knew was dead on arrival in theaters. The paper claimed its director was “trying something new” when even Warner Bros execs reasoned it was “the same old/same old”.) As for the Business and Culture sections, more Hollywood stuff is printed in the Culture section than in Business “by a 4-to-1 margin”, by one reporter’s estimate. (I would have guessed the reverse.) The paper’s so-called Media Group work for Bruce Headlam and his #2 Bill Brink – and those two decide where to direct each article. “A lot of the time it frankly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” one insider admits to me.

As for what deep-sixed Kantor, it wasn’t any one thing. At 37, she isn’t the rising star anymore who made a name for herself after she attended Harvard Law for one semester and took a leave to go into journalism. She became New York editor at Slate before jumping in 2003 to the NYT after corresponding with columnist Frank Rich about how that paper could improve its arts coverage and he talent-spotted her. She was brought on as editor of the Arts & Leisure section by Howell Raines as apparently the youngest person to edit a NYT section. Kantor was Internet savvy before it become necessary and in tune with pop culture when the paper turned a deaf ear. In 2007, Kantor turned to covering politics for the NYT, including the 2008 presidential campaign. She got the idea for her seven-figure book deal, The Obamas, back in 2009 when she interviewed the couple in the Oval Office for a piece  about their marriage. She did not have an easy time of it when the book was published in January 2012. Although her defenders said it was accurate, her detractors including the White House claimed it was not and described it as an overdramatization of old news about a relationship between two people whom the author had not spoken to in years,” Kantor did admit she “could have been more precise” about a passage saying Michelle Obama’s efforts to help stump for her husband’s health care plan were mostly thwarted by the West Wing. (Politico presented Kantor with a series of clippings that ran counter to her premise — including one from the NYT.) Now a NYT national correspondent by way of Brooklyn where she lives with her family, Kantor according to my sources wants to put down roots inside NYT headquarters. An expert self-promotor, Kantor this year posted a few suck-up Facebook updates in praise of “ultra-beloved” Landman and also “the brilliant” Rebecca Corbett recently promoted to senior enterprise editor for the entire paper. Didn’t that sound like someone about to become a colleague?

Here is Abramson’s internal memo with the Mattoon appointment: (more…)

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