The New York Times May Get Its Very Own Movie Agent

With the ink on Tina Brown’s recent multimedia production deal with Miramax Films barely dry, The New York Times decided to review its policies for dealing with movie studios that seek to option the rights to Times stories. According to a July 21 staff memo from the desk of associate managing editor William Schmidt, the newspaper is looking into hiring an agent to represent the paper in such deals.

Mr. Schmidt’s memo notes that over the last two years, The Times has been approached by a “steady parade of movie producers, agents and studio reps,” an industry trend that “reached its most extreme form in the magazine-cum-movie project announced earlier this month between Miramax and Tina Brown.”

Mr. Schmidt, who polices conflicts of interest at the paper, wrote to staff members that while ” The Times has not embarked on its own search for such synergy,” at least 10 separate movies or television shows based on Times stories “are now underway or under negotiation.” ( See Rick Bragg’s feature on a prison rodeo and a Tim Weiner exposé on the C.I.A.)

With Hollywood increasingly on the prowl for ideas it can cull from newspapers and magazines, the situation can get sticky fast for working journalists. The question is: How can a reporter maintain his or her editorial integrity without the taint of a conflict of interest and still make a little dough on the side? Typically, Mr. Schmidt said in an interview, the paper has split option fees with writers, who also get to keep 100 percent of the “consultation” fees paid by movie studios. However, in his memo, Mr. Schmidt writes that while ” The Times acknowledges its staff members should be able to earn legitimate outside income, these consulting agreements can pose tricky ethical questions …” To help negotiate this complicated terrain, he states, the paper is seriously considering bringing in someone “who would represent The Times ‘ interests-financial, ethical and otherwise-in any discussions or negotiations involving a writer or a writer’s agent, and a filmmaker.”

To some staff members, management’s line has a familiar ring to it. Back in the mid-1980’s, the paper took a similar tack when it partnered with Random House Inc. on the publishing house’s Times Books imprint. Times writers were required to give the imprint the right of first refusal on book ideas that came out of their work, depriving some reporters of lucrative deals. At the time, reporters accused management of using ethics as a cover for company greed.

Mr. Schmidt told Off the Record that a Times agent would help police ethical disputes and would not act as a facilitator of synergy. “I do not mean to imply by that we’re going into the film business,” he said. “In some ways, I think you could describe it as an ‘anti-agent’ … Our concern is the integrity of the newspaper.”

Until a new policy is conceived, the current Times policy remains in effect. Reporters and editors may not enter into talks with agents or film executives before a story has been published, and even after publication any contact with movie types has to be sanctioned by Mr. Schmidt’s office. Also, staff members must refer interested agents to the Times legal department, “and it will decide whether or not the rights are available,” Mr. Schmidt wrote. Finally, staff members must gain approval from management before entering into any “consulting” arrangements with movie executives, “to avoid an actual or apparent conflict of interest that could arise if staff members were to be seen trading on stories which they are covering.”

Times management could face opposition on the plan from the Newspaper Guild, which is protective of the rights of its member reporters. Guild representative William O’Mara said the union had received a copy of Mr. Schmidt’s memo. “We are examining it to see if there is a problem,” he said. “We’re not saying we agree or disagree yet.”

If Condé Nast Publications president Steve Florio was hoping to combat Fortune magazine’s recent portrayal of him as a compulsive liar, he did little to advance his cause with his recent handling of personnel changes in Condé Nast’s corporate communications office. Indeed, it seems that Andrea Kaplan, the Condé Nast communications director who had the unenviable job of trying to convince reporters that Mr. Florio was on the level, quit her job because Mr. Florio wouldn’t level with her.

Ms. Kaplan resigned from her post on July 30, just two days after Off the Record called her seeking comment on Mr. Florio’s promotion of New Yorker publicist Maurie Perl to director of corporate communications at Condé Nast-a job description that sounded suspiciously like Ms. Kaplan’s. Ms. Perl’s appointment was news to Ms. Kaplan. According to associates, when Ms. Kaplan inquired about the rumor, she received assurances from Mr. Florio that the report was false. (Ms. Kaplan, whom colleagues said is currently negotiating her severance agreement, declined to comment for this article.) When the news item appeared on July 29, Ms. Kaplan, working off Mr. Florio’s assurances, spent the afternoon doing damage control, calling various Manhattan media reporters to tell them that her duties would remain the same.

But a day later, Ms. Kaplan learned firsthand that Mr. Florio’s word is not exactly his bond; she was summoned to the Condé Nast human resources department and informed of her demotion and Ms. Perl’s new role. The ramifications of the change were apparent simply from the titles conferred on the two women: Ms. Kaplan was a Condé Nast vice president and Ms. Perl was being made a senior vice president. Ms. Kaplan apparently found the slights by her boss too much to bear and resigned later that day.

If he’d been inclined, Mr. Florio could have easily beaten a reporter to the punch in breaking the news to Ms. Kaplan. According to sources at The New Yorker , Mr. Florio first approached Ms. Perl about the post after his boss, the chairman of Advance Magazine Publishers Inc., S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr., addressed the New Yorker staff on July 9, only a day after Tina Brown left the magazine for a new venture at Miramax Films. Ms. Perl visited Mr. Florio’s office at 350 Madison Avenue later that day, accepted her new post soon after, and subsequently turned down an offer from Ms. Brown for a job at Miramax. In short order, Ms. Perl’s new responsibilities became common knowledge at Condé Nast, and Ms. Kaplan’s colleagues privately wondered about her fate. Mr. Florio held his tongue, however, and somehow Ms. Kaplan never heard the news.

Condé Nast staff members speculate that Mr. Florio’s mistreatment of Ms. Kaplan was retaliation for what he feels was her mishandling of the Fortune article. But even Mr. Florio’s defenders at Condé Nast say that no publicist could possibly have spun away Mr. Florio’s publicly stated fabrications that he played football for New York University (the school has no football team) or that he served in the military. (Mr. Florio is on vacation and Ms. Perl had no comment.)

Mr. Florio and Mr. Newhouse seem to have hoped that the Fortune article-in which writers Joseph Nocera and Peter Elkind pointed out that under the watch of Mr. Florio and his brother, Tom, The New Yorker had lost $175 million in 13 years, and that “in [Steve] Florio’s hands, truth is a fungible commodity”-would simply go away, or at least be dismissed as a hit job by a competing company. But the article seems to have entered New York media lore. Mr. Florio’s name rarely shows up in print these days without a mention of the Fortune piece close by. One Condé Nast source said that Mr. Newhouse was the one who had decreed that the company would not respond to the article, a decision that seems to have damaged his deputy. Another Condé Nast executive said that Mr. Florio’s options are few. “What’s he going to say,” said the exec, “‘We didn’t lose $30 million in one year [at The New Yorker ], we lost $27.5 million’?”

But Mr. Newhouse’s declaration didn’t prevent Mr. Florio from criticizing the Fortune piece in a peculiar forum-an off-the-record lecture to students in the Radcliffe Publishing Course. In mid-July, Mr. Florio spent about 10 minutes critiquing the article to a group of twentysomethings at one of the Radcliffe seminars. But according to one student at the program, Mr. Florio’s performance didn’t go over particularly well. “We could understand from his explanation why he was upset,” the student told Off the Record. “But we didn’t buy it.”

The appearance of John McPhee’s byline in the current issue of The New Yorker isn’t the only evidence that the magazine’s new editor David Remnick is trying to bring back writers and editors alienated by his predecessor, Tina Brown. Mr. Remnick recently called writer Ian Frazier to find out if the onetime New Yorker regular might be interested in contributing to the magazine again. According to a source familiar with the conversation, Mr. Frazier, who resides in Montana and currently writes for Outside , The Atlantic Monthly and, from time to time, Allure , told Mr. Remnick that he wasn’t interested. (Mr. Frazier declined to comment on the conversation.)

Mr. Frazier was never a big fan of Ms. Brown’s New Yorker ; he got fed up and quit in 1995, when word got out that Ms. Brown had retained the comedienne Roseanne Barr as a consulting editor. Mr. Remnick said his approach to Mr. Frazier was “in no way a repudiation of Tina. She wanted very much for Sandy Frazier to be in the magazine.” Mr. Remnick told Off the Record that he had put in calls to a number of old New Yorker scribes, and had assignments in the works by such writers as Alec Wilkinson and literary editor Roger Angell, whose outputs diminished substantially under Ms. Brown. He also confirmed that he recently had lunch with former New Yorker editor and current New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath, but he denied speculation that it was an attempt to court Mr. McGrath. Mr. Remnick took strong exception to the notion that he was trying to reheat a soufflé, as the saying goes.

“The idea that there is some sort of restoration going on, that this is a kind of backward-looking editorship, that’s preposterous,” Mr. Remnick said. “There are some writers who fell out with The New Yorker for some reason or other that I’m interested in talking to. But to think that’s the only direction I’m looking in is totally wrong.”

The July 20 Off the Record reported that New Yorker senior editor Deborah Garrison attended the meeting in which Tina Brown informed her “inner circle” of her decision to leave the magazine. Ms. Garrison did not attend that meeting.

Also, an item in the July 27 Off the Record may have given some readers the mistaken impression that New York Times media reporter Robin Pogrebin is switching beats in part because her sister, Abigail, took a job at Brill’s Content . Ms. Pogrebin’s transfer was voluntary and not related to her sister’s position at the media magazine.

You can reach Off the Record by e–mail at wstjohn@observer.com.