Focus Group Declares New York Post Too Hard to Read

The New York Post used to have its newsroom and printing plant down on South Street. There, the men were men, the dames were dames, and on certain summer evenings, oh, how the river stunk. Since the paper moved to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation headquarters in midtown, it has apparently adopted a more corporate mindset. The swaggering tabloid has become a believer in market research, for one thing. Recently, the grimy, lovable Post was slapped down in front of a focus group. Their task? To explain how the paper could be a more appealing read. The focus group’s advice was distilled into the suggestion of more white space. In other words, less news in the newspaper.

Editor in chief Ken Chandler and the other Post editors have accepted the focus group’s verdict. And now, the Post has an increased print size and more space between the lines.

Some Post reporters ain’t happy.

“It’s been a reduction of almost 10 percent of the words that can fit on the page,” said one.

“It makes the paper look a little bit like a large-print version,” said another reporter. “But then again, that may be the goal, considering we’re also doing big house ads for our same-day Florida delivery.”

Stuart Marques, the paper’s managing editor for news, was not against the focus group-inspired redesign. “It’s less ink to smudge off on your fingers,” he said, using the language of a tabloid tough guy to support the new company line.

Chefs and restaurateurs of New York are on the lookout for one William Grimes, who was named the next restaurant critic of The New York Times on Feb. 19. Mr. Grimes will be hard to spot: He looks like thousands of other guys in town. Standard-issue face. Nondescript eyeglasses. Brownish hair. Blue jacket. Tie.

“I know for a fact that one chef asked if he could get a picture of me-and he’s met me numerous times,” said Mr. Grimes, who goes by “Biff” in The Times ‘ newsroom.

Those desperate for a glimpse of his face can see it on the back cover of his 1993 book, Straight Up or On the Rocks: A Cultural History of the American Drink (Simon & Schuster). The book is out of print, but you can find it in the stacks of the New York Public Library, or else by using such Web services as http://www.bibliofind.com or http://www.alibris.com.

Mr. Grimes’ predecessor, Ruth Reichl, used elaborate disguises during her six years on the job. It turned into a game between her and the people in the restaurant business. Grainy photocopies of her visage were posted in kitchens all over town. On-the-ball chefs and maître d’s trained themselves to recognize her various incarnations and they became conversant in the fake names she used for reservations.

Mr. Grimes, 48, has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago. His 1982 thesis was on the critical reception of Leo Tolstoy. At The Times , he was first an editor at the Sunday magazine, then a cultural reporter-about-town for the arts pages. Before that, he wrote The Drinking Man column at Esquire .

When Ms. Reichl quit The Times in January to become editor of Condé Nast Publications’ Gourmet magazine-a job she starts at the end of March-Mr. Grimes said he had no interest in being a restaurant critic. “I’m a feature writer and reporter,” he said in January. “To be a restaurant reviewer, you have to be out there eating like an unleashed swine every night.”

Since then, he has apparently realized that the restaurant reviewer job gives him a chance to be a star, albeit a star who may have to wear a disguise in public. “I started thinking, I’m out of my mind. How often does this kind of thing come along?” he said.

Which still leaves his fear of becoming a big fat pig. “I am simply going to have to eat strategically,” he said. “Although I despise exercise, I think I may have to do a little more of it.”

Entertainment Weekly staff writer Steve Daly has accused Variety editor and author Peter Bart of plagiarism. The charge came as part of Mr. Daly’s review of Mr. Bart’s new book, The Gross (St. Martin’s Press), an account of the summer of 1998 in the movie business.

“Imagine my surprise,” wrote Mr. Daly in the Feb. 26 issue of Entertainment Weekly , “on recognizing two unattributed passages about Deep Impact that repeat, verbatim, material I wrote for EW , with production details that to my knowledge appeared nowhere else.” Mr. Daly ended up giving the book a B.

The topic of the possibly plagiarized passages was Deep Impact , the disaster movie from Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks SKG directed by Mimi Leder.

From Mr. Daly in the May 8, 1998, Entertainment Weekly : “Leder’s technical prowess proved especially valuable when her director of photography, Dietrich Lohmann, began to turn in curiously inconsistent work early in the shoot. A veteran of many superb Rainer Werner Fassbinder movies, he had served Leder well on The Peacemaker .… What nobody on the set knew was that he was fighting a losing battle with leukemia … Three weeks after the shoot wrapped, Lohmann was dead at 54.”

From Mr. Bart’s The Gross : “Her director of photography on Deep Impact was Dietrick [sic] Lohmann, who had cut his teeth on several Rainer Werner Fassbinder films and had shot The Peacemaker for her … His work was curiously inconsistent, and it was Leder who was catching the heat for it. What no one knew was that Lohmann, at fifty-four, was fighting leukemia. Three weeks after the movie wrapped, Lohmann was dead.”

Mr. Bart said he had read Mr. Daly’s review. “I thought it was sort of naïve and peculiar for him to mention,” Mr. Bart said. “If it related to the cinematographer dying, I’m sure that I asked the same question and got the same answer. People in politics and in the entertainment business have pat answers. I guess this is just another example of that.”

So The Gross contains all original material?

“This is not a clip job,” Mr. Bart declared. “If he says something is similar, I’m sure something is. I don’t care.”

Mother Jones has finally snagged herself a new man. The San Francisco-based nonprofit bimonthly’s last editor, Jeffrey Klein, quit last August after fighting with its board over just about everything. Come April 1, the new editor will be Roger Cohn, who is at the moment working as a freelance consulting editor for Life . For seven years before that, he was the executive editor of Audubon , a handsome publication for birdwatchers and flower lovers.

“I told them quite clearly that I was not a political person,” Mr. Cohn said. “I was a journalist and would run the magazine that way.” He promised “no ideological rants” in his version of Mother Jones . But if recent history is any guide, Mr. Cohn, who is married to New York Times feature writer Patricia Leigh Brown, will have an uphill battle.

Mr. Klein, who now teaches journalism at Stanford University, thought he could get away from the hippie stuff, too. During his six-year tenure, he ran articles questioning affirmative action and extolling spirituality, which reportedly got him in trouble with atheists on the board. When Mr. Klein quit, circulation was up 25 percent, to 140,000, but still down from its early-80’s peak of 200,000.

The Mother Jones team searched all over for a new editor, approaching Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly, Slate deputy editor Jack Shafer, Nation editor Art Winslow and The Observer ‘s Joe Conason. While they were searching, circulation dropped 9.8 percent and newsstand sales fell 24 percent for the second half of 1998 versus the year before. Mother Jones is run by the Foundation for National Progress, which funds a third of the magazine’s $4.5 million annual budget. Much of that money comes from a kind of trust fund established by board member and founding editor Adam Hochschild, which delivers money year by year in diminishing amounts. When the money runs out in a few years, the magazine has to figure out how to survive on its own.

Mother Jones publisher Jay Harris explained the delay in making the hire: “It’s a nonprofit,” he said, “which means that there are a lot of people on the board who take a great interest in who the editor could be.” The publisher went on to promise more “investigative reporting-daring stuff that the commercial press is not doing,” as well as more “progressive politics.” But Mr. Cohn, the incoming editor, said he hopes to get some writers from his Audubon days, like humor guy Ian Frazier and environmental essayists Peter Matthiessen and Rick Bass.

The triumph of cleavage culture has had its share of casualties lately. Add Matt Guemple to the list. The art director of Bob Guccione Jr.’s men’s magazine, Gear , quit at the end of January; sources said it was in protest over the magazine’s becoming more babe-oriented. Apparently, the choice of Adriana Sklenarikova clad in a push-up bra, on the cover of the January-February “Model” issue, pushed him over the edge. (Mr. Guemple refused comment beyond confirming his departure.) Mr. Guemple had worked for Mr. Guccione at Spin , along with Jocelyn Kester, Gear ‘s marketing director, and Marc Weinhouse, the advertising director, both of whom also left in late January. Executive editor Jack Wright said that, editorially, the magazine had not changed its direction at all. Gear has always been interested in printing pictures of “pretty girls” on its cover, he said.

Former Esquire editor in chief Lee Eisenberg, who has been toiling the last few years as creative development editor at Time , has been hired by Land’s End Inc., the Dodgeville, Wisc.-based brisk-weather catalogue apparel business. After helping launch such brand-extending editorial product as Time Digital and Time for Kids and marketing the Time 100 series, he’s going to Land’s End to become the newly reorganized company’s executive vice president and creative director. Because the catalogues have included writing by Garrison Keillor, Tony Hillerman and David Halberstam in the past, Mr. Eisenberg sees more in Land’s End than a mere clothing catalogue. “It’s an editorial job,” he said. He’s also handling public relations. Neither he nor Time could say if he was going to be replaced.