Off the Record

The conservative movement, which at various points has felt slighted, ignored, abused, dismissed and otherwise thoroughly adrift in coverage by New York’s “media elites,” has finally found a place in The New York Times. Sort of.

For the next year, David Kirkpatrick-formerly the man charged with covering the book publishing industry-will cover conservatives. Not the Republican Party or the Bush administration. No, it’s real conservatives.

In an announcement earlier this month Times national editor Jim Roberts said that Mr. Kirkpatrick “will examine conservative forces in religion, politics, law, business and the media-a job that will take him across the country and make him a frequent presence in Washington.

“His coverage will cut across the political campaigns this season,” Mr. Roberts continued, “but we expect that much of what he does will transcend the race itself and delve into the issues and personalities that drive-and sometimes divide-conservatives.”

“I winced a little when I read that job announcement,” said Times executive editor Bill Keller, “because it was a little like ‘ The New York Times discovers this strange, alien species called conservatives,’ and that’s not what this is about.”

If it seems a little wacky, well, it is. Intellectual movements seldom draw the attention of beat reporters. There is, after all, no correspondent covering think tanks for The Washington Post . What The Times ‘ new beat means to do, Mr. Keller said, is this: Give a great big bear hug to the disparate but at times interconnected conservative organizations-evangelical Christians and anti-abortionists, for example-all as a way of gaining a peek into who the Bush administration listens to, and why.

“Maybe they figured out that’s where the intellectual energy in this country is coming from,” said Paul Gigot, editor of the neoconservative’s sports section, the Wall Street Journal editorial page. “Maybe they could save time and read us. Cut out the middleman.”

Mr. Gigot’s assessment is not so far off. Since the Bush administration took command in January 2001, the administration has drawn its collective strength and power not so much from individual power-brokers in Congress as from a vast network of conservative groups that have fed it, nourished it and sent it forth with policies into the world.

“You sort of use the shorthand you use for any interest group without always trying to get down in the thinking-without trying to figure out why people believe what they do, how big their constituency is, where it comes from,” Mr. Keller said. “We haven’t always had a real three-dimensional understanding of where conservative activists are coming from.

“Everyone knows this is not the most accessible administration in the history of the Beltway,” Mr. Keller continued. “And it seems to me their reasoning and their strategies are often clouded in secrecy and spin. And in an election year, that’s likely to be more true than ever.”

While perhaps a reasoned, well-thought basis for a beat, The Times assigning a reporter to cover conservatives still feels strange, if not off-putting-a little like Judge Reinholt peering through the bathroom window at Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High . This is not The New York Sun or even the New York Post , but The Times (or to conservatives, the equivalent of the local-coffeehouse beatnik magazine). Under Mr. Keller’s predecessor, Howell Raines, critics howled that The Times misstated former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s position on the war. When it was revealed in December 2002 that the Raines administration had spiked sports columns disagreeing with the paper’s editorial-page policy, the paper was accused of advancing social policy through its news coverage. In the first days of the war, the New York Post labeled a front page of The Times “News by Saddam,” saying the paper was trying to put “the darkest possible spin on Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Asked if he was concerned about any further attention his new beat might draw from conservatives, Mr. Keller said: “That’s really not the point. It’s to understand an important force in American political life, and I think that’s a subject that matters to readers on the left, on the right and somewhere in between.”

“I don’t think it’s going to suddenly make Gary Bauer a champion of The New York Times ,” Mr. Keller said. “The point of it is not to change minds and persuade conservatives that we’re with them. I don’t want anyone to think that we’re aligned with them ideologically.”

So far, the early attempts have felt stilted, forced: a little like trying to write the story of Brooklyn’s feelings about their would-be basketball team and arena by talking to people walking down Flatbush Avenue. There’s been a story on how “Bush’s Push for Marriage Falls Short for Conservatives.” Mr. Kirkpatrick followed with a piece reporting that “Conservative Groups Differ on Bush Words on Marriage.” On Jan. 25, Mr. Kirkpatrick wrote a story titled “A Concerned Bloc of Republicans Wonders Whether Bush Is Conservative Enough.”

Susan E. Tifft, co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times , said The Times ‘ new area of study is a throwback to a long-standing Times man mantra.

“Scotty Reston once said the biggest story of our time or any time is change itself,” Ms. Tifft said. “That’s one of the hardest things to cover. It’s not really a trend. What they’re trying to do here is get at this idea-change itself.”

When asked why The Times hadn’t dispatched a correspondent to cover the far left, Mr. Keller said: “If the country was governed by a liberal executive branch and a liberal Congress, and the best access to their thinking would be assigning a reporter to cover liberal thinkers and lobbyists, I’d be happy to do that.

“It just happens to be conservatives in this case,” Mr. Keller said.

On Jan. 12, the first issue of New York magazine hit the stands since financier Bruce Wasserstein finalized a deal to buy the legendary magazine from Primedia on Dec. 16.

The cover story, “Murder at Rao’s,” chronicled the evening when Manhattan’s film, media and political elite found itself witness to a bloody hail of gunfire that ended in murder in the exclusive uptown Italian eatery.

A teaser box above featured a comely woman seated in the lotus position and bore the tagline “Spa & Fitness Special.”

According to the magazine’s editor in chief, Caroline Miller, the original plan-before the deal with Mr. Wasserstein-had been to make the spas story the cover. Unleashed from Primedia, the Rao’s story took center stage.

“With the publisher’s encouragement and the new owner’s support, we led with the news story, and we were delighted to do it,” she said, speaking on the afternoon of Jan. 27.

It’s fair to say that Ms. Miller seems happy these days-several sources at New York have said she’s all smiles. But in the media world, speculation about her future at the magazine remains fierce.

Over the years, gossips have had Ms. Miller being ousted for a rogue’s gallery of would-be replacements (David Kuhn, Maer Roshan, Joe Namath), and she has always survived. But Anup Bagaria, Mr. Wasserstein’s seneschal at New York , has hinted that staff changes won’t be coming hard and fast. And recently it was reported that Ms. Miller’s close to a deal to remain at the helm of New York ; one source told Off The Record that her situation was set to be finalized by the end of the week of Jan. 25.

Asked if such a definite timetable was in place, Ms. Miller said: “I’m not interested in talking about my future.”

But she talks like someone who plans to stay at the helm of the magazine for some time.

“We’ve gone through a period of austerity caused by the recessions and are looking to make substantial investments in the magazine,” Ms. Miller said. “We focused on what we could do very well. Social trends. Sexual politics. Covering social comedy. I think we’ve done really well with pieces like the Spalding Gray story this week.” Now, Ms. Miller said, she wanted the magazine to pursue “more informed and articulate pieces about the city’s power structure.”

Why should a new owner so substantially influence the way New York sells itself to the public?

When Primedia sent the magazine into the welcome arms of Mr. Wasserstein in December, the company unloaded a magazine that had gone from making an estimated $8 million a year in the mid-90’s, when Ms. Miller took over, to claiming somewhere around $1 million a year.

But beleaguered New York staffers had, under Primedia, endured a harsh pillorying in the press for the magazine’s reliance on product-and-service-oriented cover stories that the owners had insisted upon to move copies. They had endured cost-cutting mandates that stripped the magazine’s walls, leaving it defenseless against critics clamoring that they didn’t make it like Clay Felker or Kurt Andersen had anymore.

With the change in ownership, Ms. Miller said, she has begun to exercise new freedoms, beginning with that true-crime cover story from Rao’s.

Mr. Wasserstein also brought along bigger purse strings, Ms. Miller said. In the coming weeks, New York will announce a number of hires “focusing on business and political coverage. We’re looking for both people who can write great magazine stories and editors who can bring them in,” Ms. Miller said. “We’re looking for writers with voices and substantive reporting skills who can write about the city’s power elite.

“These are not new things in New York magazine at all,” Ms. Miller continued. “These are things we’ve been doing. But they do reflect what we’ll be doing going forward.”

Of course, she’s willing to admit that budgetary constraints-and lackluster support for her staff’s vision of the magazine-at least hemmed them in.

“We have every intention of keeping the coverage of news and sophisticated service and great storytelling. It’s just a question of altering the mixture somewhat and being able to lead with our best stories,” she said. “We think we’re going to be running more stories on national politics and about the issues in front of this city, and are looking for provocative writers to do that.”

For those restaurateurs panting at the thought of feeding the buff Bill Buford as The New York Times ‘ new restaurant critic, forget it.

According to sources familiar with the situation, the strapping Mr. Buford, author of the forthcoming book Heat (about Babbo chef Mario Batali), turned down the chance to replace William Grimes as the paper’s man about flan.

Internet rumors had him pegged as the final choice for the job, which was vacated Dec. 31 when Mr. Grimes wrote his last column, about Tom Valenti’s Upper West Side restaurant Cesca.

Mr. Grimes had been The Times ‘ restaurant critic for five years, and he said of his exit: “As a critic, you’ve got so many meals in you.”

Mr. Buford is currently taking an extended break from working for The New Yorker to complete his book, and a New Yorker spokesperson said of his return: “Bill is a staff writer, and we look forward to seeing him back in the magazine soon.”

One source said novelist Julian Barnes, British former television critic and award-winning novelist ( Flaubert’s Parrot ), has likewise passed on an offer from The Times .

But The Times hasn’t been entirely spurned in its literary aspirations for its next food critic. Rumors aside, sources tell Off the Record that Bright Lights, Big City author Jay McInerney-who’s become an accomplished wine writer with his column at Condé Nast’s House and Garden is still in the running.

His talks with The Times , however, are continuing.

Mr. McInerney and Mr. Barnes could not be reached at press time; Times executive editor Bill Keller declined to comment on the search.