Wall Street Journal Develops New York–Specific Culture Section

c murdocgetty credit Wall Street Journal Develops New York–Specific Culture SectionEighteen months ago, at the Marriott Hotel on West Street in the Financial District, Rupert Murdoch had his first meeting as owner of The Wall Street Journal with the newspaper’s bureau chiefs and senior editors.

Over dinner and cocktails, Mr. Murdoch started beating a drum about things he wanted to add to The Wall Street Journal—a snappier front page, an expanded Web site, a sports section and a beefed-up culture section.

When he spoke about the culture section, he took a swing at a familiar foe, The New York Times. He said that The Times’ coverage was lightweight and uninteresting, according to two people present. Mr. Murdoch said if The Journal could strengthen its culture coverage, it would be easy to pluck off Times readers and advertisers.

Today, Mr. Murdoch has his more colorful front page, and he’s got his sports section, his expanded Web site. Next up: Culture! And the focus will be our own fair city, playground of The Times.

Several Journal sources have confirmed to Off the Record that a weekly New York–only arts-and-culture section is in the planning stages up at The Journal’s new Sixth Avenue headquarters. It’s early yet, but in the very near future, a budget will be drafted for the product, an indication that the effort is a serious one. The new section could be introduced into the newspaper early next year, according to our sources.

“It’ll be arts-and-culture–oriented,” said one staffer, describing the new plan. “The ad side thought they could sell ads on a local New York basis, given the Broadway scene and the arts scene overall.”

According to two staffers, the project is still very much in the conceptual stage, but the paper plans to hire two editors for it, one from outside the paper and one from inside. Journal editors will be drafted to start the section out much sooner on the Web, and that hire will happen in the very near future, according to one Journal source.

“They think that a real newspaper should do this,” said another staffer. “I don’t think of it being an anti-Times thing. They want this to be a general-interest paper as well as a business paper.”

Same thing, no? Anyway, developing a new city-specific arts section fits the overall Murdochian pattern of the new Journal. And, paradoxically, as elsewhere in the city, it’s largely being driven by the business side. All summer, The Journal is hosting a series of panels at Lincoln Center dubbed “Summer Scoops Live” where Journal reporters and critics talk to local and national “cultural tastemakers,” including Moby, Ahmir Khalib Thompson of the Roots and Stew and Heidi Rodewald, co-creators of the Broadway play Passing Strange. Last month, The Journal started a new blog dedicated to arts-and-entertainment coverage, called Speakeasy.

“Clearly, the paper is trying to define itself in the culture-and-entertainment space,” said one staffer.

We decided to drop a phone call to someone who knows the local arts-journalism scene to figure out whether there’s really gold in these here hills.

The Journal is making a very smart decision by focusing on New York,” said Pia Catton, the former culture editor of The New York Sun, which the chattering classes were known to praise for the sophisticated alternative it provided to The Times. “There is so much going on in New York, and it sets the tone for the rest of the country.”

(Ms. Catton herself has recently moved to Washington, D.C., to become an editor at Politico.)

The Times has gone wrong by covering arts nationally and casting the net so wide that they aren’t focused on New York anymore,” she said.

Times culture editor Sam Sifton, reached for comment, would only say: “We’re extremely proud of our culture coverage and confident it can stand up to competition.”

And his strategy clearly has support at the top of the masthead: Jill Abramson, at a recent event hosted by The New York Times, said that the culture section is her first read in the morning. Presumably something Mr. Murdoch hopes to change.

jkoblin@observer.com