LA Times on the Wrong Foot

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The "improved" LA Times is starting on the wrong foot

Are you familiar with the sense of frustration that happens at the first glance of the morning newspaper? The headlines scream about recent calamities and the accompanying photos make you cringe? The last few days, every time I picked up LA Times, I got frustrated--but for all the wrong reasons.

Last Sunday, the paper launched a new format, which its publisher, in a letter to the readers, describes as "a bold yet elegant new look." To my bitter disappointment, what the publisher claims to be an improvement struck me as a change for the worse. As an art critic, I pay special attention to the daily Calendar section, which traditionally covered a wide variety of cultural events. When I first subscribed to the LA Times more than twenty years ago, the Calendar was not yet its own section. So when the Calendar eventually became an independent, pull-out section, we all felt that art and culture in this city had finally come of age. But now, two decades later, with the merging of the Calendar and Southern California Living sections, coverage of the arts has once again diminished.

Today's front page of the Calendar has an article about bad movies that go directly to video; yuppies shopping at a granite yard in an ugly part of North Hollywood; and Playboy relaunching the magazine in Mexico. The page is dominated by a large photograph of a gorgeous model wearing precious little, teasing us to read about a new boutique in New York's meat packing district. This so-called improved Calendar reveals its priorities by relegating photographs of the new Cathedral by legendary photographer Julius Shulman to its inside pages.

In contrast, the front page of today's NY Times Arts section has an article about Dutch architects and designers working on projects here and in Europe; the new German production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" and a new book of short stories by Sam Shepard. It also has a review of a local music recital, and news about the rearrangement of the collection of Impressionist paintings at the beloved Courtauld Institute in London.

The drastic difference in cultural coverage of these two newspapers is that the LA Times comes across as the local, provincial rag, whereas the NY Times covers national and international events.

But never mind daily coverage. Let's look at the LA Times Sunday issue, with its traditionally big, fat, pull-out Calendar section. Through the years, the Times has never failed to include at least one in-depth article about the visual arts. The redesigned Sunday issue is now divided into two separate sections. The first section had nothing about art. The second section looked more promising. Half of the front page is taken up by a photograph of an empty lot in Venice with a small figure in the foreground that I could identify as Frank Gehry only after I read the caption. It takes a wicked talent to portray this world famous man in a fashion which makes him totally unrecognizable. At least he should be happy about the following two-page spread, with a spectacular color photo of his new project in Cleveland. I don't recall this quality of photography in the old Calendar.

I kept going through the pages, in search of an article about the visual arts. Nothing. Not a peep. The second and, even, third attempt still left me empty handed. And the more I think about it, the more my sense of frustration grows, especially in light of the lofty promises of the publisher to give us a "more coherent and comprehensive look at cultural life in Southern California." Talk about false advertising.