By: Ashley Johnson
Unlike Eddie Murphy and Alan Arkin, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did not go quite head to head during the Oscar season, but the two newspapers did compete on the Web with revamped sites and chatty bloggers. The home team had a built-in advantage over the national champ. Still, the results overall provide insight into how top papers can best cover drawn-out cultural events over time — and in nearly real time.
That coverage is pretty much ending, at last. Today, David Carr at The New York Times rolled the credits, as he put it, on his Carpetbagger blog.
The media has always showed up for the Oscars, but the Internet now allows newspapers to boost coverage of the event, said Tom O’Neil, longtime awards blogger and author of “Movie Awards.” His Gold Derby blog was acquired by the L.A. Times in 2005 and now draws celebrities, industry executives and entertainment buffs to the Times’ award season site, The Envelope.
O’Neil said he gears up for the Academy Awards six months in advance, and there’s a reason for this: “What’s basically happening is we’re covering the Super Bowl of show business the way we cover that other Super Bowl.”
But the Envelope isn’t playing around. Launched in September 2005, the site offered more robust coverage this year with constant updates, feature stories and a searchable database on theenvelope.com. The Oscars section included the latest in fashion and gossip from Elizabeth Snead, Q&As with nominees, video interviews, podcasts, forums and even an Oscar pool with a $1,000 payoff.
Scott Robson, the site’s executive producer, boasts that its coverage is unmatched. “We are in Los Angeles, so by that alone we’re able to be a lot more comprehensive and plugged in to the day-to-day developments,” he explained. “Writers can sit down with leading industry people and have conversations on a regular basis. I think nobody else is really capable of doing that — to be able to make this into a product that is really a must-read for people in the industry.”
Many of those readers are big names. O’Neil says that one producer of a Best Picture nominee told him, “I’ve got your column bookmarked and every morning, it’s the first thing I look at.” O’Neill adds: “On all fronts, I have key sources who can give us breaking news; then I’m able as a journalist to give it a perspective that no one else can.”
With Hollywood in its backyard, the L.A. Times takes entertainment as seriously as The Washington Post does politics. For 11 weeks, The Envelope’s online coverage ? which, of course, also included the ever-expanding Golden Globes and other film awards — was supplemented by a weekly print edition (stuffed with ads, of course) running 32-48 pages. The Oscar preview issue came out Feb. 21 and featured stories that could also be found online, such as the highs and lows of the season, semi-secret Oscar parties and how the Academy protects its brand. The strategy was to provide comprehensive coverage. Multiple bloggers and writers contributed and reporters from the L.A. Times Calendar section chipped in, too.
In contrast, for original content online, the New York Times approached the Academy Awards with one front and center voice — David Carr.
Culture Editor Sam Sifton called Carr’s Carpetbagger blog the heart of the newspaper’s Oscar coverage. “His voice is unique and his reporting is intrepid. He asks a lot of questions,” Sifton said about Carr, whose Monday media column in print also attracts attention for its voice and insights. “My hope is that someone will arrive at the Carpetbagger through some link or another. After tasting the entry-level drug that is the Carpetbagger, they’ll then move onto the harder stuff and see that we’re a pretty good newspaper, too.”
Beyond Carr, The New York Time offered a revamped “Awards Season” site loaded with multimedia content, including exclusive video and images from directors, a slide show of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film and Jake Paltrow’s original black-and-white short film starring seven actors from the Great Performance issue of the Sunday Times Magazine. Unlike the L.A. Times, The New York Times didn’t have a separate staff for the awards coverage, and almost every feature story online also appeared in the print edition.
Both papers declined to release traffic numbers from this year. But Stephanie Goodell from The Envelope said that traffic spikes significantly during the Oscars runup and the site had 26 million page views during its first year of operation. And The Envelope’s forums stay packed with more than 3,000 registered members.
“We wanted to be able to carve out a distinct identity for it and allow it to find its own legs,” Robson said. “I think that way you end up with the kind of relationship where the L.A. Times can drive traffic to The Envelope and The Envelope can drive traffic to latimes.com.”
With post-Oscar coverage winding down, Sifton hasn’t started thinking seriously about what The New York Times will offer online next year. But he said he hopes to have more videos and might consider adding discussion forums to help build community. Here is Carr’s wrapup posting today:
The Big Night
Sure, the actual Academy Awards show is about the actors — but on their Web sites, O’Neil and Carr were the key presenters last Sunday night.
Both updated their blogs about every 15 minutes, though Carr got a late start because he contributed to a larger feature story before blogging with his small laptop from the red carpet and the press room. O’Neil said he updated so frequently because the nature of blogs means someone is at home hitting “refresh” to look for a new story to pop up.
A Photoshop wiz, O’Neil set himself apart on Oscar night by posting photographs with his comments. He also showcased his 15 years of awards experience in just a few sentences. Immediately after Jennifer Hudson picked up her award, O’Neil connected her to Rita Moreno (“West Side Story”) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago”) — other “song-bursting” divas who took home Oscar gold.
O’Neil also had insight on the Best Supporting Actor award, which he referred to on his blog as the “Veteran’s Achievement Award.” He wrote: “It’s no surprise, really, that Alan Arkin just won the award for best supporting actor over frontrunner Eddie Murphy, no, not when you think about the history of this category. …
“What was surprising about Arkin’s win was that he chose to read his relatively brief acceptance speech from a sheet of paper, making me wonder: aren’t actors veterans at memorizing words? Then, when he choked up a few times while reading, it was clear why it was necessary. Only an ole pro, comfortable in his own skin, would have the wisdom to know to do that.”
Over at The New York Times, Carr had another reaction: “Alan Arkin was the name they announced when it came time to open the envelope for best supporting actor, leaving Eddie Murphy with a frozen smile and Mr. Arkin with a significant bit of recognition for a lifetime of work. It was the night’s first surprise, and it sent a pronounced ripple through the press room. The Bagger, btw, never saw it coming.”
Carr’s take highlights a major difference in their approaches: O’Neil is the more veteran voice providing historical context and Carr is the observer unfazed by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
“I’m much more atmospheric,” Carr told E&P. “I’m much more about trying to give the reader a narrative — what’s it like to be there.”
Carr’s sense of excitement and business background resonated with readers who eagerly took up the Carpetbagger’s challenge to generate questions for him to ask on the red carpet. On Oscar day, Carr gave a shout-out to Sasha Stone, editor of oscarwatch.com, and in the past he has linked to O’Neil, reflecting a necessary shift in the digital age. Online, the best coverage is comprehensive, even if that means tipping your hat to a writer at another paper.
“Even though we’re competitors, we’re not at odds,” Carr said of O’Neil. “I can’t avoid linking to someone like him because he has significant expertise.”
In other words: Even in the same category, there’s room for more than one winner.
One Woman’s View: And the Award Goes to…
To the extent that the Oscar coverage was a contest, here’s who won.
Best Predictions: The Envelope’s Buzzmeter was eight for eight in the top categories. Carr came close but overestimated the Academy’s appreciation for Eddie Murphy’s performance in “Dreamgirls.”
Best Moment-By-Moment Coverage: Depends where you look. The Envelope had a live play-by-play description of the action. But it was a different story on LATimes.com. Shortly after 9 PM ET NYTimes.com had acknowledged Jennifer Hudson and Alan Arkin’s awards in a regularly-updated feature story, but the LATimes.com had a fashion shot of Beyonc? up. An hour or so later, LATimes.com still lagged behind with “The Award could go to” at the top of the homepage while NYTimes.com paid homage to the Queen — Helen Mirren — just minutes after she was named Best Actress.
Best Fashion Rewind: Both papers had large galleries, but the edge goes to NYTimes.com for a slide show that made trends easy to spot by running divas in similar dress styles and hues alongside each other.
Best Blogger Moment: The Carpetbagger for railing against the security measures that prevented him from getting back inside for more than an hour after he stepped out during the show.
Best Multimedia Offerings: A tie! The Envelope had video chats with nominees and red carpet footage. The New York Times offered slide shows and a creative — if hard to follow — map of who the winners thanked.