The L.A. Weekly Trashes Years of Its Hard Copy Archives
Warning: If you are not a Los Angeles or Southern California resident or unless you have some perverse interest in the sausage-making that goes into local alternative newspaper production, you should probably skip this post. But as a new year dawns and I arouse from Xmas vacation and semi-hibernation, I have taken a vow lifted from Michael Corleone — today is the day I take care of all lingering family business.
When the L.A. Weekly and I parted ways two month ago, I promised a more detailed report. Here it is. It’s more like an autopsy on a paper that once was.
I thought many times about spending the time to write this over the past few weeks. In the end, I wondered, who cares? And worse, this can come off as sour grapes.
I can’t really answer the first doubt. As to the second question, let me be very clear. I lost most interest in the Weekly a couple of years ago when it was taken over by the New Times chain and I made it a very small part of my professional and personal life. I wrote the income from it out of my personal budget and diverted all Weekly checks into a retirement fund.
Indeed, I was so turned off by what I saw happening that I visited my Weekly office exactly three times in the last two years, mostly to pick up accumulated checks in my mailbox. During election week in November, I was given a layoff notice with a generous settlement.
They had lost interest in me and I was too expensive. With very few exceptions, I had long lost interest in them, too. It was a miracle, in fact, that I had lasted the two years since New Times took over the Weekly. Fair enough.
Attached to my initial severance package was a gag-order non-disclosure agreement. It was a rather awkwardly and amateurishly written passage, penned most likely by an HR hack rather than a competent lawyer. I told management at the time I would sign it if they insisted, but that I intended to immediately violate it and call their bluff in public.
They knew I meant it and were wise enough to rescind it. Most everyone else who has been cut from the Weekly in the past months has, unfortunately, been silenced by the NDA’s and that’s one more reason that edged me toward typing out this essay.
And yet, I still hesitated to write my version of what’s gone wrong at Weekly. That is, until I was provoked into doing it by a Facebook request two weeks ago from Weekly Publisher Beth Sestanovich to join her in a FB cause titled Don’t Let Newspapers Die. I thought this a bit too much. This was like getting an invitation from Carmela Soprano asking you to join the Don’t Marry Gangsters cause. I had joined the Facebook save-the-newspapers group in any case long before Sestanovich’s invite. I had joined it precisely to help save papers from the likes of publishers like her!
Now, I like Sestanovich as a person. She’s an affable, warm manager. But she had no background in newspapers and was no match for the destructive forces she would eventually face when she was brought in some years ago to preside over L.A. Weekly. If I remember correctly, she had come fresh from managing an automobile purchasing web site – hardly the sort of background that properly prepares one to face the rough and tumble of the current media environment.
Under Sestanovich’s tenure, dozens of Weekly staffers — from managers to editors to writers to production people– have been slashed from the payroll. And one important clarification: Sestanovich is not the villain here. She’s merely the tool – and a reluctant one at that — for her own bosses, the New Times group (now known as Village Voice Media) which is the corporate force that has corroded the Weekly. Sestanovich pre-dates the Weekly’s takeover by New Times and she has been kept on precisely because she has been an efficient transmission belt of corporate policy: downsize and demolish.
The paper has fired, pushed out or let go its top deputy editor who managed most of its cover stories over the last five years. It fired its managing editor — and with no intention to replace her ( this is a first in newspaper history I think). It fired its dazzling News Editor — and my friend Alan Mittelstaedt– and has shrunk and twisted its news gathering operation which took more than a decade to build into a competitive and credible local watchdog. The paper’s two prize-winning investigative reporters quickly bailed to other papers. Other long-time staff writers have been fired. Others have chosen exile. The Weekly’s fact-checking department has been abolished. Its copy editing department has been decapitated. It design staff decimated. Its free-lance rates — once competitive with any other publication in town — have been chopped and the overall free-lance budget has been almost obliterated. Writers’ rates that once topped a dollar a word have been cut by half or more (for the few writers who can still squeeze out an assignment).
More to the point, the 30-year-old Weekly’s heart and soul has been scooped out by a corporate management that seems hell-bent on a suicidal tack. The Weekly once distinguished itself by being, alone with the Village Voice, the only major metro weekly in America willing to focus on national and international coverage beyond the local boho bar scene. It had a real and substantial editorial budget. The Weekly was read avidly for 30 years by an audience that relished not only its excellent cultural, film and music coverage, but primarily its bold and prominent political writing– including a rich menu of commentary and opinion. Its reporters were, not infrequently, sent across the country and sometimes around the world to write 10,000-word cover stories that could be found nowhere else. It now boggles the imagination when I remember –in a different era—reporting from South Africa, El Salvador, Cuba and from within various national presidential campaigns—for the L.A. Weekly. And these were not just second-rate self-absorbed wannabe writers who were on the road. I’m in great company when I note that those of us who wrote those stories also worked for The New Yorker, Harper’s, Vogue, and the Sunday magazines of the Los Angeles and New York Times. We wrote for the Weekly because we chose to write for the Weekly – certainly not because we had to.
That’s all stale history. All that has now been banned by New Times management. The Weekly must now conform to the same cookie-cutter format that limits its other 16 or 17 papers across the country to sticking to local, mostly sensationalist, often quick-and-dirty hit pieces. No one, we’ve been told, wants to hear the opinionating and bloviating anymore of political pundits writing about national (and god forbid) international issues that supposedly mean nothing to L.A. residents (Unless, of course, the piece is something like this turgid, under-reported and tendentious piece placed in the paper by none other than the guy who now effectively owns it!). Nor, we’re told, did the readers really want the Weekly’s ballot and candidate endorsements even if they became a cherished voting guide for tens of thousands over several decades.
Weekly readers were informed, quite simply by its out-of-town owners, that they have been wrong, wrong, wrong for the last 30 years. They might think they like opinion and commentary and national news and sober and thorough investigative reporting, and all with a progressive tinge. But they’ve been wrong. Dead wrong. Instead, they want a smart-alecky, sophomoric, barely edited, thinned out, often reactionary sensationalist stew that displays little or no editorial rhyme nor reason. Yeah! That’s the formula. (Just as an ironic side note: the week I was cut from the Weekly, three of my pieces were listed on the paper’s web site as among the top five most-viewed. One was a straight out editorial — a letter to my daughter about Sarah Palin. The other was an overall analysis of the Obama election. And the third was my list of personal ballot endorsements. Exactly the sort of stories the Weekly decreed no one wants to read).
Perhaps the most iconic moment in the Weekly’s descent was the forced move last year from its birthplace town of Hollywood to a sterile warehouse-like building next to a 405 off-ramp in Culver City. This would be tantamount to moving the New York Times across the river to Hoboken. I’m no softie on the counter-culture, but the uprooting of the paper from its nest on Sunset Boulevard was a clear sign from management that it had absolutely no interest in the ethos, tradition or soul of the paper. It had become nothing more than a widget.
The results of all this? Fairly catastrophic, I would say. And that’s with the full-on debacle yet to come. The L.A. Weekly press run is currently down about 30% or more from its peak of 210,000. That means they can’t even give away as many copies as in the past. The weekly number of printed pages has fallen to just above 100 when in the past it hovered at and beyond 200 (once even touching 352 pages). Even special editions, ones that carry years of tradition and loyalty, like the recent restaurant edition, are but shadows of the past. One of the most savvy of long-time New Times watchers once told me — years ago– “the guys who run these newspapers run them like they already know the shut-down date.” It seems they now might finally get their wish.
This prescient statement was offered to me years before the current newspaper collapse. And even more to the point, the slashing and trashing of L.A. Weekly — now coinciding with that more general collapse– was initiated before the current crisis. Talk about prescient! The Weekly owners began the crisis before it really began. And like most other newspaper suits, they have responded precisely the wrong way; by cutting the real value-added, the core, muscle and bone and not the fat. The rumor is that Weekly management might be on a glide path to moving the entire series of papers onto the Web. That might be a defensible position, if their Web site was something other than this current mish-mosh.
How’d We Get Here?
I write only from my impressions and some might be off a degree or two from the reality of others, but let me give you at least a thumbnail sketch of my version of how things got to this point.
The original incarnation of the L.A. Weekly — in 1979– was a sort of hippy-dippy, shoe-string, pie-in-the-sky operation born from Jay Levin. Jay was an erratic, if visionary, editor who went out of his way to break a lot of rules. From the beginning, Jay wanted the Weekly to be more than an ad venue for colonic cleansing and futons. He spent money he didn’t have to cover the big political issues of our time while simultaneously growing a stable of world-class cultural critics. And it paid off. Within five years, Levin turned the Weekly into a major force in local publishing. It became both an incubator for new, untested writers and a showcase for some of the best writing in the country. I worked as news editor and a staff writer from 1982-1984 and continued freelancing and writing a media column for the rest of the decade. During Levin’s era, the Weekly established itself as the place to turn to for local cultural criticism and breaking major investigative stories on everything from smog to Salvador.
Around the time of the Weekly’s tenth anniversary, Levin stepped back from the role of editor and handed editorial leadership over to former Village Voice staffer Kit Rachlis (now the editor of Los Angeles magazine). Rachlis maintained and grew many of the same traditions that Levin had nurtured. And he added his own particular twist to the Weekly. As the paper continued to grow in size and scope, Rachlis made what might be called a “writerly” turn. With somewhat high-flown pretensions –in my judgment– he filed off both the lows and highs of the previous iteration of the Weekly. The product was more slick, professional, better-edited but flatter, less willing to gamble and risk. But it still made solid and important reading.
Toward the end of Rachlis’ tenure, some new players arrived big time on the alt-weekly scene. Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, the founders of The New Times, had transformed their Phoenix-based weekly –forged in the heat of the anti-Vietnam war movement– into a growing national chain of metro weeklies. And in 1996 they moved into L.A. to directly confront the L.A. Weekly – more or less the way Michael Corleone moved in on Moe Green’s Las Vegas. Lacey and Larkin bought out and closed two smaller local weeklies and went out of their way to insult the laid-off staff in the process. There are numerous witnesses with harrowing stories of the day Lacey came in and berated (and fired) the staff of The Reader which he had just bought. On the ashes of these publications, they erected the New Times Los Angeles — for which I briefly worked. Lacey and I coincided in our judgment that the Weekly had become too soft. The fledgling New Times Los Angeles was much smaller than the Weekly, but directly attacked the soft under-belly of the Weekly of editor Kit Rachlis. It was meaner, tougher, punchier and less liberal than what had become Rachlis’ more self-obsessed Weekly.
Within months, it was clear that Lacey and Larkin were banking on the perceived talents of their lead columnist Jill Stewart. Once a respected L.A. Times metro writer, Stewart had become a snarling bulldog infected with a rather strange world-view which came to dominate The New Times Los Angeles. Ostensibly some sort of a suburban Democrat, she became an acolyte of The Powerful — swooning successively over Dick Riordan, Bernie Parks and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others. While the official policy of the New Times Los Angeles was that columnists were to stick to facts and steer clear of opinionating, Stewart used her platform to smear one Latino city councilman as Senor Snort (for alleged coke use) and as she fulminated against public schools and bilingual education and offered up sugary praise for the corrupt leadership of the LAPD, she evoked a vision of a muddle-headed dyspeptic city run by an evil coalition of socialist multi-culturalists who were headquartered, of all places, inside the L.A. Times. One infamous column she wrote mocked those who showed sympathy for Spanish-speaking kindergartners who broke into tears when they were put in monolingual classes. She saw her job as spanking lefty L.A. back to reason.
As bizarre a notion as all this might be, it was really nothing new. Having spent many years living in the Valley, I recognized Stewart’s view as one that permeated suburban homeowner clubs (Indeed, Stewart and I both live in Woodland Hills). For me, this became untenable when she used the power of her column to first more or less plagiarize (from an accommodating ally) and then expand a vicious and unfounded attack written on lefty academic Mike Davis — a smear that cost him an appointment at USC. It was a blatantly political and opportunistic foray lightly and poorly disguised as an “investigation.” I had just won a national award for writing a profile on a local corrupt African-American political leader and was in the midst of another serious investigation when I told my editors I could not operate in an environment as ethically clouded as The New Times. In 1998 I said cee ya.
This sort of unfounded snarling and sniping from the local New Times Los Angeles, as embodied in Stewart’s writing, built no significant audience, never really bit into the Weekly’s readership or advertising revenue and eventually led to the slow, long decline and uneventful quiet folding of the local New Times paper in 2002. Defeated and ignored, it vanished without as much as a whimper. Lacey and Larkin had struck out in Los Angeles.
By this time, the Weekly moved on to a new editor and new ownership. Sue Horton, now op-ed editor of the L.A. Times (and someone I consider a friend), became editor and made her own set of editorial adjustments. She excised the more narcissistic elements of Rachlis’ paper and turned the Weekly into a more earnest, I argued too earnest, more markedly “progressive” paper based on local political reporting. Again, an imperfect but absolutely worthy product. Horton invested in hiring reporters, more than “writers.” And this began to germinate some sort of real newsroom.
Meanwhile, Jay Levin had sold the Weekly and it eventually wound up in the hands of a private equity group headed up by Village Voice publisher David Schneiderman. (Disclaimer: ah yes, your personal Zelig here. I worked as a staff writer at The Village Voice from 1989-1994 when Schneiderman was publisher). The acquisition of the Weekly in the mid-90′s saddled the Voice with a debt level from which it has never recovered. The Weekly was kept fat and happy, but Schneiderman butchered the Voice to feed his new baby. The venerable Voice, founded by Norman Mailer, was downsized from the newstands to a free giveaway. By the late 90′s, it size, its editorial budget, its clout was completely diluted. The paper was little more than a self-parody by the year 2000. Looking at the Voice logo on one of its weekly editions was like looking at an Alfa Romeo badge crazy-glued to the nose of a broken-down Toyota Corolla. That jalopy officially got towed to the junkyard when the Lacey-Larkin management fired the last remaining “name writer” at the Voice this last New Year’s weekend – the venerable Nat Hentoff. He was probably the one reason why half of the paper’s remaining readership even bothered to pick up the rag. But who cares? He’s only written 19 books.
That said, those of us who worked at the Weekly benefited from the bleeding of the Voice. Schneiderman, for the most part, kept his mitts off the Weekly. And when current editor Laurie Ochoa (whom I also consider a good friend) was hired on in 2001, it felt like a rebirth of the paper. She split the philosophical difference between Rachlis and Horton and tried to shape a paper that combined top notch capital-R Reporting and capital-W Writing. It was enough to draw me back on staff as a columnist, writer and editor).
Ochoa was able to beef up the staff in crucial ways and she began to take the Web seriously. News Editor Alan Mittelstaedt proceeded to build a kick-butt news organization that took no prisoners, right or left. Whether you were Chief Bratton or Tony Rap, if you were a DWP exec or a DWP union boss, you were in for equal trouble. Rob Greene, now a member of the L.A. Times editorial board, kept close tabs on the City Council. David Zahniser, now a Times metro reporter, blew the top off the story about the death of union leader Mike Contreras. Jeff Anderson, now on the East Coast, was a tenacious and dogged investigative reporter. A stable of talented professional freelancers, including Bill Kelly and Celeste Fremon, wrote up a storm of stunning news feature series. Christine Pelisek (still hanging in at the Weekly) was on the murder and crime beat. Young reporter Daniel Hernandez (now in Mexico City) left his cushy job at the L.A. Times to defect to the Weekly. After a long, uneven struggle, the L.A. Weekly finally had a completely functional news department that was often way ahead of the Times.
But it was doomed.
Lacey’s New Times group never gave up its jones for L.A. The collapse of his local New Times only redoubled his crusade to somehow triumphantly return to the Southern California market. The rivalry – and eventually the collusion– between Schneiderman’s Village Voice Media group and Lacey’s New Times group began to escalate and mature with L.A. as the epicenter. These were the two biggest alt weekly chains in America and apparently there was only room for one. In 2002, the two chains reached an agreement in which the Village Voice agreed to shut down its money-losing paper in Cleveland and the New Times would shutter its collapsed paper in Los Angeles. L.A. was a much bigger market than Cleveland so the Voice/Weekly group had to sweeten the pot with $8 million in cash – an amazingly stupid business move by Schneiderman. And when a Weekly reporter working on the story called New Times’ Mike Lacey for comment on the cheesy deal, all he got in return was a “Go fuck yourself.” Quite literally.
The DOJ didn’t like this deal very much either. It smelled of anti-trust violations and eventually the Weekly had to make reparations allowing a local throwaway paper here in L.A. enough funding to compete in the marketplace.
Those of us working at the Weekly at the time were also chilled. We sensed, correctly, as it turned out, that this Cleveland-L.A. deal was but prelude to an eventual buy-out or absorption of the Weekly by the New Times. It was something that the staff deeply feared for we knew that New Times owner Lacey had bottomless contempt for the Weekly, for its tone and approach and that — to put it bluntly– he had it out for a newspaper that he had failed to defeat in the previous decade with his own ill-starred New Times Los Angeles.
Barbarians At The Desks
In late 2005, the hammer fell. The merger of the two chains was announced. Not really much of a merger. For a reported half-million dollar bonus, Schneiderman had essentially ceded control of the whole show to Lacey of New Times. Media conglomeration, once a privilege reserved for large dailies and national networks, had trickled down to alt-weeklies (and no surprise, given that the properties in question were worth hundreds of millions of dollars).
Much has been written about New Times honcho Mike Lacey and some of his more off-color antics. I have only met him twice. Once at a group luncheon in 1994 where we shared a few beers and joked about the Weekly. And once again in 1996 when, during an alcohol-fueled one-on-one dinner, he hired me (over the heads of his own editors) as a columnist for his start up New Times Los Angeles (he also sent me a glorious floral bouquet last year when I got sick). But you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the New Times takeover of the Weekly augured only Bad Times. Really Bad.
It took some time for the DOJ to approve the merger. And into 2006, the new merged company run by Lacey –which took the name of the vanquished Village Voice Media– found its own Vietnam in the Village Voice and was too distracted to screw around with the L.A Weekly. The Voice was bleeding cash and no one could be found to edit what had become a fish-wrapper. As of this date, the paper remains a ghost of its prior self.
The first real blow of the merger didn’t hit the L.A. Weekly until exactly two years ago in November 2006 when several layoffs coincided with the sudden termination of News Editor Alan Mittelstaedt. The O.C. Weekly, also acquired in the merger, began to be sliced and diced around the same time.
Mittelstaedt’s firing from L.A. Weekly made absolutely no sense. Indeed, of all the editors then working at the Weekly, his instincts were theoretically the closest to the new owner’s preference for local news. He was fired simply to make room for the cat’s paw of the new ownership group. More shocking than Alan’s dismissal was his replacement by none other than Jill Stewart. You’d really have to be among the few who actually worked at the Weekly to catch the full brunt of this but I don’t overstate things by saying that bringing in Stewart to be Deputy Editor for News at L.A. Weekly would be like naming Yassir Arafat as Mayor of Tel Aviv. It wasn’t an editorial decision. It was an act of vengeance perpetrated against the Weekly by its new owner. Talk about personal demons and obsessions!
Stewart openly despised the Weekly. And let’s be honest: the Weekly staff openly despised her. I don’t think that is much of a secret to anyone in L.A. media circles. Putting her in the News Editor chair was like dropping a glowing load of Kryptonite onto the Weekly lunch table. Stewart had pretty much disappeared from the local news scene in the previous few years after the The New Times L.A. folded. A syndicated column of hers went pretty much nowhere. She would pop up now and then as a shrill pro-Arnold commentator on local shout radio, wildly riding the claims that the Times had published its Arnold The Groper series out of political bias. Before landing at the Weekly, she had recently been pushed from an unremarkable stint as editor of the equally unremarkable online start-up Pajamas Media (where we overlapped for a few weeks). But For Mike Lacey, Jill Stewart walked on water.
So much so, it was Lacey himself who hired Stewart. Right over the head of and without consultation with Weekly editor Laurie Ochoa (at least as far as I know). This created a de facto situation of dual power at the paper which persists until this day. The News Editor is not really accountable to the editor-in-chief but rather to the corporate owners. Nice work, if you can get it.
Ochoa remains as much a steadying force as is possible under an erratic and penny-pinching regime that shows little visible interest in journalism of integrity. She has done all that she has can to preserve what she could of the staff and spirit of the Weekly. I continued there for the last two years because of my loyalty to her and her willingness to defend –within the possible—the integrity of the paper. But it’s a losing battle. A lost battle.
Jill Stewart gleefully set about immediately dismantling the L.A. Weekly’s news department. Zahniser, Hernandez and Anderson, in varying degrees, pretty much fled with their hair on fire. Rob Greene was mercifully hired away by the L.A. Times 10 months before Stewart showed up at her first editorial meeting.
In their place, laughable “reporters” were brought in to scribble highly ideological pieces that reflected Stewart’s world view. How about a reporter named Zuma Dogg who “wrote” this little ditty? I put that word in quote marks as it was an open secret that it was Stewart who actually wrote most of Dogg’s otherwise illegible piece ( A rapper/ranter, Mr. Dogg had once boasted: “I don’t like to read”). And no matter that this was the same Mr. Dogg who was an eccentric gadfly who repeatedly disrupted local agency meetings for which he was now being paid to report on. The Weekly was giving press credentials to clowns who disrupted the meetings they were to “report” on.
Or how about Stewart commissioning a piece on school board elections by “reporter” Doug Lasken? Though the piece was passed off as non-ideological news, it was actually a poorly-veiled, to not say naked propaganda, rant written by a partisan/activist source on whom many of Stewart’s prior columns had relied. The Weekly was forced to run a retraction on this published slop that said: “The article “Nasty Battle for Classroom Control” [March 2–8] misspelled the names of Alice Callaghan, Neal Kleiner and the Jardin de la Infancia school. Also, two incumbents ran for school board, not three, and Compton is encircled by LAUSD but not part of it.”
Other than that… As L.A. Observed’s Kevin Roderick wrote at the time:
[T]he backstory is what makes it interesting. The piece, and the errors, were by freelancer Doug Lasken. His byline carried no other identifying information, but he is an LAUSD teacher and UTLA activist who helped organize union members against bilingual education in the 1990s. He was quoted then in Jill Stewart stories that railed against bilingual education, and it was Stewart, as deputy editor in charge of news at the Weekly, who asked Lasken to write the paper’s roundup on school board contests. That proved to be a risky proposition since Lasken is inexperienced as a reporter and the bean counters at VVM/New Times eliminated the Weekly’s fact-checking crew. Lasken’s gaffes did not go unnoticed, spurring emails to LA Observed from outraged Weekly staffers and politically savvy Weekly readers.
In any real news organization, a news editor that pulled this kind of miserable, unethical stunt would be summarily fired. I suspect in Stewart’s case, she will eventually be the Weekly’s editor-in-chief.
What difference does any of this make? Can’t we still get all the information we need from the Web with or without the L.A.Weekly?
You bet. Now more than ever. The Weekly, whenever it formally succumbs, will also go as silently as did New Times Los Angeles six years ago. Only some of us old farts who remember the Good Old Days will, perhaps, bat an eyelash and gather for a nostalgic drink in some Echo Park dive.
The tragedy lies elsewhere. For nearly 30 years, the L.A. Weekly had been a crucial launching pad for budding local (and sometimes national) writers. It was a place you got started, where you found your voice, where you made your chops and maybe even a name. That possibility is just about completely foreclosed. The Weekly was also an indispensable market and venue for more established writers who had important things to say that somehow overflowed the narrow confines of the L.A. Times.
The L.A. Weekly also served an extremely engaged, sophisticated and cosmopolitan and I might add global Los Angeles. I once wrote a piece for The Washington Post noting that Hollywood activists often cared more about South Africa than about South Central. Take it or leave it, there’s an undeniable truth to all this. And a newspaper that fails to understand that vast swaths of Los Angeles are as deeply concerned — if not more than concerned– about Iraq, torture, the White House or even congress than they are about the local school board or the controller’s office is a Los Angeles newspaper that is destined to fail. Look no further than at the corpse of The New Times Los Angeles.
The slow-motion collapse of L.A. Weekly also coincides with a radical shrinking of the L.A. Times, the implosion of The Daily News and the continuing downward descent of smaller papers like City Beat and The Daily Journal. If there was ever a time for an aggressive, irreverent, credible metro weekly to take on the Gray Lady, it’s right now, right here. That requires investment, not layoffs — seriousness and not shoddy, half-arsed ideological crud passed off as news.
I have no doubt that leafing through the Weekly in the weeks and months to come there will still be — here and there– great things to read. The movie and theater critics remain top notch (they are kept on because their work can be inexpensively syndicated to the rest of the chain). And the law of probabilities dictates that an occasional good or even great freelance piece will slip between the covers. But what good work remains will be there in spite of the will of its ownership, not because of it.
A Few Words About the L.A. Times
I said at the beginning that I write this with no bitterness nor regrets. Really, scout’s honor.
That’s true, with one asterisk. I rather deeply resent that I have to do this at all. I’m pissing away a perfectly beautiful weekend morning to slap this together when, truth is, the L.A. Times should have written this story –in much fuller and precise detail– months and months ago.
I’m not going to single anybody out, but heaven knows that the media writers at the L.A. Times have wasted no energy in wallowing in public self-pity about the troubles at their own paper. How is that the fully public, ongoing, extended crisis of the second paper in L.A. and the largest metro weekly in America — the L.A. Weekly– has gone completely unreported and unmentioned? And I might add, why would anyone care about the future job prospects of endangered L.A. Times reporters who don’t have the decency or the professionalism to report on the massacre at the paper next door?
The answer resides in the ingrained arrogance of the Times. Like most big city newspapers it has a written or unwritten policy of ignoring its competitors. Only in print, of course. Not in real life. For as long as it has been around, the Weekly has been consciously snubbed by the Times. I think one half-baked profile of the Weekly was written some years ago and that’s about it. The Weekly could break a verifiable story that L.A. had just detached from the mainland and you could make book that the Times would refuse to cite the story, or its source. The same way the Times pointedly ignored the existence of the Weekly, it also pointedly ignored the reality of the Web. And we see how that hubris paid off.
In real life, as I said, it’s been quite the opposite. The Weekly has gone anything but un-noticed by the Times. It has revamped, retooled and re-positioned whole sections and created whole new publications like Metromix to directly compete with the Weekly. Two of the Weekly’s former editor-in-chiefs were recruited to work at the Times. The current Weekly editor is a Times alum. The Times has repeatedly raided the Weekly staff, poaching its TV, film, music, feature and metro reporters.
In short, the L.A. Times owes a great debt to L.A. Weekly. The least it could do is assign one or two of its reporters to find out what’s really going on inside that other paper across town – before it disappears completely. – + –
P.S. I intend the above to be strictly a personal recollection and in no way an official history. Some dates and timelines might be inadvertently smudged or jumbled. I apologize in advance for any such minor errors. Also feel free to add your own corrections, recollections, objections and comments. I also affirm that this piece was written without consulting any current employee of the L.A. Weekly and therefore trust that no retribution will be exacted against them
P.P.S. I’m reminded by a friend that I omitted one important facet of the Weekly’s history. By the mid 1980′s, the Weekly had become a potent cultural/political force in Los Angeles, frequently sponsoring or co-sponsoring major events that drew audiences of hundreds and sometimes thousands. I’m not talking about concerts or typical metro weekly give-aways. The Weekly galvanized huge live audiences for debates on foreign policy, for conclaves on local organizing, and conferences on national politics. All things rather unthinkable today. I doubt if the current Weekly could pull off a booze-up in a brewery. Indeed, until shortly before the move to Culver City last year, the Weekly organized monthly and well-attended soirees at a classic old-school Hollywood hangout, Boardman’s. Those, too, have faded into history.
Update: Here is Nat Hentoff’s just-published farewell column at the Village Voice. Take all of the geniuses who now run the NewTimes/VVM chain, stack them head-to-head, and they don’t make it past Nat’s navel.