The Way of All Weeklies
Merry Christmas, Los Angeles.
The present's in the mail. Word got out and blew from Phoenix to New York and back out west beginning on Labor Day: The long-rumored corporate takeover of "alternative" news-on-print is indeed on order.
After the holidays, Phoenix-based NT Media takes control of The Village Voice, which in 1994 bought L.A. Weekly. NT Media - or, more familiarly, New Times - would assume the Voice name and take over not so long after one of the most shameful chapters in domestic alternative print press history: the 2003 Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit against the L.A. Weekly and New Times ownership. Now they're no longer merely in bed together. They're hitched up like a stateside Charles and Camilla, and valued at $400 million.
The L.A. Times is also in some flux, with a new editor in local news- hound Dean Baquet and rumors of suitors sniffing about. Take into account the emerging cultural relevance of this publication, and you've got on tap a Goliath vs. Goliath (vs. David) newspaper fight unlike anything this town has seen. An old-fashioned journalism war. In lieu of pro football.
At stake is the future of progressive journalism. The unofficial truth has seemingly been forever under attack by major multinationals and short attention spans. Its politics are heavier than big media allow, and its formal freedom queers pollsters and consultants. Like its nephew the Internet, the best of the nation's weeklies (The Stranger, Willamette Week, The Boston Phoenix) are charged ions. Now a group of libertarians disguised as Men Without Politics are preparing to set the tone.
Full disclosure: I was a former staff writer and union local president at the L.A. Weekly. The publisher of CityBeat once toiled for the New Times chain. And a whole mess of the editors used to be at the Los Angeles Reader when it was bought and summarily flushed by New Times. The 2003 Department of Justice Consent Decree that ended the antitrust suit literally refers to this paper as an "Interested Party." And this writer hates to lose.
It happens, once every 3,000 blue moons. Sometimes the arrival of a chain is good. And, as objectively as can be stated under the present circumstances, New Voice Times will be good for journalism in Los Angeles.
Unless you're hauling your telephoto lens around stars' back fences, Los Angeles is an absolute journalism backwater, an amorphous, misunderstood collection of municipalities with as much day-to-day reporting buzz as, say, Tampa. New York is royalty; on a second tier are the Phillys, Chicagos, and San Franciscos. But our town has no competition at the daily print level, and Hollywood owns TV. That's why L.A. Weekly, established back in 1978, is iconic among hip people of a certain age. Some of the most important reporting and criticism in alternative-press history has come across its pages.
At the same time, it's important to know that parts of this article were composed on New Times computers. CityBeat was, in part, built out of that 2003 Dept. of Justice decision mentioned above. Village Voice LLC, owner of six papers, and New Times, which has 12, were made to sell off some of their assets more than two years ago, after the media companies shut down competing operations here and in Cleveland. Actual competitive journalism was happening in the two cities. And, as actual competitive journalism is something like a war, it costs money.
"Rather than letting the marketplace decide the winner," Acting Assistant Attorney General H.R. Hewitt Pate said, in the 2003 federal consent agreement, "these companies chose to corrupt the competitive process by swapping markets, thereby guaranteeing each other a monopoly and denying consumers in Los Angeles and Cleveland the continued benefits of competition."
If one listened closely enough that day, audible was I.F. Stone doing a half-gainer in his crypt. Could there be a bigger fuck-you to the ideals of a free and independent press than to conspire against alternative voices in two of the nation's greatest cities? And to commiserate this way during the run-up to war in Iraq?
There's a luxuriant romance to how we regard these weeklies. Truth is, Michael Ventura and Norman Mailer don't come 'round much anymore. The Weekly and the Voice have long been run by investors who contribute to Bush, who sell pet food, not to mention having been run by Rupert Murdoch. Voice Media greed is not unexpected. That brand sells as culture product for Manhattan and Hollywood, and it's not completely absurd to speculate that, if the hot publishing trend became Boiled Negroes Monthly, they'd at least explore the option.
A pioneering newsweekly
New Times is supposed to be different, though: It's the ultimate college newspaper story. Back in 1971, Lacey, an ace reporter and peripheral Arizona State student, and his business-minded partner Larkin started a newspaper in large part to provide honest reporting in Phoenix about Vietnam. Arizona State's New Times was a slap in the face for disenchanted Arizona Republic readers. Over the course of years, this endeavor developed into a pioneering newsweekly - Larkin and Lacey played with their newspaper category as they found the word "alternative" to be too tied to leftism. New Times papers have generally been happily tin-eared in their culture section, but in that the papers sounded specifically like Larkin and Lacey and racked up national ad revenue.
"They never bought the 'alternative' thing," said Lisa Davis, a former staff writer at NT Media's Phoenix and San Francisco papers. "In that way, they were alternative."
Lacey and Larkin, both in their 50s, purchased the Denver paper, Westword, in 1983, further establishing the company. Engagements with investors began by the '70s. A decade later, this sort of activity stepped up a level with an early effort to buy the Voice, which was followed by a purchase of the SF Weekly. This meant that such purchases and investments (such as its ad juggernaut The Ruxton Group, which sells to 26 "newsweeklies") had to be extremely streamlined. NT Media's business model was at the time the envy of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.
The chain blew into Los Angeles in 1996 and bought up the Reader and Village View for a total of nearly $4 million. In putting together a competitor to the Weekly, whose politics Lacey and Larkin openly abhorred, they paid twice what the properties were worth. But that was Lacey. As a journalist, he'd throw thousands of dollars and hours at stories. Here was a passionate man who wanted Los Angeles. And he evidently didn't care who he stepped on to get it. According to eyewitness reports, Lacey marched into the office of the Village View and simply announced in person that nearly everyone was fired.
Former L.A. Reader managing editor Erik Himmelsbach wrote about Lacey's grand entrance there in a piece published in the L.A. Alternative Press in 2002:
"As the shell-shocked staff wandered out of the conference room, [news editor Steve] Appleford, Reader publisher [James] Vowell, and myself were asked to stay for another meeting. When the room cleared, Lacey got up and yelled, 'Which one of you cocksuckers assigned that story on New Times? You better come clean if you want any chance to work for us.'"Even among those who respected Larkin and Lacey, their misadventure in Los Angeles was thought to be touched with psychosis.
That out-of-control side was unfortunate for everyone, because the fresh competition spurred the Weekly camp. NT Media hired experienced, straight-ahead journalists away from the Times. Jill Stewart and Rick Barrs targeted bad guys, then hounded them - sometimes even when that wasn't much help.
"It wasn't so much that subjects were limited, but a conservative slant would be encouraged regardless," said one former staff writer. "They always wanted to get the subject."
The owners wanted a Pulitzer. Taking a cue from the kinds of pieces the Times was breaking out only for awards showcasing, New Times L.A. went after long investigative pieces and quickly put them on the street.
Here too, the quirks distracted. One of Lacey's own pieces, a fabled epic on whaling, was forced into print across the New Times chain, landlocked alternative newsweekly or not.
Even when the matter wasn't reportage, the men from Phoenix spent money like drunken cowboys. The Sawtelle Boulevard office got an expensive makeover. At the same time, about $300K had to be tithed annually to the corporate office. And Jill Stewart didn't strike Angelenos as alternative at all, unless making the world safe for Ann Coulter is alternative. Morale sank in such struggling company outposts as Houston and San Francisco.
Former staffers say that's where the corporate downside began finally to take hold. Expanding when online outlets like Craig's List were killing free weeklies' classified-ad income, NT Media was forced to become more vertical.
In even the best of times, revenue from alternative papers is akin to grocery stores. Knowing this, Larkin developed a level of corporate editors. The definition of fat began to include anything that differentiated the look of one city's NT publication from another. In time, corporate would eliminate local managing editor positions - their paper's investigative reporting base. Art directors from Miami to the east Bay Area came to carp about the disconnect, as covers were policed out of Phoenix. When readers traveled from place to place, they'd have the homogenous New Times experience, whether in Dallas or Berkeley.
Critics call the New Times's approach cookie-cutter, and its aesthetic has stumbled in markets with strong cultural identities. For example, the SF Weekly, despite producing award-winning reporting, hasn't separated itself in the marketplace from the pioneering San Francisco Bay Guardian. The New Times's apolitical approach feels wrong on both sides of the Bay Bridge.
Still, management has stuck by its strategy. After all, the core belief is that its brand of solid reporting carries the day. Every targeted altie just needs Larkin and Lacey. "In virtually all of them, as stand-alone operations, they didn't have the support they needed," Lacey told The Arizona Republic this week. (He did not respond to an interview request from CityBeat.) "They were basically doing it with bloggers."
Both the folks who published the St. Louis Riverfront Times and the readership that depended on it would dispute that characterization. After New Times bought out its editor in 1995, the robust, 110,000-circulation Times took one huge step away from community relevance and toward corporate bottom-line productivity.
Ed Bishop, editor of the St. Louis Journalism Review and former managing editor of the Riverfront Times ("Back when it was a real newspaper") found Lacey and Larkin hostile to meta-journalism, from St. Louis arts coverage to elections endorsements.
"We were not seen as some dinky little paper. People here could depend on the Riverfront Times for progressive news. Now that's no longer true," said Bishop in a telephone interview. "We thought our journalism was more fair because we didn't pretend not to have an agenda. We saw 'alternative' as having a point of view. We were pro-gay rights, pro-choice, pro-environmental. A lot of people in St. Louis didn't have a voice after New Times came. They move in, and they have a template. They know what they want their papers to look like: more national advertising, one big story. If longer stories meant 'alternative,' then Vanity Fair would be an alternative publication. It's pathetic that alternative newspapers have been organized into these corporations."
Maybe one day Lacey will be able to add Tom Carson, Manohla Dargis, and Rubn Martnez to the long list of bloggers whose work he's made presentable.
St. Louis is so not Denver. And Nashville sure doesn't cotton to being treated like Phoenix. And so it is that, as the growing Arizona corporate layer began dictating local covers and erasing local practices such as casual billing, a pattern emerged: Younger, more diverse acquisitions such as the Riverfront Times foundered, then submitted, to the vision out of Phoenix.
If St. Louis and Phoenix and Denver could be yoked together, why couldn't it work out in Los Angeles?
By the time New Times was locked into battle with the always profitable L.A. Weekly, the issue at HQ was servicing those investor debts. The investors, who had been around for two decades, off and on, weren't thrilled with the return on either SF or Los Angeles. Money got still tighter, corporate culture more pronounced.
"That changed the way it was run," said Sonda Andersson Pappan, who served as corporate art director for nine years. "Eventually that harms every publication. If they have a big investment in your company they aren't going to be silent partners."
Pappan should know. She worked at Spy, near the end.
In 2001, the terror attacks brought yet another blow. Publishing revenues tanked, the entire empire was at risk now, and the L.A. foray was to blame. The advertising projections were undeniably bleak. An easy way out: Link up with the company NT had so regularly courted, Village Voice Media, and shut down some journalism.
L.A. Weekly was left standing. Aside from it and a few disgruntled fans of "The Finger," one tangible result: humility for Larkin and Lacey. Three decades in, and New Times finally lost. Even the name of the entity formed this week is telling: It's The Village Voice they're selling now, and the new owners say neither the New York nor L.A. papers' names or content are marked for immediate change. If that's true - and maybe half of publishing believes it - the boys from Arizona will have finally become everything they've rebelled against.
Taking what's left
Larkin is right about one thing. The leftish thing really did do in the Weekly. I'm still waiting on that Howard Zinn cover story.
As the venerable rag's core staff moved on and Village Voice management moved in, the paper fell prey to a certain brand of autistic, futon-outlet liberalism. Yeah, there were the saucy ads in the back and that aforementioned left-leaning political stance, but the soul of these papers was milquetoast BMW wheatgrass shit, and inherently marginal. Let's just say you wouldn't want to go into opposing a war with them. On old-guard liberal issues such as labor, the Weekly was money, but watching Marc Cooper flirt with neoconservatives in the months after 9/11 was disturbingly pornographic.
Stunningly, L.A.'s premier alternative newsweekly continued to have hardly any grasp on the city south of Pico.
"There is no question that over the past few years the folks at the Weekly have lost a step or two," said CityBeat publisher Charles Gerencser. "I hear about it every day on the street: The most prominent current perception of the Weekly is that it is out of touch with its core readers. Even so, the Weekly has a very large, very passionate readership, for now."
And it became as difficult a place to design, sell, and write for as it was for many of us to read. Award-winning journalist Howard Blume, among the first of the Weekly's Village Voice-era hires, initially expected chain money to buoy his journalistic prospects, but editorial instead took a slow turn toward aspirational prose about a town hardly recognizable to serious residents - prose about no-risk liberalism and shopping, meandering cluelessly between pretty ads, pictures of objects, and would-be-hip listings. For a good decade, the thing seemed just a bit off.
"Unfortunately, the editorial pluses to absentee ownership never fully materialized," says Blume, who now works at the Jewish Journal. "Yes, there was editorial independence - and thank goodness for that - but there also has always been a prerogative to meet high corporate profit targets, using resources that otherwise could have been invested in the product."
"Isn't that just a variation of the conundrum facing all newspapers?" Blume continued. "In that light, the Weekly and its sister papers have long been more or less a traditional publishing product that opportunistically targeted a market segment called alternative."
One staffer at the paper used the word "grotesque" to characterize the present environment.
"Management are going to go down putting on a front," said the longtime Weekly employee, who chose to remain anonymous. "Middle management are always grinning like fools, and the higher-ups are trying to 'keep' team spirit up, as if it's all going to more or less be the same.
"I'm actually glad they're merging," the worker continued, offering a hint of positive outlook for a remarkable collection of sales people, designers, and news producers. "They need to stop writing about supporting the union cause while busting their own."
Weekly editor-in-chief Laurie Ochoa told the Los Angeles Times, "We're going to try to keep an open mind until we can see what will happen ... . There are definitely a range of reactions and emotions [about the sale]."
What's gonna happen is that the International Aerospace Workers union local (which represents Weekly staffers) won't remain a bugaboo for the latest configuration of what could essentially be L.A. New Times. Larkin and Lacey will come in like exterminators. Also on the outs are mid-sized advertisers who had counted on the Weekly's creatively forgiving billing strategies. (NT don't play that.) Also not long for the paper are editorial freelancers, as the company model is for staffers to write the book each week. There's plenty of reasons for expecting the worst, but Blume, who has a union contract grievance on file against Village Voice Media, worked to find a silver lining.
"A profitable newspaper will have the resources to pay for top-notch journalism if it chooses to do so. And maybe the merged company will make so much money that it can't help but spend some of it on journalism," he said.
Once New Times has been cleared by the Department of Justice and the California Attorney General - most likely sometime in January - the battle of Los Angeles is set to begin.
Keep it real
"I am sure most of you are aware of the bizarre charge that this merger will mark the end of alternative journalism. Nothing could be farther from the truth," Voice Media CEO David Scheiderman told his New York staff in a widely circulated internal memo. And I believe him. The end ain't nigh.
Let's keep it real: I got my first job in L.A. because the Voice bought the Weekly. There's no point in playing nave over corporate benefits. Anybody in the game feigning innocence is contriving, transparently. As one former Weekly writer opined, "Even in the best of times, there's always been more than a little irony embedded in trying to build great journalism on the proceeds of prostitution and cigarette ads."
Yet, it's hard not to feel awed by this power play on the rugged edge of journalism. Folks fear NT Media because of its money, Larkin's keen business sense, and Lacey's hyper-aggressive editorial takes. Word on the street, though, is that New Voice Times doesn't have the monopoly on balls. Not here, or in Seattle, San Francisco, or New York. The deal could backfire, driving readers of conscience away from the streamline chain product.
CityBeat, which stands to benefit initially from its new eligibility for national ad dollars, can grow as a strong indie publication. When VVM came to Seattle, competition pushed advertisers into The Stranger, the town's indie paper, and it grew in pages. Imagine if one local weekly's ownership actually opted to send its troops into battle with more than pie pans as body armor. It might actually be possible to avenge the Cleveland Scene, or at least stave off the advent of Jill Stewart.
Because, really: If you're an Angeleno and you want to know about that fierce stream of homeless people coursing westward from downtown over the past week, who you gonna look to? KTLA? The Times? Blogs? Please. Your only option is what you're reading this very moment.