End of an Era at the LA Weekly
It's the other media takeover story in Los Angeles--not the Tribune Company buying the Los Angeles Times, cutting staff, losing hundreds of thousands of readers and firing an editor and publisher in the past two years but the little-known drama surrounding the city's immensely successful alternative paper, the LA Weekly. When the Weekly was acquired by New Times Media from Village Voice Media in 2005 (along with five other alternative papers), a wave of anxiety hit LA's progressive politicos and journalists. The Weekly--a fat 200 pages, circulation 208,000, largest of any urban weekly in the West--has been a voice of the left for its nearly thirty-year history. It has been truly great among alternative weeklies, with news coverage and political writing that towered above its counterparts--including the Village Voice and the eleven metro weeklies owned by the Phoenix-based New Times chain. New Times executive editor Michael Lacey is often described as apolitical, but he has frequently declared disdain for liberals with causes.
The changes at the LA Weekly in the past six months have been dramatic: virtually no more writing about the war in Iraq or other international or national news topics, no more endorsements of candidates in elections and no more stories about the forces trying to make LA a more egalitarian and less polarized city. (Alert to readers: The Weekly has published my work and also rejected submissions of mine; it's reviewed me, and I've reviewed for it; I have friends who have worked there and friends who still do, including Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor.)
First, international coverage, including Iraq: The old LA Weekly engaged national and world issues every week, but the New Times strategy is relentlessly local. "That's a huge change," says Kevin Roderick, who writes the authoritative news and media-watch website LAObserved.com. A web search in late May for "war in Iraq" in the LA Weekly news pages turns up a total of three pieces published in the past three months, out of more than a hundred articles.
There was a time when the alt weeklies sent writers around the world: When Weekly staff writer Marc Cooper was at the Voice in the 1980s and '90s, it sent him to cover the Sandinistas' Nicaragua, the invasion of Panama, the first Gulf War and Yeltsin's Russia. At the Weekly all such reporting is gone. In its place the paper focuses on what Tim Rutten, media columnist for the LA Times, calls "hyper-localism--it's the prevailing commercial wisdom regarding all newspapers." But there's plenty of evidence that LA readers are as interested in what's going on in Baghdad as in Beverly Hills. "This is the business model that failed in the alt-press model here in LA," Rutten points out. "It was tried in its purest form in New Times LA"--which Lacey published from 1996 to 2002--"and the Weekly ran them out of town. Now we're going to try it again and see if it works in a monopoly situation."
The second big change: With the New Times takeover, the Weekly has stopped endorsing candidates. "That's huge," Roderick said. Endorsements had been a central focus since the paper's founding. An astounding editorial effort went into interviewing candidates, and the paper devoted a whopping 7,500 words to endorsements in the June 2006 primary. Those endorsements provided a crucial counterweight to the more centrist LA Times editorial page picks. The Weekly's endorsements expressed the editors' belief that the paper was an important political and journalistic institution with a responsibility to readers and to the broader community interest. The mentality of Lacey & Co. seems to be exactly the opposite: The paper exists to make money and has no moral or political commitment to Los Angeles.
The third change, the big editorial shift to the right, was explained by Harold Meyerson, who had been a top editor and columnist before he was eased out last October. "The city's biggest problem was the erosion of the middle class and the creation of a huge class of full-time workers who were still poor," he told me. "That's why we covered unions and plant closings and Justice for Janitors and the Living Wage campaign. The affluent West Side needed to know what LA had become--and how it could be fixed." Now that focus is gone. In its place the Weekly features gotcha-style hit pieces targeting the city's elite, left and right, without any larger perspective on the possible futures of LA. The one exception: Marc Cooper's column in May describing how, fifteen years after the Rodney King riots, "L.A. is still divided between served and servers."
The most dramatic example of this editorial shift came on May 1, when the LAPD rioted in MacArthur Park, attacking an immigration rights rally. Six hundred cops fired more than 100 "nonlethal" projectiles into a crowd of families and charged with clubs swinging, injuring forty-two, including several members of the mainstream media. The story made front pages around the world and dominated local news for a week. The old Weekly would have been all over it, but the next issue of the new Weekly contained one small, 330-word piece on the event while devoting six articles and 3,700 words to the Coachella music festival.