End of an Era at the LA Weekly
The changes New Times brought to the LA Weekly are even more stark at its sister publication, the OC Weekly. That paper seemed to embody everything Mike Lacey said he wanted in his papers: It was extremely lean, relying on a handful of brilliant reporters who bashed right and left with equal enthusiasm and style. It ran its own award-winning columns: the wonderful "Commie Girl," by Rebecca Schoenkopf, and the widely syndicated and hilarious "¡Ask a Mexican!" by Gustavo Arellano (typical question: "Why is it in their nature for Mexicans to steal?"). And the OC Weekly made a lot of money for the parent company--record profits the past two years, according to Will Swaim, who created and edited the paper for eleven years. It was one of the smallest alt weeklies in the country, famous for its Spartan ingenuity. And yet the OC Weekly won big awards: national awards for feature writing, political reporting, columns, art direction and graphic design. But to the amazement of all, Lacey drove Swaim to resign in January--and he was soon joined by Commie Girl and half a dozen other top staffers.
Swaim describes the paper he edited as "clearly left liberal--ask any Republican, and they'll tell you we're communists." But, he said, Lacey & Co. "had no political issues with me. Because we went after people on the left, like [Representative] Loretta Sanchez, they were satisfied with us. I told them that going after somebody on the left does not prove you are not a lefty. In fact we do it because we are on the left. They just laughed, and drank more cocktails."
What, then, drove Swaim to quit? "Two problems," he said. "First, they gravely underestimate the value of writers. They have a kind of faux populism--they say they are against articles that say, 'Look how smart I am.' They have an insecurity about good writing, a combination of arrogance and ineptitude. Everything smart is ridiculed as pointy-headed." The New Times business model, he said, was the second problem. The company has imposed a "fat layer of middle management," to which editors are required to report. "Our covers have to be approved by a guy in Oakland. The film reviews are assigned by somebody in Denver. Five people oversee the marketing manager. They say it's a sophisticated business system. My sense is that it's lard. People who've never edited a newspaper tell editors how to edit." Another LA Weekly employee familiar with New Times's corporate strategy said the chain runs "the most Stalinist operation imaginable," with "commissars in Phoenix" overseeing every phase of the seventeen newspapers, "from graphics to the web."
Like many mediocre newspaper chains, New Times has imposed productivity standards for writers: "Basically, they count words," Swaim said. "But you can't measure quality by the number of words you write. That would make the phone book the greatest publication of all time. For them, a 2,500-word investigative piece is worth only twice as much as a 1,200-word food review. It's grotesque. It really is bean counting." So Swaim quit. Now he's started a new alt weekly in Long Beach that competes directly with his old paper--and he took half a dozen of his top staff from the OC Weekly with him to the new paper, called the District. It began publishing in April and distributes 30,000 copies weekly at 1,100 locations.
Lots of people have quit at other New Times papers: the editor of the City Pages in Minneapolis, Steve Perry; the editor of the Seattle Weekly, Skip Berger; and several editors at the Village Voice. Legendary Voice writers have been fired, including Robert Christgau, the dean of rock critics, and Washington correspondent James Ridgeway.
Mike Lacey started out on a different note in 1970, running an alternative antiwar weekly on the Arizona State campus. By the 1980s he had won respect among journalists for "kicking the shins of the Arizona Republic," as longtime Phoenix journalist Dave Wagner told me. "New Times earned its bones by doing authentic, hard-hitting local investigative journalism that the local papers wouldn't." Today Lacey claims that's the mission of all his papers. But in Southern California, at least, he's gotten rid of editors who had made that their mission, especially Will Swaim and Alan Mittelstaedt.
Finally there are the cutbacks and speedups, what Steven Mikulan, who's been a staff writer at the LA Weekly for twenty years and is currently the union president, calls the "Dickensian miserliness" of the whole operation. The Weekly has fired more than a dozen people since the takeover, including the entire fact-checking department. Wagner put it in the starkest terms: The New Times papers, he says, "are edited as though their accountants had already set the date of the final edition, perhaps a decade from now. They are wringing the last dollars out of what they regard as a dying medium, even as they slowly murder it."
Is the goal of Lacey & Co. the same as what the Tribune Company seems to have in mind for the LA Times--to cut and cut some more, to publish a paper with a smaller and smaller staff of writers? Maybe the alternative press can survive on film reviews and calendar listings and the occasional hit piece on the mayor. Does the LA Weekly really need editorial content? "Maybe not," one Weekly staffer told me. "Maybe Mike Lacey is a genius. We're about to find out."