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.
The key moment in the paper's shift to the right came last October, when the Weekly appeared with a cover story reeking of tabloid sleaze. The article was about Miguel Contreras, a brilliant strategist and a charismatic movement leader who had headed the County Federation of Labor and had died the previous year. According to the Weekly, he collapsed in a South Central botanica (a purveyor of alternative medicine) that was later raided by the LAPD vice squad as a front for prostitution. The Weekly had never run that kind of piece before, but it was exactly the type of story the New Times favored: investigative hit pieces that target local bigwigs.
"I thought the Contreras piece was legit to do," Kevin Roderick told me, "especially the focus on local officials trying to hide what went on." Staff writer David Zahniser argued that it was the same kind of piece as the stories revealing Martin Luther King Jr.'s extramarital affairs. Meyerson, who said the article should have been headlined Labor Boss Croaks in Hooker's Arms, replied in an open letter to the staff that circulated widely on the web, "There's a crucial difference. King's private life had public consequences: the FBI monitored it and threatened King with exposure. But we're not covering Miguel's private life; we're covering his private death, and it's hard for me to see how the circumstances of his death had public consequences."
Will Swaim was editor of the Weekly's sister publication in Orange County, the OC Weekly, before he resigned in January. I asked him whether he would have run the story on Contreras's death. "No," he replied. "Because Miguel Contreras had not made an issue of anybody's sex life. When [former Congressman] Bob Dornan claimed he was a family values guy, and we discovered he beat his wife, that was news--because he made it news." (Swaim is a friend and former student.) Tim Rutten of the LA Times said, "The story had no bounce. There are reasons for that, and they don't have to do with deference toward the power structure. Nobody else thought it was a story."
The "Miguel story," as it's now known, came out the same week Meyerson departed and the week before Jill Stewart was named news editor. She had been a freelance columnist and Schwarzenegger enthusiast whose website makes the unlikely claim that she is "the most influential journalist in Los Angeles." Stewart made her name in the late 1990s at Mike Lacey's New Times LA with an over-the-top attack on Mike Davis for errors in the footnotes to his book Ecology of Fear (see Wiener, "LA Story: Backlash of the Boosters," February 22, 1999). "She's polarizing," Roderick argued. "She has a lot of fans--and a lot of people who see her reporting as not trustworthy and politically biased from the right."
The pattern seemed clear: Kicking out Meyerson and bringing in Stewart indicated the Weekly was taking a sharp turn away from the left. Meyerson was not just a columnist. He had been executive editor for twelve years, starting in 1989, then--after moving to Washington in 2001 to edit The American Prospect--continued at the Weekly as political editor, then editor at large. When I asked Stewart whether her arrival signaled a political change, she replied, "I find that topic utterly boring and backward-looking." Editor in chief Laurie Ochoa told me, "At a time when I was facing large budget cuts and trying to save as many staff jobs as possible, I made the decision to discontinue Harold's column in favor of writers whose first priority was the LA Weekly." But the paper isn't run to save staff jobs; it's run for readers to read, and cutting Meyerson meant cutting the columnist who had done the most to spotlight LA's progressive movements. His writing about the Latino-labor alliance was clearly incompatible with Lacey's agenda.
When I asked Ochoa about the political shifts signaled by hyperlocalism and the end of endorsements of candidates, she did not respond. Neither did Lacey. But he has often said that he wants his seventeen papers to stop running what he regards as politically correct stories about society's victims, to stop what he sees as boring Bush-bashing, and instead feature "hard-hitting investigative reports" that make waves locally.
The paper he bought had an immense amount of talent to do that. The greatness of the LA Weekly before the New Times takeover had been not only in Meyerson's columns blending history and political analysis, not only in Cooper's coverage of national and international politics and not only in John Powers's essays about "Bush World." It also had a great news department, where news editor Alan Mittelstaedt and editor in chief Ochoa brought together some of LA's top investigative reporters. They included City Hall reporter Jeffrey Anderson, who wrote an award-winning exposé of incompetence and cronyism at the Department of Water and Power, and Zahniser, who did a strong cover story on gentrification. Mittelstaedt put together an award-winning special issue on smog. The newsroom buildup culminated with the summer 2006 hiring of the talented Daniel Hernandez away from the LA Times to cover Latino issues. The result was an alternative weekly with origins in the 1960s counterculture that had become a serious journalistic force in America's second-largest city by 2005.
But increasingly since the New Times takeover, the paper seems to be wasting that talent. "There was a time not all that long ago," said Rutten of the LA Times, "when we felt like we had to read the Weekly as soon as it came out, because they were competing with us. I don't think people at the Times feel that way any more. That's a loss to the city." The Weekly's star writers are increasingly turning out New Times-style hit pieces. In February Zahniser blasted away at a school-board member whose offense consisted of remodeling his house without a building permit. That's the kind of "hard-hitting investigative reporting" that few people really care about. (As we go to press, LAObserved.com reports that Zahniser is leaving the Weekly for the LA Times because he "chafed at working with Jill Stewart.")
Mittelstaedt, the news editor fired in November to make room for Stewart, was back a few weeks later with an article about a UCLA cop who repeatedly Tasered a handcuffed Iranian-American student in the library. Video posted on the web showed the kid screaming in pain while dozens of horrified students watched. The video caused a national scandal, especially after the LA Times reported that the cop had also shot a homeless man on campus three years earlier and had been recommended for dismissal after an alleged assault on fraternity row. The old Weekly would have investigated the cop, but Mittelstaedt's piece was headlined Taser 'Em All. It declared that "the Iranian-American punk who provoked--yes, provoked--the Taser attack at UCLA should be expelled for momentarily distracting the entire world from more meaningful thoughts." That's not exactly investigative reporting or a critique of the powerful. But it represents the kind of contrarian, screw-you mentality that fits the New Times worldview now evident 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."