Former LA Weekly columnist and editor Marc Cooper (now director of Annenberg Digital News at USC Annenberg) has been relatively quiet about his longtime editorial home since he was squeezed out two months ago. Tonight, though, he posts on his blog: "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." They'll be talking about this for awhile. Another former LA Weekly staffer emails me: "you probably got this, but: OH MAN!!"
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.
Now to the meat as Cooper — and probably most former and many current Weekly editorial staffers — sees it:
The paper has fired, pushed out or let go its top deputy editor who managed most its cover stories over the last five year. 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.
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.
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.
He lays out a very personal recitation of the Weekly's recent history and its decline under New Times management, with special disdain for Village Voice Media co-founder Michael Lacey and Jill Stewart, who Lacey installed at the Weekly. Read the whole thing at Cooper's blog.