With so much media chatter today about former LA Weekly editors [Rachlis here, Ochoa, Heikes and Horton here], it's good timing that Mediabistro posted an unrelated interview this morning with the current editor, Sarah Fenske. In it, she appears to lump the LA Weekly's only Pulitzer winner ever, Jonathan Gold, in with the city's many puff-piece food writers. Before you read what she says, it should be noted that Gold decided to vacate his long-time home at the LA Weekly on Fenske's watch, and that Fenske selected the Weekly's current, jury's-still-out restaurant critic, Besha Rodell.
The biggest challenge you faced as editor-in-chief was replacing Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. What were the essential qualities you looked for when interviewing his replacement, and what finally made you choose Besha Rodell?
I really wanted to hire someone locally -- if only to make up for my own weakness as an outsider. But, the more I dug into the situation, the more I had to reexamine that priority. I began to realize every good food writer in town knew every other food writer in town -- and many not only knew the top chefs, they'd collaborated with them on a cookbook or something. What the Weekly needed was someone who didn't have allegiances, someone who could assess this town with a fresh eye and call a spade for what it was.
Jonathan was -- and is -- an incredibly beautiful writer, but he never writes negative reviews. That worked for him, wonderfully, and it still works now that he's over at the Times. But what is the Weekly if not the alternative: the smart, edgy voice that calls bullshit? We needed someone who could be critical when it was called for, and who had no loyalties, and who was not interested in befriending the city's chefs. And that would make the praise mean all the more when it came. We needed someone fearless. The minute I read her clips, I knew Besha was it.
Once Rodell was announced as food critic, Eater LA made it its mission to publish a photo of her. They failed miserably, but what is your personal take on the topic of food critic anonymity. Is it still necessary and beneficial, or -- in this wired day and age -- an outdated concept?
Anonymity is less important to me than a lack of allegiances. Sure, some maitre d' might figure out who Besha is, and Eater might actually get an OK photo one of these days. (We hope not, but we aren't actively trying to thwart them, either.) As long as she's keeping a low profile, not befriending the people she's writing about, and not accepting freebies, she's likely going to get the same experience as any no-name diner, and she's going to have an honest take on whether the restaurant works. That's what matters to me.
Since you took over in the fall of 2011, you've presided over some highs (Gene Maddaus' con man cover story) and lows (Simone Wilson falsely reporting that the L.A. Weekly had done very little original L.A. riots reporting ). How, as an editor, do you try to comfort and support a reporter when things go wrong rather than right?
That "goof," as you say, was a tough one, and in retrospect, I could point to six or seven things that went wrong along the way. Had any number of checks and balances kicked in, that wouldn't have happened, and I have to take full responsibility for that reason. Simone may have had the byline, but that was a team failure, which makes it my failure.
But the thing is, with online journalism in particular, we are moving so quickly that mistakes happen. It's a fact of the job these days, much as I hate it. So, I try to stress owning our errors instead of erasing them, no matter how embarrassing. And then I try to analyze what happened and figure out how to prevent it from happening again....
Photo of Fenske: Fishbowl LA