When Alan Smolinisky bought the local Pacific Palisades newspaper a year ago, he told readers how much he treasured the community and the old-school weekly that had chronicled happenings there since 1928.
"While the newspaper business faces many challenges, and knowing full well that I will have to make difficult decisions," he wrote, "I promise you that this must-read paper will continue to arrive in your mailbox every Thursday."
The Palisadian-Post continues to arrive in subscribers' mailboxes, all right, but it is very different. Through layoffs and retirements, most of the staff Smolinisky inherited is gone.
In early September, he sold the Post's building on Via de la Paz to a real estate firm and moved the paper to the second floor of an office building. He has raised the subscription price to $65 from $49.
Most recently, Smolinisky hired as the new editor Frances Sharpe, a local woman who has worked for magazines and online publications and has ghostwritten books about diet and health. They have brought in a team of mostly young reporters.
Such changes are typical in any business when a new owner takes over, but these have turned the homespun newspaper into the talk of the town.
The departure of Bill Bruns, 70, the editor since 1993, has troubled many in the affluent community. In late September, Bruns, who had previously worked at Life magazine and TV Guide, wrote an announcement of his planned Dec. 13 retirement. Soon after, Smolinisky hired Sharpe, and they began discussing new hires. Bruns moved up his retirement date to Oct. 11.
Smolinisky then asked Bruns to stay until December because the new editor could not start immediately. But then on Oct. 15, Bruns said, Smolinisky called him in to say he was moving up Bruns' retirement after all.
"They quickly shut down my computer and access to my email account," Bruns said in an interview. "They gave me one hour to gather up the stuff on my desk and fill some empty boxes with personal files from my 20 years at the Post. Then a fellow came with his little pickup, loaded my boxes and drove me home, where he dropped everything off in my driveway in the dark."
Asked about the circumstances of Bruns' departure, Smolinisky said: "Once we hired a new writer, [Bruns] was hurt he wasn't running that process."
Robert Vickrey, a 35-year Palisades resident, said in an email that many of the departed staff members "have had deep connections with members of this community for decades."
Some say they fear the newspaper is veering away from news in favor of local school sports and lightweight features and photos. The Lifestyle cover story in the Dec. 5 issue was about smoothies.
Smolinisky said he had made "a lot of positive changes in the past year," among them making the paper full color, adding breaking-news alerts and resolving some delivery problems.
The newspaper staffs a booth at the local farmers market every Sunday and has enlisted a team of community "ambassadors" to help sell subscriptions.
Smolinisky also said the new newsroom is more diverse.
"We laid off all writers, regardless of their age," he said. "Our current staff is aged 23 to 67. Every single employee of the old regime was white. Today, the staff consists of employees who are white, black, Asian, Latino, straight and gay."
The staff is now ensconced in the Post's spiffy new offices, complete with open floor plan, comfy poufs and chalkboard walls for brainstorming ideas.
In an interview there, Smolinisky said the operation has picked up advertisers and subscribers but added that the newspaper "sucks money every month" from his pocket. He acknowledged that the paper as yet has no economically viable online strategy (a difficulty shared by many publications). He said he tells people: "You've got to buy our paper if you want us to succeed."
Smolinisky, 34, developed a reputation years ago as a hard-nosed developer of student housing, the field in which he made his sizable fortune. He said he is doing the community a public service by keeping the money-losing paper going.
Arnie Wishnick, executive director of the Pacific Palisades Chamber of Commerce, said he had met the new staff.
"They all seem very nice," he said. "They're going to have to learn what the town is about." As for coverage, he said, "some people think that the Post looks better than ever; some say it looks worse than they could ever imagine.
"We hear from people who like it and people who don't," Wishnick said. "We wish them luck because we need the newspaper."