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LA Weekly’s Adolescence Proves a Troubling One

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

The tabloid’s first edition was tame enough. There was a feature on female comedians, a sympathetic item on Sid Vicious, the late rock ‘n’ roller, and a chuckle over the first U.S. Marine to have a sex change operation. A decade later, the newspaper was accusing George Bush of adultery and alleging State Department collaboration with cocaine smugglers in Central America.

The LA Weekly, born 12 years ago in a rented bungalow on Sunset Boulevard and today worth an estimated $20 million, has developed into one of the nation’s most successful and provocative alternative newspapers. Nonetheless, it now finds itself in a troubled adolescence--embarrassed by some of its excesses, uncertain about its future.

Despite revenues in excess of $7 million, the Weekly lost money last year, the first time that has happened since the paper’s infancy. The Weekly recently lost the first round of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with a former printer. And the paper’s free-lance writers, no longer satisfied with 20 cents a word, are demanding a raise.

Against that background, the Weekly’s editors are trying to fashion an up-to-date image for a paper that came into being when Melrose Avenue kitsch, punk rock and the Sandinistas were reigning icons of Los Angeles cultural life. The editors face a dilemma common to alternative urban newspapers that blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s: While they want to retain the nervy, adversarial style that distinguishes the Weekly from the mainstream press, a desire to be financially stable and politically influential is breeding an air of caution.

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In Los Angeles, the Weekly’s audience has grown older, wealthier and, if not more conservative, at least more circumspect. The city has also changed, shed some of its tinsel, and the Weekly clearly wants to be a fixture of the contemporary landscape.

“The city has never taken itself so seriously,” Weekly Editor Kit Rachlis said. “Crime, pollution, immigration, growth. Is Los Angeles world class or Third World? It’s all part of the debate the city is busy having with itself today. We want to be part of the debate.”

It certainly has enough sheer bulk to be noticed. Once a wispy tabloid, the free-distribution newspaper now swells to 200 pages with ads for gyms, tanning parlors, hair restorers, facial toners, love brokers (976-CUDLE), holistic dentists, colon hydrotherapists, designer clothes and a seemingly endless inventory of futons. The paper distributes 165,000 issues each week and claims that its readership exceeds 400,000.

Deciphering its vision is another matter. The paper’s mood swings are apparent from week to week.

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One 1989 cover story offered a breathless portrait of NWA, the Compton rap group accused by the FBI of encouraging violence against the police. An issue of the Weekly devoted to health care fired a blunderbuss shot at the medical profession: “Doctors are killing us because they want to die rich,” the lead story snarled.

On other occasions, the Weekly has practiced a more genteel journalism--providing a dispassionate portrait of City Councilman Michael Woo and an exhaustive history of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles.

This pattern of zig-zagging to the cultural fringe and back resumed this year when a 3,000-word story on “The Witches Next Door” was soon followed by an equally lengthy critique of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Some of the Weekly’s longtime contributors say they don’t like what is going on at the paper.

“I haven’t broken with them, but I find it difficult to reconcile myself to a paper that puts a story about witches on its cover,” said Marc Cooper, who has written about Central America and served as the Weekly’s media critic. “Those of us who have written for it over a long period of time don’t quite fathom where the Weekly is. The focus is more confused than ever before.”

Yet the Weekly has always been a mixed bag of radical ranting, New Age bromides and sleazy classifieds side-by-side with thoughtful movie reviews, investigative reporting and imaginative feature writing--all of it anchored by a guide to theaters, restaurants and nightclubs that is the most comprehensive of its kind in town.

And a fundamental contradiction has long been apparent. The paper is shot through with anti-capitalistic rhetoric, blaming U.S. corporations for most of the world’s ills. Its executive editor, Harold Meyerson, is an official of the Democratic Socialists of America. Meanwhile, the paper is fueled by its own robust capitalist engine that generates several million dollars a year in ads, many of them celebrating the good life on the city’s fashionable Westside.

“The Weekly has the image of a newspaper that encouraged you to write angry letters to Ronald Reagan while you are getting a suntan in a sun-tan parlor,” joked Jay Levin, the newspaper’s founder and first editor.

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The ingrained paradoxes are not lost on the Weekly’s readers. “The Weekly is chic materialism couched between chic anti-materialism,” said Jim Wisely, a state Democratic political operative. Like a lot of Westsiders, Wisely is as much a user of the Weekly’s ads and services as he is a reader of its articles.

“If I want to get my car detailed or buy a halogen lamp or show an out-of-town friend all the hot spots, I look in the Weekly. It deals with the world of wants rather than needs.”

The newspaper recently attracted the attention of Forbes magazine, which touted the newspaper’s success at dishing up “liberal politics to L.A. yuppies.”

Los Angeles has forced the Weekly to differ from other mainstays of the alternative press, such as the Village Voice in New York, the Boston Phoenix or San Francisco’s Bay Guardian. Historically, those papers have drawn their readers from definable bohemian communities--affordable enclaves of artists, writers and academicians where people’s bank accounts, as well as their politics, are of more proletarian dimensions.

Success-driven, style-conscious Los Angeles has never cultivated a bohemian quarter. Places that might have qualified, Venice or Silver Lake, quickly became too expensive.

Nevertheless, the Weekly found an audience. The spine of its circulation runs along Sunset Boulevard from near downtown to the coast. It is distributed east and west from Wilshire Boulevard to the Hollywood Hills. About 60,000 papers go to the San Fernando Valley.

“Our audience is overwhelmingly Baby Boomers with money to spend,” said Derek Shearer, a professor of public policy at Occidental College and a member of the Weekly’s board of directors. “Our readers are people who can afford to go movies and theaters, listen to National Public Radio and think Oliver Stone is a great film maker.”

Here is how the Weekly describes its audience in a brochure to advertisers.

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“Weekly readers like to buy, buy, buy. . . . They want Perrier instead of water; croissants instead of toast; Rolex instead of Timex. They earn champagne incomes to match their champagne tastes.”

According to the brochure, the Weekly’s readers spend $17 million on clothes each month and consume over a million bottles of wine. Seventy-four percent dine out at least every other night and 68% travel abroad at least once a year. The statistics were compiled for the Weekly by a local marketing company.

Tom Catone, a display advertising manager for the Los Angeles Times, said the Weekly has been “a formidable competitor” for ads from Westside businesses. The Weekly has been more than a match for other alternative papers.

In the late 1970s, the Weekly got a run for its money from the Reader, a Westside weekly modeled after the highly successful Chicago Reader.

The Reader survives today, but its original publisher, Bob Roth, concedes that the Weekly has had a better grasp of the L.A. audience.

“Our front page story would be a slice-of-life piece about a fisherman who worked a two-man boat out in the ocean for 10 days at a time,” Roth said. “The Weekly would have a cover on roller disco. They plugged in very well to the insubstantial vision of L.A. as Tinseltown. We were trying to make it out to be a real city of factory workers, fishermen and regular people.”

While both papers struggled in the beginning, Roth said, the Weekly gave off a Southern California glow that conveyed the illusion of prosperity.

“Whatever your politics, in L.A., you have to look successful,” Roth said. “That’s the key, and right away, the Weekly was looking big and brassy. They had so many ads in the beginning, I was convinced they were giving them away.”

David Cohen, who was in charge of advertising at the Weekly during the early days, said the paper would cut its ad rates by 20% to 30% in order to lock up advertisers that might be tempted to go to the Reader.

Over the years, the Weekly has been especially eager to find fault with the mainstream press. But under Rachlis, the new editor, the paper seems willing to fess up to a lapse or two of its own. For example, there was the adult fashion issue that featured a 12-year-old cover girl. “People here tried to say they didn’t know she was 12 years old. They knew,” said Rachlis, who was not working for the Weekly when the issue came out.

When he became editor in late 1988, said Rachlis, he was disturbed to find that restaurant reviewers were under orders not to pan restaurants that advertised in the Weekly. He said he lifted the order.

On the other hand, actor Michael Douglas, a member of the Weekly’s board of directors and one of its original financial backers, said recently that the paper has panned every one of his movies.

Outside the media mainstream, the Weekly has struggled for recognition for its journalistic successes. Writers talk about hiring publicists to get serious stories on local TV news and in front of a broader audience. The newspaper has won a string of awards for stories on smog, toxic chemicals in the city’s water supply, contamination of the Santa Monica Bay, on secret business deals between city officials and prominent real estate developers and on the dearth of city services in South-Central Los Angeles.

The Weekly has also published evocative stories about people and neighborhoods, including one by Emery Holmes II on the heyday of a Pacoima barbershop called Stylesville. As described by Holmes, Stylesville was more mecca than barbershop, the sort of place where people would stop their cars to watch Duke Ellington get royally groomed.

“There are no judgements in Stylesville,” Holmes wrote. “The community elites--the doctors, ministers, businessmen et al.--rub shoulders with the rappers, the buppies and the welfare-fashion dukes. Nobody’s going to laugh at your haircut or your politics in Stylesville.”

The Weekly is at its best in stories that see the city “from a peripheral angle . . . that explore the margins,” said David Freeman, an author and screenwriter who has written for the Weekly.

The Weekly is probably best known, however, for its political slant.

“The truth is left-wing,” Jay Levin once proclaimed, and the newspaper has rarely deviated from its founder’s world view. Levin sees the United States as a heavy on the international scene, in many ways responsible for the impoverishment of the Third World, its people and natural resources.

The newspaper’s political edge distinguishes it from a number of alternative papers that, in order to survive, became little more than guidebooks to vintage clothes stores and exotic ice cream parlors.

“The Weekly and a few other papers like it kept faith with the 1960s, the period of dissent that launched the underground/alternative press,” said Martin Linsky, a former editor of an alternative weekly in Boston who now lectures on the press and politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“Even if you don’t agree with it, the Weekly reports with a sense of outrage and passion. It provides a reminder that the news matters,” said David Armstrong, press critic for the San Francisco Examiner and the author of a book about the alternative press.

However, critics of the Weekly argue that the newspaper’s politics have colored its judgment and limited its impact.

“One would like to see the Weekly less dogmatic and less predictable,” said Ruth Hirschman, general manager of KCRW, a Santa Monica radio station and outlet for National Public Radio. “I think the Weekly’s audience is capable of absorbing a much more complex level of discussion than is being offered.”

Any discussion of the Weekly’s politics inevitably focuses on an October, 1988, story that quoted unnamed sources saying that George Bush, then a candidate for President, had engaged in a series of extramarital affairs.

The story appeared in an issue of the paper that was otherwise devoted to probing Bush’s association with CIA officials and other government figures linked to the Iran-Contra scandal. The Weekly printed evidence linking accused drug dealers with the U.S. government’s Contra resupply effort.

One article focused on several transport companies that received State Department funds to deliver humanitarian aid to the Contras. According to the Weekly, the CIA recommended the firms even though all four of them were targets of drug investigations and officials of two of the firms were under federal indictment.

But those allegations were tainted, along with the Weekly’s reputation, by the gossipy story about Bush’s love life, critics argue.

“The stories they (the Weekly) ran on Iran-Contra raised serious issues that the mainstream press should have been raising,” said Bob Parry, a reporter for Newsweek magazine who has written extensively about Iran-Contra issues. “It’s just too bad it got mixed up with the thing on Bush’s personal life.”

Levin was editing the paper at the time and takes full responsibility for the story about Bush’s personal life.

“I loved that story, but, boy, did we take a lot of heat for it. . . . Did it diminish the value of the rest of the paper? I don’t know. Maybe.”

A former New York Post reporter, Levin came West in 1978 to work for the old L.A. Free Press, then owned by Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine fame. The Free Press was folded after Flynt was shot and paralyzed outside a Georgia courthouse, where he was being tried on obscenity charges.

Levin quickly rounded up a handful of investors, raised $225,000 and started the Weekly.

Levin says the paper has made him “solidly wealthy on paper” and he seems comfortable in the role of counterculture capitalist: “I didn’t set out to make a lot of money, but money is energy and you have to use the available energy in order to reach people.”

No longer editor of the paper, Levin has assumed the title of chairman of the Weekly’s board of directors.

Meanwhile, Rachlis works to improve the paper on an editorial budget that he says has been reduced by 15% from last year. The belt-tightening comes after a money-losing year--the result, editors said, of sloppy management, of the cost of computerizing the paper’s editorial operations and of losing a partial judgment to a former printer who sued the Weekly for alleged breach of contract.

The future quality of the newspaper will also depend on its ability to negotiate a satisfactory contract with the 70 or more free-lance writers that the Weekly has come to depend on over the years. Writer David Steinman says the writers have asked for a 12-cent raise, to 32 cents a word, and that the Weekly has responded with an offer of 22 cents.

“We haven’t voted yet on how we plan to respond to the Weekly’s offer,” Steinman said recently.

When he came to the paper, Rachlis, a former executive editor of the Village Voice, said he demanded the freedom to do things his way, and added that he took the job only after Levin agreed to a contract granting him editorial autonomy.

For one thing, Rachlis said, he believed that the paper should be less dogmatic.

“I guess I trust political debate more than Jay does,” Rachlis said. “I think it was wrong for the paper never to criticize Jesse Jackson. I think it was wrong not to be more critical of Daniel Ortega. But that’s not to say the paper shouldn’t have endorsed Jackson for President (which it did) or fight ferociously against Contra aid.”

While Rachlis said he wants a paper that is more balanced, he realizes that, in the world of alternative journalism, there is such a thing as being too cautious.

Recently, he called a group of staff members in to discuss the cover of an issue on art censorship. He wanted to reproduce artist Andre Serrano’s notorious photograph of a crucifix resting in a bottle of urine. Encountering no objections, Rachlis put the image on the cover under the headline “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”

“I don’t worry about offending people,” he said.


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