The war is not over. But this time, the expression "newspaper war" is taking on a different color. The battle once reserved for dailies duking it out for space at the breakfast table has moved to the alternative press. And the recent arrival of New Times, the scrappy, irreverent, Phoenix-based chain, is sending tremors across L.A.'s landscape of weekly newspapers.
Ground zero was the decade-old Los Angeles View, an eccentric tabloid that specialized in politics and culture. New Times scooped up the 75,000-circulation weekly for a reported $1.5 million last month, vowing to retool it according to New Times' highly successful signature formula: in-depth, investigative pieces on local issues; biting humor and commentary; music, film and arts coverage and criticism; and dining and entertainment listings.
And, last week, rumors swept alternative circles that New Times was also buying the L.A. Reader and planning to fold it after the Aug. 16 issue. If the sale goes through, New Times could scoop up the Reader's national advertising, which is handled by the New Times-owned Ruxton Group, observers said.
The atmosphere at the Reader was grim.
"I think at this point we figure we're on three weeks' notice, and we're hoping we get reasonable severance," said Managing Editor Erik Himmelsbach, referring to New Times' reputation for cleaning house.
Reader Editor and Publisher James Vowell didn't return phone calls, and New Times Executive Editor Michael Lacey declined to comment on "prospective business deals," adding: "If it was done, it would be announced."
That would leave New Times going head-to-head against Southern California's grande dame of alternative journalism--the 18-year-old LA Weekly, which is also corporately owned. Like New York's Village Voice, the 195,000-circulation Weekly is armed with the deep pockets of owner Stern Publishing Inc. At this point, both the Weekly and New Times are soft-pedaling the prospect of an old-fashioned newspaper war.
"Let's see how that plays out," said LA Weekly Publisher Mike Sigman. "I don't see a whole lot of evidence that there's a whole lot of difference between the last paper and this one, but of course, it's early in the game."
And New Times said it's aiming at a different market with a brand of reportage closer in character to that of daily newspapers.
"There will always be a market for the kind of leftist-driven, politically correct-influenced journalism they do, and they're welcome to that market," Lacey said. "We consider [the Los Angeles Times] the competition because you're the biggest dog in town."
Indeed, the emerging war of the L.A. weeklies is a microcosm of changes in the alternative press nationwide. Weeklies spawned from the underground papers of the antiwar '60s are reaching middle age. And some--notably the New Times group--are dropping their left-wing orientation and heading mainstream along with their aging editors and publishers.
Lacey, 48, said New Times doesn't consider itself political: "The reality is that having reported upon a wide variety of topics for 26 years, I don't trust anyone's bull. I don't trust the mayors. I don't trust city hall. I don't trust Democrats. I don't trust Republicans. That's why I'm a journalist. I want to look at the situation and tell our readers and they can make up their minds."
But New Times' approach has come under fire from some independents, particularly its San Francisco competitor, the Bay Guardian, whose founder, Bruce Brugmann, criticizes the chain for practicing "cookie-cutter journalism."
"The battle is for the soul of the independent press," Brugmann said. "Can an outside operation paratroop into town with their guns blazing in every direction and knock off or seriously damage a strong independent paper with long journalistic roots and public interest roots and community interest roots? The Weekly will be able to handle itself very nicely, but most communities don't have strong papers . . . that can successfully vanquish a paper like the New Times."
And, in Los Angeles, alternative journalists sidelined by the recent maneuvering said they bemoaned the loss of the old View's idiosyncratic voice.
New Times "seems to be as much or more concerned with the bottom line than they do with truly independent journalism," said former View Managing Editor Danny Feingold, who was pink-slipped by the new regime.
"There was a real spirit of independence and eclecticism and radicalism at the View. The whole concept of independent journalism seems to be undermined when in the case of New Times, you have an organization based in Phoenix that's running six other papers from corporate headquarters."
New Times counters that it hires writers and editors from the cities it covers. In Los Angeles, the paper's masthead is topped by Editor Rick Barrs and Managing Editor Jack Cheevers. Barrs was most recently night city editor of the Los Angeles Times, while Cheevers was a reporter for the L.A. Times' Valley edition.
Barrs denies that New Times' Phoenix headquarters is running the show: "All the story ideas we've come up with have been mine or Jack Cheevers' or local writers'. Mike Lacey is a hands-on guy and he takes an interest, but he's not dictating the tone or the subject."
Other recruits include former LA Weekly writers Meredith Brody and Erin Aubrey as well as two nationally prominent film critics: Peter Rainer, formerly of the L.A. Times, and Michael Sragow. When the paper finishes hiring, the full-time staff will double to about 20.
Unlike most alternative papers, New Times stresses that it pays higher salaries competitive with the dailies, starting at about $40,000 for a novice to $65,000 for an experienced writer. The chain said it gets what it pays for, cleaning up at the prestigious Missouri Lifestyle Journalism and PEN Center USA West awards, among others.
In Phoenix, the New Times has produced a barrage of stories scrutinizing recently indicted Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington III's administration, accusing him of mismanagement and steering lucrative state contracts to friends. But the papers also do fanciful pieces, such as a Miami cover on name-droppers who pick up such legal monikers as Tira Misu and Pinky Person.
The first two 60ish-page issues of Los Angeles View under New Times' ownership featured cover stories as varied as former Compton City Councilwoman Patricia Moore's upcoming corruption trial and professional "freaks" who peddle their tattooed and pierced images to Hollywood.
Barrs said the paper will write about whatever piques its interest, particularly the business of Hollywood: "This is a big, sophisticated city and we want to reflect that," he said, adding that coverage will exude "edginess. This town is too damn polite."
Don Hazen, director of the San Francisco watchdog organization the Institute for Alternative Journalism, said the parent New Times company runs a tight ship: "They are very successful. More than the great majority of alternative news weeklies, they hire staff writers who are talented, pay them well and they do serious journalism."
But being a New Times employee can be costly in other ways, some say.
"It has been said that it is a culture of fear and intimidation," said media consultant Robert Kehoe, whose clients include the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "It's been said by people within the industry and people who have worked there."
Barrs acknowledged that Lacey can be difficult to deal with, but he defended Lacey for being straightforward: "He can be offensive, but he can also be honest and caring. He's a brash guy, but at least I know where he stands."
But the Bay Guardian's Brugmann accused the New Times of sideswiping journalistic ethics in its effort to be edgy. "The New Times likes to fanny whack," he said, defining a "fanny whack" as "a bologna story" without a byline or evidence to back it up. "In the last fanny whack, they quoted me directly and I was in Israel at the time. I would write to them, 'Do you have any journalistic standards?' "
Dirk Olin, editor of New Times' SF Weekly, said the quote in question "did not purport to be a comment from Brugmann. He's making it sound like someone fabricated a quote. That's so much hooey."
Added Lacey: "Bruce Brugmann is simply one of the most colorful characters in American journalism, but he is wound tighter than a cheap Timex."
New Times' Los Angeles debut comes as the chain, which also straddles Miami, Denver, Dallas and Houston, focuses on the country's top 20 markets.
"These papers had to achieve a critical mass to be fun," Lacey said. "You have to be able to hire enough writers full time to raise hell, and if you're going to be constantly debating with yourself about what size you're going to be, it's not very interesting."
Lacey said Los Angeles was New Times' first stab at a larger market because Los Angeles View's former owners had shown interest in selling the paper. New Times had also tried to buy the Weekly before Stern took it over.
In the meantime, while dailies continue to struggle with downsizing and declining revenues, weeklies are thriving, thanks to lower advertising rates and desirable demographics--80% of readers are between 18 and 49. And New Times, which is in the black everywhere but San Francisco, has made a minimum five-year commitment to Los Angeles, Barrs said.
Still, Lacey said his new Southern California competitors shouldn't worry: "Everyone should have a cup of warm tea and calm down. We'll do what we do and it's going to be a lot of fun. But we are coming and we're not leaving."