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James Vowell, founder of alternative newspaper the Los Angeles Reader, dies at 76

James Vowell, founder of alternative newspaper the Los Angeles Reader, dies at 76
James Vowell in 1994. (Los Angeles Times)

Veteran newspaper executive and editor James Edward Vowell, who started the 1970s alternative publication the Los Angeles Reader with a stable of soon-to-be-notable writers, has died after a long struggle with dementia. He was 76.

Vowell had been diagnosed with a rare form of dementia known as frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) and was in hospice care in Yucaipa. He died May 5.

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His interest in news gathering began in the 1960s when he earned a journalism degree after studying at the University of Texas at Austin and Cal State Los Angeles. He later earned an MBA from UCLA.

Vowell began his journalism career in Texas where he worked for several newspapers as a copy and news editor. He was hired by the Los Angeles Times in 1972 to work on the paper’s national copy desk and later was promoted to assistant managing editor of The Times’ Opinion section.

After a brief stint as the assistant managing editor at the Miami Herald, Vowell returned to Los Angeles in 1978 and launched the Reader, a weekly publication that offered a cache of alternative news stories and movie, play and concert reviews.

The Reader had an impressive roster of emerging writers to tackle the arts scene in Los Angeles — Matt Groening, Steve Appleford, Samantha Dunn, Heidi Dvorak, Steve Erickson, Erik Himmelsbach, Andy Klein, Eric Mankin, Chris Morris, Natalie Nichols, Eddie Rivera, Randy Michael Signor, David L. Ulin, and Lawrence Vittes, among them.

Early on, Vowell said he saw something special in Groening, who would created the iconic prime-time animated TV series “The Simpsons.”

"I think he's a better artist than James Thurber,” Vowell said in 1990, referring to the celebrated post-Great Depression American cartoonist, author, journalist and playwright.

The Reader was the first newspaper to publish Groening’s popular comic strip “Life in Hell,” a slightly bent look at life in L.A. The paper also published a comic strip drawn by filmmaker David Lynch.

Vowell and his wife, Codette Wallace, who was the paper’s legal counsel, later purchased the Reader in 1989 from the Chicago Reader. Vowell and Wallace sold it to New Times Inc. in 1996, which merged it with the Los Angeles View to form New Times L.A.

After moving to Yucaipa in 2002, Vowell went to work for the Highland Community News, a Century Group Newspaper, and later was hired as editor of the Record Gazette, one of the group's Inland Empire publications. He also designed and edited the national legal newsletter Quarterly Prophets.

In his leisure time, Vowell was an avid golfer and skier.

Vowell is survived by his wife and a brother, Gene.

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