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On the Media: L.A. Magazine meets, beats economic challenges

One editor from Los Angeles Magazine’s salad days, in the 1980s, recalls a publication full of “a lot of fluff and nonsense and fun,” with some serious journalism squeezed in between. That formula had been turned slightly on its head in the first years of the new millennium, as L.A.'s namesake magazine leaned toward earnest storytelling, with service features occasionally feeling tacked on.

Los Angeles celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, with a smaller staff and fewer pages than the fat, happy days when the likes of Farrah Fawcett and Orson Welles graced its cover and revenue was so abundant that some advertisers could be turned away.

The magazine today has taken on the glow of a survivor, with a recovering bottom line and a couple of big journalism prizes having just arrived in the editor’s office. It has shed its fixation with the city’s Westside, gotten friendlier to time-strapped readers (features tend to be shorter) and shucked the skeptical remove that reigned in the 1990s, when a couple of editors from the East Coast ascended.

The resulting magazine doesn’t exactly demand to be read but when it is read can provide a tasty repast. That’s largely the work of editor in chief Mary Melton, a native Angeleno who has embraced the mission of doing less with more and unashamedly attempts to present her city in its full splendor and incoherence.

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“When people would say, ‘What’s it like to raise your kids here? How can you do it?’ I say, ‘Are you kidding? This is a fantastic place to grow up, and it’s a thrilling place to be,’” Melton said this week. “If your eyes are wide open you can find anything.’”

Like a lot of media outposts in the recent recession, the magazine’s 10th-floor office on Wilshire Boulevard, across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, could be a glum place to be. A series of layoffs cut the staff by 40% and contributed to the departure after nine years of Kit Rachlis, the intellectual editor who had championed long profiles and explainers and managed to maintain three first-rate staff writers.

Melton, who had worked alongside Rachlis at the L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times Magazine (where, disclosure, I wrote for Rachlis a couple of times), has embraced the “service packages” — editions devoted to restaurants, weekend getaways, top doctors and the like — that are the raison d'être and financial underpinning of most city magazines.

“Our service features are flashier and splashier than they used to be,” Melton said this week in her office, with a view that sweeps from the Pacific Design Center to the Griffith Observatory. “At the same time I love doing the long-form narrative pieces.” She aspires to an Esquire-like balance: a zesty takeout on best bars, followed by a personality profile, with lilting prose and exclusive news.

One editor who worked at the magazine in the 1980s, when it could sometimes burst with 500 pages or more (compared to the 160 to 220 of recent times), liked to say “service sells and absolute service sells absolutely.” In other words, a local magazine like Los Angeles should have no shame in parsing, dissecting and selling sectors of the city and its economy.

Founding editor Geoff Miller conceived the magazine in the 1960s when he was getting a graduate degree in journalism at UCLA. It was a robust business by the 1970s and became known in the 1980s for its celebrity covers — the film genius Welles willing to front a restaurant guide, Christopher Reeve lending his caped presence to a Valentine’s Day special, while Farrah Fawcett, Dyan Cannon, Christie Brinkley and any number of other pretty faces thrilled to be on the cover.

The elaborate layers of representation that now cosset celebrities had not yet been constructed. Founder Miller liked to tell the story of how he called a director of note and simply said, “Hitch, will you do this cover for us?” And so he did: Alfred Hitchcock, posing in tuxedo behind a browned turkey, which sprouted a murderous carving knife, below the headline “Taking the Mystery out of Dining in L.A.”

“Among the serious journalists there was a lot of eye rolling, but those people were having a lot of fun and it sold,” said one former Los Angeles editor. The magazine’s lower-calorie fare also overshadowed weightier work squeezed around the weekend getaway and best-burger specials: an analysis that debunked the infamous McMartin Preschool molestation prosecutions, a dissection of troubling practices of the Church of Scientology, deep reporting on the homicidal Billionaire Boys Club.

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A series of ownership shifts through the 1990s eventually put the magazine in the hands of the Disney Corp. The owners installed Robert Sam Anson, an Easterner who wanted to make Los Angeles the Vanity Fair of the West. Anson didn’t last long, soon to be replaced by New Yorker Michael Caruso, who many locals felt had an outsiders view — Los Angeles east of the 405 Freeway was not on the magazine’s map.

In 2000, Emmis Communications Corp. bought Los Angeles. Although the company focuses mostly on its chain of music radio stations, it publishes Texas Monthly, Los Angeles and several other metro magazines.

The Indiana-based company brought in Rachlis, an editor with a literary bent and an interest in a broader view of Los Angeles. Rachlis in turn hired a small staff of writers — Jesse Katz, Dave Gardetta and Steve Oney — capable of delivering long, thoughtful narratives.

In 2007, the magazine logged more than $4 million in profit, according to one source who declined to be identified, discussing confidential financial information. The good times seemed to have no horizon, until the Great Recession descended. Two years later, the source said, the magazine was barely breaking even. The editorial budget dropped by almost half and a staff of 28 was pared to 17. Rachlis decided to leave before the last round of cuts, and Melton took over two years ago.

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Those who watch the magazine closely give Melton credit for preserving quality, despite the cuts. Validation came recently in the form of the magazine’s first honors from the American Society of Magazine Editors. It got one award for “general excellence” among targeted-audience magazines. The other was to Ben Ehrenreich for “The End,” a textured look at what happens when we die. It beat entries from Mother Jones, GQ, the Atlantic and the New Yorker in the feature writing category.

Patric Kuh has been another big draw. He recently won his second James Beard Media Award for restaurant criticism that my foodie friends tell me is deft and thoughtful, always placing restaurants in a larger cultural and civic context.

The Westside-heavy sensibility that Rachlis set out to defeat seems to be permanently laid to rest under Melton, who lives in Eagle Rock.

The economy has recovered enough that the magazine last year pushed back into an unspectacular profitability. A new photo editor has been hired, and Melton is hiring another editor soon.

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If the good times are not fully rolling at Los Angeles, they seem to be within sight. At an anniversary party last week, the staff had the confidence to create a time capsule. It’s due to be opened at the end of the next 50 years.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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