Los Angeles media begins 2018 in turmoil

By Joe Piasecki

Max Bell addresses Dec. 8 ‘funeral’ protesters alongside fellow former LA Weekly freelancers Rebecca Haithcoat, Jeff Weiss and Katie Bain.
Photo by Maria Martin

Journalists do not, as Hollywood might have you believe, spend much time speaking in grandiose terms about the role of a free press in preserving American democracy. In the publisher’s boardroom, the editor’s newsroom and the freelance writer’s favorite coffee shop, the imperative is economic survival, and has been for at least a decade.

Los Angeles, which has never been particularly kind to writers of any stripe, is Exhibit A.

On Jan. 4, the roughly 400 journalists remaining at the Los Angeles Times — down from a peak of 1,200 in 2001 — will vote on whether to form a union, with organizers voicing anxiety for their very livelihoods amid widespread skepticism about management’s effectiveness and good faith in dealing with employees. Once a bastion of anti-union thinking, the newsroom’s proliferation of “I Support the LA Times Guild” signs represents a monumental shift.

The LA Weekly faces a boycott campaign launched by former contributors after new owners cut ties with nine of 13 editorial staffers on Nov. 29, a summary dismissal of a long-unionized workforce that then-editor Mara Shalhoup denounced as a “Game of Thrones” massacre. Once a counterculture behemoth consistently producing 200-plus pages, LA Weekly ended the year with a 21st-century low of 44 pages.

But this isn’t just a print media problem. LAist, perhaps the leading digital-only local news source in Los Angeles, ceased to exist on Nov. 2. A wealthy investor who acquired LAist and related local sites in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York in March abruptly pulled the plug on all of them after reporters in New York voted to unionize.

“We covered community issues that wouldn’t necessarily make the LA Times right away,” said former LAist editor Julia Wick of why readers should care, citing an exposé that reversed a Times election endorsement and coverage of marginalized figures in underserved neighborhoods. “L.A. is such a sprawling metropolis that you need not only the LA Times but also alternative outlets to reflect the city and create a legible sense of place.”

But the early 2000s dream of a democratic digital content utopia has instead given rise to unprecedented corporate duopoly. Google and Facebook, which monetize others’ content instead of creating their own, take more than 60% of the country’s digital media ad dollars, leaving both legacy media and digital natives essentially fighting for table scraps.

“These are really scary and dark days for the media industry as a whole,” new LA Weekly publisher Brian Calle tells The Argonaut, arguing that the bloodletting he oversaw was necessary to keep the publication from hemorrhaging revenue to the extent that led to its sale.

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Formerly the opinion editor for the Orange County Register and 10 affiliated daily papers in and around Los Angeles, Calle has taken a beating on Twitter the past six weeks, where a #BoycottLAWeekly campaign led largely by former freelancers Jeffrey Weiss and Katie Bain has caught fire among contributors and readers alike.

LA Weekly publisher Brian Calle (left), the inaugural issue of LA Weekly (Dec. 8, 1978), LA Times publisher Ross Levinsohn

Calle and his investment group, which includes marijuana industry attorneys and Orange County real estate developers who’ve contributed to the campaigns of Donald Trump and other conservatives, have been called out as carpetbaggers hell-bent on retooling the paper’s 40-year progressive identity for their own ideological ends. Calle, a “free-market enthusiast” who identifies as socially progressive, has been hammered over a brief tenure with a conservative think tank.

Weiss, who launched his writing career at LA Weekly, presided over a Dec. 8 funeral-themed protest outside the paper’s offices in Culver City, where he called on the new owners to “just sell the paper and go home” as about 100 supporters gathered around a rented coffin stuffed with back issues.

Haley Potiker, a communications specialist for local political campaigns and business associate of Weiss, helped compile a public spreadsheet of LA Weekly advertisers for boycott supporters to lobby, prompting some advertisers to publicly reconsider and even cancel contracts. After LA Weekly issued what appeared to be a call for unpaid contributors (since withdrawn), “I think freelancers saw it as ‘No, we’re not going to do that,” she said.

Calle labels much of the criticism as inaccurate and unfair, but — considering the circumstances — to be expected.

“The paper is not going to become conservative — certainly not anything pro-Trump these days,” Calle said. “I think part of it was there’s a lot of frustration generally, and there wasn’t a local face to place the blame on for what went on with LAist and layoffs that happened at various other media outlets throughout the year. … The sad part is we all have the same goal: a sustainable and flourishing LA Weekly. … It’s been a cool newspaper that oh by the way has a website, and the goal is to transform it into a multimedia company that has and does various things.”

Calle said he’s in negotiations with potential cannabis and film columnists and has convened a new (albeit O.C.-centric) editorial team. Susan Gill Vardon, an editor at the Orange County Register, will become managing editor next week. LA Times Weekend and Times OC contributor Richard Chang is cultural editor. Food blogger and freelance video editor Michele Stueven is food editor, and Calle’s former editorial assistant Avery Bissett has taken a similar role at LA Weekly.

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Compared to #BoycottLAWeekly, the Twitter buzz surrounding the LA Times union can be characterized largely as affirmations of mutual support — except when it comes to the travel habits of its Chicago-based parent company’s chairman and majority owner.

According to a Dec. 20 FCC filing, Tronc Inc. (a shortening of Tribune Online Content) will pay Chairman Michael Ferro’s own private equity firm $5 million for Ferro’s use of his own private jet — a contract LA Times Guild organizers blasted as putting “personal enrichment ahead of a healthier newsroom” and symptomatic of “the looting of the Times.”

Jon Schleuss, an LA Times data reporter since September 2013 who was among the first to discuss a union movement, said organizers were inspired by the comparatively higher salaries and greater job stability of reporters at The New York Times and Washington Post (both union shops) and a sudden removal of employees’ rights to accrue vacation time.

“Our main goal is to make sure the LA Times can do its job for the community, and that includes making sure journalists aren’t being taken advantage of in the process,” said Schleuss. “We are at the whims of a rapidly changing management structure, and we need some security.”

Results of this week’s secret ballot union vote will become public later in January.

The Los Angeles Times newsroom is decked with signs of support for the union in this photo tweeted by LA Times national correspondent Matt Pearce.

In a written statement, LA Times CEO and publisher Ross Levinsohn — Schleuss’ fifth publisher in four years, who came on board after Tronc dismissed the paper’s top brass in August — promises the paper will invest in quality journalism no matter the outcome.

“Union or not, we will continue to produce world-class journalism and maintain the independent spirit Times employees have embraced for generations. This has been a rapidly changing period for the media industry and an especially challenging few years for local journalism. At the same time, trustworthy, independent journalism is as necessary as ever,” Levinsohn said.

Wick, who has joked with colleagues that every new job “is just resetting the Doomsday Clock,” hopes the near-simultaneous demise of LAist and upheaval at LA Weekly will make people pay more attention to what’s at stake.

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Gabriel Kahn, formerly L.A. bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, hopes it will make people more willing to pay for quality local journalism.

“One thing that press organizations have done a lousy job of is telling the story of themselves — not just the process of reporting, but what their mission is, how they work, and who they’re working for,” Kahn said. “There’s still tremendous expectation for the press to do its job, but not the same understanding of what it takes to support that.”