LA Weekly Has Been Gutted. Can Any Alt-Weeklies Survive Anymore?

Village Voice
A stack of Village Voice newspapers sit in a newspaper stand in the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan, August 22, 2017. The Village Voice and LA Weekly, two of the most historic alt-weeklies, have both been gutted by recent layoffs and changes. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Updated | The LA Weekly editorial staff just got laid off, and they don't know who fired them.

Canned without warning. Stripped of the investigative journalism resources to investigate your own firing. All by a mystery owner. It's the nightmare of modern journalism.

The influential Los Angeles alternative weekly was recently sold to Semanal Media, a mysterious new entity that was formed for the purpose of the sale. (Voice Media Group, which owned the paper for decades, put it on the market in early 2017.) Nobody seems to know who owns Semanal Media, including the LA Weekly writers and editors who were just laid off by whoever it is who owns Semanal Media.

Mara Shalhoup‏, the paper's (now-former) editor, tweeted on Wednesday that nine of the remaining 13 editorial staffers were let go, including every staff writer except one.

We were expecting there to be some pain with the sale of @LAWeekly. But we weren't expecting the Red Wedding. That's how deep the cuts are. 1/

— Mara Shalhoup (@mshalhoup) November 29, 2017

But first let me say what an incredible honor it has been to work at this legendary place, with this dream team of journalists. 2/

— Mara Shalhoup (@mshalhoup) November 29, 2017

The dream team—who recently earned 21 @LAPressClub nominations—has been eviscerated. Nine of 13 editorial staffers are gone, including all five editors and all but one staff writer. 3/

— Mara Shalhoup (@mshalhoup) November 29, 2017

Meanwhile, someone with access to the LA Weekly's content management system has gone rogue and tossed some lighter fluid on an already surreal 24 hours. At present, the most shared post on the paper's website is titled "Who Owns LA Weekly?" (The byline on the post is Keith Plocek, who teaches journalism at USC Annenberg.) "The new owners of LA Weekly don't want you to know who they are," the piece reports. "They are hiding from you. They've got big black bags with question marks covering their big bald heads."

Here are screenshots in case the post disappears:

— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) November 30, 2017

The author of the piece, of course, does not know the answer to the question mark in the headline. It's unclear whether the paper will continue, or in what form. Dirks, Van Essen & Murray, the merger and acquisition firm representing Voice Media Group in the sale, did not respond to a request for comment.

Related: 10 ex-Village Voice staffers share why the paper mattered

The situation is bleak for LA Weekly, which has won a Pulitzer Prize and devotedly chronicled culture and alternative news in Los Angeles since 1978. But things are bleaker for the few surviving standard-bearers of alternative print media across the country. With ad revenue dwindling and media companies frantically shedding assets, 2017 has been brutal for historic alt-weeklies—largely irreplaceable outlets cherished for the offbeat, algorithm-free coverage they provide and the writerly talent they foster.

The Village Voice, one of the oldest and greatest such papers, announced in August that it was discontinuing its print edition after five decades. (Layoffs followed soon after the presses stopped.) Then, in early November, the Houston Press ceased print publication after nine full-time staffers were canned. The Baltimore City Paper has also shut down in the past month. Now the LA Weekly has been gutted.

What will become of the Chicago Reader, whose writing staff nearly went on strike earlier this year in protest of measly salaries? Or Seattle Weekly, which now seems to be in peril? How about Salt Lake City Weekly or Riverfront Times or Willamette Week in Portland? It is frightening to imagine what the local media landscape might resemble at the end of 2018.

"It's when these papers are owned by larger corporations that they die, when they become, like, some numbers on a larger chart of other numbers," says Brandon Soderberg, a former Baltimore City Paper editor. "It's a sick late capitalist joke to run a paper that still made money, just not enough for a publicly traded company. That is, I suspect, what's killing a lot of these papers: the ridiculous demands by big corporations to make a lot of money and then more and more money when that's just not how these papers work."

In early November, Soderberg collaborated with several other City Paper alumni, including editors Lisa Snowden-McCray and Maura Callahan, to launch a new, more inclusive print weekly called Baltimore Beat. "I really feel like I might be amid a nervous breakdown over how much work this took," Soderberg says, "but we have to try."

What these papers provide their metropolitan communities, both in local reporting and in far-flung criticism and arts coverage, cannot be replaced by a scattering of VC-backed news sites all rushing to aggregate the same trending stories.

On Wednesday evening, journalists and readers mourned the gutting of LA Weekly and the larger implications for media.

Few things were as valuable to my adolescent & early adult education as @LAWeekly. It illuminated hole-in-the-wall restaurants, municipal graft, lurid crimes, essential art films, esoteric bands & underground rappers I needed to know. It was indispensable on every level. (3/)

— Otto Von Biz Markie (@Passionweiss) November 30, 2017

LA Weekly's writers understood that & chronicled its complexity like no other publication. They knew that it was no longer 72 suburbs in search of a city, but a city whose greatest charms revealed itself only to the curious and intrepid. (5/)

— Otto Von Biz Markie (@Passionweiss) November 30, 2017

It's a profound loss. Maybe one day we'll find out who to blame for it.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Baltimore City Paper is shutting down. In fact, the paper already shut down, publishing its final issue on November 1. The piece has also been updated to note that several ex-City Paper staffers have since founded a new print paper in the city.