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The End of New Times 

Wednesday, Oct 2 2002
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Los Angeles New Times, the second largest alternative weekly in the L.A. area, is shutting down, silencing a quirky and inconsistent, yet valuable, journalistic voice, while costing the jobs of about 100 employees.

The closure is part of a complex deal with Village Voice Media, the parent company of the L.A. Weekly. Village Voice Media will purchase client lists from New Times, but no hard assets. VVM, in turn, will shut down the Free Times, in Cleveland, turning over client lists to the New Times paper in that city. Privately held VVM, based in New York, operates six remaining papers.

“To me, this is all about making us more competitive, particularly with the L.A. Times,” said VVM president David Schneiderman. “Like most daily newspapers, they have an aging readership and they want our readers. We‘re not going to sit around and let them have them.”

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The reaction was short and blunt from Michael Lacey, executive editor of New Times newspapers. “Go fuck yourself,” said Lacey, who was reached Wednesday morning at a Santa Monica beachside hotel. He slammed down the phone without responding to questions.

The deal abruptly ends New Times’ six-year, money-losing effort to reach the profitable L.A. market. Exact figures are not available for the privately held company, but the 12-paper, Phoenix-based chain had trouble gaining traction in cities with a well-established alternative paper, such as the Weekly in L.A. and the Bay Guardian in San Francisco. The transaction a involved money, but no one would say how much.

Los Angeles New Times was notable as a journalistic gadfly willing to target sacred cows, including Cardinal Mahony, as it cut an ideologically swerving swath.

This style was typified in the column “The Finger,” fashioned and usually authored by editor in chief Rick Barrs. Before joining New Times, Barrs had been a well-regarded but anonymous middle-management editor at the L.A. Times. Columnist Jill Stewart, in turn, became a must-read for many in town -- especially because some readers adored her acerbic, iconoclastic views while others took extreme issue with them. Again, before her breakout opportunity, Stewart had been a well-liked reporter, but never unchained to let loose on the city bureaucracy, to name one frequent target.

At the meetingwake, Barrs is said to have joked to Lacey: “You realize, because of you, Jill and I are unemployable in this town.”

Barrs said everybody got a severance package and Lacey offered to find transfers for them. “He was really sad about it -- almost teary-eyed. He loves this town and wanted to be here. A bunch of us stayed up all night shooting the shit in Lacey‘s hotel room.”

The nature of the shutdown was an ironic twist. Six years ago, New Times entered the market by purchasing and abruptly shuttering two small alternative weeklies, a move decried as distinctly un-alternative, because the newcomer made room for itself by killing off other journalistic voices. Now the Weekly’s role as contributing executioner bears some of that same mercenary taint.

The immediate casualties include about two dozen editorial staffers and some three dozen contributing writers and photographers. New Times group executive editor and co-owner Lacey broke the news to staff Tuesday night at the Shutters hotel in Santa Monica, after ordering about 15 bottles of wine for some 15 assembled employees. Lacey said the company had suffered its worst quarter since 1987.

Theater critic Ed Newton typifies the ongoing job shrinkage in print media. During an earlier economic downturn, the respected journeyman reporter was laid off from the L.A. Times. Now he faces an unwelcome deja vu.

Commented Barrs: “The paper was just losing money. We got barely in the black before 911, and then that killed us. We never pulled out.”

One New Times staffer called the paper‘s tenure “an incredible ride. We kicked ass on the Weekly and everyone else and won a bunch of awards because we were passionate about what we do. It’s sad.”

Joe Donnelly contributed to this article.

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