Profit Is the Best Revenge

The printer that just got fired by the L.A. Weekly will make up for the lost business by starting two competing weekly papers of its own. Southland Publishing printed the L.A. Weekly until two weeks ago, but will now offer its own CityBeat in the L.A. basin and ValleyBeat for the other side of the hills.

The papers are scheduled to hit the stands in June, well ahead of another, more talked-about weekly headed by former Mayor Richard Riordan. A third paper, based in Silver Lake, has been in business for about a year.

All told, a pattern is emerging in the roiling world of L.A.’s alternative press. No upstart will take on the Weekly citywide. Instead, publishers hope to carve out profitable niches within the enormous Southern California market via lower-budget alternatives.

Southland is dividing L.A. into city and Valley segments. Riordan plans to target upscale Westside and beach neighborhoods. And the L.A. Alternative Press has expanded modestly and gradually from a Silver Lake focus and distribution area. They’ve collectively learned from the experience of New Times Los Angeles, which paid relatively high salaries to snare able journalists and competed with the Weekly — and sometimes the L.A. Times — for stories, distribution and advertising dollars.

New Times spent a fortune on staff and promotion,” said former L.A. Weekly publisher Michael Sigman, who is now a music publisher. “New Times tried to kill the Weekly head-on with the same demographic, just by thinking they were better and sharper and knew the town better. And that was a mistake.”

Southland is content to go smaller. “New Times had a very good product that circulated extravagantly,” said Southland publisher David Comden. “But in the end, going head to head against the Weekly didn’t work.

“The thinking is this: The Valley has not been well represented newswise,” Comden said, in either the Weekly or the L.A. Times, the region’s dominant daily. “It seems like it’s gone backwards in news coverage. We’re hoping to reverse that trend. Some 200,000 people voting for secession left an impression on my mind.”

With a smaller circulation, he’ll offer lower advertising prices to neighborhood restaurants, for example, that consider the Weekly too pricey. He also hopes to lure in movie and music ads and the Weekly’s legendary assortment of escort services, massage parlors and plastic surgeons.

And he’ll be assisted by the outcome of a government antitrust lawsuit against New Times and Village Voice Media, the nation’s largest chains of alternative weeklies.

If unfettered corporate capitalism had held sway, the L.A. market and the Cleveland market (of all places) would now be locked up by New Times and Village Voice Media, which owns the L.A. Weekly. The two chains had been competing in these cities, but last October, they closed a deal by which Village Voice Media got L.A. and New Times got Cleveland and about $9 million.

An antitrust investigation ensued, because it’s illegal for companies to divide markets and create monopolies. The companies denied wrongdoing, claiming that no media monopoly had resulted. In the end, both companies paid fines and made the assets of the closed papers available for sale. It seemed an unlikely formula to fuel competition, especially because both chains had concluded that neither city could sustain two profitable weeklies. New Times lost millions in L.A. Both companies were struggling to be profitable in Cleveland.

Whatever the case, the monopolies are history for now. In Cleveland, a new group bought the name of the closed paper and will restart it with much of the former staff. In L.A., Southland purchased the assets of the shuttered New Times rag.

What Southland gets is insurance that no one else, namely Riordan, can acquire the New Times L.A. assets, which include the news racks and archives of articles. The antitrust settlement also gives Weekly advertisers the right to cancel their contracts and go to Southland instead.

Southland Publishing will enter the L.A. fray with another critical asset — its own presses. “The two greatest expenses for a newspaper are personnel and printing costs,” said publisher Comden. Southland also has experience in putting out newspapers — and not just from printing the L.A. Weekly. Since 1997, Southland has bought the alternative papers in Ventura County, where Southland is officially based, and Pasadena. And last fall, it started a CityBeat in San Diego, a market with real potential for a left-leaning paper, because the dominant alternative there is notoriously conservative.

Southland’s L.A. team will include newly hired editor in chief Steve Appleford, who lost his editing job with the old L.A. Reader in 1996, when New Times came to L.A. and bought his paper for the sole purpose of shutting it down. One consultant is former Weekly publisher Sigman, who spent nearly two decades at the Weekly before losing his job last year. Southland also has hired away Weekly editorial art director Dana Collins.

Southland Publishing itself was spawned from the Sylmar-based Valley Business Printers, which is owned by Michael Flannery, who is widely described as a conservative businessman who takes no interest in editorial policy. Content is the purview of the left-leaning, 43-year-old Comden, who started out selling display ads for the San Diego Reader in 1983, and later served as general manager of the Sacramento News & Review.

For now, it looks as though Southland’s entries will get by with slim staffing and relatively low salaries, as at the papers it already operates. It remains to be seen how the content will differ between CityBeat and ValleyBeat. Comden says he hopes to appeal to a younger audience.

But it’s difficult to see that mission clearly expressed in Southland’s uneven Ventura and Pasadena products. “You get what you pay for,” said one industry insider, who asked not to be named. “It’s not very good at all. Take the story in the Pasadena paper, in which they essentially announced they were starting these papers in L.A. That story went on forever before there were one or two sentences in the middle that mentioned the new papers.”

The other two alternatives will work with trim budgets as well. Riordan, it seems, will rely mostly on freelance writers. The L.A. Alternative Press is virtually a husband-and-wife operation that can’t afford top dollar for stories.

But budget doesn’t have to dictate product. Pasadena Weekly editor Kevin Uhrich and his staff frequently scoop the local dailies, as they did recently with a piece on nepotism in Pasadena City Hall. Uhrich said Comden pushed the paper to be edgier after Southland acquired it from the L.A. Times’ publishing group. “When David came in, in his first week, he pulls me aside as he’s addressing the group, and says, ‘How come you guys don’t have editorials?’ I say, ‘Newspaper people don’t have opinions about things.’ And he says, ‘You better start getting opinions.’”

As for Riordan, he’s pushed back the hoped-for starting date of his paper to the fall. He’s talked of having his paper distributed free to homes in upscale neighborhoods — not exactly the typical alternative demographic. To attract advertisers, he’s got to show that his deliveries will get past the security gate and the 150-foot driveway.

For the record, L.A. Weekly management says that it left Valley Business Printers, the core business of Southland, for a printer with the technology to produce a higher-quality product. For years, the Weekly attempted to escape Valley in search of a better price. On two occasions, Valley sued the Weekly for breach of contract. The most recent suit was filed three years ago. Valley sued for at least $8 million in damages, about the price of a year’s worth of printing. Both suits were eventually settled out of court, with Valley holding on to the business.

This time, there is no lawsuit, just a new competitor.

Christine Pelisek and Joe Donnelly contributed to this article.

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