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Weekly Publisher Departs

Photo by Raul Vega

Michael Sigman, who spent 18 years as general manager, then publisher and finally president of the L.A. Weekly, has been asked to step down. The 52-year-old executive’s last day will be January 25.

Sigman received the message last week from David Schneiderman, president of Village Voice Media, the Weekly’s parent company. VVM owns seven publications across the country.

“After this many years, you need a pair of fresh eyes to look at any company,” said Schneiderman, “and I wanted to bring in somebody new to look at what we do in alternative journalism from a business point of view.” No replacement has yet been named, and Schneiderman said he had no one in mind. He expressed an interest in expanding the Weekly’s advertising base, but voiced no personal or professional complaints about Sigman. He said the decision was based neither on financial considerations nor on the editorial direction of the paper. Laurie Ochoa has been the Weekly’s editor in chief since early last year.

Though Schneiderman said he’d been considering the change for a few months, it came as a surprise to Ochoa, to general manager Lynne Foland, to newly hired advertising associate publisher Dar Brown and to Sigman himself. Schneiderman said he made the decision completely on his own before revealing it to Sigman.

Said Sigman, “We certainly had conversations about things that we didn’t agree about, but I was surprised at being let go.” Both he and Schneiderman declined to specify their areas of disagreement. Sigman had held the titles of Weekly president and publisher since publisher Judy Jablonski left to start her own business late last year.

In 1983, after 10 years as editor of the music- industry trade magazine Record World, Sigman arrived at the Weekly to find an organization in disarray; overworked founding editor Jay Levin had hired the native Long Islander to manage business affairs. During Sigman’s tenure (continuous except for a 1989-90 hiatus), the publication has tripled in size and circulation to become the nation’s largest alternative newsweekly, surviving crises in national economic conditions and the price of newsprint that have put many similar papers out of business.

Sigman has also overseen a number of internal conflicts, including one with editor Kit Rachlis (who succeeded Levin in 1990 and is now editor of Los Angeles magazine) that resulted in the 1993 firing of Rachlis and the departure of Rachlis’ team of writers. Though he said he wished he’d handled that situation more adroitly, Sigman learned from the experience; when Rachlis’ successor, Sue Horton, left at the end of 2000 (she’s currently Sunday Opinion editor at the L.A. Times), the transition to Ochoa went smoothly.

“He moved mountains to get me to leave a terrific job in New York [at Gourmet] to come back to the Weekly,” said Ochoa, “and I’m glad he did. He showed what he was made of as a publisher on September 11 when he supported — and actually encouraged — our decision to remake the entire paper in less than 24 hours.”

Sigman, who also played an essential role in starting the O.C. Weekly from scratch, looks back fondly on his experiences with the L.A. Weekly.

“It was very exciting to see the paper grow, and the credibility grow,” he said. “It was an amazing experience to lead and be part of an enterprise that simultaneously produced great journalism, made a good profit, provided a humane work environment and participated in a positive way in the community.”

Sigman believed in the separation between the Weekly’s editorial and advertising wings, and his contract negotiations with the employees’ union have been low-key. His personal style has earned him the respect and affection of most of the paper’s staff.

Ochoa, Foland and Brown all expressed optimism for the paper’s future and confidence in Schneiderman’s ability to select a successor who will take the Weekly to the “new levels” he’s talked about.

“We’re going to compete on the level of all the major media in L.A.,” said Schneiderman. “We’re not just competing in alternative media.”

For the moment, Sigman plans to do some substantial meditating — a practice he’s recently taken up — and to play more piano than he usually has time for. He holds a special love for Bach. And he does a pretty mean fugue.

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