The demise of Santa Monica’s daily newpaper, after 123 years of continuous publication, has ignited a flurry of activity among area newspapers jousting for readers in one of the region’s richest cities. But despite the launch of at least two new community papers, the future of journalism in Santa Monica is very much in doubt.
Copley Press, Inc. shut down the Outlook on Friday, March 13. “We have tried in vain to turn this franchise around,” publisher Tom Wafer, Jr. lamented in his final speech to the Outlook staff. He then proceeded to announce layoffs for everyone in the room.
“The company concluded that Santa Monica can no longer support a daily newspaper,” said a Copley press release explaining its closure of one of the oldest daily publications on the West Coast. In particular, according to staff members, the consolidation of local supermarket chains and their shift to direct-mail advertising cost Outlook millions of dollars in ad revenues.
Despite the problems, much of the editorial staff believes the newspaper was not given a fair chance to succeed. “The Outlook was not run by people in the community — it was run by people in the South Bay,” former staff writer Saul Rubin said in an interview. The paper’s bland headlines were usually written in the Torrance office of the Daily Breeze, Rubin said; the Outlook failed to cultivate younger readers, and the Sunday paper dropped the Outlook name all together.
Efforts to interest Copley managers in ideas for editorial innovation or new marketing strategies got nowhere. “The only time we saw [the management staff] was at the yearly Christmas party,” Rubin said.
An offer to buy the paper was also apparently dismissed. MediaNews Group, the Denver-based chain owned by Texas newspaper mogul Dean Singleton, which recently bought the Daily News and the Long Beach Press Telegram, proposed a package deal to purchase Copley’s three beach-city papers, the Outlook, the Torrance Daily Breeze and San Pedro’s Daily Pilot. A Copley spokesperson said the company had rejected the bid as “not a legitimate offer.” Instead, Copley shuttered the Outlook and the Pilot, and is in the process of laying off 80 full-time staffers at the Breeze. “We want to remain in the L.A. newspaper business,” said Copley spokesman Harold Fuson.
Outlook circulation had been in decline for years, reaching a low of around 25,000 copies, but community leaders still mourn the loss of their daily paper. “There is really a sense of grief in the city,” said Santa Monica Mayor Robert Holbrook. The Outlook’s letters page, which served as a daily community-issues forum, will especially be missed, Holbrook said. “It will make it difficult for people to keep up with local politics.”
There are several prospective contenders willing to fill that role, however. Three early contenders include two new weekly community papers and a new local section from the Los Angeles Times. A handful of other local community weeklies, including the Beverly Hills Courier and the Independent, are considering joining the fray.
The first to respond to the closure of the Outlook was the weekly Santa Monica Sun, the product of a collaboration between Susan Wilson, a former Outlook columnist, and Jeff Hall, publisher at the Brentwood Media Group. Wilson said last week she hopes to step up soon to daily publication.
The Sun’s first edition featured a collection of community news stories, a column by former Times columnist Robin Abcarian, local classifieds and the debut of Wilson’s own column, “Schmoozin’ with Susan.” An unattributed article called the closing of the Outlook “the premeditated, cold-blooded bludgeoning of the city’s soul.”
Wilson is known in Santa Monica for her acerbic tone, intractable opinions and personal invective, and many in the bay city view her ascension to the helm of the Sun doubtfully. In one recent Outlook column, for instance, after a transient was accused in the tragic slaying of a teenage girl, she attacked the work of homeless activists and other civic do-gooders. During an argument with a member of the City Council over a story in which she was accused of making mistakes, Wilson reportedly declared, “I am not concerned with the facts. Just stating my opinion.”
Asked for comment, Wilson responded that Sun readers interested in her opinion could turn to her column; for others, she said, the news will be objective. “I promise to provide you,” she wrote in the Sun’s first installment, “a true community publication that gives a voice to all.”
The Sun’s first challenge will come from another paper that debuted last week, the Santa Monica Bay Week, a publication of the nine-paper Coastal Community News chain. “To be successful,” says Bay Week publisher Steve Hadland, “we have to make the paper a reflection of the community.” Local residents can expect to get their picture in the paper at least three times, says Hadland, “when they are born, when they get married and when they die.”
The most daunting competition will come, however, from the Los Angeles Times. The Times announced Monday that it will begin a weekly insert called “Our Times” for Santa Monica, Venice and surrounding communities. Produced by the Times Community News company, which now publishes the Westside Weekly, “Our Times” is scheduled to go daily sometime this spring. While there is little indication “Our Times” will deviate from the Westside Weekly format, columnist Robert Scheer is slated to pen a new weekly Herb Caen-style column about life in Santa Monica.
Hadland says he is unconcerned about the entrance of the “2,000 pound gorilla” into the community-news game. The Times offering “is too generic,” he said. “People want something for their city, not for [neighboring communities].”
Yet despite all the publishers jockeying for position in Santa Monica, observers fear the loss of a true local daily. “I don’t think it will be easy for community papers to duplicate the same quality of reporting as the Outlook had,” mused Santa Monica City Councilmember Mike Feinstein.
City Hall beat writer Jorge Casuso, for example, came to the Outlook from the Chicago Tribune, while staffer Mary Moore had worked at the L.A. Times. Most of the community papers, unable to afford better, will rely on what Hadland himself called “kids right out of college.” And community weeklies are primarily advertising supplements, as one local noted, interested more in making friends than in the kind of tough reporting a community needs. Whatever the case, after more than a century of daily coverage, Santa Monica is on it’s own.