When former Los Angeles Times editorial-pages editor Andrés Martinez — who voluntarily resigned his position under a cloud of minor romantic scandal and then publicly complained about his mistreatment on the Times’ Opinion blog — opted to shoot himself in the other foot as well, he did it by e-mailing a long wail of grievance to Kevin Roderick, who writes and edits the news blog LA Observed. Unless I’m much mistaken, that pretty much sets the seal on Martinez’s prospects for lunch in this town again, to say nothing of Washington or New York, where Roderick’s blog is widely regarded as a key window onto the Los Angeles scene. So influential is his blog that some journalists complain that editors won’t consider a story newsworthy unless it’s been flagged on LA Observed.
As for me, I log on at least five times a day, partly to procrastinate, mostly to keep up. Among L.A.’s handful of serious news blogs, there’s been no analysis of the Times’ roller-coaster fortunes, and by extension those of the Tribune company, as savvy or amused as Roderick’s. Or as insider-connected: He worked at the Times for years, first as a roving correspondent for California and the West, then — “once I’d lost my editor and didn’t want to break in another” — as a Metro editor covering law and the environment. Roderick, whose early interest in the Internet “is part of my DNA,” jumped to a better-paid gig at the Internet-economy magazine The Industry Standard, where, between assignments, he watched Jennifer Lopez build a plush suite opposite the mag’s less opulent digs in the old Monty Building in Westwood. When the Standard folded and Roderick went freelance, he conceived the site in May 2003 “just as something to do,” a Romenesko-style journalism-industry gossip site for L.A. that would help him keep in touch with goings-on in the city while he covered politics for Los Angeles magazine.
LA Observed leaped onto the news map when Roderick ran a memo from the Los Angeles Times’ then–editor in chief, John Carroll, instructing his staff to root out liberal bias in the paper’s coverage of abortion. Roderick, who has a traditional newsman’s nose for touchy public issues, recognized that this rare admission by an editor of his own paper’s political bias would bring in a lot of readers around the country who were interested in the abortion controversy, more particularly in campaigning against liberal points of view. “I had a very conservative readership for a while,” he notes dryly, yelling over the noise of the lunchtime crowd at Fred Segal’s café in Santa Monica, “until they realized I’m not conservative and went away.”
If the tone of LA Observed is broadly liberal and bracingly irreverent, it’s still, unlike many blogs, noticeably grown-up. For some people, Roderick says, it’s an entry-level blog, a set of training wheels that offers a bridge between mainstream journalism and new media. Less than 5 percent of the site’s readership are students, and Roderick doesn’t actively court them, but neither does he dismiss more youth-oriented news sources, many of which he links to on the site.
Still, he says, “Young people are not looking at Defamer or LA Observed or even GoFugYourself. They’re all on MySpace… To some people, what’s on The Daily Show or MySpace is news, and I’m a believer in that.”
He’s a fan of Defamer, and likes solidly reported gossip blogs that are “not about Britney Spears getting her head shaved, but about getting the arrest report right on Mel Gibson.” And he regularly quotes John Stodder, who was recently convicted in the Fleishman-Hillard public-relations scandal, “but also happens to be one of the best bloggers about L.A.”
Roderick is plenty opinionated, but he doesn’t confuse a strong point of view with shrillness, mendacity or incivility, none of which is exactly in short supply in the blogosphere.
“In a relatively small Internet niche like L.A.,” he says, “someone could just be loud, or just be there a lot, and get a lot of attention. But that will mature.”
LA Observed will celebrate its fourth anniversary this May and has expanded a lot, but the main site feels as though it’s written by a wryly amused Renaissance man who’s primarily out to entertain and enlighten himself. And he really knows L.A. Born and raised in the Valley, he has published a book about the region as well as, more recently, a well-received history of Wilshire Boulevard. His tastes are more eclectic than catholic, but his cultural coverage keeps expanding. Last summer he added sidebars from unpaid writers offering idiosyncratic takes on Malibu and Echo Park, and he now has a roaming videographer in Jacob Soboroff. But he doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, “because that sets up an expectation I can’t deliver on.”
Still, as LA Observed grows in content and audience and, with luck, in advertising, inevitably it’s becoming a business rather than a hobby. Roderick is talking to potential investors and partners. He considers branching out into podcasts and expects to increase his cultural coverage, though any future columns on the arts “will be driven more by the voice of the person” than the area of interest. I ask Roderick to imagine what LA Observed will look like in five years’ time.
“I think it will have evolved technologically in ways we don’t know about,” he says. “As the mainstream media take over online, LA Observed will become more of an alternative watchdog. It’s going to be a raucous, interesting future. Just thinking about it gives me a headache. But it’s fun.”