A death in the family

A death in the family

Requiem for another newspaper

By Kevin Uhrich 04/02/2009

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We got the news Friday: LA CityBeat, one of our sister papers, was being shuttered, joining a growing number of newspapers that have fallen victim to the fractured economy.

A publication pretty much birthed here in the offices of the Pasadena Weekly, LA CityBeat died trying to best the LA Weekly as that city’s alternative paper of record on feature writing, news writing and coverage of the arts before closing abruptly due to irreconcilable financial problems. As an obituary for an actual person might note, the paper was 6.

Up until now, only a handful of people have expressed opinions about LA CityBeat’s demise — most of them written on blogs and involving generally positive remembrances about the paper, which actually started out as twin weekly publications, LA CityBeat and LA ValleyBeat, before folding together a few years back. 

To be honest, much like any paper worth its salt, LA CityBeat had its share of critics, especially over the past year, after losing its founding editor, Steve Appleford, who was replaced by someone who — through no fault of their own — had neither the experience nor the understanding to run a credible news operation, which LA CityBeat was under Steve and his longtime deputy editor, Dean Kuipers, who headed off to a new gig at the LA Times shortly before. In a somewhat ironic twist, the paper closed one year to the week that Steve was let go — mistakenly, if I may be candid.

I feel that way because we were lucky to have Steve, who’s been writing in and about Southern California for the past 25 years. He literally hit the ground running on the very first issue, calling in his many friends: a wealth of the city’s top writers, editors, photographers and graphic artists and illustrators. People like graphic designer Dana Collins, photographers Ted Soqui, Gary Leonard, Max Gerber and Nathaniel Welsh, cartoonist Ted Rall and illustrator Nathan Ota, along with editors and writers (in no particular order) like Andrew Gumbel, Dennis Romero, Natalie Nichols, Mick Farren, James Verini, Ron Garmon, Tim Cogshell, Paul Birchall, Donnell Alexander, Bobbi Murray, Arty Nelson, Joshua Sindell, Richard Foss, Anthony Miller, Charles Rappeleye, Chip Jacobs, Idan Ivri, Kirk Silsbee, Rebecca Epstein, Dan Epstein, Michael Collins, Jessica Hundley, Andy Klein, Don Waller, John Seeley, David L. Ulin, Erik Himmelsbach, Allison Milionis, Krista Walton, Cole Coonce, Samantha Dunn, Mark Cromer, Bill Holdship, Richard Meltzer, Ryder Palmere, Katherine Horn, Laila Kearney, Luke Y. Thompson, Erika Schickel, Craig Rosen, Chris Morris, Annette Stark, Alfred Lee, Mike Hodgkinson, Patrick Corcoran, Don Shirley, Donna Perlmutter, Tom Hayden (yes, that Tom Hayden) and the late Catherine Seipp.

André Coleman, Joe Piasecki, Carl Kozlowski and I routinely contributed and helped out from this end in any way we could.

Steve’s leadership paid off in short order, with LA CityBeat almost immediately coming to enjoy a stellar reputation both locally and among the state and national newspaper communities. Not so remarkably, considering the lineup, these guys routinely knocked stories and editions out of the park, and right off the bat won top national, state and local awards and accolades for those efforts.

In its day, LA CityBeat came to be identified as one of the city’s top publications for news, with in-depth stories on terrorism, the environment, the drug trade and police abuse, interviews with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, comedian Lewis Black and author/historian/social critic Gore Vidal, and coverage of the arts, especially in its relentlessly comprehensive attention to LA’s burgeoning club and music scene.

But things change. And no matter how well-intended, those changes do not always turn out as well as we hope, as was apparently the case here.

In its final months, the paper was placed in the very capable hands of Will Swaim, who replicated his previous role at the OC Weekly as a content-minded publisher at LA CityBeat. But by then, it was too late. Ever-declining ad revenue and unrelenting overhead finally drove the paper under, which by then — much in the way cancer patients lose weight during chemotherapy — had dropped from a robust 60-plus pages a week at its zenith to a mere 36 toward the end.

Folks in the office here in Old Pasadena sensed something was coming. We just didn’t know when it would happen.

Then we were told Friday: LA CityBeat was no more. Steve and Dean’s grand experiment in creating top-quality alternative arts- and community-based journalism was over.

In a way, the death of LA CityBeat really does merit its own obituary, mainly because a newspaper is really nothing more than a reflection of the people running it, becoming an actual collective person, a team, and the abovementioned folks were and still are some of the best in the business.

But if that could happen there, you may be asking, could such a thing happen to the Pasadena Weekly, the good ol’ P-Dubya, which this year is celebrating 25 years in business?

The short answer: I don’t think so. Then again, as we’ve seen, this is a tough game, one that changes by the day, and there are no guarantees. However, I can say with some certainty — just by virtue of being on staff with one of the few papers still upright on a rapidly diminishing print media landscape — that if that day ever comes, there will probably be no newspapers around anymore to note our passing.

Rest in peace, LA CityBeat. We had a great run. Everyone here in Pasadena will miss you.

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Kevin, you write

" a growing number of newspapers that have fallen victim to the fractured economy.

A publication pretty much birthed here in the offices of the Pasadena Weekly, LA CityBeat died trying to best the LA Weekly as that city’s alternative paper ... "

This, like many analyses of the changing media landscape, don't look deeply enough into the situation. It's easy to lament "Ever-declining ad revenue and unrelenting overhead," but not as easy in your position to address the deeper complexities of what goes wrong at many publications. So many outlets bill themselves as alternative voices, yet pursue money at all costs, often at the cost of the very content that gives them value -- both financial and social.

In thinking about the demise of the CityBeat, and the changes at the IE Weekly, my alma mater, the VC Reporter, and other publications, I realize that what the public sees is not always the case. We can't pin the blame on the economic times or ad revenues. Doing so ignores the larger problem, and unfairly shifts the blame to the small businesses we serve or served, business also trying to adapt to shifting economic times, many of whom feel their local media is horribly out of touch with their readership.

I'm surprised nobody is discussing the possibility that perhaps Southland spread itself too thinly. It might be worth thinking about the company's priorities. Did it really value its community or its content when it put so much energy toward its lifestyle publications at the cost of the core products that built its previous success?

The investment in New Angeles Monthly or Ventana or Verdugo surely plays a role in this problem -- not the only role of course, as there are legitimate challenges facing print's revenue models. Yet I do wonder whether so-called "alternative" publications would really have the trouble they are having if the core products were cultivated more thoroughly.

Just a thought. I know it's a complex situation, but as everyone laments the CityBeat's death, deeper examinations of the alternative media landscape are necessary before we shift the blame to a declining economy and changing advertising habits.

posted by lascheratlarge on 4/03/09 @ 02:04 p.m.

LA CityBeat's demise is about three things and three things only: poor leadership on the business side, greed on the part of Southland Publishing to start up as many papers as possible to feed its owner's printing press and, of course, Southland not valuing the talent of folks like Steve, Dean, Natalie, Dana, Dennis and Rebecca (Epstein). Any publication with a solid business model, employee loyalty and a top-notch product can weather the recession. Ya gotta have all three.

It's too bad Southland Publishing sees its newspapers as printing-press food and not as the products of folks who're trying to make a difference in their communities.

posted by journalista on 4/04/09 @ 10:27 a.m.

you have failed to point out the real reason that the Los Angeles CityBeat went out of business---Charles Gerenscer--- his publishing exploits have apparently lead him right out of dodge--- allegedly most of the revenue his maintained in New Angeles and LA Citybeat was not real--- he propped up the numbers in order to save his own behind---His little song and dance wore a little too thin and now he is being exposed for what he really is--- a loser and a fraud.

posted by cancan on 4/10/09 @ 04:45 p.m.

If the LA City Beat was anything like it's sister, the San Diego City Beat, then it was bound to fail. Their opinion writers are just nasty and meanspirited; they don't seem to know the difference between edgy and disrespecful. It's depressing to read. The latest bonehead thing was to let the editor and opinion writers publish articles that were a joke but they didn't print a disclaimer that the articles were an April Fool's joke until later and only on the internet. It was too late for the printed ones already in circulation. Nice going. Did they even consider how many advertisers would be cancelling their ads because of the fallout from this prank? And if they didn't care - then they deserve to be out of business. Here's a clue; you can't insult the majority of the population with your "journalism" and expect to stay in business. It's called "biting the hand that feeds you". Oh, I forgot SD City Beat doesn't like capitalists. Is that the coffin lid closing I hear?

posted by reapwhatyasow on 4/10/09 @ 05:10 p.m.
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