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LA Weekly's Adolescence Proves a Troubling One


The tabloid's first edition was tame enough. There was a feature on female comedians, a sympathetic item on Sid Vicious, the late rock 'n' roller, and a chuckle over the first U.S. Marine to have a sex change operation. A decade later, the newspaper was accusing George Bush of adultery and alleging State Department collaboration with cocaine smugglers in Central America.

The LA Weekly, born 12 years ago in a rented bungalow on Sunset Boulevard and today worth an estimated $20 million, has developed into one of the nation's most successful and provocative alternative newspapers. Nonetheless, it now finds itself in a troubled adolescence--embarrassed by some of its excesses, uncertain about its future.

Despite revenues in excess of $7 million, the Weekly lost money last year, the first time that has happened since the paper's infancy. The Weekly recently lost the first round of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with a former printer. And the paper's free-lance writers, no longer satisfied with 20 cents a word, are demanding a raise.

Against that background, the Weekly's editors are trying to fashion an up-to-date image for a paper that came into being when Melrose Avenue kitsch, punk rock and the Sandinistas were reigning icons of Los Angeles cultural life. The editors face a dilemma common to alternative urban newspapers that blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s: While they want to retain the nervy, adversarial style that distinguishes the Weekly from the mainstream press, a desire to be financially stable and politically influential is breeding an air of caution.

In Los Angeles, the Weekly's audience has grown older, wealthier and, if not more conservative, at least more circumspect. The city has also changed, shed some of its tinsel, and the Weekly clearly wants to be a fixture of the contemporary landscape.

"The city has never taken itself so seriously," Weekly Editor Kit Rachlis said. "Crime, pollution, immigration, growth. Is Los Angeles world class or Third World? It's all part of the debate the city is busy having with itself today. We want to be part of the debate."

It certainly has enough sheer bulk to be noticed. Once a wispy tabloid, the free-distribution newspaper now swells to 200 pages with ads for gyms, tanning parlors, hair restorers, facial toners, love brokers (976-CUDLE), holistic dentists, colon hydrotherapists, designer clothes and a seemingly endless inventory of futons. The paper distributes 165,000 issues each week and claims that its readership exceeds 400,000.

Deciphering its vision is another matter. The paper's mood swings are apparent from week to week.

One 1989 cover story offered a breathless portrait of NWA, the Compton rap group accused by the FBI of encouraging violence against the police. An issue of the Weekly devoted to health care fired a blunderbuss shot at the medical profession: "Doctors are killing us because they want to die rich," the lead story snarled.

On other occasions, the Weekly has practiced a more genteel journalism--providing a dispassionate portrait of City Councilman Michael Woo and an exhaustive history of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles.

This pattern of zig-zagging to the cultural fringe and back resumed this year when a 3,000-word story on "The Witches Next Door" was soon followed by an equally lengthy critique of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Some of the Weekly's longtime contributors say they don't like what is going on at the paper.

"I haven't broken with them, but I find it difficult to reconcile myself to a paper that puts a story about witches on its cover," said Marc Cooper, who has written about Central America and served as the Weekly's media critic. "Those of us who have written for it over a long period of time don't quite fathom where the Weekly is. The focus is more confused than ever before."

Yet the Weekly has always been a mixed bag of radical ranting, New Age bromides and sleazy classifieds side-by-side with thoughtful movie reviews, investigative reporting and imaginative feature writing--all of it anchored by a guide to theaters, restaurants and nightclubs that is the most comprehensive of its kind in town.

And a fundamental contradiction has long been apparent. The paper is shot through with anti-capitalistic rhetoric, blaming U.S. corporations for most of the world's ills. Its executive editor, Harold Meyerson, is an official of the Democratic Socialists of America. Meanwhile, the paper is fueled by its own robust capitalist engine that generates several million dollars a year in ads, many of them celebrating the good life on the city's fashionable Westside.

"The Weekly has the image of a newspaper that encouraged you to write angry letters to Ronald Reagan while you are getting a suntan in a sun-tan parlor," joked Jay Levin, the newspaper's founder and first editor.

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