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New Kids on the Block : A chain of weeklies has upped the ante in the battle for newspaper readers. Its newest weapon: Los Angeles View.

July 29, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The war is not over. But this time, the expression "newspaper war" is taking on a different color. The battle once reserved for dailies duking it out for space at the breakfast table has moved to the alternative press. And the recent arrival of New Times, the scrappy, irreverent, Phoenix-based chain, is sending tremors across L.A.'s landscape of weekly newspapers.

Ground zero was the decade-old Los Angeles View, an eccentric tabloid that specialized in politics and culture. New Times scooped up the 75,000-circulation weekly for a reported $1.5 million last month, vowing to retool it according to New Times' highly successful signature formula: in-depth, investigative pieces on local issues; biting humor and commentary; music, film and arts coverage and criticism; and dining and entertainment listings.

And, last week, rumors swept alternative circles that New Times was also buying the L.A. Reader and planning to fold it after the Aug. 16 issue. If the sale goes through, New Times could scoop up the Reader's national advertising, which is handled by the New Times-owned Ruxton Group, observers said.

The atmosphere at the Reader was grim.

"I think at this point we figure we're on three weeks' notice, and we're hoping we get reasonable severance," said Managing Editor Erik Himmelsbach, referring to New Times' reputation for cleaning house.

Reader Editor and Publisher James Vowell didn't return phone calls, and New Times Executive Editor Michael Lacey declined to comment on "prospective business deals," adding: "If it was done, it would be announced."

That would leave New Times going head-to-head against Southern California's grande dame of alternative journalism--the 18-year-old LA Weekly, which is also corporately owned. Like New York's Village Voice, the 195,000-circulation Weekly is armed with the deep pockets of owner Stern Publishing Inc. At this point, both the Weekly and New Times are soft-pedaling the prospect of an old-fashioned newspaper war.

"Let's see how that plays out," said LA Weekly Publisher Mike Sigman. "I don't see a whole lot of evidence that there's a whole lot of difference between the last paper and this one, but of course, it's early in the game."

And New Times said it's aiming at a different market with a brand of reportage closer in character to that of daily newspapers.

"There will always be a market for the kind of leftist-driven, politically correct-influenced journalism they do, and they're welcome to that market," Lacey said. "We consider [the Los Angeles Times] the competition because you're the biggest dog in town."

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Indeed, the emerging war of the L.A. weeklies is a microcosm of changes in the alternative press nationwide. Weeklies spawned from the underground papers of the antiwar '60s are reaching middle age. And some--notably the New Times group--are dropping their left-wing orientation and heading mainstream along with their aging editors and publishers.

Lacey, 48, said New Times doesn't consider itself political: "The reality is that having reported upon a wide variety of topics for 26 years, I don't trust anyone's bull. I don't trust the mayors. I don't trust city hall. I don't trust Democrats. I don't trust Republicans. That's why I'm a journalist. I want to look at the situation and tell our readers and they can make up their minds."

But New Times' approach has come under fire from some independents, particularly its San Francisco competitor, the Bay Guardian, whose founder, Bruce Brugmann, criticizes the chain for practicing "cookie-cutter journalism."

"The battle is for the soul of the independent press," Brugmann said. "Can an outside operation paratroop into town with their guns blazing in every direction and knock off or seriously damage a strong independent paper with long journalistic roots and public interest roots and community interest roots? The Weekly will be able to handle itself very nicely, but most communities don't have strong papers . . . that can successfully vanquish a paper like the New Times."

And, in Los Angeles, alternative journalists sidelined by the recent maneuvering said they bemoaned the loss of the old View's idiosyncratic voice.

New Times "seems to be as much or more concerned with the bottom line than they do with truly independent journalism," said former View Managing Editor Danny Feingold, who was pink-slipped by the new regime.

"There was a real spirit of independence and eclecticism and radicalism at the View. The whole concept of independent journalism seems to be undermined when in the case of New Times, you have an organization based in Phoenix that's running six other papers from corporate headquarters."

New Times counters that it hires writers and editors from the cities it covers. In Los Angeles, the paper's masthead is topped by Editor Rick Barrs and Managing Editor Jack Cheevers. Barrs was most recently night city editor of the Los Angeles Times, while Cheevers was a reporter for the L.A. Times' Valley edition.

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