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Downtown News to Go for Uptown Feel, Look

Regarding Media

August 27, 2001|GINA PICCALO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few people outside downtown Los Angeles know of the area's weekly newspaper, a free publication that reads like the hometown gazette for the nation's second-most populous city.

Within the knot of freeways that encircles this part of the city, however, the Los Angeles Downtown News is a must-read for many commuters who snap up the 47,000 copies that hit sidewalk and high-rise lobby news racks each Monday.

Now, the Downtown News is poised to become a more sophisticated journal, one that reaches beyond the shadows of skyscrapers. Veteran journalist Nikki Finke--who has spent more than a decade covering Hollywood for publications such as the New York Observer and New York magazine--was hired last month as executive editor. Her goal, she said, is to make the Downtown News "an intellectual repository" and "unique voice" for Los Angeles.

In addition to hiring Finke, 47, who answered an ad in an online publication, Downtown News founder, editor and publisher Sue Laris has introduced a newsier design and expanded distribution to Glendale, Pasadena, Koreatown, Hollywood and Larchmont Village.

"It is clear we are at the start of what we hope will be a real expansion," Finke said. From a tiny building on West 1st Street on the outskirts of downtown, Finke oversees a 17-member staff. She edits copy, assigns stories and writes some herself. It's a far more modest role than the ones Finke has had with higher-profile publications. But, she said, the new job is giving her more room to be creative and independent.

"She brings a great deal of talent to the job," said Laris by e-mail, "and we are excited to see what she can do."

USC journalism professor Bryce Nelson praised the paper as well-reported and tenacious, even as it sits in the backyard of The Los Angeles Times. With a "hotshot writer" such as Finke on board, he said, "It promises that the paper will make even more of a splash."

Laris was a public school teacher and her then-husband Jim Laris worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1972 when they decided to start their own community newspaper. They targeted downtown because there weren't any other weeklies there at the time. When the couple divorced in 1979, Laris bought her husband's share of the business. Over the years, the newspaper's folksy approach and loyal advertisers sustained it while others succumbed to diminishing readership and the high cost of newsprint. Today, the Downtown News operates on a $1.7 million annual budget.

The newspaper has historically focused on business and development. Finke, a feature writer for The Times in the late 1980s, wants to boost coverage of City Hall, the Los Angeles Police Department and the arts. Finke expects to hire two more full-time reporters and expand her list of freelancers by calling in favors from friends she described as "name writers." She also hopes to contribute her own "big-impact stories a couple times a year," she said. "I'm not reinventing the wheel here. I just want to put out a good paper."

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