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First Person

Old Times Recalled at End of New Times

With the alternative newspaper's closing, L.A. loses a distinctive voice

October 03, 2002|SCOTT TIMBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like everyone else--including, I'm told, the people who ran the paper--I found out only Wednesday that New Times Los Angeles was closing. New Times, where I worked for almost five years, was both the most exciting job I've ever had and the most cruel. At its best, the place had a Wild West openness and imagination. Through good times and bad, though, I often thought an office shrink should be part of the benefits package.

My feelings for the paper, which I left this spring, are as mixed as my experience there. The writers--and I was one for more than three years--were given time and freedom to find their own stories, often topics or points of view overlooked by the mainstream media, and render them in depth. I'd like to think that our enthusiasm for our stories--and there are few things more exciting than discovering a scandal or a cultural movement that's under everyone else's radar--gave an energy to the writing.

New Times took an old-school, two-fisted approach to journalism, with an underdog, speaking-truth-to-power attitude, as if "Citizen Kane" had been remade by Sam Fuller. Whatever its alternative culture window dressing and macho swagger, the paper was heir to some of journalism's oldest and noblest impulses.

My own position at New Times was tenuous and inexplicable: As the only writer of arts cover stories, I felt like the guy in the frat house who plays the violin. New Times was best known, I think, for The Finger, the truculent, sometimes hilarious inside-media-and-politics column, and Jill Stewart's contrarian political column. My work, mostly on authors, film directors and pop culture figures, didn't resemble these more celebrated features, and I sometimes wondered if I was part of an affirmative action program for liberal, Caucasian English majors (oddly, the exact type of which most papers have no shortage). At times, I'll admit, I was encouraged to bring a shrillness to my writing--I'd had dirty words removed from my copy at straight papers, here they were occasionally inserted--but I was mostly left alone.

There were no focus groups, no political correctness and only occasional interference from corporate bean counters. We got some crazy orders sometimes--a zillion-part series on the mating habits of the gray whale, a series that ran in its entirety in desert-dry Phoenix--but we more than punched our weight. New Times prided itself on investigative journalism, and The Finger was among those who broke this paper's Staples Center scandal. A subversive sense of humor found its way into some sublime April Fools issues, one of which caused a small stampede by Hollywood types over an imaginary indie-film "scene" run out of a Palmdale steakhouse.

*

My experience at New Times may be stranger than most. I was hired in 1997 as music editor from a small daily in New England. The day I arrived, I found that I'd become the arts editor. The day after that, I found that I was handling the entire chain's national film coverage, working with such highly regarded critics as Peter Rainer, Mike Sragow and Andy Klein. But I wasn't cut out for editing, and my bosses and I knew it. At the end of my first year, I was called into my boss' office and told I was being made a writer. The reassignment delighted me, until editor Rick Barrs told me that I'd be doing this writing at New Times' paper in Houston.

I offered to stay in L.A., otherwise they'd have to fire me. A few days later, Mike Lacey, the chain's self-made founder, called me at home, asking me to reconsider. He'd heard that I'd turned him down because of an L.A. girlfriend; he was so eager to have me in Houston, he said, that he'd give me plane tickets back to L.A. for conjugal visits. "A real testosterone-driven world view," said an old friend. He fired me.

Six months later, Lacey hired me back, this time with more money and more vacation. With scary blue eyes, Lacey is a tough, sometimes charming, occasionally brilliant Irishman who's impossible to fool. He may be the most stubborn guy I've ever known, but no one can say he couldn't admit mistakes. One day, after a writer's meeting, he said "It's great to have you back." It seemed churlish to mention that I'd been back, at this point, for two years.

*

New Times, which could hit hard and true, also felt rudderless sometimes. I saw a staffer all but disemboweled at a writers meeting for penning too many stories about sex, only to hear a few months later that Lacey had decided that sex and religion drove L.A.'s culture and that all such stories were welcome.

Though it paid my salary, it's hard to feel sorry for the corporation. New Times bought, then killed two competing papers, the Los Angeles Reader and the Village View, when it came to town in 1996, and this tends to be the corporation's style. In truth, the corporate takeover of what used to be the underground press happened a long time ago.

What was most provocative about New Times was the possibility of taking the irreverence, the iconoclasm of the alternative press, and unshackling it from the cant of the left and the sacred cows of the counterculture. Some of this came across in the L.A. paper, as it comes across in the New York Observer, the Weekly Standard and a number of London papers. New Times didn't hit it every time, but it was aiming somewhere important.

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