It used to be that alternative weekly newspapers were like that Marlon Brando line from "The Wild One" -- when someone asked him what he was rebelling against and he replied, "Wadda ya got?" There was war in Vietnam and an international nuclear stare-down, economic injustice and racial inequality, and a dominant corporate culture against which nonconformity was a political statement.
Cut to late 2005. A half-century after New York's Village Voice launched the genre of alternative weeklies, there's still plenty of war, injustice and corporate domination around. But the anti-establishment counterculture has moved topside. Rock 'n' roll jingles hawk luxury cars, mutual funds come with social consciences and alternative weeklies have become a profitable, parallel universe to the mainstream media.
In an unmistakable sign that the counterculture has morphed into corporate culture, federal regulators last month signed off on a merger that will wed the free-circulation LA Weekly, OC Weekly and four other Village Voice Media alternative papers with the 11-paper New Times chain. Sometime in the next few weeks, the reconfigured Village Voice Media will become the nation's largest family of alternative newspapers, stretching from Greenwich Village to L.A., and from Seattle to Miami.
But in this version of "Yours, Mine & Ours," the looming marriage has some of the kids at the 210,000-circulation LA Weekly a little nervous about what this new family might feel like.
"No one knows what's going to happen, and that just naturally feeds a lot of fears," says Steven Mikulan, a 21-year LA Weekly veteran and head of the union that represents the editorial staff. "I have never known any sort of regime change here that hasn't been followed by a lot of hand-wringing and expectations that the world was going to end. Who knows? Maybe the world will end this time."
At the heart of the current cycle of fear and loathing lies a cruel reality for veterans of the six-year battle between the old-line liberal LA Weekly and the less ideological, and more pugnacious, New Times LA, which closed in October 2002.
In truth, the merger is more of a takeover, and New Times executives will be running the show. For the LA Weekly staff, that's like being eaten by a monster they thought they had already killed.
New Times LA opened in 1996, after buying out the old LA Reader and LA View, promptly closing them both and creating itself from the ashes as a challenger for L.A.'s alternative crown. That newspaper war ended when New Times closed the L.A. paper and Voice Media closed a Cleveland paper, each ceding the local alternative turf to the other -- the kind of corporate collusion an alternative weekly could usually be counted on to attack.
The federal Department of Justice objected, and the chains settled the complaint by admitting no guilt but paying fines of up to $375,000 each and agreeing to sell off assets of the closed weeklies. Southland Publishing, owner of the Pasadena Weekly and Ventura County Reporter, won the L.A. auction and created the downtown-centric CityBeat, now the city's second-largest alternative weekly with a free circulation of 100,000.
Regulations bar New Times executive editor Michael Lacey and CEO James Larkin, who will run the new company, from discussing possible changes with the Voice papers until the merger is completed. But few rumor mills churn as quickly as those inside newsrooms facing an information vacuum.
"You can't stop journalists from worrying and fearing the worst," says LA Weekly editor Laurie Ochoa. "We can't be sure how it's going to turn out. If what the New Times wants is to do quality journalism, I don't think we should have a problem because that is what we want to do too. But there will certainly be an adjustment period."
One possible clash point: Several of the Voice papers, including the LA Weekly, are unionized. New Times is not, though Lacey has been quoted as saying contracts will be honored.
Two consensus scenarios about the Weekly's future have emerged among observers. The first is that the new regime will not mess with the publication's financially successful identity as the paper of record for L.A. political progressives. The other is that Lacey, who has a history of openly disparaging the overt politics of the Weekly and other Voice papers, will force a change in tone.
"Absolutely it's going to change," says Eric Almendral, former art director for the New Times chain, including New Times LA. "New Times and LA Weekly have different approaches to journalism, different missions in what they want to accomplish."