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Matt Welch on Why LAExaminer.com is Ready to
Challenge the L.A. Times with "the First 21st Century
Matt Welch, a freelance writer, blogger, and editor of LAExaminer.com, has strong feelings about Los Angeles. As one of the minds behind LAExaminer, which links to and comments on stories about the Los Angeles media scene, he thinks there's a lot more to Los Angeles as a city with interesting media and ideas that our major paper, the Los Angeles Times, doesn't cover well. That's why he and friends, including fellow blogger Ken Layne, started the website and, with the backing of ex-mayor Richard Riordan, are planning to turn it into a print newspaper, either weekly or daily.
Tell me about why you started LAExaminer.com and how it developed.
There were a couple of specific things. One was me reacting in horror for the 13th time in my life to whatever latest series of stories David Shaw had done in the L.A. Times. He's a media critic who is notorious for writing incredibly long, 17000-word, four-part series on anything, usually a year or two late and featuring tangible prejudices against anyone who does not share the same news value and pedigree as the Los Angeles Times.
So he wrote something, maybe the series on Hollywood journalism that didn't mention anything about the [Variety editor] Peter Bart or [Hollywood Reporter columnist] George Christy scandals. I thought to myself, "I've written about media, if I had his job what would I do? If I was covering media in Los Angeles, what would I do?" The answer is, I'd start a weblog that links to every LA media story and then put a little [media blogger Jim] Romenesko-style paragraph. Simple as that.
And then how did that transform into plans for a print publication?
There's a lot more media here than people like David Shaw give us credit for. Maybe it lacks a single organizing place, but it's still there's and all these different things are happening that don't get credit. The site dovetailed with conversations myself and Ken Layne and some friends about starting a new newspaper in L.A. We always wanted to turn it into a newspaper, whether weekly or daily.
We started it in April of last year and by the summer we began to get fairly advanced with the discussions of starting a new print publication. We were organizing a staff, we arranged for an editor. Then after September 11, those plans were totally discarded as we dealt with what was happening. We continued to update the site but the big plans went on the backburner.
Then in March, the New Times named us best site covering Los Angeles media. It's not a crowded market. But they did a profile and made the connection to [New York Times-criticizing website] Smarter Times. We told them about the paper and said we're just waiting for a millionaire to bankroll it.
That was around the time that Riordan lost the gubernatorial primary. Soon after, he was looking for something to do and a friend of his suggested he start a newspaper and it didn't take long for him to hear about what we'd been planning on doing. So by mid-April he called me up out of the blue and that sparked a discussion.
Beyond David Shaw, what do you think is inadequate in the L.A. media scene?
The Times has, as far as I understand, the smallest penetration in its home city of any major paper in the country. There is a palpable, tangible dislike for the paper and at the same time, there has been an incredible civic revival in L.A. since the earthquake and fires of early '90s. The people who said "the hell with L.A." left and the people who stayed started doing something. There's a really strongly renewed interest in the place and a confidence. The city doesn't look over its shoulder as much.
The Times, even its peak, never had confidence in itself. It's always been looking over its shoulder to New York or Chicago or D.C. A dumb example was there was an article in the New York Observer about all the people from New York who are moving to L.A. because New York is sad now. They had a token New York transplant that was going to dis the city and of course they found an L.A. Times reporter who said, "Yeah, there's no metro here." Of course, the L.A. Times office is a block and a half from a metro stop.
They're also just bloated. They're a monopoly. They charge monopolist rates for circulation—they doubled the price this year—and advertising. And there are new technologies that will let us be really competitive on cost that were unheard of just five years ago.
The way the better weblogs are devoted to rationalism but don't take themselves too seriously at the same time is something I think people like and you don't find on op-ed pages too much. It's still this crossfire, column left-column right bullshit. I don't think people respond to their local newspaper very much and the L.A. Times probably less than most.
Riordan put his foot in his mouth I think when he said we'd cover "happy news." But what he means is the confidence to criticize your own city and still be proud of it. Things like the impact of immigration or lack of affordable housing units and a lack of airport capacity. There are serious problems and if you like this place enough you want to fix them. It's an outlook that is able to say, "Some of our local writers, thinkers, and industries are great. They're doing interesting things and we're confident enough to talk about it in a way that reflects that." People in L.A. end up seeking their validation in New York, which is ridiculous. And a lot of the talent here can't look to their local paper. I think people are tired of that.
You guys all have a lot of online publishing experience now. How do you think that will inform the new paper?
Everyone who's been involved on our side are people who have been publishing a lot online for several years. I think I can say without hesitation or too much hubris that it would be the first real integrated online-print product—the first 21st century newspaper in that way. Our general idea would be everything online is free; we'd use it as a promotional tool. We can use cheap off-the-shelf software to make it happen. There's no reason you need a staff of 25 for your website. We'd have two or three. Hopefully, every columnist would have a blog of his or her own. We'd just be incredibly aggressive online.
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