Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013
5

The Rise and Fall of the L.A. Examiner, a Blog That Was a Newspaper That Never Existed

Prototypes aren't real.My office was the living room closet in a huge one-bedroom in a 1920s East Hollywood apartment court, across the street from the big blue Scientology headquarters in the old Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. There were built-in bookshelves and just enough space for a chair and a laptop and an ashtray. The neighbor lady's rescued pit bulls romped outside in the overgrown garden, and that electric L.A. sunlight came filtered through the grimy old French windows to the hardwood floors. It was a very pleasant place to work, my friends lived within walking distance in other cheap apartments in Los Feliz, and I had a bad case of being in love with Los Angeles.

The eastside of 2001 was still cheap, still scarred by the Rodney King riots that crested in Silver Lake before falling back to the poorer neighborhoods that always take the heavy damage in these insurrections. I was writing a weekly media column for USC's Online Journalism Review and had enough money to buy a Nash Rambler from somebody in the neighborhood—the car didn't really run, so it sat behind the building in my $25-a-month parking spot. I walked everywhere.

But mostly, like always, I typed. Jim Romenesko's blog was the first thing on my screen each morning, and I wondered why there wasn't such a blog to cover all the media in Los Angeles. Over the course of a pot of coffee, my new L.A. site was born. Blogger, the wonderful new tool from Pyra Labs that let anyone create a handsome website, had a new "multiple authors" feature. I signed up my underemployed comrades in the neighborhood and LAExaminer.com was born. It would be another 18 months before Richard Riordan, the mayor elected in the wake of those riots, would very nearly launch the Los Angeles Examiner weekly newspaper with me as the editor.

LAExaminer.com was all black and white, its earthquake-Hollywood sign title strip ending in a photo of the Griffith Park Observatory dome run through a PaintShopPro filter. The style was just the way we talked around endless pitchers at Ye Rustic Inn up the street on Hillhurst, full of moral certainty and outrage and cheap jokes—it's what is widely practiced and critically dismissed as "snark" today, although we never had any interest in celebrities. The dreary Mayor James Hahn and the pompous columnists at the terrible Los Angeles Times were regular topics, as was boosterism about the Lakers, public transportation and the eastside neighborhoods in general. We were reflexively opposed to the bland wealthy valet parking lot of the Westside.

The site was little noticed for a while, and the most engaged reader was a Malibu real estate agent who was on a permanent crusade to discredit the socialist writer Mike Davis, who dismantled the Los Angeles mythology so brilliantly in his books City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. That Mike Davis was one of my very favorite writers and had completely shaped my understanding of L.A. never seemed to occur to our readers who believed we were a conservative alternative to the Los Angeles Times. We just hated boring newspapers, and the LAT was the worst big-city example of the preciousness and overeducation plaguing the still-powerful newspaper industry at the turn of the century. Politics is the realm of the dumb: If you're not blatantly political in your approach to life, politically obsessed people will read exactly what they want into your writing.

In the 2001 mayoral primary and run-off, we vigorously endorsed the tattooed Latino liberal from the barrio, Antonio Villaraigosa, over the awful insider James Hahn. The eternally begrudged right-wingers of Los Angeles decided we disliked Hahn because he was a Democrat, and not because he was a dullard moderate. The anonymity of the L.A. Examiner, itself named in tribute to the gaudy old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that said goodbye a dozen years earlier, added to a growing mythology that we were crusty old newspaper burnouts who took the white flight express to the suburban San Fernando Valley.

There were no bylines by design, but the unpaid contributors included comrades who worked for the Los Angeles Business Journal and Los Angeles Daily News and a handsome globe-trotting war correspondent who worked for the classroom news show "Channel One" with Anderson Cooper. Most posts were written by me or Matt Welch, who I'd met at an English-language newspaper in Prague and who lived a few blocks away at Vermont and Los Feliz Boulevard, behind the Chevron station.

There was no advertising for blogs at the dawn of this century—even Google, which had yet to buy Blogger, forbid "personal sites" from joining its text-ad network. LAExaminer.com was strictly a hobby, created because nobody else would do it, and the events of that September led to a gradual abandonment of the site. Still, it was so much fun that we asked our journalist-turned-entrepeneur pal Nick Denton to become publisher, but he had grown weary of California and said he was headed to Manhattan to launch his own snarky media blog where it was most needed. Gawker.com debuted at the beginning of 2003 beneath a banner for Corocan, the big NYC apartment broker. How did he sell a sponsorship on a blog? He hadn't—it was a fake banner ad meant to look like a sponsorship. Corcoran apparently knew nothing of this genius move.

As the long insane blur of autumn 2001 gave way to a gloomy Los Angeles winter, I retired from my brief tenure as the token liberal in an increasingly nutty realm remembered with scorn today as "warblogging." I had lost my USC media column and main source of income due to some idiotic battle with the Powers That Be in which I was the primary idiot. I had also moved house, to a crumbling cottage a few blocks past the old Vista Theater, and gotten married, and sold a comedic thriller to a small publisher in Australia—all of which is to say, I was utterly broke and shamefully unemployable. LAExaminer.com was still there, mostly untended, and I went back to it without much enthusiasm. Sweating at a thrift-store metal desk in the spider-infested carriage house that now served as my office, I looked at the ringing phone for a while and for some reason answered it instead of letting it go to voice mail.

"I'm trying to reach Ken Layne," she said. "Matt Welch gave me your number. I've got Mayor Riordan on the line."

Term limits backed by pre-Mayor Riordan meant that post-Mayor Riordan wasn't mayor anymore—the odious James Hahn had won the run-off election—but Dick Riordan maintained his mayoral title amongst his friends and underlings. And in his new boredom, the very wealthy investment lawyer and politician was thinking about publishing a newspaper. Parties unknown had suggested he get in touch with the people behind the L.A. Examiner. When Welch and I were first summoned to Riordan's low-slung California rambler in Brentwood a few weeks later, we met a garrulous and somewhat disheveled old Irishman full of zeal and filthy jokes. He was always a kind host and gave his scruffy low-income visitors his full attention—during one session in his Mexican-tiled living room, the unseen presence of his personal secretary had to repeatedly remind him by intercom that his friend Bill Clinton was waiting on the line. As in New York City, Riordan's birthplace, a moderate Republican in coastal California is a moderate Democrat anywhere else in the country. I liked him right away.

California's angry Republican base did not care for Riordan at all, and it was this reality that kept him out of the governor's mansion. Riordan had the lead over Gov. Gray Davis, the unloved Democrat, but he couldn't win the GOP primary. On March 5 of 2002, the alleged RINO Riordan lost badly to Bill Simon, who talked tough and had once worked for September 11 hero Rudy Giuliani, who at that point had still somehow saved America from terrorism by being the mayor of New York on 9/11.

Riordan could've hired editors with the right connections and right résumés, but there was something about those printouts of LAExaminer.com spread around the gigantic coffee table that bewitched him. Even as he mused about hiring this or that LAT veteran or New York editor and had Welch and I bring in a succession of blogging friends with far bigger names than our own—Jeff Jarvis who launched Entertainment Weekly, Tim Blair of TIME Australia and Murdoch's Daily Telegraph in Sydney—the only editor on the only masthead of the only issue of the Los Angeles Examiner was me.

The formless planning stage dragged on so long that I had mostly given up on the project, and in the October days following yet another birthday without a steady income, I was morose. Back in my terrible office where the nighttime raccoons and opossums would step inside to eat the ever-present spiders swarming the floor, I listlessly worked on a sequel to the trashy thriller that had barely sold, in Australia, and was uniformly rejected by a number of New York agents because its author was unknown and the story was basically a comedy about terrorism. You just cannot overestimate how crazy everybody was after 9/11, for years after 9/11.

It was time for another ridiculous phone call out of the blue, on this occasion from Rick Barrs, the editor of New Times LA. I had become friendly with Tony Ortega, then the managing editor for the local New Times alt-weekly that had replaced the old L.A. Reader a few years earlier, and Tony needed a news editor. Would I agree to stay for a minimum of a year if they gave me the job?

At this point I would've signed a multi-lifetime contract with Scientology's Sea Org in exchange for a paycheck. I said yes, of course, and we made arrangements for me to come to the office the next day.

That was the day New Times LA was shut down in a deal with between its corporate parent in Phoenix and the Village Voice company, which owned LA Weekly at the time. I barely had a chance to begin drinking heavily when Riordan's people were calling again, because Riordan had apparently been offered various assets of New Times LA, including the then-crucial news rack locations around town, if he agreed to launch his rumored weekly.

We were back in semi-real business, even though we had lost some of the original team at this point. Welch had taken the first job offered after several years of rejection: a fill-in contract editing job for the libertarian monthly Reason, which somehow led to him working for the L.A. Times op-ed page under Michael Kinsley. In any case, Welch didn't have the time to do the prototype issue of Riordan's Los Angeles Examiner. Meanwhile, the word got out to the print reporters: A couple of common bloggers had hooked up with the very wealthy former mayor. Here's the glossy Los Angeles Magazine, from the same dismal October:

Daily newspapers are struggling, yet these are fertile times for some journalists. Blogs—stands for "Web logs"—are flourishing; they are Web sites with short hit-and-run commentary and abundant links to other blogs, articles, and sites. Blogs are a pure expression of the Internet: unmediated opinion and information passing from hand to hand. Blogs promise a reckless, independent use of the First Amendment, journalism without fact checking, editors, advertisers—nothing but writers and readers communicating directly. In theory they offer across-the-spectrum opinion, electronic libertarianism.

One local specimen, LA Examiner, has clearly captured Riordan's eyeballs. LA Examiner offers a wealth of information without generating much itself. What it does generate is a mountain of opinion, mostly press criticism. The Examiner links to a smattering of local newspaper stories, making it a great grab-and-read for journalists and insiders perusing Southern California news. But what has gotten it far more attention is its skewering of the Los Angeles Times. From reading the site entries and the e-mail from its readers, you can summarize LA Examiner's opinion of the Times this way: The dum-dums blew it again! Much like Riordan's review, a dated tone creeps into the Examiner's criticisms—they sound like Civil War re-enactors suiting up to restage creaky battles over "political correctness" and "liberal bias." The tone is acerbic, patronizing, witty, whiny. (Full disclosure: They criticized me for being soft on Times columnist Steve Lopez.)

The site is stewarded by Matt Welch and Ken Layne, a pair of young college dropouts and veterans of media start-ups who talk like insiders, who with their access to the Internet are insiders. Blogs scramble the divide between reader and writer, professional and amateur. This drives a lot of print journalists crazy. But while bloggers go heavy on the anti-print rants, there's a passion there, too. Thanks to the Internet, the outsiders are in. The Web makes every journalist equivalent to every other; it makes everyone a media critic, media critics who don't even need Riordan's millions to get their message out.

Calling people "Civil War re-enactors" is a not very subtle way of implying racism is behind a dislike of shitty newspapers written by wealthy white people with Ivy League degrees, which is… insane? But the magazine writer got part of it right: I plead guilty to hating dull newspapers, and I plead guilty to a pro-Los Angeles boosterism—journalists should love the beat they cover. Local journalists should love the town they call home. Pinpoint what's wrong and raise hell about it, but if your approach is always dreary and schoolmarmy, you should go out of business. The voice of a city cannot hate itself.

Dick Riordan still disliked the Los Angeles Times, but didn't seem to have his heart in the Los Angeles Examiner once we finally needed to produce a sample issue. Still, he was paying us, and I liked finally getting paid. I assigned features and illustrations and dutifully called upon Riordan's famous friends to get some celebrity submissions. The contributor list for that handsome tabloid issue included Cathy Seipp, since lost to cancer, and Billy Crystal, who came through when Steve Martin didn't. Recycled LAExaminer.com posts and capsule restaurant reviews written by a drummer friend of mine filled the holes in the layout. In hopes of presenting an apolitical front to the city's well-off liberal media watchers, I got the talented ESPN writer Eric Neel to do a piece on the Lakers' dysfunctional dynasty, and on the cover I put a caricature of L.A. heroes Shaq and Kobe doing their best to ignore one another. I shouldn't have been surprised when some critics of the whole enterprise complained that the politics-free cover was secretly political, because illustrator Roman Genn freelanced for National Review and caricatured two famous people who were black.

Still, there was real excitement among journalists because a new paper is always a cause for hope. Each time I did another interview about the prototype, the call would end with the reporter sheepishly asking if I had begun hiring for the paper. I dutifully worked the local press and attended our celebratory launch dinner at Gladstone's Malibu, Riordan's beachside restaurant. But I didn't believe there would be a paper. When my wife got a good job offer in Reno, I encouraged her to take it. My prospects couldn't be any worse up there. Besides, the journalist's dream had almost come true: You could work anywhere with "access to the Internet." If you could find any work.

Riordan was thinking of running for governor again, this time in the combination recall/replacement election of 2003 that would throw Davis out of office—the loathsome car-alarm salesman Darrell Issa led the recall effort from the right-wing suburbs of North San Diego County, although he ultimately got nothing for his trouble. Riordan was still popular statewide, still the winner of a match against Davis. But that summer, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his run on the Jay Leno show. The action-movie star and Riordan had privately agreed that only one of them would run. At the time, Arnold seemed a perfect candidate.

Riordan stood down and the Los Angeles Examiner died on the vine. I watched Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" for the only time in my life that night in August, from my crappy new house in the Great Basin Desert. A start-up that doesn't go all the way is a heartbreak, but the start-up part is always fun. What has never really been said about Dick Riordan's decision is that he was absolutely right, as a businessman. He had owned a paper before, a weekly in Pasadena, and he figured out that a newspaper launched in 2003 was dead on arrival. After all his meetings and phone calls with everybody from the alt-weekly people to the New York Observer's publisher, Riordan the successful venture capitalist didn't see any future in free weeklies.

LA CityBeat took the Justice Department-imposed slot on the Los Angeles alt-weekly market and was gone a few years later. New Times would buy its rival Village Voice and then divest of the thin little papers altogether. The Internet bled all these things dry.

Wow so this is what it looks like when I drink vodka all day.

Matt Welch and Ken Layne with a painting of Matt Welch and Ken Layne by the artist Greg McIlvaine, Los Angeles, 2002. (Photo by Tony Pierce.)



Previously: How To Get Your Readers To Write Your Newspaper For You


Ken Layne has held approximately a hundred media jobs around the world. He should've learned by now.

5 Comments / Post A Comment

scrooge (#2,697)

Another great piece, KL. Now how about more details on the "primary idiot" story?

Very entertaining and well done. Thank you for the insight into the LA world of politics and newspapers. I especially enjoyed the light touch as in "Which is to say I was utterly broke."

Dan (#8,413)

photo by tony pierce!

nice read ken. fascinating history

- someone who works with former citybeat and pasadena weekly staffers

BoHan (#29)

I rode my bike one day with Riordian during an AIDS fundraiser. You are right. He is a cool guy.

economywine (#242,019)

Great piece Ken.

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