Southland Won’t Compete Head-to-Head With LA Weekly

All-star team aims for "consistency, quality and focus"

A federal antitrust investigation and a poor economy are unlikely partners for success, but they have resulted in two new alternative weeklies for Southland Publishing, Inc. The Southern California company, which already operates AAN members Pasadena Weekly, the Ventura County Reporter, and San Diego CityBEAT, debuted Los Angeles CityBEAT and ValleyBEAT on June 12. Both papers premiered at 68 pages and a combined circulation of 90,000 in metropolitan Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

The odyssey of the two new papers began when Southland’s group publisher, David Comden, called the Justice Department after Village Voice Media and New Times settled an antitrust investigation by agreeing to auction the assets of Cleveland Free Times and New Times Los Angeles. “We were very interested in finding out how the federal government was going to (administer the auction),” Comden said. Southland ultimately decided to participate in the auction and was awarded the right to buy New Times L.A.’s assets, including its editorial archives and news racks.

“In the end I think that because of who we are and what we have done with our other papers, it seemed to make sense to both the Justice Department and to New Times, so we got approval to buy the assets,” Comden said.

Although Comden has an equity interest in the company, Southland is majority-owned by Valley Business Printers, a company that formerly printed the LA Weekly, still the dominant alternative weekly in the market. That relationship has ended, although LA Weekly reported in May that it left Valley Business Printers “for a printer with the technology to produce a higher-quality product,” rather than in retaliation for launching competitive newspapers.

Being owned by a printer is a distinct advantage for Southland. “The two greatest expenses for a newspaper are personnel and printing costs,” Comden told LA Weekly.

As for personnel, the recent alternative newspaper wars in Los Angeles, combined with a weak economy, provided Southland with a rich vein of talent.

“In this (soft) economy, frankly, it leaves some people wanting as good of a job as they can get,” said Comden. “The good news is that a lot of people who had been displaced by the (1996 closure) of the LA Reader, and by the New Times closure … expressed interest in being part of this project. It’s quite a collection of people. I feel very fortunate to have such a great group of people.”

The roster includes Editor Steve Appleford, Arts and Entertainment Editor Natalie Nichols, and Film Editor Andy Klein, all of whom served long stints at the LA Reader; Deputy Editor Dean Kuipers, former deputy editor for the Los Angeles Times’ Weekend Calendar; and reporter Dennis Romero, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and senior editor.

Southland also hired LA Weekly’s editorial art director Dana Collins and is working with former publisher Michael Sigman as a consultant.

LA Weekly Publisher Beth Sestanovich and Editor Laurie Ochoa didn’t return calls for this story.

Southland’s two new papers will share some content, but will emphasize local news and locally focused cover stories, according to Comden.

Comden said “it doesn’t make good strategic sense” for Southland to compete head-to-head with LA Weekly. “So our strategy … was to carve Los Angeles into groups. What we’ve done is carved the market area that the LA Weekly and New Times formerly had been doing into two.

“In a megalopolis like Los Angeles, there are a lot of opportunities for niches … Pasadena is a good case in point. We circulate 20 percent of what the LA Weekly does there, but we’ve got a real niche that readers have for local news and advertisers have for local markets.”

LA CityBEAT will serve metro Los Angeles, while ValleyBEAT offers local news and cultural coverage for the San Fernando Valley. With a smaller circulation at each paper than LA Weekly, Comden says he’ll offer lower advertising rates for single paper buys to small local businesses, while providing large advertisers with a package buy with options to be in one, two, or all three of Southland’s LA basin papers, which includes Pasadena Weekly. “And that includes large advertisers that might want total market coverage with a combined circulation of 140,000, or the local restaurant that just wants to be in one product in their local area.”

The new papers are going to 1,400 [distribution] locations on the city side and nearly 2,000 total, Comden said. “But we’re going to scale back My goal is 1,600 locations combined. The ideal situation is that you have a finite number and you try and find not necessarily more locations, but better locations.”

And in addition to offering advertisers options, Comden said, Southland’s mission is also to provide readers with new choices.

“I think there’s an interesting dynamic in this industry,” he said. “As the industry matures, you’re seeing a lot of alternatives to the alternative come up. For example, in Seattle you’ve got The Stranger going up against Seattle Weekly, and in Portland The Mercury against Willamette Week. And as some of these products mature and as their editors mature, they take off in directions that sometimes lose younger readers.

“Ten years ago in this industry we were having the same conversation about daily papers,” Comden continued. “Their readers were getting older, and they were writing things that may not spark the imagination of youth. And now I see it happening in our industry as some of these papers are 30 and almost 40 years old, they’re not sparking the imagination of a whole group of people. So like we did in San Diego with our CityBEAT in the same market with the San Diego Reader, we’re providing an alternative to the alternative, and it’s filling a need.

“We’re going to put out a good product and we’re going to move forward at a measured pace,” Comden said. “I think in the end, consistency, quality, and focus will help us serve the market, and that’s really our plan.”

John Ferri is a freelance writer based in Tacoma, Wash.

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