Make That a Double!

Starting a paper's not for the faint of heart. Duh!bya's Justice Department kooks made ending one even more harrowing.

It all started back in '96 when Michael Lacey called me at the L.A. Times and asked me to meet him at a bar a block away. After more than a few cocktails, he asked me to leave what I thought was the high-and-mighty daily and help him start a New Times paper in Los Angeles. He challenged me to embark on "an adventure." More than that, he strongly suggested that only a pussy would turn him down.

I must look crazy, I thought. Or stupid. I had a good job. Plus, I'd never even seriously read an alternative rag, probably because I'd been living in Los Angeles for nearly 10 years and was forced to pick up the LA Weekly, or the two sorry excuses for alternative papers that New Times Media wound up absorbing and obliterating, the L.A. View and the Reader.

I took the job for one reason. Lacey promised freedom to do no-holds-barred journalism. He demonstrated that New Times papers weren't shackled by power brokers or political correctness. As long as the facts were there, he said, he wouldn't be asking why we went too far (something that happened routinely at the L.A. Times), but possibly why we didn't go far enough. There would be no ideological bent. Jill Stewart's column often came from the right, something unheard of in an alternative paper; others were left-leaning. But the real point was to go after liars, crooks and bullshit artists something the papers New Times Los Angeles replaced almost never did.

L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony, who covered up for pedo-priests, was a frequent target of NTLA.
L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony, who covered up for pedo-priests, was a frequent target of NTLA.

But let's not speak ill of the dead. Only of the pathetically hippy-dippy Weekly, which is still alive in the City of Angels. New Times Los Angeles, at which I was the lead editor for six years, is on a morgue slab. Its death certificate reads October 2, 2002, which has become a historic date in the alternative journalism world.

The night before, Lacey, who co-founded the New Times company with Jim Larkin 33 years ago in Phoenix, had summoned the L.A. staff to the bar at Shutters, a swank Santa Monica hotel, for what was billed as a weekly copy meeting. I'd arrived a couple of hours before the others armed with pitches for upcoming cover stories. The event wasn't all that unusual, since Lacey, as denizens of this desert city know full well, is fond of holding confabs in drinking establishments.

I was waiting on a barstool when he showed up. I made a joke. He didn't laugh. I made another; he didn't hear it. He said, "What are you drinking?" I muttered that I was on the wagon, to which he said, "You're not tonight." We moved to a table and sat in silence until the waiter came. Lacey ordered a double Scotch, and I ordered an Absolut on the rocks. "Make that a double, too," Lacey demanded.

By then, I'd concluded that I was getting fired. Turned out it was something much worse. The paper was closing the next day. Lacey said he was sorry (I believed him, because I know how badly the Irish hardhead hates to lose), that the editorial staff had done its job, but that the Bush-era economy, capped by the aftermath of the events of 9/11, had made it impossible economically for New Times L.A. to continue the fight against a decades-old competitor.

When we walked into an adjacent private room where the rest of the staff had assembled, I was still in shock. Everyone was yukking it up, happy to be out of the office with booze and a fancy dinner in the immediate future. One look at the bosses' faces, though, and there was a creepy silence.

Lacey told the waiter, "We want to order some wine. Let's see, there are 20 people here. Bring us 20 bottles." The silence continued until 19 bottles of expensive red wine and one bottle of white were placed before each person there. We started to drink, and he made the announcement.

Strangely, nobody went for his throat.

People were in tears that the paper was folding but were understanding. Part of the reason was that a generous severance package was promised and almost everyone was offered a job in another New Times city which is how I came to be writing this column as editor of Phoenix New Times. But the real reason was that, as reporters, we understood that we were in the news business, that our paper had been losing boatloads of bucks (nearly $20 million over six years, we found out later) and that Duh!bya's dismal economy, and the banks ruined by it, were shutting down struggling businesses across the national landscape.

Lacey announced that Village Voice Inc., owner of the LA Weekly, was paying New Times for its assets in L.A. and that New Times was paying Village Voice for its Cleveland Free Times assets. (Turned out the Voice company paid $11 million and New Times paid $2 million.) It seemed like a damn good deal. Considering.

My telephone answering machine kept going off in the other room. I could hear it through the alcoholic haze, but I couldn't lift my eyelids. We had continued the wake, having room service bring even more alcohol to Lacey's hotel room, after which we'd gone to a Venice bar. Some of us couldn't remember exactly how we got home.

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