LA Has A New Magazine And Its Staff Is Betting On Print's Future In Local Journalism
If you're reading this, you're probably not surprised by that fact that more Americans (like you) get their news online than from a newspaper.
But don't count print out just yet. There's a new publication that's betting Angelenos still want to pick up a physical magazine and read about local issues featuring a range of voices. That new magazine, The LAnd, is also available online, but it's clear the outlet's editors-in-chief, Jenn Swann and Jeff Weiss, are really thinking about the printed version.
Many of the magazine's staff are former employees of L.A. Weekly, which has been a case study of alt-weekly turmoil since a change of ownership in 2017 that led to layoffs, staffers quitting and a boycott movement against the paper.
A Martinez: L.A. has a decent share of local news outlets. So what are you doing with this magazine that's different, Jeff?
Jeff Weiss: First of all it's print. I think there's a magic to print. I think it's kind of how vinyl is. It's one of those things where it's timeless; holding something in your hand, it's irreplaceable, that feeling, and I don't think that goes away.
I just think about being a kid and cutting out collages from my magazines — and not to say someone's gonna do that from this. But first of all, I'd say that the layout is gorgeous. But I'd also say that we are providing an outlet for long-form journalism. It doesn't make sense sometimes to have a really long story online because it's just the way the brain works. Online is really meant for short, quick bursts and that doesn't mean that a great article can't find a home online. But when you're reading with your hands and letting these stories of the rich mosaic of L.A. unfold before you in print, I think it has a magic to it. And I think that's really special with what we're doing.
AM: Jenn, for established outlets like the L.A. Times, when people see that masthead they kind of know what they're getting. What brand do you want to carve out for The LAnd?
Jenn Swann: I think the L.A. Times has been such a foundation in L.A. They're amazing at covering breaking news and covering scandals. But I think The LAnd is really a place where you can sit and kind of meditate on these stories, find out what's happening before it's happening and get this deep dive that you're not going to get anywhere else.
I'll give you an example. We have an amazing story about Circus Books, which is this bookstore that just closed, at the end of last month, and it was these two owners, it was this family that owned it and it was a gay adult bookstore. And It was this family that was running it sort of quietly, no one else knew in their town, they couldn't tell their friends at their synagogue.
They just closed it and the daughter tells the story of how now she's making a documentary about her parents running this. And so we ran probably (a) 3,000 word story on it that would have been the equivalent of a cover story at the L.A. Weekly and that's the kind of story that I don't think you're going to find anywhere else. I saw that the L.A. Times ran a short piece about that bookstore recently and it's just a snapshot... you're not really immersing yourself with those people.
At its height in the 1980s and 1990s, @circusofbooks was among the nation's most prolific distributors of gay porn. Ahead of its closure on Feb. 1, @CGWagley took a deep dive into its wild, weird, surprisingly heroic family history. https://t.co/8GUMh6Xl8R— TheLAnd Magazine (@theLAndmagazine) January 22, 2019
JW: You know I'd like to also add to that last thing about what we're building. I can't stress enough that it's by locals for locals.
AM: That's your motto.
JW: Yeah, it is our motto. The difference between us and everybody else is that we don't have any corporate consultants telling us what to do. We don't have some unethical fake job taking kickbacks and making fake stories at the publication like any unnamed alt weeklies. This is a really authentic grassroots thing and L.A. really hasn't seen anything like this in my entire lifetime and probably any of our lifetimes.
I don't think that this kind of stuff happens... I think the news media is so saturated with stories of layoffs and cutbacks and obviously our story is rooted in kind of one of these cataclysmic events. And I think really that is something. We're trying to make it a nonprofit... But I think that is going to be the future of news media that nonprofits will compete with for-profits and compete is probably the wrong word because you know, even in our introduction we shout out LAist and L.A. Taco and the L.A. Times and those are our peers at this point.
I always make the bad joke, but it's sort of Game of Thrones where it's the White Walkers, right? The White Walkers are here and they're like these corporate faceless raiders that are just cutting these publications to the bone.
AM: Well speaking of "corporate faceless raiders," because those people have a lot of money, wondering Jenn, when it comes to the nuts and bolts on how you launched this magazine, the funding, what did it take to get this magazine off the ground and where'd you get the money?
JS: I think Jeff likes to talk about how we just all had these delusions. We're delusional, maniacal people and it's true, we all kind of had this idea and just kind of ran with it. First of all, we got funding from Epic Magazine. They're out here in Frogtown and they're a magazine that funds specifically long-form journalism, the kind of journalism that we do. I think their funding model is that they then option these stories for screenplays to Hollywood.
We had a couple of meetings with them. They really believed in our vision. They knew what we were trying to do and they also were like, "yeah, the L.A. Weekly meant so much to us, we stand behind you." So they gave us our initial investment. That's basically our only funder. Everything else we've raised completely grassroots. We had —
AM: Like a party right? Twenty-dollars-a-head party?
JS: Seriously, we had a house party... And just kind of like everyone show up. We had some sponsors, Mulholland Distilling donated.
JW: Angel City Brewery gave us a bunch of beer... And as cynical as I can be, and I think all of us can because we're journalists, we're trained to be skeptical, I think that people did believe in this mission and people understood the import of it. And so we sold ads. We raised a bunch of money off pre-orders. I think they exceeded our wildest dreams. People were just — from all over the world, really — buying copies of this magazine.
AM: So now, Jenn, you mentioned Epic and the possibility of optioning certain things that appear in the magazine as film projects, is that something that's kind of in the back of all your minds right now?
JS: I don't know that that's something we're thinking about. I think our main goal at the end of the day is to shepherd these stories into print.
AM: But the possibility is there, right, no?
JW: I don't think so. I mean, I don't want to speak for Jenn or anybody else in the collective but... I wouldn't even want to make a dime if one of our writers got adapted.
JS: I mean our writers own all the rights to their stories and so they can pursue whatever direction they want... I mean honestly maybe we're foolish for not thinking about that. But I think like we want to put out a good print product that stands on its own. So Epic Magazine, that's their model, that's not necessarily our model. But I think in spirit we're telling long-form journalism that's narrative and compelling.
AM: Jenn, let's talk about some the stories that people can read right off the bat in the first issue. There is a profile of Melina Abdullah, one of the creators of the movement Black Lives Matter. How does telling her story to fit with your idea of the right kind of piece for The LAnd?
JS: Absolutely. Well first of all I can't say enough amazing things about this reporter, Jason McGann, who was a staffer at L.A. Weekly and he was actually on staff when there were these mass firings and he had been covering Black Lives Matter, police shootings, immigration. He been basically single-handedly covering like three or four huge beats in Los Angeles at the time that L.A. Weekly was bought. And so I think it was so important for us to get his voice in this because there was this void in what's happening with the LAPD which tends to be pretty secret, not super transparent.
I think the story was so important for him to tell because no one really knew — I think unless you were super plugged into the activist scene in Los Angeles against police brutality — you didn't necessarily know about this story. And so this is about Melina Abdullah, she's one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter L.A. and she was quietly charged with eight misdemeanors, basically for speaking out at city council meetings. And so no one really knew that all of these charges had multiplied against her, she had a couple of hearings.
Right after this story came out, about a week later, the city attorney announced that he was dropping all of these charges against her. So I think once people saw that she was being criminalized, basically for what the city was saying (was) disrupting city council meetings when she was really (just) speaking her voice at these meetings, I think there was an outcry and it was really powerful to see that people really rallied behind her.
AM: And Jeff, you wrote a piece yourself about this rapper from Inglewood named Rucci, not necessarily about his music or upbringing but, as you put it, "Inglewood was the red-bandana-ed stepchild to South Central and Compton". "Inglewood's rap movement never materialized." Everyone's always searching for these stories that maybe people don't want to tell or don't tell generally, so how do you compete, trying to find these kind of things?
JW I think if you really tapped into it they come to you naturally. I've been a journalist now in L.A. for about a dozen years, Jenn's been doing it for almost a decade too and I think that's really the thing is we particularly wanted to tap into journalists.
I got an email from somebody who was like, "Oh I'm moving to L.A., I'd like to contribute to publication." And I was like, with all due respect, I'm sure you're a very fine writer but don't pitch us until you've actually lived in L.A. for a little bit of time, because I think I want people that are really tapped in the community that have the stories coming to them, because I think that's when you really get the best stories. It's never from a publicist. Once in a blue moon a publicist will send you an email and it's a great story but they're also probably sending (it to) ten other people. This rapper, Rucci, in particular, I knew that because I've been covering rap for a long time.
AM: Jenn, we talk a lot on the show about the diversity of Los Angeles, a city with many different cultures and communities it's also geographically spread out like crazy all over different neighborhoods, capturing all that can be a challenge so I'm wondering how you plan to cover this diversity in this city?
JS: Beyond even our collective, which is fairly diverse, we have this huge community of writers, people that we've known from the L.A. Weekly, basically from having been journalists in Los Angeles for so many years, living all across the county.
Javier Cabral used to write for the L.A. Weekly. He worked with Jonathan Gold, he used to scout restaurants for him... He knows the city, he grew up in East L.A. He's got his start writing about punk rock shows in East L.A., which is a thing that I don't think people knew existed, and in South L.A. He found this mariscos truck that he wrote about, where the the guy who runs it, his family, he also is an corridos band. And so all of our writers are bringing these stories because they live across the county basically.
Another writer who I first met at the L.A. Weekly is Samanta Hernandez. She wrote this amazing piece about —it's a photo essay really — about these bakeries that are being pushed out. These immigrant women who are in Virgil Village which is basically just being engulfed by Silver Lake. And so I think part of what we're trying to do with The LAnd is capturing these snapshots of L.A. that are sort of disappearing and so I think we're leaning heavily on our writers to represent Los Angeles.
AM: Jeff, I'm going to ask you this last question because you brought up earlier: for you how important it is to actually hold a magazine, flip the pages and read it that way, as opposed to kind of scrolling through on your laptop or maybe on your phone? How do you convince busy Angelenos to pick up your magazine, to read it, to spend some time with it when maybe it's more convenient for them to just kind of scroll through on an app?
JW: L.A. is a city where it is you know people will go out to lunch, people will go out to a movie, people want to pick up a magazine I think because L.A. is not an internet city — it's not like New York in the same respect, people aren't on Twitter necessarily obsessing over it.
You know we cannot keep these in stock... I think that people are hungry for that. I think people are sick of the B.S. "I don't want clickbait anymore. I'm sick of this, I don't need another list I actually want to know what's in my city." And if you're a transplant, how are you going to know what L.A. is? I still have a print subscription to the L.A. Times, I will to the day I die.
Most people, most younger people, don't have print subscriptions to newspapers and that's why it had to be free. And I can't stress that enough, because we didn't want to make it something where it was elitist, where if you have twelve bucks you can read our stories. It had to be free because, again, it's for the people and we would love, I think all of us, if the women of Virgil Village would get a kick out of it, as would some multi-millionaire movie star living in the hills.
It's sort of in the mission statement: a woman working in a panaderia in El Sereno is just as important to us as the biggest movie star, and arguably more important, because they are part of the cultural fabric of L.A. and we're trying to keep that in mind and really that's a central part of our mission.
Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's Take Two.