Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 2, 2007

LA Weekly continues to degenerate

Filed under: media — louisproyect @ 1:12 pm

Jay Levin, founder of the LA Weekly

This week’s Nation Magazine has an interesting article on the degeneration of the LA Weekly, an “alternative” newspaper.

The article does not mention anything about Jay Levin, the guy who launched the paper originally. After he sold out to new owners, the paper went downhill steadily just like the Village Voice in NYC. I got to know Levin a little bit in the late 1980s when I used to visit friends in LA. He was very pro-Sandinista, as was obvious from LA Weekly coverage.

The 7/2/07 Christian Science Monitor reports about his new venture:

Jay Levin tilts at print mills A tireless editor launches a monthly magazine aimed at L.A.’s ‘fusion culture’ – the city’s rising immigrant class

By Frank Kosa | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Los Angeles

No shortage of experts exists proclaiming that print is dying. Magazines in particular are the polar ice cap of the publishing world, receding at an alarming rate in the face of the superheated Internet. We are told there are no readers anymore – just “eyeballs” and “clicks.”

On the scorched earth of this media battlefield (if you’ll allow me an old-era print metaphor) littered with the burned-out shells of once mighty magazines, one man is launching a new entry. What’s more, he’s chosen to roll it out in possibly the least reader-friendly location in the United States – Los Angeles.

It’s a city renowned for its municipal attention-deficit disorder, where few people have lingered over anything since the O.J. Simpson trial – and that, of course, was televised. In this town, “reader” is a job, someone who summarizes scripts, the idea presumably being that no one would read voluntarily.

So who is the nut launching a publication in what, if the experts are to be believed, may be the most hostile time for print since Gutenberg? That would be Jay Levin, a middle-aged man with a medium build and a New York accent tempered by nearly 30 years in Los Angeles. His new monthly magazine is called RealTALK LA.

Mr. Levin is remarkably soft-spoken – the antithesis of the caricatured cigar-chomping editor who is once again being imprinted upon us by this summer’s arbiter of cultural imagery: “Spider-Man 3.”

He is a self-described “pragmatic visionary,” with an activist bent and a critical eye. That criticism is often focused on the media, and their failure to serve their readers.

Now Levin is putting his own theories about serving the reader to the ultimate test. Will he prove to be savant or simple failure?


Born and raised in New York City, Levin was lured to L.A. in 1978 by, of all things, a porn king – Larry Flynt. “It was just after he became a born-again Christian,” says Levin. “He was a rebel publisher looking for something to do with his energy.” Mr. Flynt bought a small alternative paper, the Los Angeles Free Press, and asked Levin to “make it the Village Voice of L.A.” Their partnership lasted just 10 weeks, at which time Flynt fired Levin over editorial control – Levin says he insisted that the sex ads be dropped. One week later, Flynt was shot in an assassination attempt, and the Free Press, which had been losing money, was shuttered.

The paper was gone, but, according to Levin, not the need for it. “The L.A. Times was doing a terrible job of covering the city,” he says.

Nine months later, he had found backers to hire a staff largely culled from the former Free Press and cobbled together the first issue of an alternative paper called LA Weekly. It was 24 pages, with virtually no advertising. According to longtime staff writer Steven Mikulan, Levin pulled together the disparate elements of an urban-hippie sensibility with a young club-scene set. Although Levin was sometimes ridiculed for being Quixotic and New Age-ish, the mix found a considerable audience.

“It took someone who was obsessed … for L.A. to have a literary paper,” says Mr. Mikulan. “He was in the right place at the right time.”

Levin ran the paper for 13 years. He sold it in 1991 to, appropriately enough, the Village Voice for $10 million. From there, he set off on a series of ventures that included launching a television channel, consulting, pursuing a master’s degree in spiritual psychology, and founding a nonprofit to serve L.A.’s poor.

His nonprofit work and a consulting job with what used to be called a “minority-owned” chain of newspapers (there is no “majority” ethnic or racial group in L.A. anymore) led to a realization: “I could see tremendous growth in the middle and professional classes. I had a vision to create a different model for a city magazine.”



Here’s another relevant item that I posted a while back:

In the late 80s I used to make occasional trips out to Los Angeles to visit friends who were part of a loosely organized Hollywood left. This included fairly successful writers like Michael Elias who grew up about 5 miles from me and wrote “Young Doctors in Love”, a memorable parody of hospital melodramas. It also included Jay Levin, the founder and editor of Los Angeles Weekly, a newspaper that combined radical politics and glitzy Hollywood lifestyle material. Like all such “underground” publications that were styled after urban weeklies that sprouted in the 1960s, it walked a tightrope between commercialism and idealism. After Levin sold the paper to well-heeled investors, it fell off the tightrope and now offers a fairly conventional political analysis–albeit packaged in a kind of self-contratulatory “hipness” that reminds one of the New York Press. The New York Press never tires of lambasting the Nation Magazine for its out-of-date liberalism, but offers instead an “edgy”, hard-line conservatism straight out of the Dartmouth Review. This amounts to bashing Al Sharpton and the Democratic Party on a weekly basis.

In the latest LA Weekly, there is a corrosive attack on the Nation Magazine that could have been appeared in the New York Press:

On Bubble Wrap The Nation vs. The Weekly Standard

by John Powers

An audience is like a broad. If you’re indifferent, Endsville.

–Frank Sinatra

AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER THE NATION HAS been the journalistic lodestar of the American left. Now, in its 137th year, the magazine is on a commercial roll. Its subscriptions have risen steadily in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. Its finances may actually break even (a miracle in the world of political magazines). And its publishing adjunct, Nation Books, is raking in money from two hot titles: Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Forbidden Truth by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié. Indeed, everything’s going so well that I feel kind of churlish in pointing out what most on the left are unwilling to say: The Nation is a profoundly dreary magazine.

Just compare it to another thin, ideologically driven rag, The Weekly Standard, a right-wing publication currently approaching its measly seventh anniversary. A few months ago, I began putting new issues of each side by side on an end table and, to my surprise, discovered that while unread copies of The Nation invariably rose in guilt-inducing stacks, I always read The Weekly Standard right away. Why? Because seen purely as a magazine, The Standard is incomparably more alluring. As gray and unappetizing as homework, The Nation makes you approach it in the same spirit that Democrats might vote for Gray Davis — where else can you go? In contrast, The Standard woos you by saying, “We’re having big fun over here on the right.”

The Los Angeles Weekly made virtually the same kind of attack on Pacifica Radio, albeit from columnist Marc Cooper who fairly typifies Nation Magazine ideology nowadays. In a positively rancid article on Porto Alegre, Cooper also took people like Noam Chomsky and his supporters to task for lacking panache. If one has ever seen the gnomish Marc Cooper in person or heard his nasal, high-pitched voice, you would have to question his harping on style.

In a 1990 brochure to advertisers, here’s how the LA Weekly described itself;

Weekly readers like to buy, buy, buy. . . . They want Perrier instead of water; croissants instead of toast; Rolex instead of Timex. They earn champagne incomes to match their champagne tastes.

In 1994, the Village Voice bought the LA Weekly and deepened the orientation to the Yuppie set, both culturally and politically. At the time the Voice was owned by pet food magnate Leonard Stern, who had already pushed the tabloid toward the center. Today’s owners package conventionally liberal politics with all sorts of articles about alternative lifestyles. In a distinct gesture to rightist politics, it contains regular dispatches from Sylvia Foa, a grating Zionist based in Israel.

The Voice is lashed from the right on a weekly basis by the New York Press, founded in 1988 by Russ Smith. Smith’s motivation in challenging the establishment left was nearly identical to that described in the LA Weekly article cited above. In a profile in the Oct. 1, 1998 NY Times, Smith said the Voice had become ossified, full of “stuck-in-the-70’s, left-wing stuff” and pompous writing. “What about the 20-year-old who just wants to hear about the Smashing Pumpkins’ new album and doesn’t want a four-paragraph discourse on Baudelaire or Thomas Carlyle?”

As somebody who enjoys rightwing entertainment, including radio shock jocks, I find New York Press simply unreadable. Most of it has little to do with NYC and consists of long-winded navel-gazing by some of the most boring people on the planet.

For example, in a piece called appropriately “First Person” in the current issue, we learn from Rich Rickaby that:

My family is the black sheep of the family. My mother went through an embarrassing battle with alcohol while married to her second husband who was alcoholic enough for the entire family. Not that one has to be embarrassed about being alcoholic, especially since she overcame it, but when Mom has to crawl her way out of the family gathering it leaves an impression. Diane has three kids by two different men, both of whom are in jail now. One for beating up on whores and the other for conspiring with his father to murder someone. Her oldest son, Joe, has already been in jail by the age of 21 and has since fled for West Virginia.

I think I’ll stick with Thomas Carlyle.


  1. Hear, hear. Sometimes I think I can ride out just about anything that capitalism offers, but the decay of literature, film and music in this country positively reeks. The New York Press and Seattle’s Stranger are both part of a chain of “countercultural” urban tabloids that have overwhelmed quality alternative press with their blatherings for close to twenty years now. Not that alternative press was any great shakes before, but some, like Seattle’s Northwest Passage and Portland’s Clinton Street Quarterly had their own quirky personalities. Now what we’re offered is mostly about nothing but celebrity “journalism” of the sort Dan Savage is good at; i.e., profoundly reactionary and “hip”. Read this stuff? I’d rather chew ground glass, it’s far less painful.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — July 2, 2007 @ 4:59 pm

  2. Ummm…I wrote the piece you cited from First Person,

    I love that you call it naval gazing and that it has nothing to do with NYC but go on to cite how you compared two stacks of collected newspapers to see which one you were reading faster…talk about Ho-Hum. The piece is called “They Hail Cabs,” and ends with me taking a subway…if Taxis and Subways and the dichotomy of the street and the elite aren’t NYC then you don’t know what NYC is.

    If you have a problem with naval gazing, why do you have a blog?


    Comment by Rich Rickaby — July 2, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

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