The spirit of the alt-weekly is still alive in Los Angeles

A conversation with Jennifer Swann, co-editor of The LAnd magazine.


The spirit of the alt-weekly is still alive in Los Angeles

A conversation with Jennifer Swann, co-editor of The LAnd magazine.

The spirit of the alt-weekly is still alive in Los Angeles

A conversation with Jennifer Swann, co-editor of The LAnd magazine.

The importance of independent local journalism can’t be overstated, especially in a time where millionaires litigate media outlets to death, and corporate entities are dismantling the rich culture of alt-weeklies as we know it. (Minutes before we were scheduled to run this publication, news broke that The Village Voice is ending.) And yet, few ventures sound riskier in today’s day and age than starting a local, digital/print publication. In Los Angeles, that’s what a group of journalists is setting out to do: The LAnd magazine is a new, free publication that will launch in Los Angeles by the end of this year.

Co-edited by former L.A. Weekly writers Sarah Bennett, Jennifer Swann, and Jeff Weiss, who spearheaded the boycott against the new L.A. Weekly, The LAnd will be one of just a handful of general interest print publications dedicated solely to the Los Angeles area. That news drought in a city of nearly 4 million people is a terrifying reality of modern media. In the 1970s, alt-weeklies emerged as an important new facet of American media culture, publishing irreverent yet powerful local journalism and criticism. Can local print publications still survive today?

Swann, a freelance journalist who started her career as an editorial assistant at L.A. Weekly, spoke to The Outline about the vision for L.A.’s soon to be newest local news source.

Tell me about how the conception of The LAnd came about.

It grew pretty organically from the [L.A. Weekly] boycott movement. There were a lot of performative tactics and things that I think got the boycott a lot of attention, and rightly so. One thing that we were concerned with was that people would lose interest or would think that it wasn’t important anymore. [Earlier this year] we would meet maybe once a month — former editors, former freelancers, the DSA ended up getting involved, and just people who cared about the paper and who are concerned about it.

The magazine grew out of these meetings. Some of the food writers got together and ended up putting together what they called The Rogue 99, which is their take on the 99 essentials [L.A. Weekly food issue]. They just put all of this work into writing 99 different write-ups of restaurants around town that they considered essential, and they put it out on their own with a local blog called L.A. Taco. Our idea for a magazine initially sort of was inspired by that. We were thinking, Okay, what is a tradition that we did at the L.A. Weekly that we can honor and put our own spin on? Because we didn’t necessarily even trust that the new team would do it, or that they would do it justice.

[L.A. Weekly’s] People Issue comes out [every] May, and in February we were like Okay, we’ll do a People Issue, we’ll call it The People’s Issue. Once we began talking about it, we’re like: Well, why stop there? Critics have brought up that the L.A. Weekly in its last form wasn’t perfect; it definitely wasn’t managed by a perfect company. These themed issues, a big part of them was a draw for advertising. So we were like, we’re a core group of contributors. Why don’t we just think a little bit broader than just doing a people issue, and make it its own publication that can be sustainable that can be independent of the L.A. Weekly? Why not make it its own thing?

Was the decision to have a print edition always in the works?

Yeah, I think the idea was to put out a print product that could just last longer. There’s so much anger and hate clicks on the internet and everyone sort of bandwagons on that and it can be kind of ephemeral. We always wanted to have something just to even remember this moment in time. We don’t totally know what’s going to happen after our first issue; the goal was always to put out one issue. The idea was always to create something tangible to show the stories that we think have legs, that you might pick up this magazine a year from now or 10 years from now and still be interested in whatever’s in it. And I think we’ve been so pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed by all of the support that we’ve gotten when we announced it this week that we’re trying to figure out how we can we turn this into its own sustainable thing, which I guess is yet to be determined.

Where I live in now, the writers at the local alt-weekly, The Missoula Independent are having to basically fight for its existence, like so many local publications are having to do. How do you explain why it’s so important to have a local print publication?

That’s another thing that sort of kept us going was we would hear these stories around the country of small papers getting bought out and laying off the staff. And we’re like, this isn’t just us, this is happening across the country. I think it’s just crucial, especially for a city as giant as L.A. — we’re facing the nation’s worst homelessness crisis, the Olympics are coming in about a decade, the housing crisis is getting worse — it’s sort of a moment where a lot is changing and it feels like it’s crucial to have reporters covering it period, but also in a way that’s nuanced and that contextualizes the history of the city.

The L.A. Times is on the upswing and they’re producing amazing work. But there’s only so much that that one paper can cover in a city as big and amorphous and just strange as L.A., and so I think just having one one paper is kind of a travesty. We deserve to have coverage of our neighborhoods, of our communities, of things that aren’t necessarily Hollywood or car chases or things that you see on Channel 4 News. I think that’s why having an alternative weekly is so important is that it it can it can cover stories that on the surface may not seem like splashy front page A-1 stories, but that matter to a lot of people and that can that can lead to change.

So would you say that The LAnd is an alt-weekly or something new?

From the start, we always talked about this is a paper in the spirit of an alt-weekly. We’re trying to take that mentality and that scrappy alt-weekly ethos, but apply it to something that will end up looking a little bit more like like a monthly publication or a quarterly publication. I think all of us are still very much like entrenched in alt-weekly culture, but I think we’re not trying to be stopped by the parameters of an alt-weekly. We may not have classified ads. We’re obviously not going to have that kind of circulation or that kind of distribution. But we want this to cater to people who used to read the old L.A. Weekly. We’re open to criticism, too, in terms of what did the L.A. Weekly not cover before and how can we do better than what existed. We’re open to doing something new and doing something inventive.

“We deserve to have coverage of our neighborhoods, of our communities, of things that aren’t necessarily Hollywood or car chases or things that you see on Channel 4 News.”
Jennifer Swann

So is there some funding secured then?

We have about half the funding that we’ll need to put out our first issue. That covers basically printing costs, and also the cost to pay our writers. Other than that, no one else is getting a cut from this. But we’ve gotten funding from Joshuah Bearman and Dan Fierman who run Epic Magazine, which is also based in L.A. With Epic Magazine, they basically cut us a check for half the money we need, and we’re hoping to get the other half. Ideally, we’d love to get one local business to help sponsor the whole thing, which would also be a slightly different model than an alternative weekly. We’re all journalists, none of us have a background in sales or advertising, and so we’re all just pooling our collective knowledge and our connections and just trying to see what we can do.

In one post, The LAnd says, “We’ll attempt to tell stories that exist at the intersection of race and gender, immigration and gentrification, politics, culture, class, and the ever-evolving nature of Los Angeles itself.” How are you making sure The LAnd doesn’t prioritize a white perspective or cisgender perspective or a middle class perspective?

That’s something that we’ve talked about a lot. Some of the criticisms of L.A. Weekly was that the staff tended to be majority white, cisgender, heterosexual. It’s not like we have a staff, but our contributors are a pretty diverse group. L.A. is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and so from the start we wanted to make sure that our writers and also the subject and the people that we were covering reflected the same demographics of the city.

The people who are putting together this magazine, I can’t say that we’re all reflective of L.A.’s demographics; we’re not. But we’re doing our best to reach out to writers. Almost every story that we’ve greenlit so far is a story about a part of L.A. that is a little bit under the radar, maybe in underserved communities. Basically, we’re trying to highlight the history of L.A. as well as talk about the future of L.A., and so in doing that we’re trying to pull up stories that aren’t of the mainstream narrative. We have a writer talking about a hip-hop group from Watts in the 1960s. We have another writing about an up-and-coming sports figure that is a person of color that grew up just outside of L.A. [There are] all of these areas that are not getting media coverage. But yeah, it was something that we’ve had a lot of conversations about and I’m sure it will continue to evolve. We’re definitely open to all kinds of input.