RIP to Las Vegas’ ‘gritty’ alt-weekly, CityLife

While it was no surprise, the news this week that Las Vegas CityLife is ending still touched a deep nerve in our community. The self-described “gritty” alternative weekly newspaper was always a bit of an underdog in its 21-year run, especially in a city that celebrates glitter over substance and g-strings over bootstraps.

I have always considered my three years (2004-07) in the CL newsroom to be a highlight of my career both because of the caliber of work that was demanded of me and the creative incubator of talent that the CityLife newsroom once was. How many book authors, artists, and photographers have worked there over the years? There were at least three in the newsroom when I was there (and one about to be published). I was the odd bird who wasn’t working on a book or script while at CityLife!

The CityLife newsroom was the best kind of organized chaos — free-thinking, loyal, and passionate. There was a culture of caring about our community. Even as it was very male-dominated, it had a kind of familial vibe to me — a band of brothers (and the occasional sister). People argued and grumbled, just like at any workplace, but there was an underlying respect that always felt like a rarity in the journalism industry. Certainly, at times it was a place where people acted juvenile, elitist, insecure, myopic, and sexist (ahem, guys standing around Bill’s computer ogling photos of half-naked women less than a foot away from my desk — awkward). Pushing the envelope was implied with every assignment. It was a place that encouraged speaking truth to power and digging deeply into the story. Best of all, at least to me, CityLife did not concern itself with being pretty or kind or especially well-liked by powers that be. There was no quid-pro-quo. There were no favors. In my 15 years in journalism, I have yet to work at another place that was as congenial to creativity and as resolute in its mission.

CityLife was the first place where an editor (Steve Sebelius) told me, “You are the authority. Speak with authority.” Indeed, I found my authority and voice while working at CityLife thanks to the editors during those years — Matt O’Brien, Mike Zigler (RIP), Jarret Keene, Sebelius, and Andrew Kiraly. (Plus Bill Hughes, who wore an invisible editor’s hat, in my opinion.) Each of them, in their own ways, pushed me. Each of them taught me lessons I still use today. Each of them showed a kind of faith in me and my talent that I did not have in myself, yet. Whatever faults each of them might have — and we all have faults — I never once felt the ugly kind of sexism that is so often pervasive in male-majority groups. In my tenure, I was the only female staff writer and I came in after a lone female staff writer left. The weekly editorial meetings could sometimes devolve into a kind of hipster-frat-boy joke fest that I know some of my female colleagues didn’t care for. I make no excuses for that and, if I’m being honest, I contributed my share of raunchy, inappropriate jokes to the banter. But whatever off-color utterances there were in the CL newsroom, it was certainly magnitudes better than the daily paper I worked at in Oregon in which an editor suggested I’d get more story assignments if I left more buttons undone on my blouse. … But I digress. My point is I was never passed over for the plum assignments at CityLife. (In fact, Sebelius once sent me to crash a clandestine meeting between a union boss and an alleged mobster!) I was never made to feel that my abilities were in question or less valid because of my gender. And that’s a big thing in a society, and an industry, that still has an awful lot of sexist pricks in it. And it was the only newsroom I have ever worked in where a colleague did not stab me in the back to get the scoop over me or in which I found source material missing from my desk. (Seriously, some of you other journalists out there are some shady motherfuckers.)

In my time at CityLife I found my fear threshold as a journalist and I found my power. The Sin City Siren is directly influenced by my time at CL. And I am grateful for the lessons I learned there; the friendships made; the experiences I had; the awards I won, and of course the stories I told:

  • On human bondage, an award-winning story about human trafficking. I’ve only cried twice in the newsroom (the other time was when I had to write about the death of a source) and writing this was one of them.
  • The Sludge Report: You think the chemical spill in West Virginia is nasty? Perhaps you’ve never heard about the more than 400 chemicals that leached into the soil and water under the former BMI site in Henderson.
  • The West Side Mothers, who shut down The Strip with one of the biggest protests in Las Vegas history, continue to be an inspiration to me.
  • Remember Darlene Jesperson, the Reno bartender who was fired for not wearing makeup?
  • Road to recovery, an in-depth look at the drug rehab experience. This one, about a mother who goes through 30 days of rehab, made a lasting impact on me on a personal level.
  • Eggs, bacon, coffee, and soul, my award-winning love-letter to Las Vegas by way of the drugstore diner, Tiffany’s Cafe, inside White Cross Drugs.
  • Hot and bothered, a look into the myriad sides of sex work and sex worker rights. This one got me on Metro’s vice detective’s shit list for a long time and a Nevada Press Association first place writing award.
  • Exit stage left, a sentimental favorite about former Clark County Democrat Chair Charlie Waterman.
  • That time I had a hand in ending former Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson’s 2006 gubernatorial bid
  • A small story, this one about former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur was a turning point for me personally. Before interviewing Van Derbur, I would always ask to avoid stories dealing with sexual abuse.
  • This one on that wacky guy off Maryland Parkway with the “Stop Elder Abuse” sign was one of my first assignments at CityLife.
  • And my actual first assignment for CityLife, a dispatch from Blue Diamond (the town, not the road) for Tales from the Outskirts. Some 10 years later, the story is like a pre-real-estate-bubble time capsule of what was.

That’s a dozen stories that meant something to me in the three years I worked there. I don’t think I could keep to just a dozen if I extended my reach to my colleagues during those same years. O’Brien is known for his tunnel stories but I will never forget the story he did on a felon trying to make good after prison. Kiraly had the rarefied knack for finding the humanity of the quirky outliers and misfits. Sebelius ushered in an era of master-class political writing. And I got a pop culture education sitting next to Mike Prevatt and Kevin Capp. That’s just the surface. The deep well of talent and stories in the archives is a testament to the quality of CityLife throughout the years and why it was a leader in local media for much of its lifespan. But everything changes. By now, we’ve all seen how these modern times have been particularly hard on old journalism — a vital medium to any democracy — that is standing stubbornly like a Zax in the road, unyielding at its own peril. Newspapers are dying because of recalcitrant ideologies and convenient scapegoating (online media) and, unfortunately, CityLife has been a recent casualty of this idiomatic War of the Words.

Indeed, alt-weeklies in particular, which should be unusually positioned to capitalize on the snark and immediacy of the online media model, have failed more spectacularly than most print outlets. As this Poynter article posits alt-weeklies are sinking precisely because so much of online media presents the news in an alt-weekly style. Why look for a dead tree when I can get the same feel for less bother on my smartphone? Weeklies must adapt or they will certainly die off completely. By the way, I feel a need to point out that Las Vegas has multiple offerings of the alt-weekly persuasion that are doing just fine — Vegas Seven and Las Vegas Weekly among them — so save your pitchforks for us online folks for another day. Bloggers and online media hubs are convenient scapegoats, but let me point out that sites like mine barely, if ever, have advertising income (SCS takes no ads, for instance) and therefore are not siphoning off print market share. If print media can’t keep their product “sticky” — industry speak for getting and keeping eyeballs on the page — that’s not the fault of the New Media lot.

As is the human condition, there’s going to be a tendency to want to “make something” of this newspaper’s death. Indeed, the hand-wringing has already begun with an op-ed by former CL editor Scott Dickensheets, now at Desert Companion:

The shutdown is part of a larger set of changes rattling Stephens’ Bonanza Road campus following the arrival of cost-cutting new CEO Ed Moss. A number of Review-Journal employees were let go last week in the company’s latest round of doing more with less; and there are rumors that the View papers will scale back come spring, adding more “shopper” content and covering less of the valley. And, of course, all of this is backdropped by the ongoing American print media horror story: technology and social shifts that have led to advertiser attrition, audience fragmentation, a devaluation of the slogging craft of reporting. It was all too much for a struggling product like CityLife. …

A few CityLife highlights over the years offer a hint of what will be missed: “The N-Word,” a memorable package of stories and essays about racism in Las Vegas; a two-part investigation of life in the storm drains beneath the city, by Matt O’Brien and Joshua Ellis; the annual Get Out of Town and Local Heroes issues, in which the paper parsed the good guys from the bad; a cover story calling on then-Gov. Jim Gibbons to resign; league-leading coverage of the homeless, including dispatches from a homeless writer; any number of columns by George Knapp; and a welcome skepticism about some aspects of downtown redevelopment.

“Though the paper had shrunk in recent years and lost some of its independence,” says O’Brien, who joined the staff in 2000 and eventually became managing editor before leaving in 2008, “it continued to hire talented writers and editors and cover important issues. It maintained some of its ancestral traits — passion, compassion, open-mindedness — and that will indeed be missed in a city that, at times, seems bereft of those things.”

Perhaps a popular take on the end of what was a much-loved publication for many years — even if not as much in recent years with declining page-counts and spotty market presence. (If you have to ask where to find it, something is very wrong.) It was all but certain CityLife’s days were numbered when Dickensheets and A&E Editor Mike Prevatt each moved on to greener pastures. (In Prevatt’s case, going to work at Dickensheet’s old stomping ground, The Las Vegas Weekly.)

As difficult as this change is for many, I found this week’s second-to-last op-ed from CityLife, The loss of a truth-telling voice, written by Hektor Esparza, to be a perplexing rant against, essentially, The Man, corporate greed, and a subtle jab at the whims of readers:

In this penultimate issue of the grittiest and only true alt-weekly in Las Vegas, I find it fitting to go out not with a humble whimper, but swinging wildly with the same kind of zeal for telling the truth that made CityLife a unique voice in Southern Nevada for nearly 21 years.

During the paper’s lifetime, its editors and writers delivered old school reportage with a high standard of journalistic integrity and objectivity, earning the recognition of the Nevada Press Association and The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. At the same time, it also offered a bold and unflinching (mainly) liberal perspective on a wide range of issues. Like any voice perceived too radical, CityLife was often marginalized and discounted for being too far to the Left. Its subject matter wasn’t the sexiest or flashiest. Its content was not likely to attract the kind of people who don’t mind dropping a $1,000 on bottle service at a nightclub, negating a potent source of ad revenue.

In my view, this kind of practical weakness should be worn as a badge of honor, not something to be apologetic over.

The cultural and economic health of communities everywhere depends on writers empowered to express views coming from diverse perspectives. When all is reduced to a popularity contest with winners valued for their material success and outward beauty above all else, the society as a whole suffers. Rather than striving for individual or corporate financial success, I posit that our purpose as humans is getting to become our unique selves and to help each other realize what we are capable of creatively, physically, mentally and emotionally. Fostering respect for social justice, and issues associated with the humanities is what newspapers like CityLife do, indirectly helping more people have a chance at finding happiness.

CityLife’s end will be, without a doubt, another story of the age of electronic media pushing newspapers out of business all over the world. It is also a symptom of an increasingly top-heavy global economy where those at the top gain more power and influence by means of their already formidable power and influence. In this world, the dominant culture has shown it doesn’t value the kinds of perspectives CityLife offers enough for it to stay in print. It also represents another front of the grander cultural battle between those who believe there is high intrinsic value in organic cultural and economic diversity, and those who believe that the acquisition of wealth in and of itself is the mark of human achievement.

Um, what? With all due respect, Hektor, are you suggesting that media outlets should eschew any semblance of a profit model in order to help readers find their bliss? Or that the market place (or readership) marginalizes a paper for being “too far to the Left.” What does that have to do with truth-telling journalism, by the way? Dare I say it, this is not the stuff of any CityLife newsroom I know. Readers want answers. Flailing rage is no substitute for authority and readers can tell the difference. They aren’t looking to alt-weeklies for salvation or personal enlightenment. They can go find a copy of Eat, Pray, Love for that. Perhaps this seemingly rudderless tone-change is the ultimate problem that couldn’t be fixed here. I haven’t seen a story from CL being circulated via social media in I don’t know how long. I don’t hear people talk about a must-read from CL. Why is that? The stories in CityLife haven’t been resonating with readers, that’s why.

Certainly, Stephens bean-counters have a particular knack at diluting otherwise profitable brands. The Views, for instance, were a cash cow when I worked there in the early 2000s and bare almost no resemblance to the author-less tripe printed indiscriminately in them today. (I say indiscriminately because there doesn’t seem to be any zone-specific coverage in The Views anymore.) And as we know from dwindling Review Journal subscriptions, Stephens isn’t doing all that well by its flagship publication these days, either. (Seize the day, Las Vegas Sun!)

Regardless of the whys and hows, the end of days is nigh for the “grittiest” alt-weekly. For those wishing to commiserate or celebrate, Launce Rake is organizing a farewell party next week at 7 pm on Jan. 30 at Huntridge Tavern. (That’s time-date-place AP Style rules for you, Steve.) Details can be found on a public Facebook event page, Say “Goodbye” (or “Good Riddance”) to Las Vegas CityLife, which might not have all past CL employees and contributors on the invite list.

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One thought on “RIP to Las Vegas’ ‘gritty’ alt-weekly, CityLife

  1. Pingback: Why the inclusive history of CityLife maters | The Sin City Siren

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