Live Fast, Die Young: The Death of The District Weekly
2:00am | This is not how I hoped to say goodbye to one part of my life. I was the first and last copy editor at The District Weekly, and I have been steadily involved with the paper as a contributing writer for the last two years. And now it's over.
I'm so sad about this. I'm sad not just for myself and my colleagues, but also for Long Beach, which I think really, really loses something here. And what makes me sadder is that I'm not so sure the loss was inevitable.
But if, for whatever reasons, it had to end, it should not have been this way. If nothing else, all of the employees should have found themselves disappointed to be out of work but feeling as well as could be expected about this unfortunate passing, that the best care possible had been dispensed to this beautiful but terminal patient.
But that's not the way it happened.
I am one of several now-former employees owed a substantial amount of money—in my case, for work dating back to Vol. 3, Issue 431—and I am frustrated and sad and angry and hurt. I would be the first two merely because the paper ceased publication—I loved The District, and I loved being a part of it—but I am the latter two for reasons that go beyond this. I am angry and hurt both because I (along with many others) was knowingly denied information about The District Weekly's ability to pay its employees, information inquired after and to which we were entitled so that we could make informed decisions about whether to continue to provide our services; and because I was given information that turned out not to be true, apparently as an inducement to continue to provide services.
Because many people are associated with The District Weekly, I want to note that when I speak here about a lack of forthcomingness and a source of claims that proved untrue, I am speaking only about Heather Swaim, who is listed as president of Seven Days Publishing, the company founded in 2007 to produce the alt-weekly.
Roughly two months ago The District went from paying freelancers weekly for their work to a supposed 30-day cycle2—although none of us was informed until after the fact, when we started asking after our missing paychecks. This maneuver was executed as a strategy to combat what had become (and perhaps long been) a disastrous and untenable fiscal reality at the paper—again, something about which Swaim was not forthcoming at any time.
Subsequent to pay disbursements not being made in accordance with this new plan, there were numerous promises about pay to come that never did, the last as recently as March 14, when Swaim stated via e-mail that she wanted "[me] and the other freelancers [to] know that I'm cutting checks tomorrow morning that cover [work done for] more back issues." And yet in response to a March 17 e-mail I sent asking about this situation and expressing my chagrin over having to learn of her confirmation that publication was ceasing by reading it on LAObserved.com, Swaim stated that she knew on March 14 that publication would cease: "Rather than generate more debt, I decided to pull the plug on Sunday night." It is unclear to me how Swaim could not have known Sunday afternoon that she would not be sending out paychecks the following morning if she knew by Sunday evening that publication would be ceasing.
Despite having apparently reached that decision, and by that point clearly aware that back pay promised to be sent the following day (never mind pay for future work) would or could not be, Swaim let at least one (perhaps more—I can speak only for myself) of her employees continue to work to produce an issue of the paper.
This series of events is emblematic of many that took place in The District's final months. I am angry and hurt because whatever was inevitable and was outside of anyone's control, this kind of thing clearly was not.
Undoubtedly there are things of which I am not aware; and Swaim would be the person from whom to get her side of the story. I asked Swaim for further comment about this and related matters—first in an e-mail with an angry and attacking tone of which I am not proud, later in a phone conversation that was much more civil3. Without speculating on rationale, what I can say is that to me some of Swaim's explanation regarding the what/when/how of what transpired does not seem to add up, and some of it simply appears to be false.
Perhaps also worth mentioning here is Swaim's expression of her own sadness at The District's demise. "[While] I understand your frustration," she wrote to me, "I doubt very much you've come close to feeling mine right now."
To be sure, I recognize that The District was more central to many people's lives—including Swaim's—than it was to mine, and that they may grieve its passing more deeply. But that is not the issue. Moreover, it seems to me that difficulty of situation and strength/sincerity of feeling do not justify certain chosen actions (or lack thereof).
I cannot say for sure what efforts Seven Days Publishing and/or Swaim will or will not undertake to pay the monies owed. Swaim acknowledges that she "f***ed up" and states that "it's extremely important to me to pay off what we can." It is my great hope that these matters will be resolved amicably4.
However poorly The District's financial troubles may have been handled at the end, and however much the paper may not have had (as Dave Wielenga puts it) the most efficient business model, and whyever it was much less known than it should have been (I can't tell you how many times my mentioning that I wrote for The District Weekly resulted in a reply of, "What's that?"), it is certain that many of the troubles were not caused in-house. For starters there was the general state of the economy, which hurt everybody—including potential advertisers. Then there was a spike in the cost of putting out a print publication. Add to that the contraction of the print medium as an industry. Plus, there were various advertising boycotts, such as one related to reportage on some dubious dealings between the City and a local business association, and another because some members of a separate local business association did not like that one of their restaurants received what they deemed to be an unfairly negative review.
These boycotts put me in mind of why I was always so happy to be associated with The District, and why blemishes on the corpse it has left (death is rarely pretty5) should not lead any of us to forget the prepossessing corpus that was its life. The District had integrity. While I was never in a position to be able now to give due praise to other parts of the organization, I can testify that this publication featured a group of smart, talented, diligent, sincere writers telling the stories they found as they perceived them to be, whether we're talking government impropriety, good places to eat, or a play I just didn't get. And there was a style, a snark, a gonzo quality that, while not to everyone's taste, made each issue as fun to copy edit as it was informative and compelling.
One of my fondest memories is of The District at a peak of sorts. I had just come on board as a theatre critic. I had been doing write-ups of arts goings-on around town for Sander Wolff's LongBeachCulture.org, and to that end I had attended opening night of Alive Theatre's Lucia Mad. Because I so liked the play and wanted as many people as possible to get the chance to see it, I sent the review I wrote to The District by way of then-Managing Editor Ellen Griley, who passed it along to then-Editor in Chief Will Swaim, who apparently liked it so much that he called me and asked if I would become a regular theatre contributor. It seemed Swaim prided himself on corralling a certain kind of talent, and thus he assembled quite a staff. It's not so much that there was a likeness you could see in everybody, but you could discern a certain thread running through the entire fabric.
Staff meetings were Fridays at 11 a.m. If you know me, you know how early that is for me to be anywhere but abed. But I was invited, and I wanted to meet these folks who had been putting out this paper I quite liked, and so I went once. And then immediately I was going every week. It was not because I had much to contribute to the discussions—it was just to be around this group: Ellen and Dave, Theo Douglas and Chris Ziegler, Steve Lowery and Jenny Stockdale, et al. It was just fun to be in that room. And at the time it seemed the sky was the limit. The District was expanding—in staff, in physical size, in scope, in distribution. A separate issue was even being printed for Costa Mesa/Huntington Beach.
And then the sky came crashing down, and the paper went into survival mode, pared down to its barest bones. An able skeleton crew kept the ship afloat—though at times the paper was quite emaciated—and eventually it seemed they found better seas and were able to re-embark crewmembers. Eventually I became more a part than ever, all at once doing theatre reviews (and occasional other features), the copy editing, and writing for the Best Food + Drinks Guide. Somewhere in there I began to hear whispers of money problems (it was an open secret around town), which increased in number and volume. But the workload seemed steady, and I was and wasn't being told such and such, and . . . the rest is history.
A beautiful, sad, and interesting chapter of Long Beach history is concluded, and you have just read a few of its final paragraphs. There may be those who find this requiem untoward, that it would make for a more graceful exit were I to mention only the good, the lovely, the aspects we will happily recall, to populate the photo album only with proud moments. But that is not an attempt to render a whole portrait, even if one can shoot only from a subjective and necessarily limited view. It is not the attempt for truth.
Apropos: If I might personify The District for a moment, I think it's safe to say (s)he valued truth highly, trying to provide clear and detailed pictures populated with the facts as (s)he could cull and understand them, not just snapshots from the pretty angles. So wouldn't it be hypocritical to talk about the death of The District otherwise? Personally, if I must sin, I would rather err on the side of gracelessness than hypocrisy. Silence would have been a third option, but somehow keeping silent does not seem of a piece with The District. To its eternal credit, The District was not known for keeping silent. That may have hurt him/her in the end, but I think (s)he'd be damned rather than to have kept quiet.
I believe that what I have said here is the best tribute I could have made to the spirit of the dear departed: to have told one writer's unvarnished truth about The District Weekly itself.
1The last issue on which I worked was Vol. 3, Issue 49. To my knowledge, the final issue (Issue 50), was not worked on by any of the now-former editorial staff.
2"Supposed" because many of us have received no payments at all since that time.
3In an earlier e-mail to Swaim I had mentioned that I might be writing something about this—not meant as a threat, but because I wanted her to be informed of the possibility. "You can say whatever you like," she replied.
4However, to this point nothing I have heard inspires optimism.
5A description, not an excuse.