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So What Do You Do, Sarah Fenske, Editor-in-Chief of L.A. Weekly?

'The L.A. Weekly has a few perks that online-only sites don't have'

By Richard Horgan - June 20, 2012
Last Halloween, Sarah Fenske officially began what she described at the time as an impossible-to-turn-down career opportunity: editor-in-chief of Village Voice Media's L.A. Weekly. The position still ranks as one of the city's juiciest journalism perches and represents a big jump up for the Cleveland native, whose career with VVM began in 2004 as a columnist for the Phoenix New Times.

At the time of her L.A. Weekly appointment, some media critics took issue with the fact that Fenske lacked L.A. living experience, while others cynically focused on the fact that she used to date VVM executive Mike Lacey. But in the heat of her first L.A. summer, Fenske can point to a still profitable print side, robust monthly page views and three reporters vying this weekend for various "Journalist of the Year" honors at the 54th Annual L.A. Press Club Southern California Journalism Awards.

All told, L.A. Weekly is up for 18 L.A. Press Club honors including "Best Facebook Presence by a News Organization." Not bad for less than eight months on the job.

Position: Editor-in-chief, L.A. Weekly
Resume: Enjoyed brief successive stints at the Lorain Morning Journal (reporter, 1999-2001), Cleveland Scene (staff writer, 2001-2003) and the Houston Press (staff writer, 2003-2004) before joining Phoenix New Times in 2004 as a columnist. In 2011, became managing editor of Riverfront Times in St. Louis and picked up a prestigious Livingston Award for local reporting for "Mr. Big Stuff," a piece on corruption in Maricopa County, Arizona. Named editor-in-chief of LA Weekly in October 2011.
Birthday: April 17
Hometown: Cleveland, OH
Education: B.A. from The College of Wooster
Marital status: Single
Media idol: Joan Didion
Favorite TV show: Mad Men
Guilty pleasure: Gin
Last book read: Say Nice Things About Detroit by Scott Lasser
Twitter handle: @SarahFenske

The biggest challenge you faced as editor-in-chief was replacing Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. What were the essential qualities you looked for when interviewing his replacement, and what finally made you choose Besha Rodell?
I really wanted to hire someone locally -- if only to make up for my own weakness as an outsider. But, the more I dug into the situation, the more I had to reexamine that priority. I began to realize every good food writer in town knew every other food writer in town -- and many not only knew the top chefs, they'd collaborated with them on a cookbook or something. What the Weekly needed was someone who didn't have allegiances, someone who could assess this town with a fresh eye and call a spade for what it was. Jonathan was -- and is -- an incredibly beautiful writer, but he never writes negative reviews. That worked for him, wonderfully, and it still works now that he's over at the Times. But what is the Weekly if not the alternative: the smart, edgy voice that calls bullshit? We needed someone who could be critical when it was called for, and who had no loyalties, and who was not interested in befriending the city's chefs. And that would make the praise mean all the more when it came. We needed someone fearless. The minute I read her clips, I knew Besha was it.

"What is the Weekly if not the alternative: the smart, edgy voice that calls bullshit?"

Once Rodell was announced as food critic, Eater LA made it its mission to publish a photo of her. They failed miserably, but what is your personal take on the topic of food critic anonymity. Is it still necessary and beneficial, or -- in this wired day and age -- an outdated concept?
Anonymity is less important to me than a lack of allegiances. Sure, some maitre d' might figure out who Besha is, and Eater might actually get an OK photo one of these days. (We hope not, but we aren't actively trying to thwart them, either.) As long as she's keeping a low profile, not befriending the people she's writing about, and not accepting freebies, she's likely going to get the same experience as any no-name diner, and she's going to have an honest take on whether the restaurant works. That's what matters to me.

Since you took over in the fall of 2011, you've presided over some highs (Gene Maddaus' con man cover story) and lows (Simone Wilson falsely reporting that the L.A. Weekly had done very little original L.A. riots reporting ). How, as an editor, do you try to comfort and support a reporter when things go wrong rather than right?
That "goof," as you say, was a tough one, and in retrospect, I could point to six or seven things that went wrong along the way. Had any number of checks and balances kicked in, that wouldn't have happened, and I have to take full responsibility for that reason. Simone may have had the byline, but that was a team failure, which makes it my failure.

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But the thing is, with online journalism in particular, we are moving so quickly that mistakes happen. It's a fact of the job these days, much as I hate it. So, I try to stress owning our errors instead of erasing them, no matter how embarrassing. And then I try to analyze what happened and figure out how to prevent it from happening again. Of course, it's like Whack-a-Mole: You fix one flaw in your system and another pops up. That's the online beast. But everyone here is working their ass off and devoted to getting things right. That means it's less about the blame game and more about putting systems in place, and best practices, that help these very talented reporters succeed even when they're working at an incredibly fast pace.

Speaking of talented reporters, Gene's scoop was just a joy to edit - and, frankly, a joy to read. Stories like that make up for the days when we screw up to some extent, although in retrospect the lows always linger longer than the highs.

For several years, there have been rumors that L.A. Weekly might one day go Web-only. What is the current print vs. Web circulation, and how do you see that playing out over the next few years?
I think we're at 170,000 copies out there every week and roughly 7.1 million page views a month. Online is growing; print, obviously, isn't although the paper still gets scooped up as fast as ever. That said, it's impossible to imagine we'd ever go online-only. The print paper is quite profitable and, I think, a damned good read. It's great we can supplement it with all these online extras, but print is still where my heart is and where the revenue comes from, too.

"It's like Whack-a-Mole: You fix one flaw in your system and another pops up. That's the online beast."

Also, have you found a big difference in L.A. Weekly Web traffic since the L.A. Times switched to a paywall in March? And is it fair to say the L.A. Times is your main competition?
The paywall hasn't affected us much, which is probably a sign we need to hustle even more to get the word out about how much interesting stuff we're posting online. There are just so many choices for people who want to read the news, or kill time, online. As much as the Times is, and always will be, our main competition to sources and the arts community and real news junkies, that's a small percentage of the people online every day. And every reader that the Times loses has a million other choices for reading material even if that's just LOLcats. It's a constant battle to make sure they come to our site.

Whether it's L.A. Weekly, Patch, TMZ or Huffington Post, there is a certain relentless quality to Internet journalism. What are, in your opinion, the keys to ferreting out and keeping effective 21st century digital journalists?
Frankly, I think part of it is giving them a chance to take a break from online. Dennis Romero, who's our lead blogger and just kills it every day, just wrote a cover story -- which, by the way, is awesome. The L.A. Weekly has a few perks that online-only sites don't have: We can give you the chance to write about music or art if that's your thing. And, hopefully, we can help you find the time to mix it up and write a 4,000-word cover story, too. But it is tough. I have no idea how most bloggers can sustain that pace. I used to fill in for our news blogger in St. Louis when he was on vacation (the perils of leading a small staff!), and it just about killed me. I have the utmost respect for anyone writing multiple posts per day.

Finally, in the time you've been editor-in-chief, can you highlight (without naming names) one or two of the worst pitches or job candidate experiences you've deal with, and why?
I had an L.A.-based PR person email me this kind of condescending note about how we really ought to write about startups -- L.A. was becoming such a hub with Silicon Beach, etc. -- [and] if I had any questions, to just let her know. Well, at this point, we'd been running a column in the very front of the book for four months or so called, yes, "Startups," profiling companies that were doing just that. I wrote back suggesting she check out the column and to let me know if she had any ideas for it. I never heard back.

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Richard Horgan is co-editor of FishbowlLA.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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