LA Weekly Publisher Finds Good Not Enough in Post

By CLAUDIA PESCHIUTTA
Staff Reporter

By all accounts, LA Weekly President and Publisher Michael Sigman did an admirable job steering the alternative paper through a recession that has killed or severely ravaged many other publications.

He judiciously trimmed expenses, sparing all but a couple of part-timers from layoffs, bolstered the classified ad staff to boost revenues, and managed to keep 2001 ad revenues equal to those of 2000, a feat few publishers were able to pull off.

But apparently that wasn't enough for the recently reorganized management team running the Weekly's New York-based parent, Village Voice Media.

So after 18 years at the Weekly, Sigman departed last week, leaving a befuddled staff and lots of unanswered questions in his wake.

In a short, e-mail, Sigman told employees at LA Weekly and its sister OC Weekly that VVM Chief Executive David Schneiderman "has let me know it's time for a change."

As staff members began checking their messages, "you (would) hear somebody on the other side of the room go, 'Oh no!' or 'Oh my God,'" said Matt Coker, managing editor of the OC Weekly. Even high-level employees were surprised by the announcement.

VVM isn't saying much about what's in store for the paper. Schneiderman's ambition, however, has been to expand the presence of VVM's seven papers beyond the alternative press and attract advertisers away from other media, such as cable, television and radio.

While conceding that the LA Weekly is one of VVM's top-performing papers, Schneiderman said he wants to replace Sigman with someone who has a strong background in sales and marketing and "pushes the growth."

The change will not affect the Weekly's editorial content, he said.

"What David will tell you is there's more of an ambition to make the company a national media company and to leverage the assets for the paper in each city," Sigman said.

'Fresh eyes'

Schneiderman while saying Sigman did a "great job" said new leadership is needed.

"Mike's been there (nearly) 20 years, and after that period of time, I think it's good to have a pair of fresh eyes," Schneiderman said. "It's time to have somebody who hasn't spent their entire life in this industry."

While the LA Weekly's ad revenues have held up relatively well through the recession, VVM's overall ad revenues fell last year (though earnings exceeded those of 2000).

The Weekly and other alternatives have been hurt by the loss of tobacco and dot-com advertising. Last year, alternative papers lost about half of their national advertising, which accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of the revenues at large weeklies, said Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

"If you look back at the last recession in the early '90s, most of our papers were still in a huge growth phase and thought they were recession-proof," Karpel said. "It stands to reason that (the LA Weekly) is feeling the effects of this advertising recession like it hasn't before."

Besides a new publisher, the Weekly might get more corporate control from New York, some sources said. Soon after the economy began to go south, VVM reorganized its management team and began taking a more hands-on approach. "They shifted to a very aggressive, top-down corporate management," said an industry source.

That's far from Sigman's style. The 52-year-old executive instilled a relatively laid-back atmosphere and didn't meddle with editorial.

"One of the things Mike was respected for was trying to insulate the staff against the pain of cost-cutting," said Associate Editor Howard Blume.

Staff's displeasure

Unionized LA Weekly staff members in the production and editorial departments have sent Schneiderman an e-mail expressing their "collective concern and displeasure regarding Mike Sigman's departure."

Sigman, who has worked at only one other publication in his life, said he isn't sure where he will go next. His sole goal, for now, is to go on a meditative retreat.

"It could be painful. It could be fun. It could be interesting," he said.

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