The Los Angeles Times is being sold to local biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong to the tune of $500 million, marking a swift and sudden turn for the media landscape in America’s second-largest city. For years LA publications, both digital and in print, have been in decline, leaving food writers, critics, and the restaurants they cover without many avenues for discussing what has become the country’s most vibrant culinary scene. But now, in the rubble of the sale of the LA Weekly, the loss of critic Besha Rodell, and the dismantling of LAist, the sale of the Times could mean that things are looking ever-so-slightly up.
The Times sale comes after many years of unease under parent company Tronc, based in Chicago, and a recent bit of turmoil surrounding staffers, firings, and accusations of sexual assault. The Times newsroom recently voted to unionize in an effort to have a greater say in budget cutbacks, layoffs, and possible company relocation plans, and is now going to be back in local control under Soon-Shiong.
It’s still early going in the sale process — things won’t be finalized until April — but staffers seem excited about the prospect of Soon-Shiong (a part owner of the Lakers) running the show. What that means for the once-robust food section of the paper remains to be seen, but the company still employs talent like Jonathan Gold, food media gatekeeper Amy Scattergood, and Jenn Harris, so it’s likely that an influx of money and sense of stability will help push the paper forward through 2018 and beyond.
Much of the rest of the restaurant and food media void is being covered hyper-locally, with a boots-on-the-ground mentality undertaken at sites like Brigham Yen in Downtown. The real estate broker is often first to announce big restaurant plans, particularly when it coincides with development deals. Urbanize LA and Curbed LA also routinely tackle the confluence of real estate and restaurants around town.
Others are taking to their personal communities to spread the restaurant word. Writer Brian Addison keeps an eye on Long Beach with his site LongBeachize, while the eponymous Toddrickallen is always spying restaurant news for the Westside. Neither may be as robust, connected, or well-funded as a traditional newspaper, but they provide local detail to a city often painted with very wide brushstrokes by papers like the NY Times. And then there is LA Taco, creators of the annual Taco Madness tournament and food festival, and lovers of all things street food and art. They’ve hired longtime food writer Javier Cabral to help expand the site’s food coverage, and it’s already paying off. Writer Gustavo Arellano is also contributing to LA Taco when he can.
At the more traditional end, there is coverage from regional papers like the Pasadena Star-News, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, and the OC Weekly and OC Register for Orange County. Ventura Boulevard Magazine writer Josh Lurie (also a contributor to Eater) is doing some of the most comprehensive San Fernando Valley restaurant coverage in recent years, and Food & Wine has been hitting LA hard over the past year with stories of openings, closures, and obscure Highland Park high-end pop-up restaurants from contributor Andy Wang. LA Magazine no longer has a critic, but is still putting out some great monthly print editions as well.
Which brings the scene to the embattled LA Weekly. The nation’s largest alternative weekly free newspaper was bought and gutted by a team of mostly Orange County natives last November, imperiling one of the city’s most important food sections. They’ve since hired a new food editor named Michele Stueven but almost none of the paper’s previous contributors have returned, leaving the food section to often go days without a single new story. LAist was similarly dismantled in early November by billionaire CEO Joe Ricketts, and has not returned.
And so LA’s food media landscape soldiers on, with only a few big players and plenty of smaller outlets taking up the mantle. Today’s news of the sale of the Times back to local ownership sounds positive for the future, at least on its face, and the continued rise of Twitter and Instagram mean in-the-know diners will still have avenues for discovering their next favorite meal or out-of-the-way restaurant. But it’s nice to see a new kind of food media landscape coalesce around Los Angeles at the precise moment it’s needed most, even if it doesn’t quite look like those traditional media tentpoles so commonly found in cities like Washington and New York. Once again, Los Angeles shows the rest of the country that just doing things a little bit differently isn’t the same as doing them wrong.