Fifty years ago this week, I stood behind an immense concrete column outside the Federal Building at 300 N. Los Angeles Street, peeking out to see if anyone would pick up a copy of a new publication launched that day. I got caught in the act by a tall, broad-shouldered man with a big smile. As he walked past my hiding place he said, “Good job!”, held up a copy of the paper and pointed to photographs on the front page.
There was one of me with my back to the camera, in shorts, on my knees, as well as one of my then husband Jim Laris in the same pose as we painted bright yellow news racks destined to hold Civic Center News, the tabloid that had hit the streets hours earlier, a tabloid that we had created.
The year was 1972 and the first version of the paper was called Civic Center News because Downtown LA at that time was predominantly the Civic Center. The name Downtown News came later as the city grew. The name LA Downtown News came even later as other cities — among them Seattle, San Diego and Washington, D.C. — picked up our idea and asked our permission to use the format we had developed.
The paper was started on our kitchen table by the two of us while we held other jobs. Unrealistically, I thought I could fit producing a newspaper into my existing schedule, which included teaching English literature four nights a week at Washington Adult School, while caring for our 3-year-old son Mike in the daytime. I was wrong. Plan A was ash-canned in less than 30 days. I had to choose. Teaching was rewarding, but I rolled the dice and chose the newspaper. Jim stayed at his job as a budget analyst for the Army Corps of Engineers so we could pay the rent while we got the paper off the ground.
The day the first edition hit the streets was thrilling. We’d worked for a year in our spare time to make it happen. We were young and naïve (and without funds). Further, we had not alerted the town that a new publication was launching; we did no advance marketing. We just placed the 40 news racks we had built in high-traffic locations throughout the Civic Center. We filled those racks — made of pressed board and hefty angle iron — with 40,000 copies of the eight-page tabloid and waited to see what would happen. The pick-up rate was slow at first, but by 11 a.m. lots of people were grabbing a copy.
The founding idea behind the paper was to humanize the city. We wanted to engage with and entertain the office workers who were stuck in cubicles with few options to explore the town, even on a lunch hour. We focused on human interest stories and humor, and we each wrote a personal column.
The first few years taught me a lot about hard work and long hours — and joy from such effort. Also bringing joy was the birth of our second son Casey in 1974 about two hours after putting a paper to bed. “Thanks for taking time out for me, Mom,” Casey later said with a wry smile. Both kids grew up great, by the way, despite the demands of their parents’ work life. The marriage didn’t survive, though. In the divorce in 1980 Jim got the house and car and I got the newspaper.
At the paper we, the staff and I, slogged our way through something like four — maybe five — recessions and several waves of enormous change in the print and web business. We went from producing the paper on a kitchen table to our first offices Downtown on the second floor of an old building at First and Spring, one that was eventually razed and replaced with the Police Administration Building. We were directly across from the LA Times. My personal office faced the office of the Times’ most famous publisher, Otis Chandler. Every time I got discouraged, I’d look up and see Otis’ office, a continuing reminder to work harder. Seventeen years later, we bought a little office building about a mile west of those first offices and settled in for the long haul.
Downtown News has gone through endless assaults by competitors who challenged us, among them the Herald Examiner, whose pitch was, “We’re going to do what Sue Laris does only better.” The Hearst Corporation that orchestrated the Spanish-American War was taking me on personally. Oh, my. Then there was the LA Times, which started a paper for Downtown and the surrounding communities after the 1992 riots. That paper is now defunct, as is the Herald. We have also had about ten or so other competitors that didn’t survive.
Favorite moments, in brief
• Proving wrong the banker who, while trying not to laugh when I asked a second time for a business loan of $1,400 to start the paper, said “I’ll give you this loan because I know you’ll pay it back. But this idea is not going to work.” His attitude matched what we heard from all our friends and family. But I’d grown up in Ferndale, California, where two of my favorite people owned the town paper. The idea of creating something similar for Downtown Los Angeles seemed magical, irresistible, and we pushed forward.
•Proving wrong a county attorney who said after that first issue, “OK, so now you’ve printed everything there is to know about Downtown LA. What are you going to say next week?” Fifty years and millions of words later, here we are.
•Proving wrong the naysayers who said in 1985 there was nothing to do in Downtown LA, prompting staff to put together a list of “One Hundred Things to Do in Downtown LA,” arts and entertainment listings. We printed a new list every week.
•Successfully making a transition from “a small-town paper for big city folks,” as we once called it, into serious journalism, with award-winning stories that uncovered wrong-doing, fostered serious discussion and held politicians to account. Executive editor Jon Regardie won multiple citywide and statewide awards for excellent journalism and writing year after year, supplemented by key awards from the same organizations for photographer Gary Leonard, general manager Dawn Eastin and art director Brian Allison.
•We beat the LA Times on key stories regularly. With our tiny newsroom staff of three (total staff was eventually 37 with five in the newsroom), we spread the news often before any other medium about each new big project, and there were dozens of them, each one a cause for celebration even if not perfect. We chronicled Downtown as it grew into a “world city.” It was a heady time for Downtown, the focus of widespread media attention, and we owned it.
Our relationship with the Times was an interesting one. On the one hand there was a reporter I admired who resented the fact that we got the stories first. He went so far as to tell developers that if they gave a story to us, he would not cover it at all. Some developers were enraged at such antics and told him to take a hike.
On the other hand, the relationship with the Times was friendly, shown by this surprising event. There was an editor who was about to turn 40, and his colleague wanted to give him an outrageous birthday present. He thought the sight of a real live naked woman in the middle of the city during his workday was just the right thing (please ignore how sexist this is; it was 1985 and it was considered funny then). There was no way the colleague could sneak a naked woman into the Times building, so he colluded with the Security Pacific banker on the street-level floor below Downtown News. He asked the banker to persuade me to let the woman stand at the inside edge of our open window right over Spring Street, entirely visible to not only the birthday boy but all his colleagues and anyone driving or walking by. You know, now that I tell this story all these years later, I don’t think it’s funny anymore. But there it is.
• The most gratifying moment in Downtown News’ history was the readers’ reaction to learning there were children living on Skid Row. Downtown News was the first publication to spread the word. Yes, we all know the wretched truth now, but then the broad assumption was that the residents of Skid Row were men down on their luck and, unfortunately, there was little community interest in helping them. A waitress at Hill’s Code 7 interrupted a lunch meeting with my managing editor one day to ask, “When are you guys going to cover the kids living on Skid Row?” What?! She told us the disturbing story. We confirmed it and then splashed the story across our few pages. The joy is that readers rose to the moment. Cars with trunks full of clothes, shoes and Christmas presents pulled up to the front of the shelter. Donors also brought books. And money. And moral support. It was a turning point to the community’s much deeper understanding of Skid Row.
•On the investigative reporting front, here are two examples, by no means all: We uncovered a rare but significant shameful moment at the Music Center where a fundraiser and her treasurer were keeping two sets of books, one real and one doctored to show to the board. One offender went to jail. We uncovered wrongdoing by the Convention and Visitors Bureau. We broke stories that gave a home to heated discourse about community issues such as urban density and green space.
•The arson fire at the Central Library in 1986 was by far the worst moment in Downtown in the past 50 years. The Central Library was (and is again) a world-class monument to literacy and architecture. It was set aflame. Seeing it burn was wrenching, heartbreaking, something I’ll never recover from fully. It was an assault on all of us and on the world as we want to see it. Corporate leaders — and there were a lot of them in Downtown then — were moved to step forward in a big way, as did everyone who loved the iconic institution.
In 1972 I never could have imagined that this newspaper would outlive or have a stronger community voice than the Downtown corporate giants that had dominated the scene in the 1980s: among others Security Pacific Bank no longer exists, nor does United California Bank. Chevron and particularly Arco were major players but faded, Bank of America had its world headquarters here but moved to North Carolina. The crippling recession of the 1990s started the erosion. The major corporations were missed rather desperately at first, but Downtown rethought itself and flourished without them, with Staples Center leading the way.
It’s worth noting why Downtown LA became a true city, a “world city,” one that gave me the opportunity to have a career that I loved and gave Los Angeles a more powerful world identity. The credit goes to Mayor Tom Bradley. His vision was the defining force that created not only the urban skyline recognized around the world but the hundreds of thousands of jobs that go with it. Mayor Bradley wanted to create an employment center near where the 1965 Watts riots had taken place. He used the Community Redevelopment Agency to make that happen. He started working on it in January 1973 when he was sworn in and made it the focus of his efforts for the 20 years he was mayor. Not without controversy, he was the most consequential mayor in the city’s history.
Thank you, Tom Bradley. Thank you, city builders, all. Thank you, readers of Downtown News. Very nice to have known you.
Sue Laris is the former editor, publisher and owner of LA Downtown News.