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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

CityLife: Chronicle of a death foretold

Now that it’s about to happen, it seems grimly inevitable: the closure of Las Vegas CityLife, the city’s altiest alt-weekly, after 21 roller-coaster years of reporting, snark, cultural judgment, occasional juvenilia and general cognitive dissidence. If you're a CL reader, you've seen it coming. In the paper's final zombie stagger, the masthead has dwindled to two (from seven in 2011), ads have been few, circulation's spotty. (Most frequent reader complaint: "I can't find it.") Stephens Media, CityLife's parent company, hasn't officiallyannounced the closure yet, but there's been enough down-low confirmationthat the social media eulogizing began in earnest last week. Two more issues, we hear, then the plug's out of the wall.

The shutdown is part of a larger set of changes rattling Stephens' Bonanza Road campus following the arrival of cost-cutting new CEO Ed Moss. A number of Review-Journal employees were let go last week in the company's latest round of doing more with less; and there are rumors that the View papers will scale back come spring, adding more "shopper" content and covering less of the valley. And, of course, all of this is backdropped by the ongoing American print media horror story: technology and social shifts that have led to advertiser attrition, audience fragmentation, a devaluation of the slogging craft of reporting. It was all too much for a struggling product like CityLife.

“In this fast-evolving age of glossy nightclub ads, blogs, Twitter and all the rest, CityLife could not hold its ground,” says Geoff Schumacher, the paper’s editor from 1997-2000, and its publisher from 2005-2011. “Its devoted readers were now middle-aged, middle-class, while the next generation preferred the new shiny objects.”

Add to that an ownership of traditional newspaper folks who for years couldn't quite grok how to position or support the alt-weekly in their midst. Disclosure: I edited CL from 2011 until last September and sat through more than one meeting in which a company official said, We shouldn't even own an alt-weekly. (RJ Editor Mike Hengel, under whose purview CityLife more or less falls, didn't respond to a request for comment.)

Asked for a few words on the occasion, caustic CityLife columnist Chip Mosher responded, “CityDeath. Ouch. F**k.” 

Facebook mourners say they'll miss the paper's gritty authenticity, the way it never softened its content to attract lucrative but strings-attached nightlife ads. For those readers, it filled a gap. “It was a progressive counterpoint to a local mainstream news media that are predominantly conservative and reluctant to question the status quo," Schumacher says. "CityLife was the place to go to find new ideas and different ways of looking at local issues. It also was not afraid to call a jerk a jerk or a crook a crook, a trait that will be sorely missed. Some of the city’s best writers now work for CityLife’s shimmering competitors, Vegas Seven and Las Vegas Weekly, but those pubs have no intention of delivering the progressive counterpunches needed to keep the mainstream media on their toes."

A few CityLife highlights over the years offer a hint of what will be missed: "The N-Word," a memorable package of stories and essays about racism in Las Vegas; a two-part investigation of life in the storm drains beneath the city, by Matt O'Brien and Joshua Ellis; the annual Get Out of Town and Local Heroes issues, in which the paper parsed the good guys from the bad; a cover story calling on then-Gov. Jim Gibbons to resign; league-leading coverage of the homeless, including dispatches from a homeless writer; any number of columns by George Knapp; and a welcome skepticism about some aspects of downtown redevelopment.

“Though the paper had shrunk in recent years and lost some of its independence," says O'Brien, who joined the staff in 2000 and eventually became managing editor before leaving in 2008, "it continued to hire talented writers and editors and cover important issues. It maintained some of its ancestral traits — passion, compassion, open-mindedness — and that will indeed be missed in a city that, at times, seems bereft of those things.”

Asked for a few words on the occasion, CityLife columnist Sarah Jane Woodall responded, “CityLife is pulpy, grimy and totally unsexy — an aesthetic vital to a thriving metropolis, but anathema to Vegas. Even an 11th-hour infusion of T&A in the form of yours truly couldn't save this rusted-out relic from local obsolescence ... and so it sinks to the bottom of the dead media cesspool, its eyes and genitals nibbled away by bottom-feeders and nightlife-ad salesmen.”

A few people on social media expressed the certainly vain hope that another scrappy paper would rise up to fill the void left by CityLife, but that seems unlikely. The economics of print-based publications are unforgiving. Readers have moved on, anyway, into the brave new media world.

"The increasing fragmentation of the business and the way we can now tailor the news to our individual preferences is, to me, chilling," says Bill Hughes, who was the paper's photographer for much of its lifespan, and who also edited it for a short period. "Despite the disdain some people have for journalists, most don't know how much work it takes to produce good journalism, or even mediocre journalism. Most don't even know that just babbling about current events isn't journalism, it's just babble." 

As for CityLife, he says, "It's going to be weird living here without it. Even when I didn't have time to read it or couldn't find it, it was a comfort to know CL was out there, its staff fighting the good fight."

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