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LAist is coming back — under KPCC management

KPCC is bringing back the news site LAist.
KPCC is bringing back the news site LAist.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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After a four-month-long absence, Los Angeles news site LAist is returning to the city’s local journalism scene under a new owner — public radio station KPCC.

KPCC will run LAist out of its Pasadena offices, as part of a new public media venture announced today. The deal means the station could grow its newsroom, and, it hopes, its digital footprint. Before LAist was shuttered by its previous owner last year, it was attracting nearly 800,000 monthly visitors.

Two anonymous donors bought LAist and other sites in the Gothamist network for an undisclosed amount, along with its sister site DNAInfo. KPCC is one of three public radio stations that will be operating the sites. WNYC will run the flagship Gothamist site out of New York, and WAMU in Washington D.C. will take over DCist. 

KPCC CEO Bill Davis said in an interview that LAist would maintain its own website but that LAist content would likely show up on the KPCC site, and vice versa.

WNYC worked with the donors and brought the other stations into the deal. The donors subsidized the sale of the sites to their respective new owners.  

Davis said he would not say exactly how much the station paid as part of an agreement with the donors and other stations, but it can be deduced it was about $50,000.

In a morning interview with the KPCC show Take Two, Davis said acquisition costs were "84/1 millionths of what Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times for.” Asked later about his comment, Davis said he was working off the $500 million Soon-Shiong paid for the newspaper, plus the assumption of $90 million in pension liabilities.  

“What this does is strengthen our digital platform for a very, very affordable price,” Davis said.

The stations and donors — one is in New York, the other is bicoastal, according to Davis —say they are committed to local journalism, according to a joint statement. The revival of LAist comes after a year of heavy blows to local journalism, with deep layoffs at L.A. Weekly and Southern California News Group papers, and warring between Los Angeles Times reporters and management.

"It's a bright light in a very dark period for L.A. media," said writer Dennis Romero, who used to work at L.A. Weekly – a rival of LAist — before new ownership took over last year and laid off most of the staff. "Hopefully, it will mean jobs for folks and we definitely need extra voices out there.”

News analyst Ken Doctor of Newsonomics said he couldn't think of other notable instances where public media entities acquired an outside new site. But he said public media is in a healthier place to do these kind of acquisitions than other news organizations. 

"Local public media through public radio stations are stable and growing, at least to a small extent," Doctor said.

Doctor said that these new alliances in the different cities are rare opportunities that could only happen there because these sites sprung up in large urban centers, which also happen to have thriving stations.

In the case of KPCC, the purchase of LAist will allow the station to "find new communities and importantly because public radio needs more money to grow, to get more underwriting and to get more members into the tent," Doctor said.

By the same token, Kevin Roderick, editor of L.A.Observed.com said the sale "opens LAist up to a new audience and also to some stability."

"Being in a place not driven by the bottom line, a place that is driven by journalism standards and is public service-minded — that's a good thing," Roderick said.  

The public media deal was recently closed with Joe Ricketts, the conservative billionaire who bought the Gothamist network of sites in 2017 to expand a newsroom portfolio that already included DNAinfo, which he founded to cover neighborhood news.

Ricketts had shut down all the Gothamist sites and DNAinfo last November, a week after the staff in New York voted to unionize. More than 100 people lost their jobs. Ricketts cited unsustainable operating costs in his decision.

KPCC’s Chief Content Officer Kristen Muller said when the station was approached by WNYC to join the partnership more than a month ago, station leaders were eager to jump on board.

“We love LAist and we were sad when it went,” Muller said. “We thought it was a big loss to the journalism ecosystem.”

The station hopes to expand its audience digitally by acquiring LAist, which drew 776,000 visitors in October 2017, compared to 689,000 for KPCC's site.

“We’ve been trying to figure out the best way to do that for quite some time,” Muller said. “LAist is a native local digital news brand. And KPCC —for all its awesomeness — I think people think of it as a radio station.”

As part of the deal, Ricketts is selling off the story archives, internet domains, and social media assets of both the Gothamist and DNAinfo properties. 

Questions remain about how stories under the mantle of LAist — known for its irreverent writing and buzzy articles like “The 10 Best Places To Be Really, Really Stoned In Los Angeles” — will fit within KPCC’s editorial standards.

“It’s unknown,” Muller said. “We have to figure it out internally how best to live up to the expectation of the audience that LAist has accumulated over years.”

Davis said that content producers for LAist will be covered by the SAG-AFTRA, which currently represents producers and reporters at the station.  

Muller said she didn't see KPCC's mission as being that different from LAist’s.  Both, she said, dig into the housing, homelessness and mobility issues that Angelenos care about and both prioritize holding local government to account. LAist, she noted, broke the news that former L.A. City Council candidate Joe Bray-Ali made racist and bigoted comments online. He lost endorsements and his upstart campaign went down in flames. 

Ricketts, in the press release announcing the deal, said that he was pleased that his news sites were going to new homes at public radio stations. 

“The most important thing for me was to make sure the assets went to a news organization that would honor our commitment to neighborhood storytelling,” Ricketts said.

The press release made no mention of the fate of the other "ist" sites — SFist and Chicagoist. But Davis said that other public radio stations may decide to pick up those sites.