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Fateful Outlook

By Kim Irwin and Josh Grossberg

March 13, 1999 -- Suddenly, we were the story.

In a move that shocked an unprepared community of loyal readers and floored 46 employees, Copley Press Inc. closed The Outlook newspaper on March 13, 1998, silencing a voice that had spoken for Santa Monica for 123 years.

News spread fast -- as bad news will -- that The Outlook was the latest casualty in a shrinking daily newspaper market. Soon, our newsroom telephones rang with calls from reporters at other media outlets. They wanted a comment. Television news crews roamed through a newsroom that more closely resembled a morgue. They wanted sound bites and b-roll. Reporters wrote their stories for the final edition staring at screens blurred by tears.

We cried for our lost jobs, but also for the death of yet another newspaper. And for the void the loss of The Outlook would create for Santa Monica and its people.

We called it Black Friday.

Now, one year later, a group of Outlook employees is giving Santa Monica its community voice back, creating a city-focused web site that will pick up where The Outlook left off.

"The presses may have stopped a year ago, but we proved that nothing could kill something as essential as the need to get the news out," said former Outlook reporter Jorge Casuso, a principal of Surfsantamonica.com. "We also showed that the dedication and talent and spirit that made The Outlook so special never died."

Ominous signs

While the closure of The Outlook stunned employees, in retrospect, maybe we shouldn't have been quite so surprised.

Copley Press Inc., which had owned the two-story Outlook building at 20th Street and Colorado Avenue since purchasing the newspaper in 1983, sold the building for $5 million not long before the paper folded The Outlook went from being an owner to a renter. None of that money was put back into the 23,000-circulation newspaper.

In 1995, citing falling revenues, Copley Press Inc. officials laid off 10 Outlook employees and consolidated several departments. And in a move that bewildered most survivors, high-level management decided to move the classified advertising operation from Santa Monica to Torrance, home of our sister publication, The Daily Breeze. We were told that move cos t The Outlook about $400,000 in annual revenues. No coherent reason was ever given for the move.

Revenues were down, we were told by grim-faced managers at funereal staff meetings. Annual salary increases were promised, then canceled. Open positions were left unfilled.

Surely, these were not the signs of a healthy business venture.

Still, when the hammer fell, we were as surprised as our loyal readers, who after hearing the news sent flowers, offered their condolences and left love notes on our locked office doors the next day.

Besides, we were looking for signs – any small hint that we might survive. What we got were some very mixed signals. Truly, we were a crew in need of reassuring, and reassurance was what the plant lady brought.

Dampening fears

Back in 1995, when Helen Copley sold that big green whale of a building, the Outlook staff vacated our cave-like, haphazard newsroom with the mismatched furniture downstairs. We didn't move far, however; just one floor up to newly decorated, ergonomically-correct, light-filled offices upstairs. Our beat-up wood and metal desks were replaced with cream-colored modular pods.

Most of us were happy. But not everybody. One grizzled old editor, a veteran of the scrappy Herald Examiner, could see through the cookie-cutter pods that made The Outlook offices look more like an insurance office than a newsroom. His years of experience told him that The Outlook had lost its soul.

But the new office had plants. Lots of them. Big, pretty ones with palmy fronds. And it was the job of some lady -- we never knew her name -- to show up every couple of weeks to care for and water them.

When she showed up in the early days of March 1998, her presence was like a balm to the way-on-edge, beyond-nervous Outlook staff. Rumors had been flying for days that something bad was about to happen. Another round of gut-wrenching layoffs, we surmised, remembering the last round -- our friends and coworkers rounded up and escorted out of the building by nameless, faceless security guards.

Wasn't it just a month earlier that Outlook Publisher Tom Wafer had promised us raises, we asked each other, looking desperately for reassurance? Yes, but remember, the more reasoned among us cautioned, Wafer had not only promised us a raise once in the not-so-distant past, but twice! And each time, he was forced to sheepishly apologize and rescind the offer. Maybe he was as much in the dark as we were.

But if they were going to spend money on watering plants, we reasoned, how could they possibly lay people off? And didn't we all just get new cellular phones? Clearly, nobody would go to the expense of ordering new equipment if people were going to lose their jobs.

Clearly, we were seeing what we wanted to see.

The scion cometh

Longtime Outlook features writer and columnist Saul Rubin recalls one portent of doom -a sighting of the ever-elusive Copley family scion.

"The day I finally sighted David Copley at The Outlook office was the moment I realized the Santa Monica paper that bore his family name was doomed," Rubin recalls.

Rubin had worked for the Copley-owned paper for 12 years, yet he only knew the family by name and by the sterile portrait of matriarch Helen Copley that hung in the main conference room. David, the son, had never set foot in the Santa Monica office, as far as anyone knew. But these were critical times.

It was late 1997. A group of Copley executives - minus the Outlook's top guy, who ominously wasn't invited - were presenting to David their plan to revitalize the three Copley-owned Los Angeles newspapers: The Outlook, the Daily Breeze and the News Pilot in San Pedro.

Rubin remembers: "It was late in the morning. I was seated at my desk when I sensed a noisy rush of air at the front of the room. I looked up to see a pack of six or so dark-suited and stern-looking men shuffling into a conference room. Bringing up the rear, being led like some prize fighter into the ring, was David Copley. David Copley, in the house! He towered over the group, sporting a shaggy hairdo that draped his collar, and dark sunglasses. He looked like John Candy.

"The group vanished quickly into the room and huddled there for more than an hour, while Copley's black limo hummed and waited outside. And then, just as suddenly, he was gone, emerging briskly and departing into his black getaway car without even so much as a nod to the workers. Talk about body language. With that much obvious disdain, it was clear the paper's outcome was already sealed. Sure enough, with no more David sightings, the paper closed less than four months later."

Black Friday

The memo came on Thursday. All it said was that Publisher Wafer would address the Outlook staff at 11 a.m. the next morning, Friday, March 13th. Friday the 13th. Such a terse memo was not a good sign. Previous announcements, just as terse, had heralded in such Copley high points as layoffs and announcements that, yes, there would be no raises this year.

Also not good was the fact that The Outlook would be the first newspaper to hear what Wafer had to say. Usually, we got whatever bad news the publisher had to deliver last, after the bomb had been dropped first at our sister papers the Breeze and News Pilot, after we'd already heard the news via e-mail from staffers at the Torrance and San Pedro papers.

Although hoping for the best, many of us packed up our desks that Thursday night. If there were layoffs, we wanted to be ready. If it was worse, then we wouldn't have to worry about packing up our things in the midst of a wake.

Still, we hoped.

The next morning, we filed in silently to sit at our mostly empty desks. We waited. Many of us were dressed in black, an appropriate color for the occasion.

The bomb dropped.

"Tomorrow’s edition of The Oulook," Wafer announced, "will be its last."

Many of us cried. We embraced. Others sat, stunned. Reluctantly, we accepted the words. This was it. This vibrant newspaper, staffed by what was more a family than a group of employees, was to be no more.

Word leaked out to the community as radio stations reported the news. Phones began ringing.

"Is it true?" one reader asked, appalled.

"What will we do without our local paper?" another inquired.

Then the TV crews showed up, smelling blood in the water. Suddenly, those of us who for so long had covered the news became the story of the day.

"I remember whipping around in my chair every time a news crew came in," crime beat reporter Anne La Jeunesse said. "I'd try to make a run for the restroom before the camera caught my teary face."

Longtime Outlook staff writer Pat Alston, whose work on the court beat commanded the deep respect of lawyers, judges and crime victims alike, became our spokeswoman. Her grace, while her heart was breaking, was the one ray of light on a bleak day. Again and again she told her story, our story, with moving emotion and a deep professionalism.

Flowers began to arrive. Venice attorney Jim Merlino sent a beautiful bouquet of roses. Activist Jerry Rubin, probably interviewed by every Outlook staffer at one time or another, showed up in his trademark blue shorts, wandering around the newsroom with tears welling in his eyes. Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts stopped by; so did Councilman Michael Feinstein.

Later than night, Santa Monica council members Ken Genser and Pam O'Connor and Feinstein attended a wake the Outlook staff held at O'Brien's Pub on Wilshire Boulevard.

"There's going to be a major empty space in our community," Feinstein said in The Outlook's final edition.

Genser predicted the effect on the community would be "like the phone company going out of business. "It was the way we communicated with each other," he said.

Joined at birth

Lemuel T. Fisher founded The Outlook in 1875, the year Santa Monica was incorporated, and the paper grew with the breath-taking town at the edge of the Pacific.

The Outlook became the place where Santa Monica residents could find out what their City Councils and School Boards were doing. It also brought news of the century’s two great wars, and, more recently, some of the era’s biggest court trials and natural disasters.

By the time the presses stopped running, the small community paper with a circulation of under 25,000 ranked among the finest in the country, with a staff that routinely won many of print journalism’s top awards.

But despite running the kind of exhaustive investigations usually produced by major metropolitan dailies, the paper never lost its small town soul. It continued to run folksy announcements about who won a school spelling bee and a comprehensive list of weekend garage sales.

A police report informed residents about the city's trouble spots, where the burglaries were clustered and what areas might be more dangerous after dark. It was the kind of minutiae. the Los Angeles Times had no space -- or desire – to run.

When a serial rapist was prowling the city's Sunset Park neighborhood in 1995, The Outlook gave worried women the latest updates, often fighting the police department for important details to fill out stories.

In the midst of an urban sprawl, Santa Monica was more small town than metropolis, and The Outlook gave Midwest transplants a taste of the towns they'd left behind. And for scores of local children, many of whom grew up to be local leaders, the newspaper provided first jobs with delivery routes easier covered on dented Schwinns.

"Big isn't necessarily better in many areas, and this is certainly one of them," Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Leslie W. Light said in the paper's final edition.

Bad moon rises

Finally, as the sun’s shadow inched closer to the moon creating a partial lunar eclipse, that Black Friday drew to a close.

The final stories were put to bed -- a terse report authored by someone at Copley headquarters on the hows and whys, a reaction piece quoting leaders, activists and residents and a poignant good-bye column by Executive Editor Skip Rimer.

Reporters, advertising representatives, dispatch workers and others finished packing up their belongings, shoving their careers into cardboard boxes. Most of us headed over to O'Brien's Pub in Santa Monica that night, not willing to let go just yet.

By Monday, the shock would wear off, but the staffers would not be reporting to work. Thoughts of "what next?" filled heads, but were not given voice.

The next day, a letter written by a Santa Monica family was taped to the locked office door, lamenting the paper's passing. Crayon-colored pictures decorated the page. They just wanted to say good-bye, the family wrote, to say they'd miss the newspaper.

The final edition of The Outlook carried a simple headline that said it all: "GOODBYE!" in bold black type. A picture of the staff waving farewell dominated the front page.

Some staffers came to The Outlook offices the next day to buy a newspaper as a keepsake. What they found was a group of employees of the Los Angeles Times distribution department who occupied the bottom floor of the building. They'd emptied newspaper racks and were selling the final edition of The Outlook for $2 a pop.

Writer Pat Alston snatched the newspapers away, distraught and angry at the actions of the so-called entrepreneurs.

The sting of their crass materialism, she said, was soothed by the numerous longtime Outlook readers who showed up on The Outlook's doorsteps to offer their condolences at the death of one of the community's most enduring voices -- people like long-time Santa Monica businessman Bob Gabriel and resident Vera Knight. The look on their faces mirrored our bewilderment.

" ‘Could it really be true?’ " they asked. " ‘Ah, yes,’ we told them - still in shock ourselves.

"It took some of us weeks to clear out our desks and old, gray filing cabinets stuffed with yellowed clippings," Alston said.

"We told ourselves we might someday need the history we were hauling away. The truth was, it was just too hard to leave."

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