I read the news today, oh boy

Jun 29, 2011 at 5:00 am

When this paper debuted in 1990, then-publisher and editor John Yarmuth wrote in his inaugural column: “LEO will be different. If there is anything I can say with certainty about this publication, it is that you have never seen anything like it in this community.”

He was right — LEO was different, soon establishing itself as an indispensable alternative to Louisville’s increasingly diluted, Gannett-owned daily. LEO emerged as a purveyor of local news, edgy commentary, engaging dialogue, and critical arts, entertainment and music coverage.

Thirteen years later, Gannett launched free weekly entertainment tabloids in a handful of cities, including Louisville. The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies snidely but accurately dubbed the publications “faux” alt-weeklies.

These faux alts were an obvious attempt to compete with established (and, let’s face it, lower-budget) alt-weeklies. LEO editorial staffers — all five of them — were understandably anxious, as was the sales team, knowing full well Gannett was positioning itself to poach advertisers.

When the first issue of Velocity hit the stands in December 2003, the prevailing sentiment, according to longtime LEO editorial employee Sara Havens, was that the competition was nothing more than a hefty, photo-laden, well-resourced vehicle to get advertising into the hands of a coveted younger demographic. “News-wise they couldn’t touch us, and we made sure our music and arts & entertainment sections were solid,” Havens says. “Perhaps that’s the best thing Velocity did for us — made us step up our game in A&E coverage.”

Although never a true alt, Velocity could not be ignored. In response, LEO’s strategy was simple: continue treating readers as intelligent consumers who crave insightful news and views and authoritative arts and entertainment coverage. In other words, keep on doing what we’d always done and do it better than the rest.

Meanwhile, a war of words ensued. LEO landed on Velocity’s weekly list of “Losers” more than once. It was tame treatment compared to the jabs we sometimes doled out, most notoriously through a short-lived feature called “Gannett Watch.” Each week, LEO reported blurbs (legitimate news with a hefty dose of snark) about Velocity, The Courier-Journal and their parent company, accompanied by a picture of the C-J on fire.

It was funny for a while.

But then came the first round of Gannett layoffs in the summer of 2008 — 15 Courier-Journal employees got the boot. The downward spiral was picking up force, and the joke wasn’t quite so funny anymore.

Gannett has been hemorrhaging jobs ever since, with last week’s company-wide cuts resulting in another 50 C-J staffers — including two dozen editorial employees — getting the ax. In its latest assault, Gannett gutted The Courier-Journal’s Neighborhoods department, eliminated its Indiana State House bureau and pulled the plug on Velocity. It’s too soon to assess the damage, but it’s a given that content — particularly arts, entertainment and pop culture coverage — will take a hit.

All told, 145 Courier-Journal employees have lost their jobs in a matter of three years, resulting in atrophied pages, less local coverage and an increase in canned stories from the likes of USA Today.

My hometown paper has suffered yet another devastating blow, and that’s bad for the city. Talented people have lost their jobs, and that’s bad for journalism. But as editor of LEO, I suppose I should be somewhat relieved to see the competition circling the drain.

Relief might seem like the logical reaction, but there has been no gloating in the LEO newsroom. In fact, the mood was somber as reports of layoffs trickled in last Tuesday.

When asked how Gannett’s latest local downsizing — particularly when it comes to Velocity — might affect LEO, my thoughts are these: LEO is stronger than ever, despite the competition, and perhaps we are better because of it. In its 21 years of existence, LEO has never faltered in its mission to provide an alternative to the mainstream, and we consider it a privilege to continue providing our loyal readers with news, views and arts coverage they can’t find elsewhere — just like a good alt-weekly should.

That said, we understand one must evolve to remain relevant.

On that note, stay tuned.