warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

LA Weekly Owner Names Ex-Girlfriend As Editor-in-Chief

Benjamin Gottlieb |
October 31, 2011 | 2:39 a.m. PDT

Senior News Editor

The alternative weekly juggernaut Village Voice Media is notorious for promoting journalists from within its own network to the upper echelons of its editorial cadre.

But appointing an editor-in-chief who used to date the company's owner is rare, even for a company with a well-documented history of keeping it in the family.

Last week, the owner of Village Voice Media Michael Lacey hired his former girlfriend Sarah Fenske to fill the recently vacated LA Weekly editor slot. When Fenske was a columnist at the Phoenix News Times more than two years ago, she maintained a romantic relationship with Lacey, Fenske told Neon Tommy Friday.

Despite their romance, Fenske, 34, said her close relationship with Lacey had nothing to do with her appointment as editor-in-chief of the Weekly.

“We haven’t been involved for years,” said Fenske, who has spent more than 10 years with Village Voice Media. “I would hope that my work would stand for itself.” 

Skepticism surrounding the immediate future of the Weekly surfaced last week, following the abrupt resignation of former editor-in-chief Drex Heikes. Heikes, who was with the Weekly for two years, confirmed that he was leaving the paper on his own accord and was not forced out.

“They’ve known for some time that I’d be leaving,” said Heikes, who spent roughly 18 years with the Los Angeles Times before joining the Weekly. “This is something they’ve been kicking around in Phoenix and in the other corporate headquarters for some time.”

In Heikes’ wake, Village Voice Media has decided to replace a seasoned, L.A. journalist – and Pulitzer Prize-winning editor with the Las Vegas Sun – with an in-house hire, who has yet to work in L.A.

“When I got the call, I nearly fell over… you don’t turn something like this down,” Fenske said.

Arguably the city's number two publication, the helm of the Weekly seems like an unlikely post for a L.A. novice, and has left some of the city’s veteran journalists scratching their heads.

“Sure, editors drop in at media operations all over the country like that. But a paper like [the LA Weekly] has to be pretty close to the ground,” said Kevin Roderick of LAObserved. “So the question is not so much for her as it is for her bosses. Why did they pick someone that is coming in without any knowledge of Los Angeles?”

Lacey did not respond to Neon Tommy’s requests for comment. 

That's not to say that Fenske, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, isn't a decorated journalist.

She comes to the Weekly after a 16-month stint as the managing editor of the Riverfront Times, a Village Voice paper based in St. Louis, Missouri. Before that, Fenske spent five years as a columnist at the Village Voice-owned Phoenix’s New Times.

She has also collected what her former colleague Chad Garrison called a “trophy case full of awards,” which includes a 2010 Livingston Award for her series exposing corruption within the Maricopa County housing authority in Arizona.

Her new job at the Weekly, however, will be her first test as an editor-in-chief.

Garrison, who worked with Fenske at the Riverfront Times, admitted that he had similar concerns about her past relationship with the company’s owner before her arrival in St. Louis more than a year ago.  

“Everyone was wondering about it when she first came [to the Riverfront Times],” said Garrison, who is slated to take over Fenske’s spot as managing editor. “But within one to two weeks of working with her, that flew right out the window because of her enthusiasm, her dedication to her job and her ability as an editor.”

Despite whispers of favoritism, Heikes applauded Village Voice’s hiring of Fenske, calling the decision the “right move” for a new generation of the Weekly.

“I’ve talked to a couple of her editors, and they’ve done nothing but sing her praises,” Heikes said. “They think she’s really sharp… I think it’s a really smart choice for the Weekly.”

Heikes said he was leaving Fenske with a healthy paper, despite the recent firing of the Weekly’s calendar writers Siran Babayan and Liz Ohanesian. Since 2009, the Weekly’s print readership has increased by 22 percent, and online traffic by 36 percent, Heikes said.

Still, he said there is plenty of room for improvement.

“We’re nowhere near where we want to be in the arts right now,” Heikes said. “We have expanded to a second, full arts page and we want to put in a third. Our arts blog has gotten five times as much content. But we’re not happy with just that.”

Fenske said she wasn’t ready to discuss specifics regarding her plans for the Weekly. But she did say that she anticipated L.A. would be a much bigger challenge than St. Louis.

“It’s just the center of so many exciting things,” she said. “And in my limited impression, people move here for exciting things; for movies, art, to write. That kind of creative energy you can’t replicate.”

When asked if he had any advice for Fenske, Heikes pointed to his own experience at the Fresno Bee, where he became city editor before ever stepping foot in the city limits.

“I’ve done this enough where I’ve come in behind people; she’s going to find her own way,” Heikes said. “There are enough long-term Angelenos [at the Weekly] that will be able to help her. But there’s no question that it’s not ideal.”

“She’s going to have big eyes for a while,” he said.


To reach Benjamin Gottlieb, click here.

Follow him on Twitter @benjamin_max.

Best way to find more great content from Neon Tommy?

Or join our email list below to enjoy Neon Tommy News Alerts.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.