On the 5th Anniversary of the inaugural publication of The Neighborhood News we thought an interview with the publisher/ediitor might be in order. Dianne printed 1,500 copies her first issue and today publishes 13,000 - 14,000 every two months. How did she get started and what does it take to keep it going?
CHELSEE: Tell us how you feel about surviving five years in print and news because that’s no easy task.
DIANNE It's been a struggle as any new business is, and I’m just blown away that we are where we are today. The majority of small businesses are started by women, and unfortunately the majority of these fail within the first five years. I think I was just in the right place at the right time with the right idea, the right skill set and the right attitude.
CHELSEE: What inspired you to create TNN?
DIANNE: About seven or eight years ago, I wasan associateeditor at amagazine that Jay Levin, (who started the L.A. Weekly) created called Real Talk L.A. It was a pretty big project, but we were only able to produce one issue. As you said, print is difficult. Suddenly, I was without work and headed toward my '60s and didn’t want to be 65 looking for a job, so I needed to create my own source of income.
About six years ago, I was involved in a neighborhood dispute and I discovered that city agencies were violating their own regulations at the request of a councilperson. When I asked the agencies how they could go against state and city required procedures and regulations, they said, “Well, we do it all the time. If council people want us to do this, we do it.” I asked, “But how do you get away with that?” One city worker said, “Well, you know, people don’t have the money to sue us.” I was just, people call me naïve, but I was flabbergasted that this was acceptable. The thing that disturbed me most was the power it gave to an elected official. The power to circumvent the system and make decisions to help some and not others based on the councilpersons own personal motives or inclinations. Right. I'm naive...but they say all politics are local. How can you complain when it happens on the national stage but not complain when the same thing is happening in your own backyard?
Then one morning, it was as if Jupiter threw a lightning bolt in my head. I thought, “This community needs a magazine, and we need to start talking to each other about what’s going on, what’s happening in our community.” I also discovered that politicians often work under the premise of“Vote for me, go back to TV and let me be.” What about a publication that focuses on our community issues? Kept an eye on things? Shared info? I'm a bit of an activist. I got a law changed in L.A. making it illegal to tie dogs up in the backyard. I fought against "Operation Rescue" when they tried to shut down Los Angeles abortion clinics. So when I get a call to action...I go with it.
I thought, okay... I have to sell ads. So I created a mock-up, went out and immediately began selling ads, and that’s when I knew this was a good idea. I started with 1,500 copies my first issue and now five years later, we’re up to 13,000 to 14,000 copies every two months, distributed on doorsteps and at community sites. This August issue went from 28 to 32 pages for the first time. I started out with the local kids distributing it, but now we have a professional distributor.
CHELSEE: What other kind of work were you doing prior? Were you doing a lot of journalism?
DIANNE I'd done some work as a journalist but I didn't have any professional training, just a natural instinct and talent for it.
As a teenager I wanted to perform and act, which I did for a long time. When I hit 30, I realized I didn’t want to grow old as an actress…not a good plan. I had begun painting and focused my attention on that and was a painter for about 25, 30 years. I had some shows. I sold work. I was an art instructor and taught at Esalen and MOCA - the Museum of Contemporary Art, and at Art Center in Pasadena. I also taught incarcerated people. I did an album cover for Leonard Cohen's "Recent Songs." I have a website with my art on it, www.diannelawrence.com, but it also was a very difficult profession to succeed financially in.
I have done many things. I sing and have a band called Storm Taylor and Her Ex-Husbands. We do early African-American music and I've sung around town. Even opened for a jazz act at the Troubador. I still sing at Pips on La Brea now and then. I've trained dogs, worked as a salesperson. I put in three years as a salesperson selling an emergency button for seniors over the phone. If I had not done that job, The Neighborhood News wouldn’t exist today. It taught me how to make a sale.
One day, in my 40s, a good friend asked me, “If you could make money doing anything you wanted to do, what would it be?” Something in my brain said, Write! They said, ”Then get a job as a writer.” So I went on Craig’s List and found an opportunity to write film reviews. I wrote free film reviews for three years for Filmmonthly.com .
I once wrote a short story that I submitted to the L.A. Weekly, and they published it. Let's Get Lost They told me they rarely published unsolicited work. So it became clear that I had a writing talent.
CHELSEE: Tell us about some of the obstacles you’ve come up against in these five years with the paper and what you think others can learn from your history?
DIANNE: To open a new small business you have to have fortitude, confidence in your vision, a courage that borders on delusion and an ability to take it one day at a time.When I asked a friend, who had a succesful business, for advice, he looked me in the eye and said "Failure is not an option". That was my mantra. It helped.
Obviously, there are the financial obstacles. You are supposed to start with some capital and I had none. I started with $0 and a dedicated refusal to debt. Despite my talent for ad sales, there were times when there just wasn’t enough money for the magazine. That's when most small businesses go for loans or under. But because debting or failure wasn’t an option, some of my supporters encouraged me to ask for contributions...which I was reluctant to do. I didn't want the appearance of failing. They said, “Are you crazy? This is a valuable free service that you are giving to your community. You are putting this on their doorsteps every two months….You can ask for donations!” I was like, "Yes, that’s true," so I did. It takes a village to create a community news source. People in the community contributed, and some of my wealthy friends contributed. I sold some art. I also have advertisers that have been very loyal to me and support what I'm doing. I'm also very organized with my finances and records, a key to growth. But finances were a big obstacle as they are for any new small business. With help from my second job I'm starting to see improvement with the numbers.
The other obstacle was push back from people in the community who may not have liked what I was writing about. I remember a woman in a local community group who voted against taking out an ad with us because she didn’t approve of one of our advertisers. I think there was some envy involved here and there, something women who are succeeding deal with more than men. There are also a lot of women who do community work and "control" territories and may not have been happy with me sticking my nose in. And sometimes people just didn't like me. As you can imagine, I can be pushy. People have always either really liked me....or not, so I'm used to it. But I'm a people person and have connected with some wonderful people in the community who supported and valued what I was doing and their support kept my spirits up. There are several people that I reach out to consistently for feedback. I have people, like my associate editor Renee Montgomery, who reads what I write before I send it out to make sure that it has the right tone and right attitude. Laura Meyers who edits the WAHA newsletter and is an experienced journalist, has been a valuable and helpful resource. Community activists like Gavin Glynn and Jo Schaeffer, Scott McNeely, Lora Davis, John Jake and others who have kept me informed and connected to community issues. So it is strengthening if you approach the obstacles with the right attitude, stay connected to the community in many different ways and stay willing to learn. Strangely, I also never felt like “I” was creating this. I felt that I was given a responsibility and opportunity, and my job was to be of service to this good idea and be willing to continue learning. As long as I keep this idea front and center, the magazine seems to find what it needs.
CHELSEE: What about competitors?
DIANNE: Another obstacle was the entry into the community of a competitor, which made me very nervous at first because I perceived them as having more money and more experience. They had a successful paper in another community. But when their paper came out, I saw the content wasn’t competitive. They had just moved into the neighborhood and were shooting in the dark regarding content. They weren’t connected to the community the way I was, having lived in CD10 and within my borders for 30 years. So that didn’t disturb me, but what did disturb me was the possibility that they would go after my advertisers, which they tried to do. This is a small business community, so there weren’t enough advertisers for two papers. But apparently, my advertisers were pretty loyal, and the competition went out of business within the year. That too was an important lesson. It’s important to have competitors. It strengthened my resolve and willingness to double down. “I’m going to put one foot in front of the other. I’m going to stop worrying about them and keep my eyes on the prize. Failure is not an option.” I also did learn some things from the way they did things. So all the obstacles are really opportunities to strengthen one’s spirit and one's game. It sounds like a cliche, but it's true.
There will continue to be bumps along the road; that's the nature of business. But you know, this thing has a spirit of its own. If I face an obstacle, things seem to just show up to help me get through it. I imagine what I need and if it's accurate, eventually it shows up. I needed a website, and Scott McNeely who was then president of Pico Neighborhood Council created one for me for free, sat me down and showed me how to work it. And suddenly, I had a website, which has been recently upgraded and looks amazing. People have stepped up and been extremely generous and helpful.
CHELSEE: Those are obviously obstacles that have become triumphs. Are there any other triumphs that you feel are notable and memorable that you’d like to share?
DIANNE: When we had the booth at CicLAvia, so many people came up and said, “Oh my God, I love this magazine. I read it cover to cover. I really like that you are writing about this and I really like your articles about that.” Every time I hear somebody say that, I realize that this has become part of the fabric of our community, and that is a total triumph.
The fact that I have you women working with me is an absolute triumph. It’s like a small miracle that each of you came to this magazine with a particular angle the magazine needed and said, “Let me help.” And the fact that people in the community contribute stories and ideas. I get emails telling me about things that we should be aware of. I recently got an email from a young man in Harvard Heights, 17-year-old Joshua Morgan, saying that his school told him to commit 20 hours of service in the community. And he went on to list a number of reasons why he values and appreciates The Neighborhood News, including the fact that his grandma reads it cover to cover. The spirit of the magazine, which is connecting people to information in the community and connecting people to each other, is alive and well; the intent of the magazine is working.
The fact that the advertising continues to increase…. In the last three issues, we’ve had the best sales ever, so that to me is a very good sign. We went to 32 pages for the first time this issue. Sales always go up and down, but the ups are higher. At one point I was having real difficulty and prayed for a sign to continue and asked that it appear within two days. That very day I received two ads that totalled the amount of money I needed. One literally came to my doorstep. So I knew I needed to continue. But this poor little magazine had to support my whole financial nut, and it said to me, “You know, okay, I’m working hard here but can you give me some relief?!” So I said, “Okay, I’ll get a second job.” And miracle of miracles, my associate editor Renee called about a job she'd seen and within a week I got a job dog training at a national pet store chain! I've been a longtime activist for dogs. I got a law changed making it illegal to tie them up in the backyard and have rescued, cleaned up and re-homed over 75 dogs over the years. I've been training for years. So I’m doing a service that I absolutely love, working with puppies and dogs and making them and their owners get along better. And it fits perfectly with my publishing schedule. So after much struggle, things are going well today. Can't complain.
CHELSEE: What do you love in particular about being in this community? I know you said you’ve been here 30 years, but what makes you love it?
DIANNE: (laughs) The Santa Monica Freeway! When I first moved into this community in 1979 and discovered I was so close to the Santa Monica Freeway, I was like, “Wow! If there is no traffic, I’m 15, 20 minutes from the beach. I’m 15 minutes from downtown. I can take it and zip out to the desert. I love the Santa Monica Freeway!" It’s no surprise to me that I live right across the street from it and next to one of its overpasses.
I love living in such a diverse cultural and economic community. We have everybody! African-American, Asian, Hispanic, white, gay, straight, rich, poor. Also, this is an historic area and I've always loved living in older buildings. The place I live in was built in 1918 and I have a fireplace that works and a fig tree in the yard! Plus the history of this area is off the charts. West Adams Heritage Association (WAHA) does a remarkable job of preserving and celebrating this history. And of course I love the people that live here. I've been walking my dogs for 25 years, and it's the best way to get to know everyone. I love the sense of community and neighborliness that I see all over this area.
CHELSEE: Share one or two of your favorite memories from working in the area with the magazine. I’m sure there are more than one or two.
DIANNE: (Thinking for a moment) Well I was really glad when my competition went out of business (laughs). I would say that anytime I triumphed over an obstacle, and sometimes it just took patience to watch an obstacle dissolve, is a favorite memory.
What I really love is getting in my car driving around the community and visiting my advertisers or talking to people in the community at events or meetings. Going to Pinky Rose or Darren's or Inri's Blu Elefant cafe or Cordially Invited, Desley's Dog Grooming, or Papa Christo's to hang out. Getting my hair done at Indulgent Concept and listening to some of the stylists suddenly break out into song. I have really grown to have utter respect for the small business owner who can hang in there.
I’ve always been a people person. I love going to the Wellington Square Farmers Market every Sunday and running into local people and talking to them and gossiping about what’s going on in the community. Connecting to the community through TNN and being able to contribute this way has been enormously satisfying for me. The fact that this is happening today in my life is a big moment for celebration.
CHELSEE: TNN has also organized community events.
DIANNE: Right! A major one was when there was an election in CD 10 for a councilperson. Nobody even knew the election was coming up, and nobody knew that there were five people running against the incumbent Councilman Herb Wesson - a Hispanic, Korean and three African-Americans, so I decided to hold a candidate’s forum. All the candidates participated including Councilman Wesson, who wasn’t going to show up but then ran in at the last second. Eighty attendees showed up from the community. Damien Goodman was the moderator and we had a community panel scoring the answers. The candidate who scored the highest marks got the least amount of votes in the election. None of them had money to run a campaign.
We did a local talent show for the community. That is where Joshua Morgan first met us. He was performing with Grandmaster Goode’s Karate school.
We did a big Pico shopping district event to try to bring more attention to Pico retailers. I have spent a lot of space trying to shine a light on the Pico Shopping district.
CHELSEE: How do you foresee the magazine growing and changing in the next five years?
DIANNE: That’s a tricky question because most business people have plans, and goals, and they are going to meet those goals and business plans, but I seem to work differently. I take it one day at a time. I just go, “Oh, I need a website, but I don’t have any money for a website, but I know I need a website.” And then suddenly somebody steps up and there’s my website. I pay attention to the next step in front of me, the next need and what action is required. Ideas come to me as I move forward. The secret is to Do It! Take the actions needed when you get the ideas. And I do it, and things come my way. It’s amazing actually.
CHELSEE: Are you going to expand your borders?
DIANNE: We go from Normandie to Fairfax and Jefferson up to Olympic. That’s our territory. People say expand your borders … but I don’t want to spread it too thin. I prefer to get more magazines on more doorsteps within our borders. Get our numbers up, then we'll see.
People have suggested we leave behind the hard copies and just focus on our website, but I disagree. There is too much competition for one's attention on the Web. But a magazine comes in the door and gets picked up and read over time. It gets shared. Somebody told me they saw someone reading it in a dentist's office in Beverly Hills. Cool! I say read it in the bathroom! The articles are just the right length. Also, many people don't use the computer who want to read TNN. I like the small-town feel of it.
I'd like to get more corporate advertising. I don’t know if we are large enough for them, but increasing the number of copies distributed might help. I would love to get a salesperson to help.
Sometimes I fantasize about starting other Neighborhood News in other communities, which is why I called it The Neighborhood News instead of Mid-City News. I do think every community needs one, the ones that don't have a news source, but I have my hands full with this one.
I do want to boost the number of people visiting our web- site. I just joined site analytics and was pleasantly surprised by how many hits our site gets every day. I want more people from around the world checking out our community, and we are finding out people are hitting us from around the world. We had people from France, India, South America, Europe even China hit our site. Not a lot, but some. What’s really interesting about our community to outsiders is its history and the critical part it's played in the growth of Los Angeles, the architecture, and the people who have lived here. When people think of Los Angeles they think of Hollywood but I think if they knew, they'd be interested in our community. I noticed that a popular feature in Facebook are Vintage - name your city- Pages. It is why I created a Facebook page called Vintage Los Angeles Mid-Cityinstead of a Neighborhood News Facebook page. We upload our historical architecture and people articles and link to our website.
Oh...and I'd love to get the right ad salesperson. That would be very helpful.
CHELSEE: What do you actually do on the magazine?
DIANNE: Wellllll.... I am the sales rep. and generate all the ads, many of which I end up designing. Besides writing, I assign, solicit and edit stories from my writers and the community. I do the financials, which means keeping records, collecting and managing the money. I design the covers from photos I've taken. I also design the magazine and oversee the distribution and dance backwards in high heels.
CHELSEE: Some people say you are very hard on Councilman now Council President Herb Wesson.
DIANNE: Yes one might characterize it that way, but I have to say, he is the gift that keeps on giving. Some people are upset that we take him to task and others are grateful. But I think he warrants a critical eye being kept on him, and if you google the news about him...my instincts are not far off the mark.
CHELSEE: Any last words?
DIANNE: I discovered that on the block I live on, at the turn of the 20th century, the kids in the neighborhood would go out and gather the neighborhood gossip and bring the stories back to their parents who would create a neighborhood newsletter called the Teeny Weeny News. It lasted several years. Now nearly a 100 years later the same little block has produced another community publication called The Neighborhood News. I find that interesting.
CHELSEE: Well, on behalf of all the readers and the rest of the writers, we congratulate you on reaching five years and can’t wait to celebrate birthday number 10. Thanks so much, Dianne.
DIANNE: (Shading her eyes and gazing into the distance) I can see it! (laughing). Community Spirit willing! Thanks Chelsee and THANK YOU community!!!
Established in August of 2008 by writer, artist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.