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A San Diego CityBeat newsstand in downtown San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When San Diego CityBeat’s editor in chief Seth Combs was abruptly fired on Friday, support and outrage flowed on social media. In response, Combs declared the paper effectively “dead.”

He also speculated that Southland Publishing sold the company in part because of concerns about AB 5, a state bill written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez that would codify existing rules spelling out when workers can be classified as independent contractors.

The bill would exempt freelance journalists who write 35 or fewer articles for a single publication in one year but could require publishers to make journalists who write more than that employees.

Combs said that the papers owned by Southland all depend heavily on freelancers and that he thinks Southland “saw the writing on the wall” and decided to bail.

No other San Diego employees were let go on Friday, some freelancers I spoke with have already been contacted by Times Media Group about continuing their work. Publication for this Wednesday’s issue is proceeding.

Dave Maass, a former writer for the paper, tweeted Tuesday about a project being published in CityBeat this week that he worked on with students and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In the thread he also expressed hope for the paper’s survival and reluctance to declare “#RIPCityBeat.”

With an existing portfolio of 15 regional news and lifestyle publications based in Arizona, Times Media Group acquired CityBeat along with the Pasadena Weekly, LA Downtown News, Ventura’s VC Reporter, The Argonaut, three monthly magazines and all affiliated digital properties in early August.

Last month, when several Times Media Group managers and staff were in San Diego to announce the new ownership to CityBeat, Combs said that the discussions were mostly logistical.

“They never came and spoke to me about editorial. Never,” he said. “They never were curious about what it was that we did, and how we got to where we were, and what the history of the paper was, at all. They weren’t interested in all the countless awards that we’ve won over the years or anything like that. They were just like, ‘Hey, be sure to change your outgoing voicemail.’”

CityBeat’s history is storied but relatively consistent. When Southland Publishing acquired SLAMM Magazine from Kevin Hellman in 2002 (Hellman remained as named publisher until last year, when he was phased out), its stated aim for SLAMM’s transformation into San Diego CityBeat, an edgy, younger, urban-focused paper with “very high editorial goals” was not too far off from what Combs said about his editorial philosophy.

“I wanted to do something that was much more younger-skewed and was going after the next generation of readers, and that’s what I strived for,” said Combs.

Combs has faced dwindling editorial staff in recent years and an inability to replace them. When he took over as editor in chief three years ago, his former arts and culture desk remained empty. When the music editor left in late 2018, that position remained vacant too. Much of the arts and music writing was either assigned to freelancers or the small staff by Combs, or written by him.

With the paper’s deadline approaching but very little content filed when he was let go, Combs was left wondering how the next paper would be published.

“I don’t know what’s going to come out on Wednesday because I did the vast majority of the work,” he said.

Combs earned an early reputation for being a harsh voice — in 2012, the paper even published a roundup of several years of his most notorious local music demo reviews, titled “Straight shooter or total jerk?

“I just, like, came in swinging,” Combs said of his younger years at CityBeat. And while over the years he admits to softening his stances, he still pointed out that “Shit music is shit music and I have eyes, ears and an opinion,” he said. “That’s who I am, I’m never going to not be that, and I’m going to call out bullshit when I see it; it doesn’t matter if it’s your art or not.”

One regular freelancer, Ronda “Ro” Moore — who pens the politically based “Side-Eye of Sanity” column — said that the abrupt action was worrisome. Moore is concerned that the firing may signal a “deeper purge to come,” and said she hopes the paper continues to prioritize local voices on local issues with a similar degree of autonomy.

“Given the eclectic makeup of San Diego, I was stunned at the decision to let go of an editor in chief committed to highlighting its many varied topics and communities,” Moore said.

Another concern Combs revealed was that he learned this weekend that an entire byline from the also-sold Pasadena Weekly has been wiped out: Arts writer Carl Kozlowski’s archive of writing has seemingly had his name removed and attributed to “admin.” Kozlowski was also removed from his position last week by Times Media Group. If removal of bylines on work is happening at Pasadena Weekly, it might happen at CityBeat, Combs fears.

Times Media Group’s executive editor Christina Fuoco-Karasinski declined to comment and forwarded my requests to the publisher, Steve Strickbine, who pointed me in the direction of this Wednesday’s forthcoming “Publisher’s Note” for answers.

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