Seth Combs, former editor of San Diego CityBeat.
Former editor Seth Combs, who lives down the street from CityBeat’s North Park offices, fears changes in the alt-weekly’s political tone. Photo via LinkedIn

Fans of San Diego CityBeat, the left-leaning alternative weekly, were in shock Friday after its editor was laid off with little time to gather his things and big changes hinted.

Editor Seth Combs, 40, said he was informed about noon over coffee with Michael Hiatt, chief revenue officer and vice president of Times Media Group of Tempe, Arizona.

It was “very matter of fact,” cold and businesslike, Combs said in a phone interview.

Steve Strickbine of Arizona is the founder and president of Times Media Group, which bought CityBeat owner Southland Publishing and sister publications.
Steve Strickbine is founder and president of Times Media Group, which bought CityBeat owner Southland Publishing and sister publications. Photo via LinkedIn

“I was told that effective immediately I was no longer working there — ‘This is your last check. You don’t get any severance because we’ve only had you for a month and technically you’re on a 90-day trial period,’” he said.

Times Media, now a chain of about two dozen weeklies, monthlies and websites, bought the 17-year-old CityBeat from Southland Publishing a month ago.

Also in San Diego was Christina Fuoco-Karasinski, the chain’s executive editor. She declined to comment, directing questions to Times Media founder and publisher Steve Strickbine.

A one-time donor to Republican Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign, Strickbine, 48, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Combs was a longtime music and arts writer for CityBeat before becoming the free paper’s third editor in November 2016 — after Ron Donoho and founding editor Dave Rolland.

On Twitter, Rolland said: “This effing sucks. My friend and former colleague
@CombsSeth, whose background was in music and arts, did a great job of quickly immersing himself in political and policy news, deserved far better treatment.”

Assemblyman Todd Gloria tweeted: “Seth, you have done an exceptional job leading @SDCityBeat and shining a light on many topics that need attention. You have my respect and admiration. Our city is better because of your journalism.”

Gordon Murray, a longtime page designer at The San Diego Union-Tribune, said: “Many in U-T newsroom left in shock upon hearing this sad news just now.”

And Kelly Davis, who with Dave Maass did award-winning CityBeat investigations into local jail deaths, simply said: “RIP CityBeat.”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego freelance writer and former president of the American Society of Journalists & Authors. He said San Diego needs a strong alternative weekly — but that the San Diego Reader “doesn’t count.”

“It’s full of unreadable features and paranoid screeds about local politics and media,” Dotinga said via Twitter direct message. “That leaves us with CityBeat, which has abandoned its commitment to strong investigative journalism and is now accelerating its decline by sacking Seth.”

But Combs “spoke up for the powerless and helped CityBeat remain relevant,” Dotinga said. “Yeah, this is life in the media. But it’s still a damn shame.”

According to its 2019 Media Kit, CityBeat “offers something of interest for every free-thinking adult in San Diego” and claimed 115,200 readers of its 36,000 issues distributed weekly at 1,100 drop locations.

Combs said he asked about his staff Friday and whether they’d be OK. He said Hiatt basically said: “I don’t have to answer that. You don’t work here anymore.”

The North Park resident wanted to offer taking a salary cut to save staff or freelancers, “but I wasn’t given that opportunity.”

He soon was locked out of the University Avenue office’s computers. But when Hiatt asked “Can you do me a favor?” — and Combs said no — he was told: “Well, if you’re going to be like that — just get out.”

Combs gathered what he could but had to leave items behind, including art on the walls.

“We will box it up for you and send by courier,” he said he was told.

CityBeat’s future is unknown, but Combs gave a clue in a Twitter thread: “For those who remember what happened to the @LAWeekly a few years ago, you might have a sense of what’s to come.”

In November 2017, nine of 13 editorial staffers were let go at the Los Angeles alt-weekly.

“We were expecting there to be some pain with the sale of @LAWeekly, but we weren’t expecting the Red Wedding,” tweeted editor Mara Shalhoup.

On Saturday, Combs said he’d learned of other Southland Publishing layoffs, including Ventura County Reporter editor Michael Sullivan, art director T Christian Gapen and circulation chief Tori Behar, and Pasadena Weekly publisher Dena Stegon, art writer Carl Kozlowski and art director Stephanie Torres.

Combs didn’t know his fate until Friday, but said he got a “very distinct sense” that the new owner’s outlook was different and it was only a matter of time before he quit.

“They are much more conservative in every aspect,” he said. “They want to do editorial that is much more safe and much more mainstream. … This is complete speculation: I don’t think it’s going to be a left of center publication anymore.”

Combs also worries that local flavor will be lost.

He said he was asked by the new owners: Why do you have a local person writing the film reviews rather than doing syndicated? Combs says he’d rather have a local person writing about something at the Digital Gym in University Heights than reviewing “The Emoji Movie 2.”

In a note to his freelancers, Combs said: “I hope and pray that they keep you.” But in a Times of San Diego interview, he said he was given signs that “your freelance budget is pretty high. Let interns do that.”

Combs called executive editor Fuoco-Karasinski, whom he’s met a couple times, “a nice enough person. She was there today.”

He thinks she’s trying to “scrap something together” for next Wednesday’s issue.

San Diego CityBeat 2019 Media Kit. (PDF)
San Diego CityBeat 2019 Media Kit. (PDF)

Fuoco-Karasinski told an interviewer: “I’ve freelanced for Rolling Stone, Billboard and Pollstar, and have interviewed the likes of Paul and Linda McCartney, Keith Richards, Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift.”

She said she once turned down a meet and greet media hour with Nirvana because she thought, “Who the heck are they anyway?”

“That was the first time they played Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall,” she said. “The thing I did instead? A meet and greet with Vince Neil.”

An outgrowth of SLAMM, a local music publication, CityBeat helped organize the San Diego Music Awards and was known for quirky special issues, such as ones devoted to beer, local music and “love and sex.”

Asked about his greatest contributions as editor, Combs gave the same answer he did when asked how the paper was doing — “just trying our best to keep it alive. Because print media is a tough biz.”

He said he followed the lead of previous editors — keeping CityBeat “an alternative voice in the city” — and also made it his mission to help up-and-coming writers.

“I really wanted to have a paper that weird people would like,” he said.

Updated at 9:10 p.m. Aug. 31, 2019