Small LA Food Website Had To Furlough Its Staff. Then Readers Came To The Rescue


The morning of April 10 felt heavy for L.A. Taco’s editor-in-chief, Javier Cabral. He was slow to wake up, slow to walk to his car, and slow to drive to the publication’s Chinatown studio office.

Cabral and publisher Alex Bloomingdale had to break some difficult news to their staff: They were going to be furloughed.

“It felt like I had a huge weight on my shoulders,” Cabral said. “I just couldn’t believe it, and I did not want to do it.”

Cabral, who co-owns the James Beard Award-winning publication, said that he and Bloomingdale had tried to be transparent with staff about finances. The independently owned and operated outlet — known for its journalism about Los Angeles’ food, culture, and community — was struggling.

By the end of that morning’s meeting, three full-time staffers had been furloughed: writer and L.A. Taco co-founder Hadley Tomicki; investigative reporter Lexis-Olivier Ray; and multimedia journalist Janette Villafana.

Ray was stunned.

“Although we had been briefed and kind of kept in the loop with our financial situation, it was definitely a shocking moment for me,” said Ray, who is also an artist and filmmaker. “The emotions didn’t fully hit me until a little bit later. I was honestly scared. It was a couple weeks before the first, before bills are due, so (I) immediately kind of started spiraling thinking about how I’m going to pay my rent and expenses in a few weeks.”

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L.A. Taco offers annual subscriptions to those wanting to support the outlet. There are three different plans: friend, founder and premium. Each comes with full access to L.A. Taco’s mobile apps, which brings perks like free tacos.

Cabral said the outlet was doing OK when it hovered around 2,000 members. But then they began losing them. The number shot down to around 1,000.

“We were going down to 1,000 memberships, which is like, very, very low,” Cabral said. “And to be completely independent and not dependent on advertisers or anything else, the number that we had to hit was 5,000. Part of this was our fault, too, because we didn’t do a membership drive, because we’re not NPR.”

Cabral pointed out pressure from others suggesting that L.A. Taco should be turned into a nonprofit. “We’re not a nonprofit, and we don’t want to be,” he said. “… We want to prove a point that people do care about independent community journalism, to the point where they’ll support us, too.”

Cabral said the member losses coincided with conversations around artificial intelligence, the economy and inflation. Everyone, he said, was struggling, noting the massive layoffs at the Los Angeles Times. Further bad news came when L.A. Taco’s main advertiser said it wouldn’t be able to renew.

A few weeks prior to the difficult April 10 meeting, Cabral said leadership realized they didn’t have enough to make the next payroll.

That meeting, Cabral said, lasted about four hours. The staff had lunch. Cabral recalled the mood in the office not as somber or grim, because everyone had known for weeks what was coming.

Villafana, who recently took on a second role as social media manager, held it together during the furlough meeting. But on the way home, she cried. She hugged her dog, Flan Canelo, and then called her boyfriend to break the news.

L.A. Taco was her first job out of college after having graduated in 2020 from California State University Long Beach. She had carved out a special reporting beat on street vending communities in Los Angeles — from daily stories to deep dives and features.

After she received the furlough notice, Villafana broke down. She took a breather.

“I think we all kind of took a moment right when we got home,” she said. “But that same day, we were like, ‘OK, so what are we gonna do?’”

Almost immediately, the L.A. Taco staff assembled and began an aggressive membership drive. Cabral, in an email to Poynter, called it an “emergency drive” to rehire L.A. Taco’s furloughed staff. Memo Torres, who works part-time at L.A. Taco as a multimedia taco journalist and hosts the plant and gardening column, Yerbalife, was also furloughed, and volunteered to help strategize the campaign despite not getting paid.

Staffers turned to social media to ask for the community’s support. That evening, Villafana fired up her laptop and went straight to L.A. Taco’s website. She began scrolling through stories, searching for examples of work from the outlet that created change in the city of Los Angeles.

“We took a moment to feel what we were feeling,” she said. “And then we’re like, ‘OK, let’s go.’”

The drive worked.

“I think within like 24 hours, we had gained enough members and support, donations, merch sales, to bring everyone back,” Ray said. “I think it ended up being one official furlough day.”

Villafana said it felt like a big hug from the community. She said the staff is thinking of ways to thank those who expressed their support.

“We do not take it for granted, everybody that has supported us. Even those who just shared our membership drive,” she said. “We understand not everybody can jump on a membership. Not everybody can afford a monthly payment. That’s totally understandable, but even those who donated, those who bought merch, or those who simply shared our membership, we are forever grateful to them.”

Villafana said she cried when she was furloughed, and cried again when she and her colleagues returned to work.

***

Does Cabral think subscription and reader support are the way forward for L.A. Taco? And does he think this new support is going to be sustained?

“That’s the golden question. That’s the question of the year, the question of the decade, the question of the next journalism era that we’re coming into,” Cabral said. “I don’t know.”

Cabral said L.A. Taco needed 5,000 members to become 100% autonomous and accountable to their readers. When he spoke with Poynter in mid-June, he said they had concluded that they weren’t going to hit that goal. They’re at around 3,500, which he described as enough to keep staff employed.

Time will tell, the editor-in-chief said.

“When we hired everyone back, we dubbed it like the ‘bangers-only era’ because we just can’t afford to not publish bangers every single time,” Cabral said.

He defines a banger as a viral story that gets readers talking, that gets them excited — that moves the needle.

“Every single thing that we publish and think about and execute, if it’s not gonna be a banger, then it’s not worth doing. I feel like that’s like the state of journalism that we’re in.”

The staff of L.A. Taco is back to work, having recently hosted the 15th-anniversary edition of its Taco Madness festival, which features a taco competition, music, drinks and more. Cabral said it was the most attended Taco Madness, full of L.A. Taco’s die-hard fans and supporters. In attendance were also some city leaders and other journalism colleagues from the Los Angeles Times and Eater LA.

But, Cabral said, they’re still running the numbers and are not sure if they can declare it successful.

Ray thinks the question about whether subscription and reader support are the way forward for L.A. Taco is a great one. “When you get the members, the tough part becomes keeping the members,” he said. “So in a way, it feels like this endless cycle where you never really find stability, because you’re constantly losing subscribers here and there.”

Ray said it feels like L.A. Taco’s work isn’t done. Still, the recent support was both overwhelming, in many ways, and extremely reassuring.

“I don’t think that we knew how much people cared about us,” Ray said. “And it just felt like people weren’t going to let us fail, no matter how depressing things felt, or what we were thinking personally. It really felt like L.A. had our back and they weren’t going to let us.”



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