Julia Wick is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She was previously the editor in chief of LAist.com
Last week, the city’s award-winning alternative newspaper was purchased by a shadowy entity. Immediately, most of the staff was fired. Then things got weird.
Last Wednesday, every editor and all but one writer at LA Weekly learned that they’d been fired. On Twitter, then-editor-in-chief Mara Shalhoup compared the mass layoffs at the storied alt-weekly to the “Red Wedding” on “Game of Thrones.”
Since then, controversy around the fate of the paper—and the future plans of its mystery-shrouded new ownership group—has only escalated. The political views of the new owners, an all-male klatch of largely Orange County-based investors, have sparked panic among Angelenos who suspect that the nearly-40-year-old publication’s days as a bastion of progressive news and opinion are over. A #BoycottLAWeekly campaign led by disgruntled ex-staffers has already prompted Amoeba Music, concert venues, and major restaurants to suspend advertising or pull out of an upcoming event. On Monday, a leaked internal email from LA Weekly’s sales director offered a glimpse of what appeared to be an end-of-days situation inside the paper’s offices: The suggested topics for an afternoon staff meeting included “Advertisers pulling,” “Why everyone saw this coming except you,” “Social Media—who’s [posting] and why, because this weekend was horrible and amateur,” and “Immediate future” among the issues to discuss.
The shock over Wednesday’s news was compounded by the fact that less than a month earlier, fellow Southern California news source LAist was abruptly shuttered by its billionaire owner (I was LAist’s editor-in-chief at the time of its closure). In cities across the country, other journalism outlets, both digital and print, are struggling to survive the industry-wide contraction dubbed the media apocalypse. For those who fear for the long-term health of local news during a politically contentious time, the Weekly turnover gives considerable pause.
So, who’s running the Weekly today? The man now in charge laughed when asked what his official title at the paper was. “I haven't even figured out how to unlock all the doors yet,” Brian Calle said over the phone on Monday afternoon.
A libertarian-leaning “free-market enthusiast” and former opinion editor of the Orange County Register, Calle said that he “might end up” as publisher, but an interim stint as editor-in-chief wasn’t out of the question either. The 37-year-old, who once described himself as a “cross between Ari Gold and Captain Jack Sparrow,” is still commuting from Orange County, but he plans to move to Los Angeles in the next few weeks. And he wants the city’s residents to know that—despite all appearances—the Weekly is alive and well, and about to be better than ever.
At the time of the layoffs, it was still not entirely clear who even owned the paper. A month and a half earlier, Voice Media Group, the Weekly’s parent company, had announced the forthcoming sale of the paper to Semanal Media, a mysterious newly formed LLC. A few weeks later in early November, the Los Angeles Times reported that prominent L.A. cannabis industry attorney David Welch was one of Semanal’s investors. And Calle, the Times reported, had been “selected” by the mysterious investors to lead operations for the takeover.
The sale to Semanal Media officially closed on Wednesday, the same day as the layoffs. No one from Semanal was in the building on Wednesday during the Red Wedding, according to multiple former staffers. Further information about the investors wouldn’t be revealed until the end of the week.
The decimation of the paper’s staff at the hands of a then still-unknown entity provoked widespread outrage in the city and the wider journalism community, with the Society of Professional Journalists loudly calling on the people behind Semanal to reveal themselves. The names of the other five men (beyond Calle and Welch) who had invested were finally revealed in a post on the Weekly’s site on Friday: Four of the five have businesses based in Orange County, and two have “donated extensively to Republican political campaigns,” according to the L.A. Times.
That Orange County connection set off some alarm bells: O.C. is a county over and a culture war away from L.A.; combined with Calle’s own politics, fears of a Trojan Horse-style conservative takeover of the historically progressive paper quickly proliferated on social media, with several former Weekly staffers leading the inquiry in lengthy Twitter threads. “Are they going to weaponize the newspaper?” asked April Wolfe, the paper’s former lead film critic and a leader of the call for a boycott.
Jay Levin, who founded the Weekly in a rented Sunset Boulevard bungalow in 1978, famously proclaimed that “the truth is left-wing.” The paper is no longer as far left as it once was, but liberal politics remain central to the alt-weekly’s brand, which has been burnished by many journalistic honors. LA Weekly has won more awards than any other outlet in the country from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia; in 2007, it became the first paper in the country to receive a Pulitzer Prize for restaurant criticism. Business boomed through the 1990s, when, according to Los Angeles Magazine, “the Weekly was the dominant alternative paper in a huge market,” and “it wasn't hard to turn a handsome profit.”
But the Weekly purchased by Semanal Media was a shadow of its former self, in terms of size and influence. Once fat with ads for tanning salons and astrologers, the paper’s ever-thinning print edition has a current circulation of approximately 60,000—about a quarter of what it was in 2000, though it remained profitable. And at the time it was put up for sale, digital readership was strong and growing, according to former editor Shalhoup. The Weekly’s media kit claims 3.4 million monthly unique visitors. “The publication was certainly not losing audience,” she said. “Things could change from month to month or week to week, but the overall trend was up,”
Voice Media Group’s original for-sale pitch stated that they were seeking a buyer “with an appreciation for the Weekly’s long history as a progressive icon in America’s second-largest market.” And Calle has repeatedly insisted that he has no intention of changing the paper’s editorial slant. “I think it’s going to be even more progressive,” Calle told CityLab. “I have no intention, nor would I have ever agreed to be part of something, that was going to change the political bent. I think one of the dirty little secrets about Brian Calle is that I’m incredibly progressive socially.”
The new Weekly regime’s controversy-laden debut doesn’t signal an ideological takeover, Calle insisted: It was just badly executed: “If we’re as nefarious and calculated as some people on social media suggest, the rollout would have been far more strategic and far more geared toward some insidious purpose.”
Calle also pushes back at the charges of secrecy that dominated much of the local criticism of the sale. “David [Welch] was announced pretty early on,” he said, “I was announced shortly thereafter.”
While perhaps technically true, this description is not entirely accurate: Welch wasn’t initially named as an investor; his name was merely listed on the LLC application filed the same day the forthcoming sale was first announced in October. No other information was released at the time, leading many to speculate that the prominent cannabis attorney was representing some mystery marijuana company in the deal. Welch’s role as an investor in Semanal wouldn’t be disclosed for another three weeks, when it was confirmed in the same November 9 L.A. Times article that also announced Calle’s forthcoming position at the helm of the Weekly. That article, which was based on an interview with Calle, framed Calle’s role not as financial backer or chess-board maneuverer, but rather as the guy hired by the still-mysterious investors to manage editorial operations for them. In fact, Welch and Calle are the two main investors, and Calle appears to be running the show.
And as for the rest of the O.C. gang? Calle maintains that he and Welch truly didn’t know who the final list of investors would be until the deal closed last week. So they weren’t being intentionally secretive, they just didn’t know what they were doing, or where the money was coming from. “The only reason we didn't go out of the gate saying these are the people who are going to be the [new] LA Weekly is because that was a list that was in flux so much so that there was no consistency until the actual, final closing,” Calle said. “Literally days before.” (A spokesperson for Dirks, Van Essen & Murray, the mergers and acquisition firm handling the sale for Voice Media Group, confirmed that sale closed on Wednesday, November 29, but was unable to provide any further detail.)
Nevertheless, once revealed, the new Weekly team wasted little time enraging readers further. On Friday afternoon, Steve Mehr, one of the investors, appeared to suggest in an L.A. Times interview that Los Angeles—home to much of the nation’s film, television, and music industries—was something of a cultural backwater. Mehr, who lives in the tony Orange County beach community of Dana Point, told the Times that Los Angeles didn’t “have a cultural scene on par with New York and San Francisco.”
I can't stop laughing at this. It's such a middle finger to the cultural capital of the country, from a guy who doesn't even live here.— Laura J. Nelson 🦅 (@laura_nelson) December 1, 2017
“When I saw that I was like, oh God, why did I let him talk?” Calle said.
He explained further. Both men had been at LA Weekly’s offices on Friday. “Steve saw me in a hallway and he said, ‘Hey, um, the L.A. Times is calling me, what should I do?’ I said go ahead, talk to them, we have nothing to hide,” Calle recalled. “I talked to Steve later after I read the quotes and I said, ‘Did you say that?’ and he said ‘I did say that,’ but it was in the context of saying that L.A. has an amazing culture.” Calle also posited that Mehr likely hadn’t done an interview before. (Mehr, who has an Instagram account with more than a million followers where he shares meme-ified platitudes about #success, appears to have actually done numerous interviews in the past, primarily regarding his self-published ebook Dominate Your Goals: A Guide to Achieving Results.)
As the rollout continued over the weekend, so did the blowback. On Friday night, legendary punk rocker Henry Rollins announced that he would not be continuing his column at L.A. Weekly. On Saturday, the new LA Weekly regime tweeted—and soon deleted—a call for contributors that misspelled the word “Angeleno” and appeared to be soliciting free labor.
So what exactly do these characters aim to do with the city’s famed, if slightly fallen, alt-weekly? “I really can’t imagine why you would even buy the LA Weekly if it wasn't for at least a fraction of the people that produced the work,” Shalhoup, a 17-year veteran of the alt-weekly business, said. “We’re all equally puzzled as to what value these buyers saw in this publication.”
To hear Calle tell it, the motivation was largely altruistic. “It was just people who literally were like, ‘This is cool, I want to help save the LA Weekly.’ That, honest to God, has been the focus,” Calle said. But while white-hat activist investors certainly have a place in the current journalism landscape, conservative Orange County businessmen seem an unlikely fit for the role.
Another answer—or at least potential factor? The investors smelled weed money. California’s legalization of recreational marijuana goes into effect on January 1, 2018. According to internal estimates, management had posited that legalization could bring in up to $2 million in additional advertising revenue for the struggling paper during the first year alone.
“There was hope in the building and beyond that there would be additional revenue,” Shalhoup said. “That was also based on the fact that our sister publication in Denver saw quite a bit of influx of new revenue.” Recreational marijuana, which Colorado voted to legalize in 2012, has been life-sustaining for Denver’s Westword, one of the few alt-weeklies in VMG’s collection that the company hasn’t been trying to sell off. Other alt-weeklies nationally are also hoping to cash in on cannabis ad dollars.
“Westword is probably the most profitable alternative weekly in the country, and it’s due in large part to marijuana/cannabis advertising,” Calle said. “Most certainly from a short-term perspective, in terms of bringing in revenues from 2018, we are going to focus on getting a bump from cannabis,” he continued. “Obviously David [Welch] is very active in [the cannabis] space, so he’s excited about that prospect too.”
Firing most of the editorial staff should be good for the short-term bottom line, too, especially given Calle’s stated plan to only hire back “some full-time writers,” and “double down on the number of freelance writers that the LA Weekly relies on.” Calle also expressed much interest in “crowdsourcing” unpaid content, citing the Huffington Post’s often-derided model. But he also promised that readers will be surprised by the “investigative journalism and assertiveness” his new LA Weekly will deliver—eventually.
“I hope that while I may look awful now, everyone gives us a chance and in a few months reassesses that view,” Calle said. “But feel free to hammer me in the meantime.”
In the meantime, the news goes on, without the Weekly. A story in Pacific Standard yesterday stated that “no real transition team is in place, and the current office is mostly empty.” Los Angeles is quite literally burning—but you can’t read about it on the Weekly site. As of Thursday morning, the only item published on the catastrophic fires raging in the city was a stray tweet announcing the declaration of a local state of emergency.
The tweet, it turns out, was an accident—a former reporter still logged into the Weekly’s Twitter had intended to send it from his personal account.