In today’s fragile state of journalism, specifically, the structural integrity of alt-weeklies, it took only one week for Brian Calle to become public enemy number one. And in the wake of LA Weekly’s buyout by Semanal Media LLC, some would have you believe the new guy running things is Satan himself. Others, like OC Weekly, at least find him scary, but the consensus labels him as simply inept in his handling of the sale. As the LA Weekly sale, mass firing of editors and subsequent shit show has unfolded, pretty much every journalist in Los Angeles has been watching from the sidelines in horror and fear about what it all means not only for those of us who make a living as writers, but also for our city, for our culture and for our ideological freedoms.
Except for me it hasn’t been from the sidelines. I’ve been right in the middle of the muck. As an online columnist for the music section of LA Weekly and a writer who does about three to four regular features between the music and arts blog every month, this thing has turned my entire life upside down, and not just monetarily. (We don’t get paid that much).
So when Calle reached out to me last week and said he was a fan of my work and wanted to talk about his vision for the paper, I was shocked and conflicted, obviously. This was bonafide crisis of conscience stuff because I, like the people who are boycotting the paper, love the LA Weekly and want to save it. I decided to hear what he had to say, and use the opportunity to tell him my concerns. We spoke on the phone Thursday morning, and while I’m still not sure about a lot, I do believe some assumptions being made don’t ring true.
A little background about me: I have been writing about the LA underground, nightlife, music, art for the LA Weekly for over 25 years. I started interning there just out of high school—John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, just up the street from the Weekly’s original headquarters on Hyperion Ave. Working with dozens of editors throughout my tenure, one thing that has never changed is my enthusiasm for the outsider, the rebel, the innovator, and I’ll just say it, the freak. I’ve never written about politics or social issues (directly anyway), because honestly, I’m just not very good at it and I don’t think I have the thick skin it requires.
I know I’m not saving the world by covering drag queens and burlesque shows or tiki events and goth bands, but I hope I’ve been able to at the very least, celebrate the creative culture of the city where I grew up, because it is nothing short of brilliant, and it deserves props for influencing and inspiring everything—fashion, entertainment, lifestyle—not just nationally, but globally. There is so much more to LA than the vapid reality TV stereotype, and I’ve always tried to show that. I was inspired to become a journalist reading the LA Weekly as a kid growing up in Silver Lake, where the original Weekly offices were based. La Dee Da, the punk rock scene column created by Pleasant Gehman, opened up a window to a vital, music-driven world I wanted desperately to be a part of, and I can say proudly, that today, I still am. (I even co-promote a monthly event with Gehman right in Silver Lake).
The Weekly gave me the vehicle to not only be a part of the scene I loved, but write about it too. Back then, it was a true epicenter of eclecticism and often subversive ideas and people. In the early days, I worked alongside performers and artists like Ron Athey, Vaginal Davis, and L7’s Donita Sparks, and writers and editors who were in or actually influenced the scenes they wrote about like Brenden Mullen, Steven Lee Morris, Marc Cooper, Steven Mikulan, and Belissa Cohen. (I became the latter’s assistant, which led to hanging backstage at the very first Lollapalooza, a day which essentially started my career.)
Calle has been quoted as saying he wants to make the Weekly more “edgy,” and he used the word “taboo” when talking to me. As someone who has been there since the Weekly’s punk rock beginnings, and later, saw an attempt to cover more sex-positive content via a short-lived sex blog, I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily. Lifestyle coverage is one thing, but the real question remains this: what are Calle and the new owner’s other motivations? What about coverage of social issues and politics? There’s been a lot of speculation about that, namely that Semanal, which purchased the paper without disclosing who they were, wants to help the Koch Bros. flip California into a red state, and that their sinister plan is to slowly slant coverage with Republican points of view or use libertarian ideas to split the liberal readership in half, thereby affecting our electoral outcomes, and eventually further a conservative agenda.
It was revealed by this publication that the new owners are in fact, mostly Republicans from OC; one even donated to Trump. But whether at this point, their exact motivations are truly in line with the classist, racist, sexist mindset of the current administration, I don’t know. It hasn’t looked good so far, I’ll admit. Calle apparently used to have ties to the uber-conservative Claremont Institute and an anti-choice Family Action PAC. In an LA Times interview last week he said he no longer was associated with either and left because he didn’t agree with those views. He called himself progressive in subsequent interviews and he reiterated all of this to me on the phone.
Sure, he could be lying, but right now it’s conjecture. Wanting the paper to be “edgier” doesn’t seem in line with any of that and neither does the cannabis connection (one of the owners is a known marijuana defense lawyer). Something here just doesn’t jibe. Some will say it’s a smokescreen but Calle calling me and telling me he wants more of my voice doesn’t make sense if the agenda is to promote the ethos of rich white men. I’m a Trump-hating Democrat, a feminist, an LA native, and the Latina daughter of an immigrant truck driver. I am, and sadly have always been, low-income. I backed Bernie and voted Hillary. You get the idea.
I write about wacky, fun pop culture and clubs, and I never write for free. Everything and I mean everything, I do comes from a staunchly liberal point of view: my last couple of articles included a piece about World of Wonder, the Hollywood-based creatives behind RuPaul’s Paul’s Drag Race, and art curator Danny Fuentes, who threw a party and invited a former murderer (club kid Micheal Alig) to host, inciting controversy and backlash in the scene. Both of these stories had pro-LGBTQ components, and most of my stuff does, which Calle says he supports, and he better because, well… he’s gay. He’s out and has a boyfriend too. That doesn’t fit the narrative a lot of people are putting out there but it’s true. Calle being Latino (it’s pronounced “Ca-Yay” by the way) doesn’t either.
I’ve been heartbroken about the way the new ownership treated the staff but I do understand that takeovers are not pretty and cleaning house happens. I’ve seen it happen at the Weekly before with editors I admired and respected, unceremoniously ousted without much warning. The difference this time is, it was done abruptly and all at once, before the holidays and with no transition plan in place. Another big, big distinction between this and past takeovers: social media and the ability to broadcast our outrage about what happened. Don’t get me wrong: The new owners have given us all a lot of reasons to do that, like the interview in which one of them said that LA does not have a cultural center on par with San Francisco and New York. The opposite is, of course, true: in my nightlife column alone, SF and NY transplants have bemoaned their hometowns and the decay of culture within them due to tech industry money, local government interference and gentrification, respectively, which is why they moved to LA in the first place.
Then they posted an ad on Twitter that seemed to suggest they were going the Huffington Post route, aka using free content from readers and thereby taking a big step toward killing journalism as we know it. Also they spelled “Angeleno” wrong in the ad. Sigh… Calle gave an interview stating that reader contributions will be a component moving forward and this coupled with the admittedly tone-deaf ad (which they rightfully deleted), somehow turned into “the Weekly is not paying writers” online.
But that was never true. I was asked to continue writing at my usual rates only days after the buyout went through. The Weekly is paying existing freelancers and sent out a letter saying so and asking for ideas to make the paper better. But the damage was already done by then and now freelancers who depend on work from the pub have been put in an awkward position, their principles being questioned based on speculation and “what it will look like.” Solidarity goes both ways, and after a lot of soul-searching I’ve come to the conclusion that not writing for a publication based on what its latest owner might do politically is not my style. Some have said I’d be compromising my integrity to do so, but I think joining a boycott I don’t believe in (yet) would be doing so. The truth is, the only people hurting the livelihoods of struggling journalists right now are the ones shaming us for keeping an open mind. And the thing is, this isn’t the first time the Weekly fired people unfairly or has been taken over by questionable owners.
A little perspective here: Some say the “LA Weakly” has been dying a slow death for quite some time. The paper was founded in 1978 by Jay Levin and a board of directors that included actor Michael Douglas. Levin was the editor from 1978 to 1991 and president from 1978 to 1992. In 2005, New Times Media, which used to be our bitter rivals, took over the paper. New Times owner Mike Lacey was almost as much of a libertarian as Calle, and many of the same things we are hearing now about potentially prejudiced coverage were concerns back then as well.
When New Times replaced news editor Alan Mittelstaedt with one of their own, Jill Stewart, there were a lot of naysayers, but the paper went on to win many awards under her editorship. Personally I remember a pretty bitter rivalry I had with New Times nightlife/music writer Dennis Romero, as we were covering a lot of the same subject matter and competing a bit when it came to uncovering the cool new clubs and DJs. Of course, Romero ended up coming on board at the Weekly and doing great work as a news reporter. He was one of the fired staff members last week. We buried the hatchet years ago, by the way.
Editor Joe Donnelly also came to the Weekly from New Times and lots of other changes happened around this time too. Laurie Ochoa (now at the LA Times) came in as EIC from Gourmet magazine and brought an awesome team with her including her husband Jonathan Gold as food expert (Gold was with the Weekly previously as music editor in the 80s). A female blogger by the name of Kate Sullivan was hired as music editor too. In addition to inviting me to be a part of one of the Weekly’s first ever “blogs” called “The Style Council,” these three gave me my dream gig: I finally got my own nightlife column in the spirit of LA Dee Da.
Anyway, Lacey and his partners renamed the company Village Voice Media in 2005, and merging once again, this time with Village Voice outlets. My nightlife column, Nightranger, started running in the paper around the same time. It survived when I took a leave of absence to have my daughter, with writer/now TV host Alie Ward filling in. The column was ultimately bumped from print around five years later, to make space for Henry Rollins’ column, which he did for free back then.* [See Correction/Clarification at end of story on this point]. Two music editors later—Randall Roberts (now at the Times) and Gustavo Turner—the changes at VVM started to show.
It was a dark time which included the Weekly’s move from the wonderful Hollywood Reporter building to the Culver City location. I lost my gig doing a full page of dance club listings for print and the rate for my column, now broken up in pieces on the music blog, was slashed. Luckily, I started taking pictures of my after-dark adventures and scored a weekly slideshow online. I used to work in the office every week but with the calendar section decimated, I rarely showed my face in Culver City. Still, I tried to stay connected after the move, which was tough because the paper seemed to go thru a revolving door of editors and it was hard to keep track.
Lacey sold the Weekly to Voice Media Group in 2012 and guy named Scott Tobias out of Denver took over as COO, navigating the acquisition of the former Voice publications in Minneapolis, Nashville, OC, LA, NYC and Seattle. In 2015, VMG decided to get out to the print biz, selling the Riverfront Times of St. Louis, City Pages of Minneapolis, OC Weekly in Orange County and the Village Voice in New York City. They finally announced the sale of LA Weekly this past January.
I’ve weathered a lot of changes at the Weekly over the years, including some straight up bad editors and pressure from the powers that be for web traffic (I remember getting it before the word “clickbait” even existed). The listicle-heavy LA Weekly was born from the pressure to attract short attention spans, but I think everybody did the best they could. I started before the internet barely existed (I used a typewriter to write my stories, kids!) and I just tried to keep up and do what I love for the paper I love as the web and blogosphere continued to change the game.
It wasn’t easy. VVM and VMG both had a habit of bringing editors in from their other publications across the state -and I mean people who never set foot in LA before working there-rather than hiring locally. As a native, I had a problem with that, but ultimately, a lot of them won me over because they were damn good journalists, and they tried. The ones in it for the wrong reasons were out pretty quickly. Rollins, by the way, announced he wasn’t going to continue doing his column for LA Weekly in the wake of the buyout and outcry last week. Writer Jeff Weiss (a native like myself) decided not to continue doing his column for the music section even before Rollins did, and has been leading the furious boycott against the new LA Weekly owners ever since.
I get it. I’m angry too. But as I’ve explained here, the Weekly’s history is filled with unjust firings and pressure from its owners to make money. It is a business after all. The higher ups have also been libertarians and Republicans in the past and some changes were evident. But we stayed (mostly) liberal in spite of that. Somehow the will of us writers prevailed and we soldiered on, covering the city that inspired us. Social media provides a forum to express indignation like never before, but I think with a situation like this, it can be dangerous.
People follow blindly without doing their homework and in this case, some have spread falsehoods. I think what started as a protest of unfair firings, a necessary call for transparency, and a genuine desire to save journalism turned into something ugly and aggrandizing. There’s been name-calling, leaking of private email and cell phone information on Twitter, and personal insults hurled at those who haven’t joined the mob. The few remaining at the Weekly, who are innocent in all of this, have suffered cyber-bullying and even death threats.
Many of my friends joined the anti-Weekly fury online and I understood why. I’ve unfriended people on Facebook over their support of Trump like most Dems have. But I think judgments were made too soon here, and this situation has provided a perfect scapegoat for all of our rage against the asshole in the White House. Seeing “fuck LA Weekly” in my social media feeds has felt like a knife in my heart and leaving it completely would be like filing for divorce from someone I still love based on their past transgressions before me and what they might do in the future.
My conversation with Calle answered a lot questions. I’m still skeptical about a few things and I told him so. I agree with some of his views (which sound pretty damn liberal) and disagree with others. I’ve talked with several people close to the situation who’ve delved beyond the hate campaign and “alt-right” allegations and here’s our theory: the sale wasn’t about a political agenda, it was about money… pot money to be exact. When recreational cannabis becomes legal there is tons to be made in advertising for the LA Weekly. Whether the content will suffer if that is the focus remains to be seen, but if good writers are shamed into staying away, it surely will.
Pushing boundaries and covering more of the fetish scene (which Calle was mocked for mentioning on KCRW), GLBTQ issues and the marijuana industry does make sense if this is the motivation. But I’m not naïve—the jury is still out here. We owe these guys nothing and if the political affiliations of few of them are deal-breakers for some, that’s fair. But there are a lot of us who don’t want to see the LA Weekly die and are waiting for a full picture to emerge.
I’ve spoken with Hillel Aron (just named interim editor in chief) about our desire to save the LA Weekly and now that his efforts to do so have been announced, I feel good about at least completing the assignments I was given before the takeover through the end of the year. What happens for me personally after that, I don’t know. I hope to continue to cover the people and places and music I’m passionate about, for as many outlets as I can, but the truth is, I was looking into other fields even before the sale. It’s no secret that it’s getting harder and harder to get paid for writing.
The call for free reader content happened long before the Weekly ever considered it and many online outlets are shutting down (LAist as an example, which I wrote for regularly) or replacing the written word with video content. It’s been extremely hard financially and anyone who does this for a living knows what I’m talking about. But this isn’t about the paycheck. The Weekly is/was part of who I am and it is extremely difficult for me to imagine my life not being a part of it after all I’ve been through, learned and been lucky enough to do as one of its writers. I realize I still might have to.
Moving forward, as with any outlet I write for (right now these include Playboy, Variety, Noisey/Vice, and this publication), I will watch what the people in power do very closely and I will let my gut and my conscience steer me in the right direction. I will never allow censorship about anything I want to cover or write, and I will continue to be a voice for the music-makers, artists and weirdos of Los Angeles. However this thing plays out, that’s all I know for sure.
Correction/Clarification: Gustavo Turner contacted the Weekly and said that in fact, Rollins was paid for his column and Lecaro’s column was not bumped to make room for his column but was moved online at the request of the paper’s then corporate overlords.
Here’s Lecaro’s response: “I have the utmost respect for Gustavo Turner and his time at the Weekly. I wrote things as I recalled them in earnest.We’ve discussed this issue privately as well, but I appreciate his desire to clarify the facts publicly.”