Having apparently completed its mysterious purchase of LA Weekly, new owner Semanal LLC promptly fired 70 percent (9 of 13 staffers) of the alternative newspaper’s editorial staff in a brutal Nov. 29 layoff described by axed Weekly editor Mara Shalhoup as a massacre reminiscent of the Game of Thrones‘ infamous “red wedding” scene. Stunned staffers were fired one after another and told to pack up their things.
“Mara called it,” said ex-Weekly music editor Andy Hermann. “It was basically the ‘Red Wedding.’ They called us in and laid us off one by one. Nine editorial, the publisher, a bunch of admin people—just fucking gutted the place. No explanation, no transition; just ‘Thanks, bye.'”
The Weekly‘s new editorial honcho, Brian Calle, an ex-Orange County Register editorial director and one of OC Weekly‘s Scariest People of the Year, was perhaps not even in the building at the time. “Nope, never met or spoke to the guy,” Hermann confirmed.
“It was brutal, but I was the first to go, which means first to beer,” reminisced ex-Weekly managing editor Drew Tewksbury. “Which was great!”
Shalhoup announced the layoffs in a series of tweets late Wednesday. The following morning, a strange story with an unusual byline appeared on LA Weekly‘s home page. “Who Owns LA Weekly?” the article’s headline asked. “The new owners of LA Weekly don’t want you to know who they are. They are hiding from you. They’ve got big black bags with question marks covering their big, bald heads. These new owners just laid off nine hardworking journalists. Why? . . . It’s a fair question. Who is benefiting? You deserve to know.”
The story, by Keith Plocek, was particularly noteworthy because it may be the first time a newspaper has run a story pondering the identity of its ownership, not to mention one with a Simpsons cartoon image (see above). But perhaps more surprising is the fact that Plocek isn’t now, nor was he at the time the story was published, actually an employee of LA Weekly. So how did he have access to the website? Plocek is a former Voice Media Group web editor who, despite no longer working for the company, still had access to the newspaper’s publishing software.
In a Nov. 30 interview, Plocek, who now teaches at USC Annenberg School of Journalism, said he was surprised how easy it was to post the story on LA Weekly‘s website. “I’m just a random dude who used to be a muckety-muck who happened to have a password,” he said. “I just thought someone should write about it.”
So what’s up with Semanal LLC?
As the OC Weekly‘s Mary Carreon first reported on Oct. 20, legal paperwork for the group, which translates to “Weekly” from Spanish and was apparently formed with the sole purpose of purchasing the newspaper’s assets (thus busting the union that represented LA Weekly‘s editorial staff), was filed by an Orange County pot attorney named David Welch. After confirming he was the registered agent for Semanal, Welch hung up on Carreon and so far hasn’t responded to further calls from her or other journalists.
Semanal’s apparent Orange County connection was also the subject of a Nov. 30 tweet by ex-LA Weekly journalist Jason McGahan, who identified ex-Register editorial writer Steven Greenhut as a partner of Calle at Semanal. But in a Dec. 1 interview, Greenhut denied any involvement with Semanal, claiming that while he was friends with Calle and had written for him in the past, he wasn’t an investor in the group. Greenhut’s think tank, R Street, referenced in McGahan’s tweet, also denied any involvement.
And . . . literally as I was finishing this story, Calle posted a story on LA Weekly‘s website identifying Semanal’s investors, including Welch; Kevin Xu, “a philanthropist and investor”; Steve Mehr, “an attorney and investor”; Paul Makarechian, “a boutique hotel developer”; and Andy Bequer, a “Southern California-based investor.” Calle also said that esteemed UC Berkley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who praised Calle in an LA Times story yesterday, plans to invest.
Bequer, the registered agent for something called the “Experience Recovery Detox & Residential,” is the only one of the purported Semanal partners tweeted by McGahan on Nov. 30 named by Calle as investors in Semanal. At any rate, he’s another OC boy; the paperwork for his company shows an address in Fountain Valley.
You can read Calle’s LA Weekly story here. Or better yet, skip it. Thumbnail sketch: He talks about the LA Weekly‘s glory days as a beacon of independent journalism and its subsequent decline, thus strangely bemoaning the plight of the very paper he just gutted, as I predicted he would do here.
Additional reporting by Nate Jackson, Mary Carreon and Frank John Tristan.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).