Los Angeles

To Save 'LA Weekly,' Journalists Want to Destroy It

After its new owners laid off most of the editorial staff, former contributors have launched a campaign to tank the publication.
December 13, 2017, 6:51am
Photos by the author

The funeral was held last Friday on the sidewalk in front of the LA Weekly offices in Culver City. Black-clad mourners gathered around a shiny white casket to read eulogies through a megaphone, the smell of smoke from nearby fires hanging in the air. The crowd of about two dozen, many of them former freelancers or staffers for the LA Weekly—myself included—had gathered to pay our respects not to a person, but to a newspaper we once loved.

LA Weekly is a place that gave people a chance,” Jeff Weiss, a former music columnist who contributed to the paper for a decade, told the crowd. “It gave artists a chance that might not have been heard. It gave a voice to the voiceless, not a voice to power.”

Like Weiss, I also got my start at the LA Weekly, where I was hired as an editorial assistant in January 2013. Reporting was not in my job description, but I eventually bugged my editors enough that they gave me a chance to write. Maybe it was because I wanted to do the kinds of assignments nobody else would: Waking up at 5 AM to go to a sober rave, biking 17 miles to the Emmys, getting drunk and then sticking an IV in my arm the next morning to cure a hangover. I was happy to be a guinea pig in the name of journalism if it meant landing a byline. By the end of 2014, I had my first cover story. For me and countless others, writing for the LA Weekly wasn’t just a dream job or a professional launching pad, but a civic duty that gave us unparalleled access to just about anything and anyone we could think to write about.

Weiss was one of the organizers of the mock funeral, which was held in response to the sale of the LA Weekly to a mysterious shell company called Semanal Media, which two weeks ago laid off nine of the paper’s 13 editorial employees. (I was no longer with the company, but the layoffs did include my former editors.) The new company did not fully disclose its investors’ identities or lay out a plan for the future of the newspaper, which led to speculation that it was either highly incompetent, part of a larger plot to use the historically left-leaning paper as a conservative mouthpiece—several of the new owners have donated money to the Republican Party—or some combination of both.

“The LA Weekly as we know it is dead,” Katie Bain, a former senior music writer who I’d met years ago while working at the paper, told me. “I think it died last Wednesday with the layoffs. Not only because nine people lost their jobs, but because 40 years of direction and ideas and reputation were suddenly shifted, and that, to me, means the paper is over as we knew it.”

To Bain and Weiss, LA Weekly’s death isn’t just speculative or metaphorical. Rather, they and the other writers who organized the funeral want to make certain of it. It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to save the publication that helped launch their careers, they believe they’ve first got to kill it. They’re aiming to do that through an aggressive boycott campaign that seeks to tank the paper before it has a chance to survive under its new ownership. The vengeance plot has them targeting individual advertisers and pressuring them to withdraw their business from the newspaper. So far, the tactic seems to be working: Last week, the paper canceled its annual Sips & Sweets event, just days after vendors including Amoeba Music and Angel City Brewery and restaurants such as Otium, the Pikey, and the Roger Room pulled out.

“The goal is to make it so toxic for them here that they have no choice but to sell it back. We want to basically take their legs out from under them,” said Bain. “Obviously we’re dealing with businessmen. The swiftest way to hit them is with money, and that's the language they understand.”

Of course, the organizers of the boycott can’t take all of the credit for alienating readers, advertisers, and freelancers—the new owners of LA Weekly have done plenty of that on their own. Statements they made to the LA Times, in which they disparaged LA’s cultural scene and a tweet in which they suggested they planned to use unpaid contributors, drew outrage on social media. It wasn't just that they botched interviews with other media outlets, but apparently also didn’t know how to manage their own website and Facebook page, both of which have been hijacked by former staffers: The funeral was livestreamed on LA Weekly’s Facebook page and a blog post pointing fingers at the new owners is still featured on the site today. (Semanal Media’s operations manager Brian Calle did not respond to my request for comment.)

“It’s really hard to tell how evil they are,” former food editor Katherine Spiers, who was laid off last month and supports the boycott, told me at the funeral. “How evil can you be when you’re fumbling at every turn?”


Watch:

Adding to the massive clusterfuck, Hillel Aron, the only staff writer who was spared from the layoffs, was promoted to interim editor-in-chief on Friday—and then abruptly suspended from his post on Tuesday, when Spin dug up and published some of his offensive tweets. When I talked to him on the phone on Sunday morning, before he was suspended, he was the first to admit that his new bosses badly botched the transition, creating a PR nightmare in which he’s become a primary target. “I think they've made numerous mistakes and were very naïve in doing what they did and thinking that we could actually function with that few employees,” he said. To him, like many outsiders looking in, the mass layoffs “didn't make any sense. There’s no excuse for it.” (The backlash from the sale of the paper has been so messy—complete with a frantic, typo-laden email that was widely mocked after being leaked to a reporter—that I can’t help but imagine it’s the kind of story Aron would go after, were he not personally living it.)

“Honestly, I’m impressed at how effective the boycott has been. I think they’ve done a really great job,” said Aron. He added that he believes the outrage of former writers and laid-off staffers would be better spent on a more outwardly political cause. “I wonder if they could maybe put this energy into getting rid of [Orange County Republican representative] Darrell Issa or organizing voters.”

But to many of the organizers and supporters of the boycott, fighting to save—by way of killing—an alternative weekly is inherently political, particularly at a time when the media is under attack. While President Trump leads a national crusade against so-called fake news, conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers—who last month invested in Meredith Corp., which owns TIME—have been quietly taking stake in media properties and consolidating them. Last month, Gothamist owner Joe Ricketts—a conservative Trump donor—abruptly shuttered the entire chain of local blogs in a move that was largely viewed as retaliation for unionizing. (I’d been working for LAist at the time.)

“It’s this concerning aspect of what we’re seeing with a few other media companies right now is that we don't actually know where the money’s coming from. There’s not much transparency,” April Wolfe, the former film critic for the LA Weekly who was laid off last month, told me on the phone. “The boycott campaign for me specifically, and this might be different for Jeff [Weiss], is to get people to pay attention to their local media and what is happening to it and to be their own media watchdogs,” Wolfe said. “Because journalists have been sounding the alarms for a very long time, and it’s hard to get people to care about things.” Wolfe hopes the #BoycottLAWeekly hashtag, which has already been retweeted by the likes of Mark Ruffalo and Ava Duvernay, whom Wolfe profiled in an LA Weekly cover story last year, will help mobilize people for an admittedly unsexy cause.

But not every former LA Weekly contributor is down with the boycott, and particularly not those who have watched layoffs, cutbacks, and ownership changes at the newspaper for decades. Jonny Whiteside, a former calendar editor who was laid off in 2009 and has been contributing to the paper’s music and calendar sections for longer than I’ve been alive, says the paper is no worse now than it was under previous owners. He sees the boycott as a grossly naïve and hypocritical form of overreaction.

“In journalism, you know how it works: They clean house—it’s routine,” he told me on the phone, identifying himself as “a freaking anarchist” without a political bent. “You can’t rail against the ownership. It’s just stupid because, yeah, they’re all bastards. This is America. Your corporate parent is a bastard,” he said. “You can either exist and, you know, try to further your career or spin your wheels and make a jerk of yourself.” Whiteside, like several other veteran LA Weekly Writers including Lina Lecaro, has no plans to stop writing for the paper under its new ownership—which is a key demand of the boycott.

I get why Whiteside is jaded. I survived a round of LA Weekly layoffs during what couldn't have been more than my second week on the job. There’s something about watching people who are twice your age, have double the experience, and kids at home to feed get canned that feels like a punch to the gut. The blow came even harder when, not even a year after that, the writer whose work I most admired was let go. The position, one I had wondered if I might someday get to fill, was eliminated.

But what happened at LA Weekly two weeks ago—wiping out nearly every editorial staffer with no transition team in place—feels entirely different and wholly unprecedented. Based on what we know (and still don’t) about the new owners, including that head honcho Calle formerly led a right-wing think tank and once appeared in what may have been a Russian propaganda film, I think we have every right to question their motives—not just as former contributors or laid-off staffers, but as people who care about what happens to our city, who reports on it, and why.

While the boycott appears to be picking up steam on social media, it remains to be seen what its organizers will do if they actually succeed at convincing the new owners to sell the paper back to them. At that point, will their boycott efforts have sabotaged their own master plan to revive the paper under new ownership? “I actually had this thought,” Rebecca Haithcoat, a former LA Weekly music writer and one of the boycott’s organizers, told me. “I was like, what’s going to happen if we do get it back and people are like, ‘Wait, we took [out] our advertising, so wait, now we should do it again?’”

Weiss is ready to cross that bridge when he gets to it. For now, he’s got LA Weekly advertisers to call. “We have to keep going, and we will. And we we will win. I promise you we will win because I’m crazier than they are, and you guys care more than everyone else does, and we will win this shit,” he said, standing in front of the open casket at the funeral. “I will never stop.”

Follow Jennifer Swann on Twitter.

Advertisement