A visit to LA Weekly, the most turbulent newsroom in America

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Newish LA Weekly editor Darrick Rainey and publisher Brian Calle run what is perhaps the most on-edge paper at this moment in American journalism. In December of last year, Calle—formerly the head of the libertarian op-ed pages for the Orange County Register—and a group of investors under the name Semanal Media bought the august alt-weekly, then axed 9 of 13 staff writers and editors in what then Editor in Chief Mara Shalhoup (one of the victims) compared to the sanguinary Red Wedding of Game of Thrones. The layoffs prompted a furious counterattack by former staffers and freelancers, who alleged Calle heads a conservative conspiracy to turn the historically progressive LA Weekly into an alt-right rag.

Under the hashtag #BoycottLAWeekly, protesters organized right after the layoffs publicly and loudly, staging a mock funeral outside the LA Weekly building in Culver City, and rolling out a campaign that publicly requests advertisers to pull their money and asks writers, photographers, and artists to stop contributing until Calle and his group are gone. The push has seen success: major LA businesses like Amoeba Records and Angel City Brewery no longer run ads with the Weekly, and the paper canceled two moneymaking food events after restaurants pulled out in support of the boycott. Many former contributors have refused to write for the paper, despite the invites of Rainey—promoted just last month—and Calle.

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The aim of the #BoycottLAWeekly group is to spur Semanal to sell the paper and put it in better hands. “We [are] making calls to advertisers and planning to ensure that the city can be covered in a sustainable way in the future,” says Jeff Weiss, a former LA Weekly music columnist who has savaged Calle and his crew on Twitter. “The [Los Angeles] Times is essential, but one dedicated newspaper covering a constantly evolving and complex metropolis of four million people isn’t enough. We’re working towards a solution to the problem; Semanal Media is not.”

But the atmosphere in the newsroom (currently 10 staffers, with one more to come) was relaxed when I visited the LA Weekly offices this past week. The paper is celebrating 40 years this winter, so sales and marketing are slowly starting to think of how to mark the anniversary. Story ideas filled whiteboards; workers cracked jokes with each other or scrolled through their personal Facebook pages as the Thursday afternoon wound down. In one cubicle, a poster read “No Koch Hate in L.A.”—ironic, because boycotters repeatedly mention that Calle once served as a senior fellow at a conservative think tank funded by the right-wing brothers.

Just days before, LA Weekly had finally responded to #BoycottLAWeekly with its own hashtag—#speaktruth—and a snazzy website. “A small but aggressive and deceitful group of bullies,” the homepage read, “is using harassment and intimidation to spread lies about L.A. Weekly.” The move immediately drew widespread derision, with Weiss—one of the more prominent boycotters—calling it in an interview with CJR “Sinclair Media run by Gob Bluth.”

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Rainey, who designed the website, is unapologetic. “We felt we needed to fight back. Besides,” says the soft-spoken but impassioned 10-year veteran of the paper, “this is one strife of many I’ve seen.”

He’s referring, of course, to the paper’s tumultuous history. Lost in national media accounts of LA Weekly’s current civil war is that staff revolts, or former writers trashing the paper, are as certain a Southern California occurrence as the Santa Ana winds. In 1993, LA Weekly management fired popular Editor in Chief Kit Rachlis; staffers yelled at Publisher Michael Sigman for an hour before six editors and writers resigned in protest, leaving a staff of about 25. In 2006, longtime political columnist Harold Meyerson sent a company-wide email announcing his resignation, accusing new ownership—at that time, Phoenix-based New Times—of “reducing commentary to drive-by shootings.”

Even today, the feeling among older generations of LA Weekly writers and editors is that the imbroglio between Calle and #BoycottLAWeekly is too much, too little, too late.

“I imagine that to the casual observer,” says Joe Donnelly, who served as deputy editor from 2002 until 2008 and whom the paper just profiled, “what’s going on now feels a bit like fighting over who claims the remnants of a once-great building that’s been bashed by various wrecking balls for more than a decade.”

Such thoughts makes the current kids laugh.

“I’ve been literally hearing ‘LA Weekly now sucks’ since I started at LA Weekly,” says Lina Lecaro, who was an 18-year-old intern at the paper when Rachlis was fired in ’93, continued as a freelancer since, and just got hired as the paper’s culture editor.

In interviews with people who decided to stay under Calle’s ownership, there’s a clear theme: They see themselves as the torchbearers of the paper’s legacy under a new regime and in a precarious media landscape. And they resent boycotters for not only ridiculing them for staying at “Vichy LA Weekly” but also inciting a self-fulfilling prophecy: Scare enough freelancers, cut the flow of content, and the paper can’t cover Los Angeles the way it should, which only confirms the boycotters’ insistence that the paper under Calle “now sucks.

“They want to destroy it and only save it on their terms,” says a staffer from the 2000s who currently contributes and requests anonymity. “You’re discounting all the people who remained, who’ve been here four times longer than some of the boycotters.”

 

RAINEY HAS WORKED in the alt-weekly business for 20 years as an art director and has no experience as an editor in any capacity. (Full disclosure: Rainey served as digital design paper for Voice Media Group, the paper’s previous owner, while I was editor of OC Weekly from 2011 until 2016 and thus supervised our look. Most of our interactions were heated arguments about cover images).

But former colleagues praise his acumen.

“Darrick is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with,” says Sarah Fenske, who was LA Weekly editor from 2011 to 2014 and is currently editor at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. “He’s also a native Angeleno with his finger on the city’s pulse, which is more than you could have said about me upon my arrival.”

Rainey and the four other staffers who remained at the time gave Calle and the owners “an earful…about their obvious mistakes” the day after the layoffs. Yet not only did Rainey decide to stay, he accepted Calle’s offer to helm the paper a couple of weeks ago, especially after receiving reassurances that management wouldn’t interfere with his story choices. “If they tried, that would be a fight,” says the self-proclaimed liberal, “and I wouldn’t stay long in this position.”

The 51-year-old didn’t like all the layoffs, but “There’s a disconnect that the boycott people have,” he says. “We had a corporate budget before; we don’t anymore.”

Nevertheless, at Rainey’s urging, the paper recently refilled five of the nine positions originally eliminated, although only one of them will be full-time. “There’s a start-up mentality right now,” he says. “We’re ready to cover this city the way we used to.”

But he’s having a hard time recruiting more writers because of the boycott. “I don’t blame anyone who was in this building at all,” he says. “You get laid off, you should be angry. I have issue with the freelancers. The stuff that you want the Weekly to be, we’re doing that. And they’re not even allowing people to even try to write.”

Rainey’s referring to harassment that some contributors say they have weathered from #BoycottLAWeekly supporters. Most declined to go on the record for fear of further retribution, but one who spoke publicly was photographer Ted Soqui. He has contributed to LA Weekly for nearly 35 years, including iconic pictures of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that the paper had him restage last year for its 25th anniversary.

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Soqui says that as recently as last month’s March for Our Lives rally, people who realized he was on assignment for LA Weekly blocked his shots, shadowed him, or flat-out told him to leave. “I can’t remember the last time I felt so unsafe,” says Soqui, who stayed on after Rainey assured him he could continue to shoot the protests and streetscapes he’s long specialized on. “I don’t appreciate it. [The boycott] destroys the ability of people to work.”

Such tactics bother former staffers, including Dennis Romero, a workhorse of a former reporter who Calle says is the one person he regrets not retaining (Calle offered him his job back; Romero declined to join what he called a “cauldron of chaos” in an interview with CJR). While Romero supports the boycott, he also questions the smear campaign against writers who contribute.

“They’re good people stuck in a bad place,” Romero says. “It’s a legitimate ask [for boycotters to ask people not to cross their line], but after the ask, they shouldn’t get bullied.”

 

CALLE HAS HIT THE SAME points in all of his media interviews about LA Weekly: He’s not the bogeyman for journalism’s ills. He didn’t technically fire the staffers because VMG did it before they transferred ownership to Semanal. He approved of the #SpeakTruth campaign only after his new food editor called him crying about threats a restaurant had received for doing an event with the paper. His record at the Register—where he gave weekly columns to conservative voices but also prominent liberals like Erwin Chemerinsky (originally announced as an investor before he pulled out)—speaks for itself. He would’ve hired back everyone who lost their job if he could afford it.

He’s a slight man with a habit of checking both his cell phones when someone else is talking. But Calle was startlingly forthcoming with me over a two-hour interview, even though I once named him one of Orange County’s scariest people when I ran OC Weekly. He showed me everything I asked for during our talk: Web traffic figures (lower by half in March compared to last year, although LA Weekly was already on a downward trajectory), Facebook analytics (overall likes are actually up since December by about 1,000), and emails and voicemails to prove his bullying allegations (one tweet by a former editor used an internet catchphrase to joke in a since-deleted tweet that an assistant editor had a “punchable face”).

He also shared with me a December email by Weiss offering to buy LA Weekly at the price Calle paid so Weiss and the buyers could turn it into a nonprofit. “This will only get worse,” Weiss warned if Calle refused his offer. “And I would vastly prefer that we don’t turn this into Stalingrad.”

The 37-year-old wouldn’t show me financial numbers that he claims proves LA Weekly was in a financial tailspin when he bought the paper, citing an NDA with VMG. But conversations with other groups who wanted to buy LA Weekly—some which included staffers from years ago—confirm Calle’s dire talk.

He says he has received offers to buy from “people that the boycotters would like less than me.” And he admits, “some days, I ask if it was the right decision. Everyone in this building has been beat and battered. But that has created a team.”

And that’s what keeps people like Lecaro around. Shortly after the layoffs, she wrote a story for OC Weekly titled “Why I Can’t Stop Writing For LA Weekly (For Now)” in which she openly expressed skepticism about the new owners. Four months later, she’s a staffer.

“I’ve written for the Weekly more than half of my life,” she says. “I’ve continued to write the same as ever. There’s not this big conservative change that everyone has talked about. I hope that people have an open mind and know that the staff really does care, and that the paper is as good as it can be.”

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Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times opinion section and the author of 2012's Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.