United States Project

theLAnd: From #BoycottLAWeekly to earnest purveyors of culture and cool

October 1, 2018

Inside a Mid-City home not far from some of LA’s more distinctive and delightful cultural offerings—a Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n Waffles, the beloved skating palace World on Wheels—a group of Angelenos recently sat around a table strewn with puzzle pieces and glowing laptops. The curtains were drawn against the mid-afternoon sun, and there were open beers to sip. On the wall was a spreadsheet brimming with story pitches, illuminated by a projector propped up on the puzzle box.

A dog named Baxter plodded around, demanding head scratches from the editors, who were deep in conversation about pitches under consideration, art they want, photo essays they’d like to assign, and how many pages each article would need in the first issue of their new magazine. More pages means higher costs.

After surveying their pitches and aims, Sarah Bennett, a former food editor for the embattled LA Weekly, tells CJR of the non-hierarchical group, “We’re trying not to be the shitbags that we hate.” It’s a raison d’être that the rest of the journalists in the room—Liz Ohanesian, Mark Ortega, Evan Solano, Jenn Swann, and Jeff Weiss—can get behind.

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

Last October, the LA Times reported the acquisition of LA Weekly by a then-mysterious outfit called Semanal Media, which then laid off most of the staff without explanation. Former staff and contributors launched #BoycottLAWeekly, which Swann described in VICE as an effort “to tank the paper before it has a chance to survive under its new ownership.”

Since then, a turf war of sorts has erupted, with the winner poised to claim what LA Weekly Publisher Brian Calle has called the “cultural center” of Los Angeles—an amorphous term Calle uses to define his paper’s focus when interviewers ask. At stake is not only a romantic notion of the alt-weekly, but also the development of a local press that can offer a rich look at the diversity of spirit and people of the vast city.

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Calle, former op-ed editor for the conservative Orange County Register, seems to believe such turf can be claimed without holding on to the publication’s editorial team. The journalists gathered in Mid-City, however, are there to disabuse him of the notion. Bennett, Swann, and the rest are building a new quarterly magazine called theLAnd, which they see as an opportunity to summon the rebellious voice for underground culture that LA Weekly has lost.

It doesn’t matter though—like, even if we only had three issues, how would you feel if people were like, ‘You failed’? I think we’d have won for doing something, for trying.

Bennett keeps the group on task between discussions, scrolling through the spreadsheet and filling in notes about art, editing responsibilities, and story length. At a point, she calls for a kibosh on more pitches from Weiss about hip hop music—his blog Passion of the Weiss is no misnomer, he is knowledgeable and full of feels about Los Angeles hip hop, dropping names of South LA artists left and right. “We can do a 1,400-word profile in the magazine and then have a 6,000-word version online,” he says of one.

During the meeting, theLAnd’s team worries openly about a lack of representation in their future publication’s pages. When Ortega pitches a story from a writer who grew up in Koreatown, Bennett adjusts her square glasses and responds hotly, “Fuck yeah, someone who wants to write about their own neighborhood in LA.” While considering coverage of Boyle Heights—a largely Latino neighborhood that has become a vocal center of LA’s fight against gentrification—the conversation drifts, and Swann waxes on the importance of local Latinx voices, her bleached blond topknot tilted to one side in concern.

They debate how to offer unique coverage of celebrity chef Roy Choi, whose recent closure of his healthy fast food restaurant in Watts has stirred a bigger conversation in the city’s food circles. It’s a touchy subject—most Angelenos have an unsettling affection for Choi, the tattooed and foul-mouthed inventor of the Korean taco who was pivotal in earning LA long overdue props as a food destination. When Bennett coolly remarks that people fail and it happens, Weiss retorts, “It doesn’t matter though—like, even if we only had three issues, how would you feel if people were like, ‘You failed’? I think we’d have won for doing something, for trying.”

They want to make the right kind of splash. “When are we touching base with Henry Rollins?” Ortega asks, referring to the local punk hero and KCRW radio DJ. The group banters about luring in Rollins and other big names who left the LA Weekly. Rollins doesn’t appear to have continued his column on his own as promised—and Swann wonders aloud if they’d be better off going to profile Rollins at home. “Like, what is he actually like? Is he a sad boy like Morrissey? Does he date?” she wonders. (There are plenty of people in LA who would love to know those answers.)

“I’d love a comic,” says Ohanesian, as the group moves on to graphics. They talk about asking onetime “Life in Hell” comic artist Matt Groening—his work used to appear in the Weekly. It’s worth asking—after all, “he draws them in like two minutes at the table at Jitlada,” Swann says, naming a beloved Thai restaurant where his comics have been framed on the wall for years.

theLAnd hopes to publish its first issue—something with the appealing heft of Lucky Peach, a defunct-yet-excellent food magazine—by the end of 2018. So far, editors say they have raised $10,000; the guys behind Epic Magazine have been supporters, and theLAnd editors have started meeting with marketing people at concert venues and in the arts world to develop advertising relationships.

In Mid-City, Calle is a specter. Calle, who declined to speak by phone, wrote in an email that he’s proud of the every department in the new LA Weekly. His PR positivity is markedly different from the affectionate way theLAnd’s editors talk about their work, with the verve of locals who love their city and know it, deeply. Over expensive coffees and cheap margaritas, theLAnd contributors and devotees of alternative media in LA tell me the new publication is worth being hopeful about. If the LA Times can find life after tronc, and the LAist can come back from closure, and independent media like LA Taco can thrive, then why can’t a new alternative publication catch a break? Not for lack of enthusiasm, anyway. (Weiss says he’s going to beg writers to submit their copy over the phone while they’re traveling. “They’re going to be like Hunter S. Thompson, and I’ll be the editor who’s yelling over the phone, ‘Dictate the copy!’” he laughs.)

Calle, whose time at the Orange County Register is a distant cry from that sort of gonzo-journalism aesthetic, says LA Weekly has devoted much of the past year to “making structural changes to make sure the business side of the company is on stable footing.” What progress has been made would seem to be in peril. In August, one of Semanal Media’s owners sued Calle and the rest of the company, accusing them of running the business into the ground. Part of the suit includes an allegation of pay-for-play coverage tied to a glowing review for Kurvana, a pot company that, according to the lawsuit, pays Calle $120,000 a year to work as a “chief marketing officer.” Calle says LA Weekly has “no intention of being a strictly advertorial publication,” and adds that advertorial content is “labeled as such and…separate from the content our editorial team puts out.” The Kurvana review remains untouched. A Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge recently ruled against an effort by Calle to seal the lawsuit.

In Mid-City, theLAnd’s team collectively savors the idea of going to court to watch the lawsuit unfold. When they move on to ad rates and how to support local small businesses, Weiss says, “I’d rather not be sellouts and take less money to make it cooler.” At one point Weiss—whose flowing hair, plaid shirt, and beatific smile make him look like Jesus if Jesus were also an East LA bartender—pitches a story about a mechanic who is “not a young cool hipster mechanic with Elliott Smith murals on the wall,” a reference to a local dust-up that likely would have gotten follow-up coverage if only the weekly staff hadn’t been up-ended.

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Shaya Tayefe Mohajer teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and works as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for TakePart.com and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.