How the New Ownership at 'LA Weekly' Played Itself - Pacific Standard
Semanal Media bought the beloved paper and gutted it from the inside. For what?

April Wolfe was distressed as she crawled her way across town in Los Angeles' notorious morning rush-hour traffic to arrive at the paper's Culver City headquarters last Wednesday. Wolfe, the now-former LA Weekly film critic, had received an email instructing her to arrive at the office at 10 a.m. The reason for the arrival time was unstated; the rest of the paper's staff had received the same instructions.

Upon her arrival, Wolfe was asked to sit in the office until mid-afternoon as paperwork was finalized and the staff was called in one by one to learn their fates. "Five hours of time waiting to see if you have a job is game show style," Wolfe tells me. "It was just malicious, I would compare it to the worst episode of The Apprentice that you've ever seen."

By that time, Semanal Media, the mysterious new owner of LA Weekly, had taken the reins of the paper from Voice Media Group. In the span of a few hours, Semanal fired 75 percent of its full-time editorial staff, including all five editors, the publisher, two staff news writers, the film critic, and the head of sales. Only one staff writer, an art director, and a copy chief remain. Former editor-in-chief Mara Shalhoup compared the cuts to the Red Wedding, the particularly brutal slaughter scene in Game of Thrones. Only a shell was left of the newspaper staff that had existed the day prior.

The scorched Earth firings baffled the former staff, in part because, according to Voice Media Group, LA Weeklyone of the most widely read alt-weeklies in the country—had been profitable when it went up for sale in January. Shalhoup says that, despite budget cuts, Web traffic and overall audience had continued to grow throughout her nearly three years running the paper. "Our social reach was huge," she tells Pacific Standard. "How do you start from scratch?"

Both the new and former owners had kept the LA Weekly staff in the dark about almost all decisions since mid-October, when the sale of the paper to Semanal was finalized. They learned of the sale through a note from their union, the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, which informed them that the sale had gone through, and as of November 1st all "employment with the company [Voice Media group] will terminate." The situation remained murky, but the staff kept working, operating under the hopeful assumption that all or most of the staff would be "rehired" by Semanal.

The new company had been created expressly for the sale, and although the Los Angeles Times and others reported at the time on the sale, little information emerged about the furtive Semanal (which means "weekly" in Spanish). The staffers, too, heard nothing from the paper's new owners.

On November 9th, the L.A. Times reported that Brian Calle had been named the new head of the paper. In the interview, Calle said mostly positive things about LA Weekly, but did hint at coming layoffs. "He was singing the Weekly's praises to some extent, but also, of the editorial staff, he said that he intended to keep some employees," Shalhoup says. "That's when we were like, 'Some is not even most, and that is very worrisome.'"

Shortly after Calle's association with Semanal became public, Hillel Aron (now the sole remaining staff writer) reached out to him, hoping to learn more about his editorial vision and plans for the staff. According to Wolfe, "Brian said very glowing things," to Aron, "and he gave us many compliments. So while we were suspicious, we did not expect this. We were blindsided by all of it."

Calle's libertarian political leanings were already widely known in Southern California. Prior to coming to LA Weekly, Calle was head of the editorial page for the staunchly conservative Orange County Register and the 10 other daily papers owned by Southern California News Group.

Early in his career, Calle also served as vice president of the Claremont Institute, a think tank that describes its mission as teaching "the principles that will be necessary to defeat progressivism," so acolytes will "go on to positions of power and influence, to government, the courts, academia, and the media." (The Institute's Claremont Review of Books published essays last year by current Trump administration official Michael Anton.)

A few days after the initial sale in October, OC Weekly reported that Semanal had been added to the California Secretary of State Business Database, which showed that attorney David Welch had filed the paperwork of incorporation as the registered agent. Welch is a marijuana industry lawyer who'd been in the news earlier in the year for filing a lawsuit against 14 unlicensed dispensaries in Orange County on behalf of a Cannabis Association—so speculation began that LA Weekly had been purchased by Big Pot bigwigs.

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The unveiling of Semanal's other investors this past week revealed that the other owners lack obvious marijuana ties, although Brian Calle did little to put such speculation to rest while speaking to KCRW's Madeleine Brand on her talk radio show Press Play on Monday. While Calle denied that the paper would become "a marijuana rag," he then expressed a desire to create "at least double the content that we're doing on cannabis now." (Calle did not respond to Pacific Standard's repeated interview requests.)

The unmasking of Calle and his co-investors raised other questions. Last Friday, the new regime of the LA Weekly revealed the identities of its new investors in a post titled "And the New Owners Are...." In addition to Calle and Welch, the investors include Orange County real estate developers Paul Makarechian and Michael Mugel; Andy Bequer, an investor with half a dozen companies registered in Orange County towns; Kevin Xu, who is associated with the biotech firm Mebo International; and Steve Mehr, who runs a marketing and advertising agency for law firms in Orange County.

Jeff Weiss, a freelance music and culture journalist who on Wednesday resigned from his "Bizarre Ride" column at LA Weekly after learning about the staff cuts, expressed disbelief that a group of out-of-towners could fire the existing staff and still run a paper for the people of L.A. "I don't know how anyone who's not from L.A. would know how to handle L.A. To me, that's the ultimate act of disrespect to the city," Weiss says, paraphrasing Compton rapper YG: "You wasn't bangin' out of town and now you tryna come around. It's not white privilege, but it's a form of privilege. And it's disrespectful to all of the community."

Like Calle, many of the Semanal investors have conservative ties. OC Weekly reported that five of the Semanal Media's seven investors have donated thousands of dollars to Republican Party candidates and PACs. Calle wrote in his introductory post that LA Weekly had not been bought by "some Trumpista," but OC Weekly reported that Mugel, the real estate developer who invested in LA Weekly, donated $25,000 last year to the Trump Victory Committee, a joint fundraising committee from 2016 for Trump and other Republican candidates. Additionally, as the writer Spike Friedman pointed out on Twitter, Bequer is a member of the Facebook group Cubans for Donald Trump.

The new knowledge of the owners' political ties led to speculation, on social media and among former staffers, about whether Semanal's purchase was politically motivated. "It's unsettling," says former culture editor Gwynedd Stuart. "As far as their political leanings go, I think this is part of something big, and dark, and dangerous." Calle has stated that he doesn't wish to change the paper's "editorial bent."

Wolfe pointed to Calle's editorial writings as sparking her concern. At the Register, Calle described himself as a "free-market enthusiast," and offered gratis political strategy for the California GOP. His editorial board writings also took an anti-labor bent, repeatedly condemning unions, and arguing that NFL cheerleaders should not be classified as full-time employees because they get "fringe benefits ... such as working closely with" wealthy, famous NFL players.

"I always say that you have to take people by their word. If someone says they believe something, then that's what they believe," Wolfe says. She points to an editorial Calle wrote praising the Lincoln Club of Orange County. "If you read the entire thing, it's not an op-ed, it's him laying out exactly how the Republican Party can pave the way for California to turn the state red—by taking a few people and putting them influential places. And I cannot think of a more influential place than LA Weekly. We have built up millions of followers for this newspaper. It has a huge mouthpiece for the city."

The paper first garnered a progressive reputation from its muckraking on air pollution in the 1970s. It's a reputation that continues to this day: Over the past few years the paper has earned praise for its reporting on misogyny in the music industry and the sexual harassment allegations against Heathcliff Berru, among other stories.

More recently, the paper has been focused on telling the stories of L.A.'s marginalized communities. "I came in with the express intent of raising the profile of women and people of color in our film section, and we did that," Wolfe says.

"We were reporting on Boyle Heights, communities south of the 10, in the San Fernando Valley, Creative communities that are mostly people of color," says former managing editor Drew Tewksbury (who on Sunday won a Los Angeles Press Club award for a piece on a queer performance artist of Mexican descent). "I'm bummed I lost my job, I loved it, but I'm more bummed for the communities."

Both Tewksbury, the former managing editor, and Shalhoup, the former editor-in-chief, say that, under their purview, LA Weekly was publishing 12 to 15 stories a day (plus slideshows and videos). To the best of the former staff's knowledge, no real transition team is in place, and the current office is mostly empty. "Wouldn't you bring someone like me in to ask, 'What do I need to know about music in LA?" Weiss asks. "And after that you let me go!"

Instead, in the week since the staff was laid off, only a handful of articles were published, the majority of which the former editors told me had been pre-scheduled. One post, published by contributing writer Keith Plocek on Wednesday evening following the firings, is still active on the site. Keith writes: "The new owners of L.A. Weekly [sic] 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."

The new owners' backgrounds notwithstanding, there has been little evidence of a political shift at LA Weekly during the first week under Calle and co. Instead, the shift has, at least initially, been one toward incompetence and ignorance.

Speaking to the L.A. Times on Friday, Steve Mehr, one of the investors, appeared to denigrate Los Angeles' cultural offerings, saying, "We don't have a cultural scene on par with New York and San Francisco." In the same story, Calle said he would rely, in part, on "unpaid contributors who are passionate about their communities." After a call for prospective contributors went out on social media Saturday morning, with "Angeleno" (a person from L.A.) misspelled, the LA Weekly account was barraged with disapproving tweets, even after the misspelled post was deleted.

People wait in line outside the Amoeba record store in Los Angeles, California.

People wait in line outside the Amoeba record store in Los Angeles, California.

After Weiss and Wolfe began a campaign on Sunday for advertisers to pull out of LA Weekly and its upcoming "Sips and Sweets" event, an internal email leaked from a source to Pacific Standard showed a Monday meeting plan discussing "advertisers pulling out."

On Tuesday, Amoeba records released a statement that had pulled a planned advertisement and revoked its sponsorship of an upcoming LA Weekly event. According to Weiss and the "Boycott LA Weekly" Google doc, four other sponsors of the paper's upcoming event had pulled out as of Tuesday evening, eight ads had been pulled from the paper.

In Amoeba's statement, the retailer wrote: "We will evaluate our ongoing relationship with the LA Weekly in the New Year, after determining whether or not LA Weekly is able to re-establish itself as credible, empathetic and supportive of the community it serves."

As the record store goes, so goes the city.

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