The travails of the LA Weekly read like a parody of the decline of American print journalism. Like all but a handful of elite newspapers, the Weekly, radically slimmed down from its former self, has been repeatedly passed from one indifferent (or incompetent, or downright hostile) owner to the next, shedding staff and stories at every turn, and now faces the prospect of losing whatever scraps of its identity remain.
In October, the Voice Media Group unloaded the Weekly (where I worked as executive editor from 1989 through 2001) to a just-formed company named Semanal Media, the identities of whose owners were kept carefully under wraps until public pressure compelled the one publicly identified investor — Brian Calle, the editorial page editor of the right-wing Orange County Register — to reveal them. Like Calle, they were chiefly Orange County Republicans, some of them major donors to the party’s campaigns. Calle promptly discharged virtually the entire Weekly editorial staff.
At the Register, Calle’s editorials had promoted the kind of cultural and economic libertarianism that some teenage Ayn Rand acolytes carry into adulthood. Clearly, his hope has been that his cultural libertarianism — in particular, his laissez-faire stance toward marijuana — would enable him to find some common ground with the Weekly’s always disproportionately young readers. In describing his vision for the paper, he stressed his belief that the Weekly “has the ability to be the cultural center of the community.” He said not a word about the paper’s historically left-wing political profile.
But the Weekly without its liberal, anti-establishment politics is like “Hamlet” without the prince. Granted, the paper’s liberalism has grown more intermittent over the past decade, blurring its once sharper edges. But turning it over to Calle & Co. ensures either a fade to beige or a leap into fantastical irrelevance.
Rupert Murdoch, who, improbably enough, owned the original alt-weekly, New York’s Village Voice, between 1977 and 1985, understood that you don’t muck with alt-weeklies’ left-of-center politics, not if you want to keep their readers and rake in the profits (always Murdoch’s guiding principle). There were no wholesale firings of writers and editors under Murdoch; he understood that you don’t impose a new identity on a money-making machine.
Of course, like its fellow alt-weeklies, which have shriveled or closed up shop altogether, the Weekly is no longer the cash cow it once was. When I worked there in the 1990s, our annual “Best of L.A.” issue could run close to 300 pages, laden with anatomically groundbreaking ads. (I used to say that by responding to the surgery ads in just a single issue, a reader could alter every single bodily organ.) But fat or thin, alt-weeklies, with their young, urban readers, are inherently a left-wing medium, just as AM talk radio is inherently a right-wing one.
Founded in 1978 by Jay Levin, who combined sharp entrepreneurial instincts with a political sensibility much like those of his onetime Yippie comrades, the Weekly spent much of its first decade exposing and fulminating against the Reagan administration’s deadly misadventures in Central America. Under Levin and the three subsequent editors-in-chief I worked with — Kit Rachlis, Sue Horton and Laurie Ochoa — we focused on documenting the poverty of L.A.’s burgeoning immigrant communities and their efforts to form unions and win higher wages, on the city’s pioneering adoption of living-wage and local-hiring ordinances, and on the emergence of a Latino-labor alliance that transformed city, and eventually state, politics. We focused on exposing the longstanding horror show that was the Los Angeles Police Department, on dumping Daryl Gates and making the cops accountable to the public they professed to serve. We supported strikes and public funding for green energy, welcomed immigrants and fought for their rights, and opposed the wars in Iraq. We were, in short, the voice not just of hip L.A. but progressive L.A. The Weekly was woke.
Politics suffused our cultural coverage as well — how could it not? Not in some instrumentalist, Stalinist or Republican way. But art, and the forms it takes, invariably refracts and critiques social values, and our critics, from Michael Ventura and Steve Erickson to Manohla Dargis and Ella Taylor, weighed in on those values, critiques and forms.
Separating the cultural from the political, as Calle seems inclined to do, is often a fool’s errand, and is certainly so as we enter Year Two of Trump. At a moment when half of American millennials tell pollsters they’ve had it with capitalism and are ready to give democratic socialism a whirl (and it’s a safe guess that among Angeleno millennials, that percentage is higher than half), a Paul Ryan-esque economic libertarianism seems a sure bet to drive away the Weekly’s remaining readers, as Calle forced away its writers. The Weekly won’t return to its glory days, but de-woking it will only speed it to its doom.