Back in October the word came down that the LA Weekly had been bought by Semanal Media, a company no one seemed to know anything about. It didn’t look good, and this week our worst fears were confirmed. The new owners got rid of most of the Weekly staff, firing all the editors and all but one writer. Shortly after a notice appeared on the Weekly web site listing some of the people behind Semanal. The group includes real estate players Paul Makarechian and Michael Muger who hold extensive assets in Southern California and beyond, Kevin Xu, a wealthy biotech entrepreneur, and David Welch, an attorney who apparently specializes in marijuana law. The announcement also said that Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, “plans to invest”. It’s interesting that even though Chemerinsky isn’t on board yet, the new owners decided to include him anyway. Possibly to add some kind of scholarly legitimacy, since only one of the people involved has any background in journalism at all.
Is it possible this group of investors is seriously committed to maintaining the Weekly’s reputation as an energetic and engaged observer of life in LA? Sure. It’s also possible we could wake up to a snowstorm tomorrow. But don’t bet on it. Let’s just think about the way they handled the purchase of the paper and the firings. A group of investors hiding behind a newly invented company buy the Weekly while keeping their identities a secret. Doesn’t sound like they have much interest in openness or transparency, both requirements for legitimate journalistic enterprises. Then, instead of approaching the staff shake-up by letting employees know what their intentions are and preparing a transition plan, the new owners keep the staff in the dark for weeks, finally letting the axe fall days before they reveal who they are. Can’t say their methods inspire much confidence. And honestly, it seems to me they reveal a deep streak of cowardice.
The recent shutdown of LAist and its sister news sites was bad news. The turn of events at the Weekly is beyond bad. I’d like to cling to a desperate optimism and hope for the best, but the more I read about the new owners, the more depressed I get. Brian Calle, who will be taking over editorial management of the paper, wrote the post on the Weekly web site that finally revealed the names of the investors. Here’s a quote….
“Our new ownership team is a patchwork of people who care about Los Angeles, care about the community and want to once again see an incredibly relevant, thriving L.A. Weekly with edge and grit that becomes the cultural center of the city.”
I may be pessimistic, but to me this sounds like nothing more than insincere drivel. Is it just me, or do the words “incredibly relevant” sound to you like the kind of marketing-speak you get from second-rate publicists? Generally I feel like the people who throw around words like “edge and grit” are desperately trying to make themselves feel “authentic”.
I’d never heard of Calle before this week, so I went looking for info on the web. This piece from the OC Weekly didn’t give me much hope. While the writer takes some nasty swipes at the LA Weekly, he also gives some disturbing background on Calle’s tenure as an editor at the Orange County Register. Forget about sincerity. It sounds like the guy has a hard time reaching for accuracy.
And so the outlook for local journalism in LA keeps getting more and more bleak. There are still good reporters at the Times, but it seems like it’s probably only a matter of time before Tribune Publishing/TRONC manages to kill it. The Daily News has been struggling for a while. LAist is gone, and while LA Observed does good work, they don’t have the resources to reach a broad audience. CityWatch is a great grab bag of local news and opinion, but I get the feeling its audience is also limited.
Like everybody else in print journalism, the Weekly has struggled in recent years. I’m kind of a pack rat, and I have a few boxes stuffed with old newspapers. Yesterday I pulled out an issue of the Weekly from August 2001. It contained almost 200 pages. Recent editions run anywhere between 40 and 70. Back in the 80s and 90s it not only covered local politics but national politics as well. At its peak, the Weekly did a phenomenal job of keeping its readers in touch with the latest in art, music, film, theatre, and whatever else was happening on the local scene. And despite shrinking resources in recent years, the staff still made a valiant effort to cover LA news and culture.
I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love to see the new owners show that they “care about Los Angeles [and] care about the community”. Nothing I’ve seen from them so far gives me any hope that they’re sincere.