To hear Brian Calle describe it, he is saving the LA Weekly, not killing it.
A self-described ‘right-leaning’ former opinion editor for L.A.’s suburban newspaper network (including flagship paper Orange County Register), Calle is now the 37-year-old publisher of the Weekly, and in the middle of an unusual media storm.
After his group of investors went in and bought the Weekly late last year, immediately gutting the staff, something at the core of the city’s ever-fervent radical bent was ignited. People were incensed that what seemed like a shadowy cabal of coastal Republicans-slash-technocratic Democrats was snatching away the LA Weekly brand.
There was a “funeral” protest on the sidewalk outside its offices a week after the sale, and that was only the beginning.
An online boycott campaign launched, meant to force Calle’s group to sell the paper. Two LA Weekly food events have been canceled since Calle’s Semanal Media group took over in late November from Voice Media Group, and I could tell in Calle’s demeanor during a wide-ranging conversation that the paper is feeling the boycott’s pinch. Calle now appears to be on a media blitz to try to turn the tide.
To detractors, Calle is a right-wing ideologue with a mission to slowly but surely pitch the Weekly to the right, a sort of local media Stephen Miller. A few of the investors who went in with him are linked to conservative political groups or campaigns, fueling the charges of ideological carpetbagging into L.A. Calle himself has a pretty blatantly conservative record.
But long before Brian Calle rolled around, the Weekly had already spun far from its hippie/radical roots in Silver Lake and Hollywood. I was a staff writer at the Weekly between 2006 and 2007, when then-editor Laurie Ochoa hired me away from the L.A. Times. I remember when new corporate overlords — that time around — came in and fired a bunch of talented people, causing a media storm back then. The new owners in 2007 who came in slashing and burning were “Village Voice Media,” but actually the company was a re-upped New Times, based out of Phoenix. New Times had bought up VVM and taken on its name, but kept its own corporate and editorial culture, which could have been best described as surface “liberal” but at its core reactionary and libertarian.
Come to think of it, the new owners of the Weekly by the time I left — to use a contemporary term — were … early alt-right.
Of course the newsroom and editors back then did what they could to push back, maintain their integrity, etc. But everyone at the time knew it was a losing battle. A year or so after I left, I remembering hearing the anguish of staffers and editors over the corporate decision to abandon the hodgepodge offices the Weekly kept on a gritty block of Sunset. The paper relocated to the Westside, to a building on Sepulveda Boulevard overlooking the 405, something that once sounded truly inconceivable, like a mean editorial cartoon.
I remember feeling relieved that I had left the paper just in time. I relocated to Mexico for a while.
When I came back to SoCal in late 2015, truthfully I was surprised the Weekly was still around. Alternative weeklies all over the country have been falling dead, left and right. So to see that the Weekly was still in motion and more or less doing its thing was a slight salve against the slow-burning slaughter we’ve all been witnessing over at the Los Angeles Times.
But, as others noted, there was something of an editorial flourish in the past couple of years at the LA Weekly, a swing-back to some good, old-fashioned community values in some of the content. I had lost track of who had come and gone, but somehow the product survived. The Weekly also might have been flimsier than its heyday — when it felt like you were picking up a fresh dictionary every Thursday morning — but it also seemed to be recapturing its spirit with editor Mara Shalhoup and managing editor Drew Tewksbury leading the newsroom: cover stories, community coverage, listings, profiles — all the things the newest owners of the paper say they want to replicate.
So why did Calle and his people sweep in and fire everyone who was there and already doing just that? And if newspapers truly are dying, why would Calle set himself up to be the next fall guy? In other words, who would buy the Weekly now, unless they had an agenda?
During a midweek happy hour at a gastropub in downtown Culver City, Calle explained why the Weekly is pushing back. First I asked Calle about his former position at the Claremont Institute, a conservative think-tank in the Inland Empire that is dedicated to limited government and “natural law.” Calle brushed off the affiliation as a naive attempt to move Southern California’s bastion of conservative thought a bit to the center.
I’m not certain I totally believe the way he frames it. His response is the first of several attempts over the course of our conversation to recast the earliest missteps in his leadership at the Weekly, which have fueled the boycott campaign all along.
LA TACO: You’re being attacked for having had a position and affiliation to the Claremont Institute. Please explain.
CALLE: A friend and mentor said, ‘You should go to the Claremont Institute.’ They need someone who is a good communicator …
What did you know about it then?
I knew it was a think-tank that crafted policy, that’s literally all I knew. It was zero on my radar. And I was … 26 years old, I think? Eleven years ago? I met with the president. He would routinely take me out to lunch once a month, to try to convince me to come to the Claremont Institute, and I said no month after month. Then he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come, you could be vice president?’ I’m 26 years old, came up from poverty, had a good job already, and I’m being offered to be vice president of a think-tank, and I’m like, ‘Oh wow, I can make a difference.’
When I got to the Claremont Institute, I started to understand some of the things that they believed, particularly on social issues and immigration, and it wasn’t really in line with who I am and what I was.
I’ve always had a passion for public policy. But my idea was that I wanted to help make both the Republican Party and Democratic [Party] … I would say more centrist. Today is a perfect example. I think that fringe elements of both parties are controlling the parties, and people disagree with me on that, whatever. Maybe they like it, I don’t like it.
Given my core beliefs about immigration, about gay rights, and being gay, I just couldn’t stay there. I was there I think for … eight months. I left the Claremont Institute without a job. I just quit.
So why then the interest in the Weekly? How would you not want to inject some of your political views into the coverage?
I was at the Register for eight-and-a-half years. By the time the presidential election ended up between the president and Hillary, I was disgusted with politics. I started becoming detached from the process. We had two people who I think embodied everything that I don’t like in politics.
And I realized I’m not making any kind of difference. So I wanted to do something that was outside of politics, so I looked at the LA Weekly. A couple friends came to me and said, ‘Hey, we heard the LA Weekly is on sale, we’d like to buy it, would you run it?’
There was no political motivation in going to the Weekly, zero, none. For me it was about the fun stuff, music, entertainment, culture. And I frankly didn’t care. I didn’t want nothing to do with political coverage for a while.
What is your reaction to this critique, the way you’re being framed?
I’ve worked hard in the media space to be respected by both sides. If you talk to Democrats in Orange County, the OC Register never gave them the time of day. For me, to be colored in a way that I’m not, is super, super bothersome. … Yes, I have my own beliefs. And yes, I lean to the right — a little bit — but on social issues I’ve been progressive and I have a track record. But the boycotters, and the people attacking me, Jeff and his friends, they decided to leave all of that out, and created a narrative that really stuck.
[Jeff Weiss is a former music columnist at LA Weekly and a chief organizer behind the Boycott LA Weekly campaign. – ed.]
One journalist from LA magazine on his personal Twitter said ‘All of the owners of the LA Weekly are white and heterosexual.’ So, I’m only half-white. I’m not heterosexual. The vast majority of the LA Weekly ownership is not white. There’s a Cuban, there’s a black man, there’s an Asian man, there’s a couple of Armenian gentleman, there’s a man from Iran …
What is the unifying thing that binds them together?
They were all friends of mine. Independently friends of mine. I cobbled the money together, in verbal commitments, I called VMG. … By that point, they already had two or three people come to the table, look at the books, and back away. When they say it was in good shape, making all this money …
There was a profit margin, though.
I think people don’t understand the totality of the business. Every year there was a very significant decline. … I can’t go into too many numbers.
Why can’t you go into any numbers?
I signed an NDA.
With … the seller?
The seller. … This idea there was all this profit and the paper could sustain itself was so frustratingly bad. Literally 50 percent of the revenue at the LA Weekly had zero to do with the content produced at the LA Weekly. It’s not ad revenues on the website, it’s not ad revenues in print, it’s a digital agency business. … Without divulging too much information, if I told you how much we send back to VMG still to fulfill the digital agency business, it would give you a much clearer picture on the real economics of the LA Weekly.
So you still have a relationship with Voice Media Group?
They fulfill our digital agency business, and we also pay for their syndicated services. So when people criticize us for running April Wolfe, we actually pay a lot of money for that.
[Award-winning former LA Weekly film writer April Wolfe was let go by Semanal Media, but her reviews still run in the paper via Voice Media Group syndication. – ed.]
This was part of the sale then? Will that remain forever?
There’s a term to the contract.
So what do you say to people who say that VMG, given who they were, wouldn’t have sold to some Hollywood progressives, that they wanted to sell to someone with a profile that you have, this sort of centrist mode?
I can guarantee you VMG wanted to sell to the person who was willing to pay the most, 100 percent, without a doubt. There was no one coming out of the woodwork in Hollywood, there was no one from the progressive community saying ‘Let’s save and invest in the LA Weekly.’ And had it, I would have let it go, to be honest.
So what is your plan? How are you going to turn it around?
It’s become super daunting. For me, I like challenges. My attitude is like this, Journalism is too important, all of it is declining. Someone has to figure out a way to save it. The LA Weekly is an iconic publication, it’s not doing well financially, but it’s small enough that I could wrap my brain around it. That was my premise. Little things weren’t being done like podcasting, or partnerships with television stations or radio stations, all stuff I’ve done before.
Let’s talk about the transition. Would you say that you bungled it?
[Laughter] I would say the transition did not go as smoothly as I would like it to go.
Usually when companies get taken over, or new owners come in, you keep everyone in place the day you take over, and then little by little, transition people out, make adjustments. Why didn’t you guys do that?
No one has asked the question quite like that. That’s a really good question. The economics of the paper were not good and we couldn’t sustain that number of employees. And it wasn’t just employees on the editorial side. It wasn’t like we went and said, ‘Let’s get rid of editorial.’ It was one of the situations where you go — here’s where the actual revenue of the company is, because you have to take out all of what you’re sending back to VMG. Here’s what the company can actually afford.
So we said let’s hire this number of people to start, let’s see where we go … and that was happening pretty rapidly. I was having conversations early on with Dennis, as you know. [Dennis Romero, former LA Weekly staff writer, who was also laid off by Semanal Media on their first day – ed.] But that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons.
So you didn’t have enough cash on hand inside the LA Weekly structure to retain people and maybe gradually replace them?
Even that first pay period we had. David Welch [co-investor] said, ‘Wow, you were right, there was no way, there was just no way.’ Which, you know, maybe … that’s why VMG wanted to sell it.
There was no other way to do this, as far as you’re concerned?
The only other way is, you raise a shit-ton of money, and you just say OK I’m gonna take losses for the next however many years.
But that’s what people do in publishing, don’t they? You take losses.
Some do. We joke that we’re already a nonprofit. The idea was stabilize the ship first.
You hired editors, you hired staffers, you hired Hillel Aron, then someone went in and attacked him based on these old tweets. How would you grade your own performance in handling the ownership of the LA Weekly?
Most certainly the transition could have gone a lot smoother. Some things I could have controlled, some things I could not have controlled. Most of the content was being produced by the freelancers.
Would you say that you were caught off guard? By the reaction?
100 percent. 100 percent. That’s probably my biggest regret, because I didn’t expect it. […]
So what happened to Sips & Sweets and to Essentials, and why didn’t you more actively defend against the boycott earlier?
Sips & Sweets was already not performing the way that it had been expected to prior to us buying.
I thought it was the biggest thing in the world for the LA Weekly?
No, no, no … Of the events, I think it’s the one that made the least in the prior year. And it was already trading less sales before we bought the company, and they told us that, even in the transition. There was already a question before the boycott happened, Do you want to do Sips & Sweets?
So we go, OK. It’s an event we’re probably going to lose money on. There’s people protesting. It was a no-brainer decision.
So what happened to Essentials?
It was that emotional decision that I told you I made, when the chef called Michelle crying, saying she was threatened and bullied, and she was worried about her family. Then Michelle called me crying. I don’t want to put people at risk for a food event, frankly. [Michelle Stueven, LA Weekly’s current food editor. – ed.]
The Essentials was going to make some money, it wasn’t going to make a lot of money. The event revenue business for the LA Weekly was already on the decline.
I thought that was how they made the most of their money?
Um …. that’s what they hoped was the future of how they would make money. […]
So you cancel the Essentials event. Then you decide, we need to finally push back, right? Several months after?
I totally am sensitive and understand, like, if people were skeptical. Given the political environment we’re in, people were skeptical about people who had perceived different political values from them.
Let them attack us, we need to focus internally. And get this ship going. And the product will prove them wrong.
You still believe this, right?
100 percent. I look at the covers … it’s not that different than the way it used to be. I think in many cases some of the designs and covers have been better. I’m biased, right?
What’s your editorial budget? How many stories are you posting a day?
The goal was … to post at least five stories a day, one in each vertical. But again, I’m not micromanaging editorial. I’ve been spending 90 percent of my time on the business side.
You do have editorial say, don’t you?
I don’t exercise it, though. Technically the editor does report to me.
Let’s switch back to Essentials. What about these allegations that restaurants were blackmailed, pay to play?
100 percent inaccurate. I asked Farley to give me proof. [Farley Elliott, LA Eater senior writer, who published the claims. – ed.] If someone did that, that’s an ethical violation. I’ve combed through all of the emails that we sent, I’ll send you the emails, because they’re standard. We’re like, ‘You’re on the list, … if you say no, you’re still on the list.’ No matter what. It’s in black and white, we say it three times, just to highlight the fact.
What about this restaurant that wasn’t yet open, and it’s on the list?
Michelle went to the restaurant, she tasted it, it’s going to be open soon … it was her editorial decision. She’s like, ‘This is going to be one of the best restaurants in L.A.’ … Could some people say that’s stupid? Yeah, I get that. But ultimately it was her decision.
What is your message to the boycott supporters? And what would be the way, in a perfect world, for this boycott to end?
Message No. 1 is, Please criticize us, because I think media should be held accountable. But do it truthfully. My issue with the boycott is, I will sit down with anyone. I’ll talk to anyone. I feel like many of the boycotters have been dishonest and disenginougs and are purposefully cherry-picking facts to run an ugly PR campaign, a political campaign. If you’re going to criticize us, criticize us with truths, don’t criticize us with lies.
I have zero problems to meet with you, at all. And you know I would like boycott to end, I feel like the only way they would want it to end is if they get to take over the paper. That’s what they want. They say it, they spell it out. OK. Where does the money come from?
How much did the paper cost?
I can’t tell you that.
Was it two million? Three million? One million? 100,000?
I wish! I would have already given it to them!
Why would they end the boycott, though?
They have no incentive to end it. Jeff is getting attention for it, I think it’s kind of disingenuous, because I don’t think he pays his writers to write for his website Passion of the Weiss, and he criticizes us for not paying writers … you should ask him. We pay all of our writers.
[Weiss says this is no secret; Passion of the Weiss is a contributor-driven ‘Web 1.0’ blog that he operates without ads and at personal expense. – ed.]
So you felt you had to fight back in the public sphere. How long did it take?
People behind the scenes are saying thank you for doing this, we appreciate you. On Twitter, we already knew the ratio would be in full effect, right?
Right, because @LAWEEKLY is followed by a lot of bots.
Which were there before we bought it, which people like to forget. We never paid for bots. I’m the only person who can actually make economic decisions for the company, and we never bought bots.
So you don’t have a firm called WebShark360 getting you bots?
No, no, no.
What is Mehr doing there?
He’s not there. He was there just the first week, just because he was excited to check out the operation. [Steve Mehr is one of the co-investors in Semanal Media, and CEO of WebShark360. – ed.]
So he’s not employed, not a consultant?
No money at all.
Did you hire a consultant to do your talk-back campaign? It looks very sleek.
No, we did it all in-house. Well, Darrick who is our art director and editor-in-chief, he designed it.
Wait, I’ve heard about him, Lina [Lina Lecaro] told me he’s African-American, person of color, been there a long time …
Like eleven years? [Darrick Rainey was creative director of LA Weekly before being promoted to editor-in-chief. – ed.]
The funny thing is people think we came in, busted the union — we didn’t bust the union — didn’t gut it. […] Falling James, who’s been at the Weekly longer than any editorial employee, since 1995. He was part-time when I got there. One of the first things I did was make him full-time. He’s one of the most talented writers in L.A. We gave him a cover in the first two months, and he’s really good. All those stories got lost.
Have you lost any employees since?
We had one marketing employee — which actually really bothers me — who, he was part-time, we made him full-time, and I gave him a raise. And the next week he quit because he bought into all the stuff they were saying online. And we had two production people leave, one for personal reasons, one who went to work at the LGBT center.
How long will you keep up this sort of talk-back campaign? It is very combative for a news organization to do. And also, there’s a bit of a Trumpian edge to it, calling people who criticize you ‘bullies,’ sort of using this language of fake news, it almost sounds a little Sinclair-ish.
That’s 100 percent not the intention. […] An organization like the LA Weekly has to say something. If you’re alt-weekly, you’re kinda known for fighting back, and trailblazing, you know?
I would actually argue that … the Weekly became part of the establishment in L.A., and they weren’t that critical and did not hold the mainstream media in Los Angeles to task. So by us starting the Speak Truth campaign, fighting back a little bit, that’s only the first step. The challenge is, they’ve been really successful at discrediting us to some extent.
* This interview is edited for length.