On 3 December 2017, staffers for Los Angeles’s 40-year-old alt-weekly publication LA Weekly are set to gather at the ritzy Millennium Biltmore hotel in downtown Los Angeles as finalists for more than twenty Los Angeles Press Club prizes in journalism. In a sadistic twist, the Weekly’s reporters will be picking up their honors just days after being unceremoniously sacked by the paper’s new owners.
Days earlier, all editorial staff except one writer were laid off after the paper’s new owners, a faceless holding company called Semanal, closed its purchase from Voice Media Group. So opaque was the transition that former digital editor Keith Plocek published a scathing post entitled “Who Owns L.A. Weekly?” criticizing Semanal’s investors for “hiding” from the public.
Laid-off LA Weekly film critic April Wolfe, who is a finalist for the Press Club’s “Journalist of the Year” award alongside writers from Bloomberg, the Daily Beast and the Los Angeles Times, told us:
We were very good at our jobs. I’m dumbstruck.
On 1 December 2017, the LA Weekly’s new head honcho Brian Calle published a story naming the publication’s owners — a list largely made up of attorneys, developers and investors. He did not address the staff layoffs:
The L.A. Weekly group is made up of several investors including Brian Calle, formerly of the Southern California News Group; David Welch, an L.A.-based attorney; Kevin Xu, a philanthropist and investor; Steve Mehr, an attorney and investor; Paul Makarechian, a boutique hotel developer; Mike Mugel, a real estate redeveloper; and Andy Bequer, a Southern California–based investor. And Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, also plans to invest.
We reached out to Calle and the other investors via email, phone calls and social media and received no response.
Now-former LA Weekly editor-in-chief Mara Shalhoup said she doesn’t understand why the editorial staff was let go. As evidenced by their multiple nominations for journalism awards, there were no performance issues and traffic to the publication’s web site was trending upward overall. Further no one has explained how the new owners plan to cover Los Angeles now that they have almost no editorial staff. Shalhoup told us:
Nobody knows why they fired the staff. And they have not addressed it in any public way or to anyone who has been laid off. It remains totally unclear how they plan on covering Los Angeles because they have not announced if they are hiring people to replace the people they let go.
This is a publication that’s 40 years old and has this immense history and legacy of investigative journalism, narrative long form and busting corruption The magnitude of the loss of that, if they don’t keep doing that kind of work, is profound.
Food culture editor Katherine Spiers told us the new owners seem to be at a loss about what goes into producing vetted, fact-based journalism; other than Calle who wrote opinion pieces for the Orange County Register, none have backgrounds in journalism. Spiers told us:
As far as I can tell they’re clueless. I haven’t seen anything that would indicate otherwise. Based on who they let go and who they kept it seems they thought they were keeping the people who could produce the product — but they don’t understand what the process of writing and editing is.
With no staff and no clear direction forward, the LA Weekly’s future is tenuous. Its evisceration comes within a month of the shuttering of the LAist, a web site dedicated to local Los Angeles news, culture and entertainment. LAist sister sites in other major U.S. cities including New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Chicago, which were owned by the same billionaire, closed simultaneously after writers voted to unionize.
It bodes poorly in what has become a perfect storm of ever-growing scarcity in legitimate news sources, the jumbling of information and the siphoning of ad revenue by digital giants like Facebook and Google, said Gabriel Kahn, journalism professor at the University of Southern California. Readers now are in a predicament in which they have fewer credible sources to turn to — but because the tech giants lump professional reporting in with random web sites and favor what people like over factual, vetted news, public confusion and media illiteracy grows:
Google and Facebook are grazing on the lions’ share of digital advertising revenue so it becomes impossible for any non-subscriber-based publication to survive. You have very few professional organizations like the LA Times left, and even then the way people receive their news [on social media] manages to favor non-professional sources over news organizations.
Social networks have replaced what the editorial meeting and editorial board once did, and while there were a lot of flaws with that old system there are a lot of flaws with new ones too… If we can’t agree on basic facts anymore, then society breaks down.
Nick Schou, editor of the Orange County Weekly, wrote a blistering critique of the LA Weekly’s takeover and of Calle:
Back to Calle. He’s 37 and looks nice in a suit. (One can almost imagine him showing up for his first day on the job in a starched shirt and bow tie with a copy of Atlas Shrugged under his arm). For the Register, he’s written a seemingly endless screed of libertarian-slanted editorials, which, as is typical with libertarian politics, occasionally promote policies (like ending the prohibition of marijuana) that are completely reasonable and half of which are ideological tripe (charter schools will save our youth, etc.) But beyond that, and despite a dubious stint as a Chapman University journalism professor, he has almost no actual journalism experience, nor any connection whatsoever to Los Angeles.
Schou told us Calle’s gig as an opinion writer for an Orange County newspaper didn’t give him much confidence that he can now run the second-largest newspaper in the nation’s second-largest city:
There are a lot of objective reasons as to why print newspapers are struggling, that’s obvious. There’s another element, which is just bad ownership.
[Semanal] allowed all these people to be fired and then they expect somehow that all the local and regional journalists aren’t going to try and figure out what was going on and demand answers. It’s developing story and we are going to find out who the players are, because the public has the right to know. But it does appear that the LA Weekly’s best days are behind it.
1 December 2017: A previous version of this article said Plocek was laid off, but he is a former digital editor who remained a freelancer.