Column: The controversial publisher of LA Weekly wants to revive OC Weekly. should he?

Fluorescent lights glowed brightly in the desolate office near John Wayne Airport in Irvine, where I met LA Weekly editor Brian Calle.

It looked like a morgue because it was: Before us was the corpse of my journalistic past.

On the floor were boxes containing the entire print run of OC Weekly, the alternative newspaper that closed the day before Thanksgiving in 2019 after 24 years of comforting the bereaved and afflicting the comfortable in a region sure to needs to.

It’s where I started my career in 2000 as a freelance with no prior journalism experience. I rose through the paper to become a reporter, food critic, columnist, managing editor, podcast host, and finally editor-in-chief until resigning in 2017 rather than lay off half the staff as then-owner Duncan McIntosh demanded.

When I left, OC Weekly occupied an entire warehouse and office space in Fountain Valley. We tell stories that no one else would, and we celebrate holidays and festivals like no one else could. The worn boxes were all that remained of a once proud operation.

Now they belong to Calle, who invited me to talk about how she wanted to raise him from the dead and help him figure out what was what.

We played an impromptu game of Whac-a-Mole – I saw the cover of a previous issue and immediately named the story behind it.

The one with an illustration of former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona with his wife and her friend in a movie theater? It was then that we celebrated his felony conviction on corruption charges uncovered through our reporting. The beautiful photo of the chilaquiles? Our theme chilaquiles, of course. Hitler giving a Sieg Heil salute with a bass strapped across his chest? When we exposed an Anaheim nightclub that was hosting secret neo-Nazi rock shows.

“Wow, you really know what you’re doing!” Calle said, impressed. The compliment didn’t sweeten the bitter pill he now had to swallow.

When I left OC Weekly, I made my peace with what happened. When it closed, my former colleagues and I cried and moved on.

So why did someone have to try to bring it back?

And why did it have to be to the?

Calle made national headlines, and not in a good way, when he and a group of investors bought LA ​​Weekly in 2017 and summarily fired almost everyone. OC Weekly had long criticized the former head of the Orange County Register’s editorial pages as a pirate who somehow always failed, and his purchase of our former sister paper confirmed that.

It didn’t turn LA Weekly into a right-wing newspaper as critics insisted it would. It made it worse: now it’s a journalistic afterthought about the size of a supermarket envelope.

My former colleagues at OC Weekly, unsurprisingly, weren’t happy when I told them that Calle had purchased our beloved rag late last year. Reactions ranged from “No” to “Hell no” to unprintable stuff.

My feelings were more like those of Nick Schou, who succeeded me as editor-in-chief and remains a close friend.

“Good for him for removing the barnacle remains from the parchment paper. [McIntosh’s] greedy grip,” he told me. “But is it better to free OC Weekly from the Davy Jones pigeonhole, only to add it to Calle’s portfolio of once powerful but now skeletonized sister papers?”

I told Calle that while I appreciated his intention, it was better to leave OC Weekly buried in the graveyard of failed publications.

Calle, unfazed except for a laugh that falls somewhere between a scream and a gasp, disagreed.

“There is a void and a hunger for something different,” he said. “The Weekly can calm that hunger.”

Yes, but why not start something new? Or expand his own Irvine Weekly, which Calle started in 2018 in a weak-sauce attempt to drive advertisers away from OC Weekly and whose office we were talking about?

“I have a bow for that,” he replied. “The Weekly would write the stories that no one else would. The Weekly was at the forefront of what became OC.”

In addition to LA Weekly and OC Weekly, Calle’s company, Street Media, owns the legendary Village Voice—also closed and later revived—in New York City, 10 other community newspapers across the country, and recently acquired the magazine of lifestyle for women Bust. She said her mini-empire is “moderately profitable” but did not disclose the numbers. With OC Weekly, see an opportunity.

In a region of 3.1 million people, largely ignored by the Los Angeles media and with few local outlets, the closure of OC Weekly left a news void that no one bothered to fill and a legacy that people are just beginning to appreciate. When I started there, the Orange County Bureau and Registry of the LA Times employed hundreds, with us being the foul-mouthed careerist. The media wars were fierce, and the county was the better for it.

Today, the Register is a shell of its former self, and The Times sold its OC offices long ago. If Calle could channel even an iota of what was once OC Weekly, I told him, that would be a good thing. But if I brought it back as a sad parody of what it once was, it would be ridiculed, and I would lead the banter.

“Anyone who knows me says I’m a fixer,” he said, motioning me away from the personal files I found among the files. “And journalism has become my repair project.”

Norberto Santana Jr., editor of Voice of OC, welcomed the potential revival of OC Weekly, adding: “The Weekly had a special finger on the county’s pulse. It was highly valued and much needed.”

But he also warned that Calle has a big task ahead.

“You’re not going to replace any old stuff,” Santana said. “You are going to replace a gang of reporters who left an indelible mark on the county. Can [Calle] hit that high mark?

“It’s like boxing. You can get in, anyone can, but can you last?

Calle tried to buy OC Weekly just before it closed, one of many potential buyers circling the paper in its decline. He said he didn’t at the time because of the “uproar” after it acquired LA Weekly, which included withdrawing advertisers, social media shaming of people who continued to work for them and even a public funeral held for former staff outside the newspaper offices.

“If I buy [OC Weekly] and made the necessary changes,” Calle said, “would have received an unfair backlash. I don’t care, but I didn’t need my team to go through that again.”

He reached out to McIntosh, a boat show mogul who bought OC Weekly in 2016, during the pandemic. They finally reached an agreement in November. Calle did not disclose the purchase price or terms. McIntosh’s company phone is disconnected and McIntosh did not respond to an email request for comment.

Todd Stauffer, manager of the Assn. of Alternative Newsmedia, said a newspaper like OC Weekly in a market like Orange County still has a chance, even in an era when news organizations shut down or lay off staff seemingly every week and the very idea of ​​a weekly alternative is archaic.

“If your city or region needs someone to hold the powerful to account and dig deeper into important issues, then your alternative may thrive,” said Stauffer, who co-founded Jackson Free Press in Mississippi and is still involved in community journalism in the state. Magnolia. “Have some personality. Mingle. Involve your readers.

Calle plans to relaunch OC Weekly slowly, just one full-time reporter, maybe a few freelancers, then pitch his return to advertisers and grow from there. The goal is a daily online presence, quarterly issues, and live events.

“In this game, slow and steady wins the race,” he said. “I don’t believe in ‘If you build it, it will come.’ I believe in ‘Show me a check and I’ll build it.’”

So how are you going to get advertisers?

“I’ve been trying to get back to Orange County for a while. I know a lot of people, still. He knew all the players from all the industries.”

Most of them hated OC Weekly, I replied.

he howled.

Calle intends to keep the newspaper’s lurid tone and is reaching out to potential writers, vowing not to import someone from Los Angeles because “the landscape here is weird. … We need to find the troublemaker, the go-to person in OC”

Then he looked at me.

“I would try to get you come back,” he said, “but I know you won’t.”

He is right.

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