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Russian Trolls Taking Over LA Weekly? Really?

By Paul Birchall

In news that has already convulsed the precarious Los Angeles cultural journalism scene, a massive putsch has taken place at the LA Weekly, where, as of Wednesday, 9 of 13 staff editors and all but one staff writer have been summarily laid off, shortly after putting the paper to bed on Tuesday night. News of the firings started leaking Wednesday morning, via various Weekly journalists’ Facebook and Twitter feeds, with coverage in the LA Times and LAIst starting shortly thereafter.  

The LA Times article quotes former LA Weekly editor Mara Shalhoup as saying, in a tweetstream, “To have such deep, devastating cuts – it’s beyond anything we could ever have fathomed.” In the Hollywood Reporter piece discussing the same story, Shalhoup notes, “We were expecting there to be some pain with the sale of LA Weekly. But we weren’t expecting The Red Wedding.” 

A month ago, the story broke that the Weekly’s previous owners, Village Media, had sold the paper to a mysterious conglomerate called Semanal Media, which (as, The L.A. Times reported), quoting the mergers and acquisition firm that handled the deal, “was formed solely for the purpose of the transaction.” The spokesperson, at the time, (according to another report in The Wrap) declined to say at the time where the company is based, or who owns it.” 

The only name initially mentioned in connection with the new regime was Brian Calle, whom The Wrap describes as “a conservative-leaning, former opinion editor for the Orange County Register.” When he was named a month ago, Calle promised not to change the Weekly’s editorial bent. 

By Wednesday, the only Semanal investor mentioned publicly so far was David Welch, a Los Angeles attorney best known for representing members of the cannabis industry. However, on Thursday, the Times announced that UC Berkeley Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky had agreed to be an investor as well, with Chemerinsky citing his respect for Calle’s work as the reason. 

Meanwhile, yesterday, LA journalist-blogger Otto Von Biz Markie (@Passionweiss) reported today “The (last?) @LAWeekly print edition came out this A.M. The site wasn’t updated at all today. No one is on socials. These buyers have no interest even of turning it into a shell of itself. This is a plot to kill the 2nd biggest publication in America’s 2nd biggest city.”

Yesterday, @Passionweiss referred to internal sources saying that the new management was in talks with former, disgraced OC Register writers with alt-right leanings. He references a story penned by Calle that starts: “Russian President Vladimir Putin really had no choice except to act on annexing Crimea. The reasons go back many years and involve politics, the economy and the fact that many Crimeans identify more with Russia than Ukraine.”

And, as of Thursday night, the Society for Professional Journalists released a statement, condemning the secrecy. “It’s an absolute outrage that the public doesn’t know who owns LA Weekly. No media outlet should hide who its owners are, especially one of such prominence in America’s second largest city.”

Calle responded this morning with an editorial in the paper, in which he says: “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.”

Calle refers to the former glory days of the LA Weekly, when everybody picked it up, which was not the case more recently.

“I believe in the potential of L.A. Weekly to bring the powerful Los Angeles perspective to a new, broader audience. I am committed to keeping the Weekly alive as we transform from a newspaper with a website into a truly digital media outlet — which also happens to have a very cool print component.”

Given that this site, Stage Raw, was formed mainly from critics let go from the Weekly a few years back during the putsch-before-this-putsch, we are all keenly following this story, with particular attention to how it is going to impact coverage of the theater community. 

My first impression when this story broke was dismay – and I noticed that the Facebook threads of many colleagues who have written for Weekly are full of concern for the online archives, which basically include the history of the city’s culture over the last 10 years. What will happen if the new owners decide to shut down the records of 10,000 theater reviews, just as capriciously as they shut down the staff?

But, on the other hand, after some consideration, I am unsure precisely whether this will all turn out to be quite as terrible as that. I hope not. I am quite skeptical, though.