The fluorescent lights had been brilliant and stark within the barren workplace close to John Wayne Airport in Irvine the place I met LA Weekly writer Brian Calle.
It felt like a morgue as a result of it was: Before us was the corpse of my journalism previous.
Spread out on the ground had been containers containing the complete run of OC Weekly, the choice newspaper that shut down the day earlier than Thanksgiving in 2019 after 24 years of comforting the troubled and afflicting the snug in a area that certain wants it.
It’s the place I began my profession in 2000 as a freelancer with no earlier journalism expertise. I moved up inside the paper to turn out to be a reporter, meals critic, columnist, managing editor, podcast host and at last editor-in-chief till I resigned in 2017 moderately than lay off half the workers as then-owner Duncan McIntosh demanded.
When I left, OC Weekly occupied a full warehouse and workplace area in Fountain Valley. We informed tales nobody else would and held events and festivals like nobody else may. The weathered containers had been all that was left of a once-proud operation.
They now belong to Calle, who had invited me to speak about how he wished to carry it again from the useless — and assist him determine what was what.
We performed an impromptu sport of Whac-a-Mole: I noticed a canopy of a previous challenge and instantly named the story behind it.
The one with an illustration of former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona together with his spouse and girl pal in a movie show? That’s after we celebrated his felony conviction on corruption prices uncovered due to our reporting. The lovely image of chilaquiles? Our chilaquiles challenge, after all. Hitler giving a Sieg Heil salute with a bass strapped throughout his chest? When we outed an Anaheim nightclub that was holding secret neo-Nazis rock reveals.
“Wow, you really know your stuff!” Calle mentioned, impressed. The praise didn’t sweeten the bitter tablet I now needed to swallow.
When I left OC Weekly, I made my peace with what occurred. When it closed, my former colleagues and I mourned and moved on.
So why did somebody should attempt to carry it again?
And why did it should be him?
Calle made nationwide headlines — and never in a great way — when he and a gaggle of traders purchased LA Weekly in 2017 and summarily laid off practically everybody. OC Weekly had lengthy trashed the previous head of the Orange County Register’s editorial pages as a hack who in some way at all times failed up, and his buy of our former sister paper confirmed this.
He didn’t flip LA Weekly right into a right-wing rag like critics insisted he would. He did worse: It’s now a journalistic afterthought in regards to the measurement of a grocery store mailer.
My former OC Weekly colleagues, unsurprisingly, weren’t completely satisfied after I informed them that Calle had purchased our beloved rag late final yr. Reactions ranged from “No” to “Hell no” to unprintable issues.
My emotions had been extra like Nick Schou’s, who succeeded me as editor-in-chief and stays a detailed pal.
“Good on him for prying the paper’s barnacled remains from [McIntosh’s] greedy grip,” he informed me. “But will OC Weekly be better off freed from Davy Jones’ locker, only to be added to Calle’s portfolio of once powerful yet now skeletonized sister papers?”
I informed Calle that whereas I appreciated his intent, it was higher to depart OC Weekly buried within the cemetery of failed publications.
Calle, unflappable save for amusing that lands someplace between a scream and a puff, disagreed.
“There’s a void and a hunger for something different,” he mentioned. “The Weekly can quell that hunger.”
Yes, however why not begin one thing new? Or develop his personal Irvine Weekly, which Calle began in 2018 in a weak-salsa try and pry advertisers away from OC Weekly and in whose workplace we had been speaking?
“I have a reverence for it,” he countered. “The Weekly would write the stories no one else would. The Weekly was at the forefront of what OC became.”
In addition to LA Weekly and OC Weekly, Calle’s firm, Street Media, owns the legendary Village Voice — additionally shuttered, then revived — in New York City, 10 different neighborhood papers throughout the nation, and only in the near past acquired the ladies’s way of life journal Bust. He mentioned his mini-empire is “modestly profitable” however wouldn’t disclose numbers. With OC Weekly, he sees a chance.
In a area with 3.1 million individuals, one largely ignored by L.A. media and with few native information retailers, the closing of OC Weekly left a information gap nobody bothered to fill and a legacy persons are simply beginning to recognize. When I began there, the Register and the L.A. Times’ Orange County bureau employed a whole bunch, with us because the foul-mouthed arriviste. The media wars had been fierce, and the county was higher for it.
Today, the Register is a husk of what it was, and The Times bought its O.C. workplaces way back. If Calle may channel even an iota of what OC Weekly as soon as was, I informed him, that might be a superb factor. But if he introduced it again as a tragic parody of what it as soon as was, he’d be ridiculed — and I’d lead the jeers.
“Anyone who knows me says I’m a fixer,” he mentioned, waving me off from personnel information I stumbled throughout among the many archives. “And journalism has become my fixer project.”
Norberto Santana Jr., writer of the Voice of OC, welcomed the attainable rebirth of OC Weekly, including, “The Weekly had a special finger on the pulse on the county. It was much valued and much needed.”
But he additionally warned that Calle has an enormous process forward.
“You’re not just going to replace any old thing,” Santana mentioned. “You’re going to replace a band of reporters that made an indelible mark on the county. Can [Calle] meet that high mark?
“It’s like boxing. You can get in — anyone can — but can you last?”
Calle tried to purchase OC Weekly simply earlier than it shut down, one in every of many potential consumers circling the paper in its decline. He didn’t go for it then, he mentioned, due to the “tumult” after he acquired LA Weekly, which included advertisers pulling out, social-media shaming of people that continued to work for them and even a public funeral held by former staffers exterior the paper’s workplaces.
“If I bought [OC Weekly] and made the changes it needed,” Calle mentioned, “I would’ve gotten unfair backlash. I don’t mind it, but I didn’t need my team to go through that again.”
He checked in with McIntosh, a ship present magnate who purchased OC Weekly in 2016, via the pandemic. They lastly made a deal in November. Calle wouldn’t disclose the acquisition value or phrases. The telephone for McIntosh’s firm is disconnected, and McIntosh didn’t reply to an electronic mail request for remark.
Todd Stauffer, supervisor of the Assn. of Alternative Newsmedia, mentioned a paper like OC Weekly in a market like Orange County nonetheless has an opportunity, even in an period when information organizations shut or lay off workers seemingly each week and the very concept of an alt-weekly is archaic.
“If your city or region needs someone to hold the powerful to account and dig deep into important issues, then your alt can thrive,” mentioned Stauffer, who co-founded the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi and continues to be concerned in neighborhood journalism within the Magnolia State. “Have some personality. Mix it up. Get your readers involved.”
Calle plans to relaunch OC Weekly slowly — only one full-time reporter, perhaps a number of freelancers — then pitch its comeback to advertisers and develop from there. The purpose is a every day on-line presence, quarterly points and dwell occasions.
“In this game, slow and steady wins the race,” he mentioned. “I don’t believe in ‘If you build it, it will come.’ I believe in ‘Show me a check, and I will build it.’”
So how are you going to get advertisers?
“I’ve been trying to come back to Orange County for a while. I know a lot of people, still. I knew every player in every industry.”
Most of them hated OC Weekly, I replied.
Calle intends to maintain the paper’s scabrous tone and is reaching out to potential writers, vowing to not import somebody from Los Angeles as a result of “the landscape here is weird. … We need to find the rabble-rouser, the go-to person in O.C.”
Then he checked out me.
“I’d try to get you to come back,” he mentioned, “but I know you won’t.”