A victory against new right-wing owners.
A boycott of the Los Angeles alt-weekly, led by former writers and editors for the newspaper, won a major victory in the fight against the paper’s new right-wing owners, who were forced to cancel the paper’s marquee Essentials event. The annual event, one of the most important publicity and fundraising opportunities for the LA Weekly, was called off after a growing number of restaurants slated to participate pulled out under community pressure.
All of this began with the sale of LA Weekly to a shadowy Orange County-based investment group named Semenal Media LLC in November 2017. The new owners, led by Brian Calle, a Trump donor and alumnus of notorious conservative think tank The Claremont Institute, immediately fired 9 of the 13 members of the editorial staff and all but one of the paper’s staff writers. As other contributors to the paper resigned in protest, the newspaper put out a tweet calling for unpaid contributors to submit content to the paper.
The new owners fired most of their unionized staff in order to leech off an army of desperate and unpaid intern-writers. This represents a major shift in the battle for media labor rights, as companies who follow this playbook could put more and more salaried writers out of work.
In response to these assaults on their labor rights, former writers and contributors to LA Weekly started the #BoycottLAWeekly movement to put pressure on the paper. Through an online campaign, they called on their supporters to contact restaurants and advertisers who partner with the newspaper to pressure them to withdraw their funding and support.
The LA Weekly’s Essentials event is planned to coincide each year with the release of the paper’s 99 Essentials list, a list of the most important restaurants in Los Angeles. The event has, in the past, been a chance for the paper to raise funds and showcase its close ties to the food scene in L.A.; this year, the paper quietly shut down the ticketing page for the event amid reports that a majority of the partner restaurants had withdrawn their support.
Following the cancellation of the event, a panel of former editors and writers for LA Weekly spoke about the importance of the boycott effort before a conference of community college journalists in Burbank. Speakers included Katherine Spiers, former food editor for LA Weekly; Andy Hermann, former music editor; hip-hop columnist Jeff Weiss; and writer Sarah Bennett.
“People will try to exploit you, and sometimes they’ll win,” said Weiss. “But you have to fight to not let them do it, because there is evil out there. And these men, as far as I’m concerned, are just that. They are the worst cabal of Orange County real estate developers and Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell donors. Even today, we still don’t know very much about who all of them are. And, regardless of what’s in the paper, every dime that these men make is being used to support pro-private prison and anti-union efforts, and candidates that are against women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. Every horrible political philosophy that anyone could have, these men have supported it. These libertarians and republicans here have figured out: if they can’t beat the media, buy the media.”
One theory, suggested by Hermann, Weiss’s former music editor, is that something more subtle is at work when conservatives purchase traditionally left-leaning papers.
“I don’t think that this trend, that the LA Weekly’s purchase is part of, is being done to use the papers to advocate these groups’ political agendas,” said Hermann. “I think it’s more that they buy the media property with the intent of just gutting it, so that it’s less effective at its job.”
As the cancellation of the Essentials event proves, the boycott rallied a surprisingly large amount of support for a local media struggle, which Semanal was certainly not expecting. This popular opposition may have been driven in part by the Trumpian ghoulishness of the Weekly’s new owners, but it seems also to be reflective of something deeper happening around communities’ relationships with local media.
As struggling newspapers around the country continue to be taken over by malevolent right-wing billionaires, Angelenos appear up to the task of fighting back against media owners who fail to respect the labor rights of their staff or the bonds between independent media and the community. In the case of LA Weekly, the opposition is having an effect.
“One of the most significant sources of income when I was there was their food events,” said Hermann of his time as Music Editor at LA Weekly. “They did about a half-dozen of them over the course of a year back then. Since the new owners have come in, the two big food events that they’ve tried to replicate, Sips and Sweets last December and 99 Essentials now, have both been cancelled. That has cost them a lot. I also know that their print circulation numbers are down. And we know, from having talked to a lot of advertisers, that the advertiser boycott has been effective as well. Obviously, they’re still running some ads, but many of their biggest advertisers, places like Amoeba, Ace Hotel, and Spaceland Presents, have pulled their ads out and it’s hurt them big time. So, I think the boycott is definitely working.”
Although the former contributors to LA Weekly saw a number of challenges ahead for local, independent media, they also emphasized some of the opportunities presented by the current situation, including the creation of space for new independent media outlets to emerge and the opening up of journalists’ eyes to the labor struggles which affect their livelihoods.
“I think the future of journalism is definitely going to be community-minded, and community-funded, non-profit style journalism,” said Weiss. “That’s how it’s going to have to be. Because being beholden to this ad-model sellout shit, and being owned by rich billionaires, is not the way of the future.”