Column: LA Weekly's controversial publisher wants to revive OC Weekly. Should he?

Column: LA Weekly's controversial publisher wants to revive OC Weekly. Should he?

The fluorescent lights were bright and stark in the barren office near John Wayne Airport in Irvine where I met LA Weekly publisher Brian Calle.

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

Spread out on the floor were boxes containing the entire run of OC Weekly, the alternative newspaper that shut down the day before Thanksgiving in 2019 after 24 years of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in a region that sure needs it.

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

When I left, OC Weekly occupied a full warehouse and office space in Fountain Valley. We told stories no one else would and held parties and festivals like no one else could. The weathered boxes were all that was left of a once-proud operation.

Brian Calle is now the owner of OC Weekly

Brian Calle has added the OC Weekly to a stable of publications that includes the LA Weekly, the Village Voice, the Irvine Weekly and the Bay Area Marina Times.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

They now belong to Calle, who had invited me to talk about how he wanted to bring it back from the dead — and help him figure out what was what.

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

The one with an illustration of former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona with his wife and lady friend in a movie theater? That’s when we celebrated his felony conviction on corruption charges uncovered because of our reporting. The beautiful picture of chilaquiles? Our chilaquiles issue, of course. Hitler giving a Sieg Heil salute with a bass strapped across his chest? When we outed an Anaheim nightclub that was holding secret neo-Nazis rock shows.

“Wow, you really know your stuff!” Calle said, impressed. The compliment didn’t sweeten the bitter pill I now had to swallow.

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

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

And why did it have to be him?

Calle made national headlines — and not in a good way — when he and a group of investors bought LA Weekly in 2017 and summarily laid off nearly everyone. OC Weekly had long trashed the former head of the Orange County Register’s editorial pages as a hack who somehow always failed up, and his purchase of our former sister paper confirmed this.

Brian Calle is now the owner of OC Weekly

“There’s a void and a hunger for something different. The Weekly can quell that hunger,” Brian Calle said, explaining why he bought the OC Weekly.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

He didn’t turn LA Weekly into a right-wing rag like critics insisted he would. He did worse: It’s now a journalistic afterthought about the size of a supermarket mailer.

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

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

“Good on him for prying the paper’s barnacled remains from [McIntosh’s] greedy grip,” he told 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 told Calle that while I appreciated his intent, it was better to leave OC Weekly buried in the cemetery of failed publications.

Calle, unflappable save for a laugh that lands somewhere between a scream and a gasp, disagreed.

“There’s a void and a hunger for something different,” he said. “The Weekly can quell that hunger.”

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

“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 company, Street Media, owns the legendary Village Voice — also shuttered, then revived — in New York City, 10 other community papers across the country, and just recently acquired the women’s lifestyle magazine Bust. He said his mini-empire is “modestly profitable” but wouldn’t disclose numbers. With OC Weekly, he sees an opportunity.

In a region with 3.1 million people, one largely ignored by L.A. media and with few local news outlets, the closing of OC Weekly left a news hole no one bothered to fill and a legacy people are just starting to appreciate. When I started there, the Register and the L.A. Times’ Orange County bureau employed hundreds, with us as the foul-mouthed arriviste. The media wars were fierce, and the county was better for it.

Today, the Register is a husk of what it was, and The Times sold its O.C. offices long ago. If Calle could channel even an iota of what OC Weekly once was, I told him, that would be a good thing. But if he brought it back as a sad parody of what it once was, he’d be ridiculed — and I’d lead the jeers.

“Anyone who knows me says I’m a fixer,” he said, waving me off from personnel files I stumbled across among the archives. “And journalism has become my fixer project.”

Brian Calle goes through old issues of OC Weekly.

OC Weekly owner Brian Calle goes through boxes holding old OC Weekly issues in the Irvine Weekly office.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Norberto Santana Jr., publisher of the Voice of OC, welcomed the possible rebirth of OC Weekly, adding, “The Weekly had a special finger on the pulse on the county. It was much valued and much needed.”

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

“You’re not just going to replace any old thing,” Santana said. “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 buy OC Weekly just before it shut down, one of many prospective buyers circling the paper in its decline. He didn’t go for it then, he said, because of the “tumult” after he acquired LA Weekly, which included advertisers pulling out, social-media shaming of people who continued to work for them and even a public funeral held by former staffers outside the paper’s offices.

“If I bought [OC Weekly] and made the changes it needed,” Calle said, “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 boat show magnate who bought OC Weekly in 2016, through the pandemic. They finally made a deal in November. Calle wouldn’t disclose the purchase price or terms. The phone for McIntosh’s company is disconnected, and McIntosh didn’t respond to an email request for comment.

Todd Stauffer, manager of the Assn. of Alternative Newsmedia, said a paper like OC Weekly in a market like Orange County still has a chance, even in an era when news organizations close or lay off staff seemingly every week and the very idea 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,” said Stauffer, who co-founded the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi and is still involved in community journalism in the Magnolia State. “Have some personality. Mix it up. Get your readers involved.”

Calle plans to relaunch OC Weekly slowly — just one full-time reporter, maybe a few freelancers — then pitch its comeback 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 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.

He howled.

Calle intends to keep the paper’s scabrous tone and is reaching out to prospective writers, vowing not to import someone from Los Angeles because “the landscape here is weird. … We need to find the rabble-rouser, the go-to person in O.C.”

Then he looked at me.

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

He’s right.