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I Was Retained By the New Owners of the L.A. Weekly, And It Sucked

[dropcap size=big]"O[/dropcap]nce the new owners get in here, first things first. We’re getting you full time,” Mat Cooperstein, the then-Publisher at LA Weekly said to me following a October 2017 staff meeting. He had just addressed the pending sale and future of all Weekly employees under the paper’s incoming new bosses, Semanal Media.

Being a lifelong Weekly devotee, I was nervous. I’d been a part time marketing coordinator at the paper for almost a year, and I was excited to hear that the staff under Cooperstein and then-Editor Mara Shalhoup would be working with a new ownership group with reported ties to “Southern California,” and an interest in bolstering our already-great publication.

Things quickly changed, though, on Nov. 29, 2017, when nine of the 13 members of the editorial department were let go, along with staff from sales and marketing. After one of my colleagues was informed that he wasn’t being retained by the new ownership group, I made my way nervously into Cooperstein’s office, clenched jaw and twisted stomach, ready to hear my fate at the paper.

“Thomas, you're being terminated by Voice Media Group, just like everyone else, and myself included,” he said.

I nearly fainted.

“But, you’re also being retained by the new ownership group,” he continued. “This is a great opportunity being presented to you. Good luck.”

Cooperstein said he genuinely hoped this would be a great opportunity for the staff that survived the “Red Wedding” of newsroom purges. But something seemed off from the start.

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The gutting of the staff immediately deflated the office. That night, those of us who had been through the firings deliberated the infinite array of possibilities once the new owners arrived. Nothing would’ve surprised us. They could’ve re-hired the whole staff or told us that LA Weekly would cease to exist. Both seemed equally likely.

In the blink of an eye, our alternative weekly newsroom, robust by modern standards, had been decimated, with the marketing and sales departments short-handed, but intact, and the editorial team all but erased. It only took a few days, however, for us to realize that they had purchased one of  America’s most storied alt-weeklies seemingly without any strategy whatsoever.

We’d known for more than a month that the paper had sold, but to whom was still a mystery. The L.A. Times would report about paperwork filed to create Semanal Media, formed solely for the purchase of the paper. Only two of the new would-be owners’ names emerged: Brian Calle and David Welch.

Late that first night, Semanal Media emailed all retained staff, informing us that we indeed would be making first contact with our new corporate overlords the following morning. “Hi All,” it read. “We are looking forward to meeting you tomorrow, Thursday, November 30. We will have a Q & A at 10:30 am. This will allow us to address any questions you have.”

The all-staff meeting on Nov. 30 included Calle, Welch, and another owner, Steve Mehr, chief executive of a digital marketing company called WebShark360. During the roundtable introductions, where names and titles were shared, I was so nervous that I introduced myself as: “Thomas Gallegos. Marketing Coordinator and Social Media Coordinator ... for now?”

The quick ice breaker got a mild laugh from the room, with Calle following up: “Oh, don’t worry, Thomas! We have plenty planned for you!”

To the owners’ credit, they initially facilitated our questions, answering with nuance and charisma that gave most in the room a mild sense of security. We addressed our concerns with the way things were handled and hoped our words resonated with the new owners.

Calle also addressed one of the greatest journalism flexes of all time — when USC lecturer and a former Weekly editor Keith Plocek, who still had admin access to LAWeekly.com, called out the faceless-nameless owners of Semanal Media in a post on the site. The headline is relevant months later, “Who Owns LA Weekly?

Calle thought keeping the post up was a good idea, with others also in favor. With there being no new writers or editors it became apparent that they needed the post up to not only garner traffic and attention, but also to take up blank space. The post has since been removed.

At first, we felt they were listening. Calle said he would be publicly revealing the other investors of Semanal Media, which he claimed varied from around “10 to 12.” It seemed some investors hadn’t fully committed to Semanal, and this figure has since changed, with noted law professor Erwin Chemerinsky dropping out, and possibly some of the other formerly unnamed investors into Semanal shying away after the transition.

Today, only seven people are listed as owners.

Calle and Welch stressed the miscalculation on their part, stating they weren’t expecting the backlash for their layoffs the previous day, which seemed ludicrous to myself and some retained staff. Calle ended the meeting saying he hoped to address individual concerns in follow-up meetings throughout the day.

Following the intro meeting, eventually Calle would make his way to the marketing section of our newsroom, with Welch and Mehr.

In terms of my job status and standing, Calle asked me to do both marketing and editorial social media for LA Weekly. Once he found out about my journalistic aspirations, he was quick to ask, “Will you write for us, too?!” I walked away from the conversation having started it as a Part-Time Marketing Coordinator, with me leaving it as the Full-Time Social Media Manager for Editorial/Marketing, having full oversight and control of all of LA Weekly social media platforms, with the opportunity to write for the paper as well.

I was ecstatic, but also hesitant. Of course, I wanted to write for the paper and do social media, but a role stretching between editorial and marketing wasn’t necessarily ideal. At LA Weekly, the idea of “separation of Church and State” in the newsroom, between Editorial and Marketing-Sales, was enshrined. There’s doubtlessly value in integrating and incorporating a cohesive dialogue between marketing and editorial departments in modern journalism, but the ideas thrown out by the new owners showed a disregard for the organization’s overall integrity.

The new owners discussed “influencer programs,” to help mitigate the PR-shitstorm we were consumed in, and touted their vast Rolodex of friends flocking to advertise in the paper and site, primarily from the corporate-marijuana industry. They discussed prospecting celebrities in some instances to produce written content on films — not interviewed by reporters or writers, but stories on movies by the movie stars that appear in them.

When one of the new executives suggested we hammer back at critics — with the practices, not the politics, of Donald Trump — I gave a half-assed smirk. The meeting went on, but upon hearing the suggestion that we rip-off the Mandarin-Mussolini playbook of social media ethics, I knew my time under Semanal Media would be tested with every decision that arose.

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]n Friday morning, Calle published his now-infamous first post on the site under Semanal’s run, titled, “And The New Owners Are…” It was a farce of an introduction to the readership, and light years away from the tone illustrated the day before in our introductory staff meeting. Problems were metastasizing. Mehr gave insanely disconnected quotes to the LA Times about the cultural status of Los Angeles. There was the backlash from Calle’s open letter. Not to mention the shortsighted comments made to KCRW’s Madeleine Brand about former staff, and his unwillingness to name fired film writer April Wolfe as the author of the first Weekly cover story under Semanal.

Inside the building, the sentiment cultivating was one of panic, mistrust, and chaos. On top of all that, over the weekend a #BoycottLAWeekly movement was forming online.

'I resigned from my position. I approached David Welch and informed him. I had enough.'

Faux-hope was established for Semanal by Mehr and his squad from WebShark360, who whipped up amazing social media quick fixes to save the public reputation of the transitioning circus. First, they decided to throw out a social media post highlighting a staff member that they hadn’t fired. Second, they created their infamous “Calling all Angelinos” post.

When Mehr asked for my opinion that Friday, I advised Mehr twice to hold off on both creating and running it, but they were adamant on getting stuff pushed on the social platforms to drown out the noise.

The “Calling All Angelinos” post ran that Saturday. The typo in “Angelenos” was one thing, but the issue that seemed to resonate with most, and rightfully so, was that it seemed this post, as well as comments made by Calle in interviews, alluded to writers being compensated solely by contributing to an awesome publication like LA Weekly, and the exposure that followed, an idea which has also since been dropped.

I no longer felt comfortable working under Semanal, who again overstepped and undermined my role, when Mehr posted an inspirational quote on LA Weekly’s Instagram page that Sunday night. It was just another example of something being thrown up on our social platforms, that I had not seen, didn’t approve, and would have never approved. I might have been named “head of social media,” but they continuously side-stepped my suggestions, and in this case, didn’t bother having the courtesy to even run things by me.

I also noticed an odd trend with the LA Weekly Twitter and its followers, having full access and oversight of the accounts. While observing a drop in followers following the sale, it came to my surprise to watch as our account began to gain followers in hordes throughout the weekend. The increase of followers was eyebrow raising, but after scrubbing through the new ones, it became distressingly clear that a majority were bots. A Twitter audit of the @LAWeekly handle currently shows that a staggering 431,600 of its twitter followers are bots.

On Monday morning, Dec. 4, the dudes from Semanal wouldn’t arrive in the office until almost mid-afternoon. They were content with starting fires, and asking others to put them out. It became inevitable that the Sips & Sweets event would be axed, with advertisers and clients calling in and dropping out of the event by the hour.

Above: Logo for the Boycott LA Weekly movement. The author has done work with the group.

Following the weekend of social media mishaps and Calle’s conservative past being brought to light, an emergency newsroom meeting would be called for that afternoon. Members of sales and marketing staff had quickly grown tired of the antics and mismanagement style displayed by Semanal early on, and it seemed things were getting beyond their control.

The meeting was a complete shitshow.

Calle would not only renounce his time at the Claremont Institute, but he attempted to dismiss it as a mere escapade of attempting to convert his uber-conservative comrades to more socially progressive idealists. When I brought up the Twitter account and the increase in followers, Mehr would brush it off as a normal occurance, stating that when accounts on Twitter are trending, they attract bot followers.

Calle was bestowed the title of Publisher, having had experience as an opinion editor with the Southern California News Group. For his critics, Calle had made his name in “journalism” by befriending and coddling comrades of the far-right, while pedaling the free-market, “libertarian” politics that have often dominated in Orange County.

Calle continuously used his scope of resources to spotlight the careers of the most prolifically awful human beings, like far-right hack Dinesh D’Souza, to his glowing book review of Atlas Shrugged on Breitbart.com (which has since been removed from the site, since the Weekly sale), Calle has historically dug himself into association with far-right idealists, and his attempts to argue otherwise felt phony.

The incompetence of the new owners, at least the visible ones to the office those first days, was astonishing. On Wednesday Dec. 6, after the boorishness displayed by Semanal management toward my job, former staff and retained, and LA Weekly as an institution, I resigned from my position. I approached David Welch and informed him. I had enough.

I went to California State University of Northridge, receiving a bachelor's degree in Journalism. My first editorial gig as a student would be as the co-editor of the arts section for the school newspaper, The Sundial. I remember my first pitches to the publisher and fellow co-editor when preparing our section for the semester, began with me showing up with a copy of the most recent LA Weekly, footnoted and scribbled all over, highlighting everything from the layout of the calendar section, to the story designs. LA Weekly was a playbook for all up-and-coming writers who hoped to write and report for an alternative media outlet.

A few months have gone by and the good will promised by Semanal to restore credibility and ethical practices at the Weekly has gone unfulfilled.  To say I’m disappointed for what the paper has become and what the retained staff in sales and marketing — a lot of people I grew to trust, respect, and enjoyed working with — have fallen craven to, is an understatement.

Eater LA reported that Weekly staff reached out to two prospective restaurants about being featured in the yearly 99 Essentials event, with the included promise of a spot in the 99 Essentials issue. This type of solicitation was unheard of and forbidden when I was at the paper, although now Calle denies that it ever occurred. Following the creation of Semanal Media’s PR campaign, #SpeakTruth, it seemed pretty clear that the LA Weekly was indeed “the LA Weekly in name only,” and not in practice.

My affirmation and hunger to be a part of LA Weekly and what it stood for can be best simplified by the words of its founding editor, Jay Levin: “We very much wanted to be a paper that people took personally because it had heart and soul, as well as good information.”

From my short days at Semanal Media’s LA Weekly, I learned firsthand that the paper would no longer be what its founders envisioned.

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In vetting this article, multiple text messages, emails, and screenshots corroborated Gallegos’s accounts. Interviews with two close relatives also corroborated conversations discussing descriptions of these incidents in the hours and days after they occurred.

David Welch and Steve Mehr responded to Gallegos's accounts when reached by L.A. Taco. “It’s not true that I’m a conservative, I’m a liberal,” Welch said.

In an email response, Mehr wrote: “It’s incredibly saddening that a group of people with an agenda are willing to advocate untruths and say anything just to attempt to discredit the Weekly and anyone who is involved with it.”

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