Stern Publishing—owned by Leonard Stern, a pet-food magnate whose Hartz Mountain corporation controlled 70 percent of the pet-supply market—bought the Village Voice, the nation's oldest alternative weekly, in 1983. In 1994, Stern purchased the LA Weekly, which then set its sights on Orange County. . . .
Michael Sigman, LA Weekly/OC Weekly publisher, 1983-2002: The crass but simple answer [why OC Weekly was created] is that big advertisers in LA Weekly like Tower Records said they'd advertise in an Orange County edition. Before Leonard bought us, there were several years of exploratory machinations and research, but we never had the funding or authorization. And even though other people had explored it and had decided it wasn't such a good idea, it seemed obvious to us that it had potential. There was never any question in my mind that we could do a successful paper. After we were bought, the mandate was "Let's get OC Weekly started as soon as possible." I remember having serious conversations with [the late New York Times media critic] David Carr about the position [of editor], and there were probably one or two others, but I can't remember anyone else being a serious candidate. And then there was Will.
Nathan Callahan, OC Weekly contributor, 1995-2004: Will and I had worked on a little zine back in the early '90s, The County, and we tried to cover OC as much as we could. It came out sporadically and slammed everyone from Irvine City Councilman Dave Baker to Jerry Brown. And when [Will] heard about the editor job, it went from there.
Will Swaim, OC Weekly founding editor, 1995-2007: I was working at Entrepreneur, a business magazine, and a friend of mine said she had heard of LA Weekly starting something in Orange County. At the time, the landscape was littered with a whole bunch of attempts to start alt-weeklies here, and they had all been grotesquely underfunded or weren't very good.
Sigman: Once we talked to Will, it wasn't even a close call. He had the talent, but he also knew everything about Orange County. Will drove David [Schneiderman, president of Stern Publishing] and me around in the interview process, and he knew everything—why every greenway was the way it was, every little community. It was just staggering what he knew.
Swaim: They asked me if I thought a paper like this can survive, and I said just running a calendar section would be revolutionary. But I also told them if you could tell people there was something going on beneath the surface of this place that is supposed to be perfect and secure, it would be amazing. They said they had one key economic indicator, which, at the time, they weren't really excited about telling anybody publicly. They said 900-phone-number advertising in the back of LA Weekly could be traced disproportionally to Orange County. I want to say 60 percent to 80 percent. They weren't trying to suggest with 900-phone advertising, they could actually make it here. What they were saying, I think, is that maybe there is more here than meets the eye.
And in May or June of 1995, they hired me. It seemed like a long shot. I was editor of a business magazine, and I had never worked for a daily newspaper, and I got hired to edit what, to me, was going to be the most breathtaking job that I could ever possibly imagine having.
Swaim reached out to Los Angeles Times writers Rose Apodaca Jones and Jim Washburn; Daily Pilot entertainment editor Matt Coker—who had just been publicly humiliated after his editor, future Times reporter William Lobdell, publicly apologized for Coker writing a column called "Ding, Dong, the Dick is Dead!" on the passing of Richard Nixon—and journalists such as Wyn Hilty and Tom Vasich, with whom Swaim had worked in the past.
Swaim: I just wanted people who had a real voice and who were really intelligent and who stood out as writers in other places. I wasn't sure what any of them would do. I just knew they'd write somehow.
Wyn Hilty, managing editor, 1995-1998: For the first couple of months or so, he and I were working out of our homes. I think I interviewed Rebecca Schoenkopf for copy editor in my living room. We finally got some office space and were able to put things together in an actual office, which was a relief.
Jim Washburn, executive editor and columnist, 1995-1998 & 2000-2005: I was freelancing for the Times. They paid okay, and I worked there five or six times a week, but it was kind of a dead end. I asked my editor, Tony Lioce, "What is my likelihood of ever going full-time?" And he said about as much as the likelihood of me ever sprouting a twat. Wasn't too long after that, I got the call from Will, and it was a job with benefits and new vistas and a chance to start something interesting and all that stuff. It seemed like a good thing to do.
When me and a couple of the early hires went up for some meeting at the LA Weekly, the staff for the most part treated us like some country bumpkins whom they couldn't wait to get rid of. On the plus side, they never tried to mess with our copy or tell us what to do, which was good.
Tom Vasich, production editor, 1995-1997: At the time, Orange County was radically changing, almost like stripping off the whole idea of the Orange Curtain. There was a lot of excitement, with culture and the arts and even politics changing. The stink of change was in the air in Orange County, and OC Weekly was the fan.
Matt Coker, calendar editor, managing editor and executive editor, 1995-2007, staff writer, 2008-present: I was calendar editor, and it was a hell of a lot of work even before the first paper came out, having to call so many places for information. That first issue was like birthing a baby, so painful. I think that's when I developed most of my gray hairs. But the great thing about the early days is we felt totally on our own. Even though we didn't own the paper ourselves, it felt like we did. No one really seemed to care; it was like, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show." We got that first one out, and I remember feeling so proud about ourselves, and then it was like, "Oh, shit, we have to get the next one out."
Rose Apodaca Jones [now Rose Apodaca], staff writer, 1995-1998: I was terrified when I started because there was so much hope about what it could be that it was a little terrifying that it could potentially fail. Most of us left good gigs, and we really needed to make it work, and we were all so invested in making it succeed. But it was also a lot of fun. We spent a hell of a lot of time in those offices, late into the night sometimes, sharing pizzas and beer. And I really felt we had this mission to raise the level and awareness, to tell our neighbors and strangers that it's okay to be from Orange County. There's some really incredible stuff going on here. Just because it's happening in this zone doesn't mean it's any less important or influential than what's happening an hour north.
Rich Kane, contibutor and music editor, 1998-2005, managing editor, 2007-2009: Orange County was this unexplored goldmine, and I was just thrilled. I remember picking up the first issue and driving back on the 55 freeway and having this almost euphoric high because, at last, there was something that could really make a strong presence, not just for investigative journalism, but also arts coverage, something that could expose people in Orange County to a kind of journalism that had never been there before. I didn't even care that I was only doing calendar listings [at first]; I just wanted to be involved in any way.
Swaim: I remember having a bundle of the first-issue papers in my truck and driving home from the printer at sunrise near Diamond Bar and the 57, thinking, "Holy fuck, I'm absolutely exhausted but also so wired." It felt like I was working with Radio Free Europe, that we were bringing something to the county that would really transform it.
That evening, everybody was leaving at 5:30 or 6, and the phone rang. It was a woman who said she was disgusted by what she had seen in our newspaper and that we were not welcome here: "You used foul language, there are ads for hookers in there, and you're going to harm my children." And I said, "Look, I've got children. This paper isn't meant for them." She said, "I know you've got children. I know where your son plays ice hockey." And I paused for a moment and said, "Are you really threatening me?" She said, "You can take that however you want." And she hung up. And I thought, "Wow, fuck." That's how it started.
The staff of the Weekly's first issue included Swaim as editor; Washburn, executive editor; Apodaca, senior writer; Hilty, managing editor; Gary Gonzalez, art director; Vasich, production editor; Coker, calendar editor; and Rebecca Schoenkopf, copy chief. Among the interns was Patrice Wirth [now Patrice Wirth Marsters, associate editor]. The 80-page debut included Apodaca's cover story, "A Secret History of the OC Sound," and her nightlife column, La Vie en Rose. Washburn contributed his inaugural Lost In OC column; a feature on the owner of Captain Cream, a topless joint in Lake Forest; and an interview with Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano. There were also three smaller news stories; classical music, dance, sports, arts and theater columns; a food piece; a 33-page calendar section; eight pages of classifieds (including some 50 phone-sex ads); and a column at the back, Last Gasp by Matt Coker, which established what quickly became a Weekly trademark: humor in a jugular vein aimed at the absurd politicians and strange goings-on in OC.
Sigman: Certainly, it had the same format as LA Weekly, but as far as the content, it was really driven by Will's vision, which I loved. A paper that was a little less doctrinaire left than LA Weekly, with a dash of libertarianism and just a certain amount of craziness, and, you know, finding these people like Bob Dornan to make fun of and just relentlessly going after them. But the zaniness of Will's paper was serious; the fact we made fun of Bob Dornan didn't make it unserious.
Washburn: Initially, everyone I knew [in journalism] was reading it. Everyone trying to figure out, "Is this some new animal in our jungle, are they a threat to us, is this a joy to us, can I talk to these people, can I trust them?" All that sort of stuff. People took the Weekly a lot more seriously—more serious than we deserved, maybe.
Swaim: The cover of our second issue was how the Times and Register blew the [1994 Orange County] bankruptcy story, which was less than a year old. There was no media criticism going on in the county, no one holding reporters accountable, so I started a media column. And I remember people saying, "Who are you guys to write about them, and why don't you do your own job?" What we were really arguing for was greater transparency about the news process. We were trying to carve out a space for ourselves, and we had to make a lot of noise to do it.
Callahan: Five weeks into it, I wrote a cover story about the OC Democratic Party, "They Eat Their Own." It so enraged the people at the Swallow's Inn, where the chairman of the party used to hang out, that they tore a rack of Weeklys and threw it into the street. I think it was then that I knew I was doing the right thing. I think we had had a big hand in turning around the conservative stranglehold in the county, as well as putting the Democratic Party on guard that it was being challenged. We called them on their shit. And they had to pay attention.
In early 1996, R. Scott Moxley submitted an unsolicited manuscript about an Orange County court case, "Kill a Gay Man and Go Free." It was published on Feb. 8, 1996—and the lords of OC quickly learned to tremble at the mention of Moxley's name.
Swaim: I remember going into my office on a Saturday and opening my mail. We'd get thousands of books and releases, all kinds of stuff. I opened up one thing, and it was this beautifully written, feature-length literary journalism piece of hanging out at this crazy trial about a gay man being beaten to death and the jury acquitting the guy who did it. I called him up that day and said, "This is fucking brilliant. Who are you? Where did you come from?"
The first year of the Weekly set the template for what would come. It skewered politicians such as Scott Baugh, Christopher Cox, Curt Pringle and Dana Rohrabacher. It chronicled the efforts by Orange County to extract itself from bankruptcy, fought the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, covered the county's cultural scene, and infused nearly everything with sharp-witted satire.
Nick Schou began freelancing in January 1996 and quickly became a staff writer.
Nick Schou, staff writer and managing editor, 1996-present: I had what Will and I jokingly referred to as the Marxist beat—not just cops or police brutality, but pretty much anything that fit into the rubric of the reality of Orange County beyond what people think it is from the outside. Not just arch-conservative politics and wealthy coastal enclaves, but the real Orange County in terms of income inequality and other permutations of that.
Washburn: Moxley and Nick . . . were covering politics in a way that hadn't been done before.
Vasich: Then Nick started really becoming an exceptionally good reporter and finding these great stories, got involved with the Gary Webb situation with the whole cocaine connection. [Editor's note: Schou's extensive work on pioneering journalist Gary Webb and an OC connection to Webb's series of stories about the CIA and crack cocaine in Los Angeles turned into a 2006 book and a film, released in 2014, both titled Kill the Messenger.] I would say along with Moxley's reporting, Nick's stories on the CIA cocaine-LA connection and his other stories on [the Drug War], I think, really put this paper on the map nationally. Those were stories everyone knew about.
On Jan. 19, 1996, Buddy Seigal, a freelancer at the time, landed an interview with R. Crumb, the legendary underground Zap Comix designer, who was living in France. Terry Zwigoff's documentary on him, Crumb, had come out in 1995. There wasn't much of a local connection, but Crumb did have this to say:
"Orange County is a vortex of evil. I really believe . . . the whole southern thing from LA on down is a very evil place. I spent some time down there visiting, about five years ago, in this town called Oceanside that I used to live in as a kid . . . and the whole place has turned so horrible and nightmarish compared to how it was. Guys in noisy four-by-four vehicles—it was frightening, horrifying. . . . If this is the future of the planet, oh, man. How depressing."
That same issue featured Coker's Last Gasp column, the first of three Weekly columns over the years that were a grab bag of satirical commentary and graphics aimed at satirizing local pols and culture. (Coker would later create A Clockwork Orange, and Steve Lowery handled Diary of a Mad County.) Also in the issue, Swaim contributed a goof on a Register story that reported a closed Dana Point health club would open as the Sweatshop. Swaim offered a few other choice names for potential health clubs, including the Race War, the Concentration Camp and the Ethnic Cleanser, in which Harvard-trained speech pathologists would "rid you of bizarre foreign accents that would otherwise prevent you from participating in the American Dream."
The Weekly's first year proved Sigman correct about its financial sustainability.
Swaim: I asked [the Weekly's owners] how long they were committed to this thing, and they said, "We don't even expect it to break even for three years." At the end of our first year, we made money. The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies said it was the fastest start-up in profitability in the history of alternative weeklies.
Sigman: Usually, it takes a number of years for a publication like this to make a profit, and we did in the first year. It wasn't because we were such geniuses; it's because we had that ad base from LA, and once it was clear that Will could do what he was doing, and he had Jim Washburn and great people writing there, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience.?
The Weekly made its first national headlines after Moxley wrote an exposé of longtime Congressman Bob Dornan, OC's most notorious politician. It published on Oct. 24, 1996, one week before his razor-thin defeat at the hands of Democrat Loretta Sanchez.
Vasich: The day Scott Moxley walked into the office and had his elephant-gun laser sight on Bob Dornan, that was what really established the paper as a political voice. It's one thing to mock Bob Dornan—that was easy—but Moxley systematically went after the Dornan administration in a legitimately journalistic manner and just crushed them. It was impressive to sit there and watch it happen.
R. Scott Moxley, staff writer and editor, 1996-present: I was interviewing [Dornan's] childhood friends. I went so deep into his past that I could name names to him that freaked him out. And Bob came in to scream at Will because he had a habit of badgering and threatening editors, and the great thing Will gave me was that it was my story. And [Dornan] had to go through me.
Loretta Sanchez, congresswoman: I certainly read [the Weekly] with interest because I didn't know much about Bob Dornan, and most people didn't know much about him. I think it discussed all the things he'd been doing that Orange County wasn't aware of. It was very informative from my standpoint.
Sanchez had been a previous Moxley target. In an April 12, 1996, cover story titled "Anyone But Bob! But Why Loretta?," he exposed her ties to a notorious politico.
Swaim: The thing we were trying to do was really establish ourselves as great reporters and not just shills for one party or another. So Scott coming against Sanchez played against type. He checked out her résumé, and it was bogus. We reported that when no one else did. We got attacked for being anti-Latino, anti-Democratic. And Scott is firing cannonballs into the side of Dornan's political ship, and Dornan is taking on water, and he's going after Sanchez's connection to a really unsavory Democratic Party character.
Sanchez: I haven't noticed that the OC Weekly covers me very much. Once in a while, you mention me in there, but I haven't noticed you were particularly covering me or going after me. I think I've gotten good coverage on some days and bad coverage on other days. It just goes with the territory.
Swaim: Loretta may have forgotten this, but she was very active responding to [Moxley's coverage] at the time because she denied she had any connection with this fundraiser, who was a convicted felon. Except the fax she sent her denial on came through with the felonious fundraiser's address at the very top of the page. She had sent it from the guy's own fax machine.
None of that, though, compared to Dornan's reaction after losing to Sanchez. The week before Moxley's exposé, he visited the Weekly in an effort to have the story killed. (According to Swaim, he was quite nice.) After the article published, Dornan's team went around newsstands in his district, throwing copies of the issue into their cars.
Moxley: When he lost the race, he wrote a letter to the [Weekly's owners] in New York and blamed my cover story for his loss. I was jumping up and down. "You're at an alt-weekly, and there's a guy like Dornan, and he just credited you for his loss?" I was like, "Ahhhh, just so wonderful." So then he did the "wetbacks"-cheating-him-out-of-the-election thing, and the LA Times' Peter Warren led the charge on that, and I beat the living hell out of that piece. Dornan was so angry at me that he grabbed me around the throat.
Dornan became a constant foil for the Weekly, especially after he tried to get the House of Representatives to hold Moxley in contempt. In 1998, he attempted to reclaim his seat, but, along with the GOP state-wide, he was crushed. Moxley wrote one of the finest pieces in Weekly history, "White Trash Disco Party," about a Republican election-night party in Newport Beach. Dornan showed up and said his remarks would last "six or seven minutes." Moxley [from the article]: The wrong thing to give an addict is another dose. The wrong thing to give a failed actor like Dornan is applause. . . . At the podium, he posed. He smiled. He quoted Yeats. The man who avoided combat duty and who was once jailed for violent spousal abuse peppered his incoherent remarks with references to "character," D-Day, citizen arrest, "The Beast," talk radio, Martin Luther King Jr., strong women, Newt Gingrich, sexual predators and the Antichrist. Despite all the talk, Dornan couldn't summon the maturity to concede the race to Sanchez. In fact, the man who invented voter-fraud allegations against innocent Latinos to explain his 1996 loss said he would "never" concede.
After his nearly 30-minute speech, Schou approached Dornan.
Moxley [from the article]: "Are you a homosexual?" the ex-congressman asked Schou before agreeing to talk. . . . Schou asked, "How does it feel to lose twice in a row to a Latina?" Dornan looked back. Gone was the fiery entertainer who likes to call himself a "hero." He said pitifully, "I'm not answering any more questions for OC Weekly."
That's okay. We know the answers.
Moxley: After he lost the [first] race, he said, "I'm not threatening you, but I'm going to have both your kneecaps broken." But to show you how times change, a couple of years ago, he and his wife sent me a Christmas card with the sweetest message. And I asked his son, Mark, "Are they going senile?" He said, "No. They kind of respect you now. You were the only guy who never gave up."
Schou: We just happened to arrive at a really important transitional moment in Orange County history. In politics, Sanchez and her defeat of Dornan was a watershed event—everything changed as a result of that. But also just in terms of how Orange County was changing . . . The Weekly enjoyed cultural credibility because we had such talented writers. We were in front not just in politics, but in terms of culture.
Rose Apodaca wrote the Weekly's first regular nightlife/cultural column, La Vie en Rose.
Apodaca: That was my baby. I was encouraged to write about anything I wanted. It was an opinion column, but I was incredibly engaged in the culture of Orange County, navigating all kinds of economic groups and nightlife, the lowlights and the highlights. I felt it was my role to surprise readers with what I was discovering on my adventures.
After she left in 1998, Michael Alarcon took over the slot, with Boy Around Town. That didn't pan out, so Schoenkopf, who had been an arts critic and copy editor, took it over later in the year. The Weekly's first breakout star was born.
Rebecca Schoenkopf, columnist and editor, 1995-2007: It was a nightlife and society column, so my idea for Commie Girl was to see it through my unique filter. I had just turned 25, educated, female, Jewish, Catholic, Communist. I think [for] my first column, I reviewed a new 99-cent store, went to some clubs and got drunk. And I had a little baby at home, and I'd take him with me to city council meetings and restaurant and art openings and nightclubs, and it was great. He was my small buttercup of a son. The nightlife in the mid-to-late 1990s was kind of amazing. Tons of places to go, a lot of art and culture, people were going out and seeing art. I loved being famous. And I was. I was a famous writer. I'd be at the bookstore and sign a credit card receipt, and they'd say, "Are you Commie Girl?" and I'd say, "Oh, yes, I am."
And it turned into something with a whole cast of characters who would come in and out. Like homegirl Arrissia, who was threatening to kick Dennis Rodman in the head at some place in Costa Mesa.
Arrissia Owen, contributor, editorial and production assistant and Pocket Clowns lead singer, 1997-current: Will wanted me to be Commie Girl's assistant. Rebecca and I didn't know each other—we were the only outgoing females in the newsroom who wrote often—so he kind of just stuck us together, and it took on a life of its own.
What a lot of people don't realize is Commie Girl was a character, and people really believed Rebecca was—and in some ways, she is. You have to have a certain amount of thick skin and bravado and narcissism to write a column like that. But she had so many haters and fans at the same time. There'd be times we'd be someplace, and people would feel it was okay to assault her verbally, and I knew her enough to know the more fragile, vulnerable side of her, so it turned into this thing after a while when I became her protector. There were many times I got into some pretty heated arguments with men over Rebecca. It wasn't always glamour, and I think that a lot of people never saw that.
Schoenkopf: If I had to assign a higher purpose to it, I would say that it maybe made liberal Orange County people feel like it wasn't such a shameful secret, and they weren't alone, and that it was a normal, fun thing to be.
Oh, and [former Orange County Sheriff] Mike Carona. He hit on me. Absolutely. Carona super-totally hit on me. But so did other politicians. And I was young and thought power was sexy, and I was very flattered.
Swaim: I already knew she was smart and funny and a wickedly good writer and so young. But she turned out to be a lot more. She loved art, artists, music, but she was also highly political and a really keen observer of people, places and things. She was the perfect writer for that, and yes, there's something provocative in Orange County to have a newspaper with a column called Commie Girl. She was really the face of the organization. She was a good diplomat for the paper. She really liked the work and mingling, whether it was a bar or some political function. Honestly, she was—and is—very courageous.
Coker: I remember getting a call from a guy. I thought he was going to commit suicide. Commie Girl hadn't run one week, and he said, "I need my Commie Girl!" And I told him, "Don't worry; she'll be back next week."
Though tucked into a small office park in Costa Mesa near Bristol and Red Hill streets, the vibe of the Weekly as a scrappy underdog willing to take on and make fun of the wealthy and powerful transcended its humble working conditions.
Schou: We were in a nondescript, cramped office with crappy computer equipment and stacks of magazines and newspapers all over the place, but it was definitely interesting because so much of the energy came out of Will's drive to really make a mark on the media landscape. Part of that was he was very good at finding people who were highly motivated—because the pay wasn't good. But everyone down to the receptionist wanted to be at the paper. It wasn't a job; [everyone] wanted to be a part of it. Everyone kind of hung out together, socialized together and worked together.
Jeremy Zachary, advertising sales representative, 1995-2004: It was phenomenal. It was like family, and everyone was super-charged and felt like rock stars. Because this thing we had, everyone wanted to be a part of. We had built this culture from within, and everyone worked together and played together and made it the cool thing.
Steve Lowery, staff writer, 1998-2007: When I first got there, it was Leslie Caines Nash and Heather [Swaim] and Rudi King, the designers, who set the tone. They were so fast and clever, and they'd talk and talk and be loud, and I just took it up from them. And, man, we were just on top of one another. It's like that joke where you live in a New York apartment and you can see your stove from your bedroom. You'd walk 3 feet, and there's creative. Three feet, there's editorial. And I talk with my hands a lot, and one time [office manager] Ann Hallett was walking by, and I smacked her right in the face. Had to send her 8,000 roses I felt so bad.
Heather Swaim, art director and creative director, 1995-2007: Creative just had a different way of working. To write, you need to be on your own, but for me, I would have to get away from what I was doing. Sometimes, I'd put on roller skates, or Leslie and I would dance around, and there'd be music playing, and we'd be spitballing ideas and just being stupid and silly and that would irritate the shit out of Tom Vasich, who would yell, "Would you two shut up?" He had no filter. But creative and editorial, even sales, was all together, so I understand the collision.
Leslie Caines Nash, production assistant, 1995-1998: It was pretty tight-knit. Heather and I for a long time were the art department. It was one big room. We had the writers trying to write, but we were playing music and screaming and laughing and being obnoxious. It was a plus and a minus; we were together, but it was also hard for the writers to get the work done.
But even in a close newsroom, people leave for other jobs. Apodaca departed in 1998 to work for a fashion magazine in Los Angeles. Washburn left shortly after.
Swaim: When the newspaper was best wasn't when it had this post-modern ironic sensibility bullshit; it was when it was really earnest, and part of that was people like Jim. Jim is a very earnest and honest guy. And he was just this completely out-of-his-mind, genius, creative writer. He was the creative consciousness.
Washburn: One of the weird things is we were trying to be this hip alternative, but we weren't particularly hip people. The only time that poses a problem is when you worry about it, and there were parties that were worried about it. And eventually, to me, the Weekly kind of devolved. They had this image they would use a lot [for story art] of this shouting guy. I thought we wound up becoming the shouting-guy newspaper, a bunch of loudmouths without much substance in some ways. "Oh, we're the bad boys on the block" when we were basically suburbanites for the most part.
Schoenkopf: Jim was in his 40s, way older than most of us, so he had the gravitas to say people are upset about this, and Will took that very personally, and he shouldn't have. Jim was the union rep without being strident or anything. He was a fucking fantastic writer; he was the voice of OC Weekly, which meant he was the voice of Orange County.
Lowery: Jim's just ridiculously prolific, so stupidly brilliant. I just think his ceiling is very high. I think Jim outgrew it—I really do. Jim is the kind of guy who should be writing about huge things.
Washburn: Will had a lot of pressures getting the paper out the rest of us didn't even know about. We'd go out on weekly or several-times-a-week walks, just talking things through. But at the same time, writers would be coming to me with their problems with Will. Sometimes, he'd tell one person one thing and another person another thing entirely contrary. Sometimes, he would tell the same person contrary things. I was the guy who they would come to with their problems, and a lot of times, I had to agree with them instead of Will.
Not too long after that, there was a going-away party for Rose that kind of devolved into a bitch session about Will, and I had to agree with some of their points and maybe threw in a couple myself. Someone reported this back to Will, and he was furious that I had convened a meeting to try to undermine him. Shortly after, my performance review came up, and even though I was pumping out more copy than anyone else in the paper and editing a ton, I got no raise because of my disloyalty, he said. Not too long after that, I got a phone call at home from Steve Lowery saying Will had approached him to hire him. Lowery told me that he said it'd be great working with Washburn and all that stuff, and Will said, "Oh, Washburn is leaving." Which was news to me.
Will denied it, but I thought I could wait for him to do his machinations and eventually oust me from the paper, or make it easy for him and quit because it was also making it easier for myself at the time. Because who the fuck wants to work somewhere where you're not wanted? Maybe I could have fought it, maybe not. Who gives a fuck? Life goes on. Plus, I eventually came back.
But I will say that without Will, there would be no Weekly; it might not have made it past its first year. It certainly would not have become the vital animal it became without him at the helm. He had an incredible verve and dedication to making this thing work. Whatever differences we had, I wish I'd taken some lessons from The Caine Mutiny or something in terms of talking to him directly or befriending him as opposed to seeing him as the force I had to oppose or something.
Though he exasperated his staff at times, no one denied Swaim's genius.
Schoenkopf: Will was an excellent editor and boss in that we had almost total freedom to be fucking good. Now, there was the Will-hate rotation. When it was your turn on it, there was nothing you could do, and it could last a year or a couple of weeks. And in the meantime, I could be like, "Oh, fuck, Will, I burned down the office. I'm so sorry." And he'd be, "Oh, everyone burns down the office sometime; don't worry about it." If it wasn't on your turn on the hate rotation, you could do whatever you wanted, and it was beautiful, but if it was stuck in his head that you were a problem, you were there unless it was somebody else's turn. I was only on it for a couple of times, so it was fine. [Editor's note: Swaim fired Schoenkopf twice.]
Greg Stacy, contributor, 1996-2008: When I first met Will, he made me think of Christian Bale in American Psycho. There was something almost replicate-like to the guy, but as I got to know him, I realized what an amazing, genuine person he was. I was this Gen X kid, and I'd grown up with all this irony, and he just sort of short-circuited my brain. I came to realize he means what he's saying, and there's just this intensity to him. He's not quite like anyone else I've ever met.
Dave Wielenga, staff writer, 1997-2002 & 2006-2007: The whole take that Will had on journalism was so refreshing. It's one thing to be irreverent and yet be accurate, be silly and be poignant, and be meaningful, and do it all in a place that is traditionally conservative. [Will] had the right people, the right philosophy and he both governed with an iron hand and gave everybody a free rein. I don't know how he did it. We had some disagreements along the way, stories that he didn't like and didn't run, but I never thought about leaving. I thought about killing myself, but never leaving.
Lowery: I think we developed a lot of good people. Some became writers, some went on to other things—but he also saved a lot of us who were close to being burned out. It really was an incubator for thought and learning. One of the beauties of the paper was that it was like a chorus, and everyone played their different part and had their own tone or octave or voice. At some alternative papers, it was the same note over and over, everyone writing some quasi-bullshit Marxist crap, and we didn't want that. Everyone had complete freedom to express their voice, however they wanted to.
The weekly news meeting, which took place Thursday mornings, has become a part of Weekly lore.
Coker: I would say our staff meetings were kind of like how I'd picture a sitcom writing room, just throwing shit up against the wall.
Anthony Pignataro, staff writer, 1996-2003: I realized on my first day I was in a group of the smartest kids in the class who sat in the back and always did well on tests but were always snickering and making jokes. But there was also a desire to kick people's asses who needed it, of doing kickass, smartly written journalism, and they were actually calling out people who would otherwise go unscathed. And that, to them, was fun. Going to staff meetings was not a chore; it was a joy. It was a time to shine, to show off, to have fun and know you were with the smartest people in the county, and they were going to goof off and laugh. We'd make fun of anybody, including Will. . . .
Once, Will was out and missed a meeting, and Lowery came in with a tape recording, and he said, "This is Will Swaim; I've got him on tape." It was like five minutes of Will saying things like "Comrades! Marxism! Post-modernism!" It was hysterical.
Anna Barr, intern and calendar editor, 1996-2001: I always thought he tried to be a good mentor, but he also had an interest in Marx and communist things and would call us "comrades" all the time, and some of us would roll our eyes. Sometimes, it made it into our writing. I wrote something about Old World [Village]. In the final proof, I saw some random thing about Marx interjected in there, so I got Patty [Marsters] to take it out.
Lowery: Later on, Will says to me, "We should videotape our story meetings, and then put them on the Internet because they're so fast and funny." I said it was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard. "Why don't you just hand the Register our story budget, and no one else wants to hear us talking." Then, three years later, TMZ comes out and does the same thing. When I saw that, I thought, "Oh, I cost Will about $8 billion." Sorry.
Though the core of the news staff stayed fairly constant through the first five years, there were always new faces in the newsroom.
Lowery: Will had this thing—he'd just bring people in off the street, like strays or something. Someone would write a letter disagreeing with this or that, and Will said, "Well, why don't you come in and write for us?" So there'd be days you'd come into the office, and there was this stranger in there, and you're like, "Is that someone's boyfriend or girlfriend?" Most didn't stay that long. I think they figured it was sex, drugs, and rock & roll, when really it was a lot of work.
Patrice Wirth Marsters, intern, calendar assistant and associate editor, 1995-present: They were fact-checking interns if I hired them. They were "Willterns" if he did, and you were just stuck with them. Sometimes it would go good, sometimes it would go bad. We had one guy who would be fine for a little while, but then he'd be nervous and on edge when talking to people. We were afraid he'd just explode. I think he was homeless and living in a shelter, but he somehow had access to archives of newspapers, his own collection. We don't know where he kept them, a storage unit or something. But he had a briefcase with him, and he'd pull this clipping of something from five years ago and you'd think, "Where does he pull this out from?" He was intense. It'd be scary talking to him sometimes.
In the first five years, the Weekly was predominately a white newsroom, something Lowery remembers Commie Girl alluding to several times in her columns.
Swaim: We were at a very clear disadvantage [in terms of ethnic voices]. And the thing about writers is like riding on a train. The view you get is through their window. We tried to make sure we were as diverse as we could be, but the fact is, I was looking for people who were utterly skeptical of government and corporate power. In the beginning, with a small budget, I hired the best people, and we were trying to be skeptical of powerful people who ran the county. At the time, that seemed to be the big, big battle, but we also tried to report on any marginalized groups and be skeptical of the groups themselves.
Daniel C. Tsang, contributor, 1996-2003: I think at the time , I was the only reporter who was a person of color. At first, they wanted me to write a horoscope column—because I was Asian, I guess. And I thought that that was crazy. And then they wanted me to write a gay-nightlife kind of column, and I wasn't interested. I am a gay, Asian-American activist and wasn't interested in fluff. But finally, they let me pick my own topics, like my column, Civil Unliberties, which covered civil-rights violations in the county.
One person of color who made an enormous impact in his short time was Vu Nguyen. In 1999, during heated protests in Westminster over a shop owner's announcement that he was going to hang a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, Nguyen wrote one of the most powerful essays in Weekly history.
Vu Nguyen, intern and contributor, 1999-2001 [from his article]: To many Americans, images of Ho and the flag of Vietnam evoke bitter memories. To many others—like those who called KROQ's Kevin & Bean Show the following morning—Vietnamese outrage is incomprehensible. But I look at Tran's shrine to Ho and see my father taking his wife, his brother and me—his 2-month-old son—in a military Jeep through sniper fire and past the bodies of unlucky friends and relatives to get to Tan Son Nhut Airport in April 1975. I see my mother carrying me over barbed-wire fences while being shot at by communist troops as her husband prepares to take off in a stolen cargo plane, cramming in as many people as possible, to escape certain execution. I see Thai pirates dangling my 2-year-old cousin Anh Tho by her ankles over shark-infested waters, her body used as collateral to loot the tiny boat of half-starved refugees in 1978. I see my dad taking a job in Arlington, Texas, killing rats beneath people's homes just to make ends meet. I see my family driving to Orange County in 1979 because the eternal summers remind my mom of home. I see the look of distress on my dad's face as his father lay dying in Vietnam in 1997 because he couldn't go home to say goodbye for fear of being jailed—or worse—by the Vietnamese government.
Schou: That was an amazing, strong piece. It's a staple of Asian-American studies classes in colleges.
Perhaps no position during the Weekly's tenure has had as much turnover as music editors: eight, so far. Swaim: I think I'd have a problem with me as music editor if I were the editor. Someone said being music editor was like being the exploding drummer for Spinal Tap. I think it was because I hated really genealogical music stories, if-this-band-had-sex-with-this-band-they'd-sound-like-this-band sort of thing. I really wanted people to tell us why this music is important, just like all the arts coverage, galleries, theater. What is important about this right here, right now? In this place. What does it say about Orange County?
Kane: After Jim left, [music writer] Jennifer Vineyard and myself both wanted it, but Will passed us over for Buddy Seigal, saying it was because he was in a band. But Buddy didn't last too long. Will always had a lot of editorial schizophrenia, like around Long Beach stories in the paper. He'd get annoyed about that, but then two hours later, he'd see something and be like, "Hey, that's on Long Beach; we gotta cover it." And that kind of pissed off a lot of people. I know that's why Buddy left.
So then I got it. I think I definitely took a more active approach. If you're going to be a music editor at an alt-weekly, you have to be proactive and not sit at your desk and wait for people to send tapes. You have to be out there and see live music because that's where it happens. And you need to be honest with your opinion and write about things no one else was writing about—that's what alternative is. And you see some really good music at times and, sure, make some enemies at others. Someone threatened to come after me with a 2-by-4 once.
Kane channeled his writings into a column, Lowball Ass Chatter, dubbed after what a reader said Kane's writings were.
Linda Jemison, former owner, Linda's Doll Hut: I think it was good timing. We had bands and more venues opening like a surge, a wave, and the Weekly helped it crest right over the top. If the Weekly hadn't come along, it might not have been quite the scene it became.
Two of the regular annual features that began in the early years were the annual Sex Issue, themed around Valentine's Day, and Orange County's Scariest People, around Halloween.
Moxley: Within a year of [Scariest People], I had conservative Republicans asking me to be on it so I could bash them because it was such a hit in all circles. To this day, Susan Kang Schroeder in the DA's office constantly begs me to be on the list. Because she can point to it and say, "See, these crazy people hate me; that means I'm great!"
Heather Swaim: We developed a formula over time for the cover. Something big and bold in the forefront and the background as simple as possible. So we'd choose photos or illustrations that were bold and creative. But, of course, anything that was sexy and provocative always got picked up the most.
Will Swaim: For one sex issue, Heather took a picture of [fellow Weekling] Rudi King. He had a ball gag and a blindfold, and his shirt was off. Somehow, Michael Sigman wasn't available to review that cover, and when it came out, it was the only time he expressed real disgust. In retrospect, it seems fairly tame. The guy's ass wasn't in chaps. It wasn't Piss Christ. But that one got us thrown out of some stores. He just said, "Nothing you can do about it now, but dear God, always run covers by me."
Rudi King, production manager, 1998-2003: We caught a lot of criticism over that cover. We had so many offended people and distribution locations. Some business owners trashed the whole stack of papers, and others just flipped the stack over so they wouldn't have to look at the disturbing male sex slave on the cover. Too funny.
Heather Swaim: We were always looking for the boldest, most creative image. Like colorizing an old photo of Ho Chi Minh that actually made this [divisive figure] look almost beautiful. It was a lot of fun coming up with the cover images and making them work with the text. Being married [to Will], sometimes we'd bring work home, and we'd argue over an image. But he always realized in the end that I was right.
The visual boldness wasn't limited to the covers.
Jack Gould, photographer, 1998-present: There was this viewing of this dead guy, Harold Ezell, the former No. 2 guy at the INS under Reagan, and he was known for saying really off-the-wall things. Like, instead of deporting people, we should deep-fry them. Just reprehensible, so I figured he was fair game. It's a big event, people standing in lines. I'm wearing shorts and flip-flops. I had a couple of cameras with me, and I wasn't able to set up a shot, so I waited until it was my turn. I pulled the camera out of my pocket, snapped the shot and hightailed it out of there.
I had the perfect escape plan. I was with Commie Girl, and she had her son with her. I told her to be in the car with the engine running, and while I'm hightailing out, I'm followed by several family members. But instead of being in the car, Rebecca was on the grass with her kid. I threw the cameras in the trunk and got in the car, but they reached in the window and grabbed the keys out of the ignition. They opened the trunk, grabbed the camera and exposed the film, and then left. Rebecca was really apologetic; she thought she'd blown the whole assignment. But I had two cameras and stashed the one with the shot really well, and they didn't find it. Will loved that shot, ran it several times.
Lowery: I remember that. Man, [Jack] had balls of steel.
And then there were the illustrators. Comics have always been a staple of the Weekly—Lloyd Dangle's "Troubletown," Tom Tomorrow's "This Modern World," Ruben Bolling's "Tom the Dancing Bug" and Max Cannon's "Red Meat" were some of the longest running strips. Mark Dancey drew some of the most memorable covers in Weekly history, particularly his Disney-related covers, which featured the beloved Mickey depicted as everything from a homeless bum warming his hands over an oil-drum fire to a morbidly obese patron for a cover story in which John B. Good, Fullerton bartender, dressed in a fat suit and wandered around the park.
Bob Aul, who also drew a cover of Mickey as a caveman after an image of him was mysteriously "found" in a 14th-century Austrian fresco, created most of the images for one of the Weekly's most enduring regular features, Hey, You!
Bob Aul, contributor, 1997-current: Will pretty much dictated the image he wanted, and I drew it out, but there were some difficult ones. One of my favorites was this guy sitting in his car in a parking structure with the window partway down, and the guy standing between him and the car on the left lets go a large and smelly fart, totally unaware that the first guy is trapped there with his window open.
But it was the hard news that kept up the Weekly's reputation in OC political circles as something to fear and admire. On Jan. 24, 1997, Anthony Pignataro began the column El Toro Airport Watch, which covered the proposed El Toro Airport. It went for 164 issues, not to mention several cover stories and news features. The airport idea was ultimately abandoned in 2002 in favor of the Great Park after Measure W passed. Pignataro: I'd love to say, "Yes [the Weekly's coverage] killed the airport," but that thing collapsed because of changing demographics. The county wanted to build a giant airport in a place where they were also allowing giant neighborhoods full of upper-middle-class people who didn't want to live around an airport. I think what we did was convey a sense to residents and the other newspapers that this was something that required additional scrutiny. We certainly contributed to that.
In 1999, Pignataro and Dave Wielenga began focusing on Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo. The two wrote more than 30 articles; three years later, Garofalo pleaded guilty to one felony and 15 misdemeanor counts of political corruption.
Wielenga: The story originally was about a Wal-Mart being put up in Huntington Beach funded by [mega-developer] George Argyros. Garofalo was a bit player. But the more we looked into it, the more stuff we found out. He was being cultivated for higher office, and we messed it all up. So we reported on all this stuff, but no one was doing anything about it. And he was part of the machine, so who do you go to? The DA? The Huntington Beach police? So, finally, I called the FBI and told them that I'd talked to members of the grand jury who told me that the chief of the jury never let [revealing information] be heard. So then the FBI got on Garofalo and eventually got him. I don't know if journalists are supposed to do that or not, but I did.
Pignataro was fresh out of college, while Wielenga had worked for years as a sports writer for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
Wielenga: One of the great things Will did is that he put together a staff that was varied in interests, but everybody got along. So here I was, a guy with a ton of experience, and then a guy like Anthony, who didn't have much experience, but what he did have was solid news sense. He throws us together, and we worked together really well. And when we got in a jam, we'd go knock on Scott's door. This is an ego-driven profession, but people respected one another's work, and no one felt they were being taken advantage of when they gave help.
Wielenga was a beloved presence in the newsroom, for having both investigative chops and a wicked sense of humor.
Wielenga: My first story, I pointed out to developers the landmarks of Orange County that they had overlooked and needed to knock down and rebuild. For example, I pointed out Mission San Juan Capistrano would make a really great Crate and Barrel. It was pointedly ridiculous, but we got letters from people who took it at face value and said, "Do you realize what you're advocating here?" It was my first taste of Weekly journalism—where you could be that over the top and make a deeper point, kind of brutally, and some people would buy it.
Conservatives despised the Weekly so much that a group of activists tried to punk the paper. It was provoked by a 1996 story by Coker, "Dear Congressman: An OC Weekly Sting," in which he used the pseudonym Matt Stanfil to infiltrate a South County Republican campaign. The local GOP never forgot that article, which led to the following lame effort:
Coker: It was a GOP direct-mail guy named Jim Bieber and his wife, who was chief of staff for county Supervisor Chuck Smith. She posed as this feminist nut named Julie Mandrake, whose meeting we listed in our calendar for years. [Contributing writer] Victor [Infante] has this reader poetry contest event at a Laguna bookstore, and Julie called in during it to complain she was not a finalist. Anyway, the couple, claiming they were tired of us calling about what Julie was up to—actually it was our interns fact-checking her calendar listing—"killed" her off, said she died in Arizona. Her "friends" invited Will and I to her funeral. We did not go. That night, they left a yellow stickie note on my front door with a target on it, saying they got my address from voter records. Will said I gotta write up her obit in Clockwork. I said no, this chick and her friends creeped me out. Will insisted. I wrote it up. The Orange County Business Journal then published a story based on the Biebers calling to say they punked us and pointing out I had posed as a Republican years before.
Schou: For some reason I thought Register and Times and OC Press Club people like Jean Pasco had something to do with this plot, but all I know for sure is they would always use that story to pretend to be smarter, holier and cooler than OC Weekly.
Along with targeting public officials—Pignataro first received acclaim for an exposé on the unethical ways of Bernard Rappaport, head of the county's Children and Youth Services (CYS)—the Weekly constantly battled for the marginalized and under-represented. Schou's pieces got two young men, Arthur Carmona (whom Weekly contributor Bob Emmers and the Los Angeles Times' Dana Parsons first reported on) and Joshua "Big J-Mo" Moore, sprung from prison after being wrongfully convicted in separate cases.
Ronnie Carmona Sandoval, mother of Arthur Carmona: I would like people to know how much I appreciate what the OC Weekly did for me. I would not have had my son back had they not put in the dedication. They had the courage and the balls to put the story out there, the truth.
Swaim: Nick got people out of jail. When people ask what were the most meaningful stories? Getting kids out of jail. That is what Nick did.
Schoenkopf: All of our reporters were good. We got people put in jail, and we got people broken out of jail. So people could roll their eyes and say, "Oh, that's just the paper for snotty kids." Yeah? We put people in jail, so go fuck yourself. I took a lot of pride in working with those guys. To say these were my colleagues? That was fantastic.
Speaking of Schou: In the spring of 1998, he and photographer Johan Vogel took a road trip some 2,300 miles south to Chiapas, Mexico, in hopes of finding Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. They made it as far as a roadblock, but Schou did write a 10,000-word cover story. At the time, it was the longest in Weekly history. (This one is four times as long.)
Schou: We drove from Juarez to Chiapas and toured some of the rebel communities there, and to reach them, you had to drive through all these army checkpoints and, in one case, literally through an army base. The military and some right-wing vigilante types were raiding these places, and a lot of foreigners were being beaten up, arrested and deported without their cars. Needless to say, we never met Marcos, but it was the best story I ever wrote, and Johan's photos are timeless—they show a Mexico full of hope and promise, but also tremendous injustice and repression. Same as now, same as ever.
Swaim: Then we had people like Cornel Bonca, a literature professor at Cal State Fullerton, and he would write these sprawling, thoughtful, beautiful pieces about Orange County. And that was always the goal. What is Orange County? To give us a sense of place because the big anxiety all the time is what if you live in a place that has no sense of place? And it's really easy to forget we live in a special place if you drive to your job at the Irvine Spectrum, and then drive home and click the garage door and watch Netflix.
Victor Infante, contributor, 1996-current: My wife and I actually got married in the newsroom in 2000. We were going to elope and needed a witness, and we went in to see if anyone was around. Turns out Dave Wielenga had his minister's license from the Universal Life Church, so Dave pulled a beautiful ceremony out of nowhere. Our bridal march was George Clinton's "Give Up the Funk" because that was on Matt's CD player. It was just this bizarre thing that just happened.
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Wielenga: It ended up being pretty poignant. Patty figured out some way to decorate the office on the fly. That was one of the high points for me.
By the time the Weekly celebrated its fifth anniversary, in September 2000, Leonard Stern, who had sold all his papers to venture capitalists earlier that year, was gone. A new company, Village Voice Media, headed by Schneiderman, now owned OC Weekly. But while editorial was about to embark on its strongest five-year period, changes in corporate philosophies would soon begin that would signal hints of a far greater storm to come. . . .