An Oral History of OC Weekly, Part 2: September 2000-September 2005
The Weekly began its second five years in September 2000 with a new ownership group. In two months, a new president is elected—kind of. In one year, two buildings fall in New York, and the build-up to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would follow, and then the bombs rain. But through the national and international turmoil, the Weekly keeps chugging, reflecting on big issues while still focusing on local ones.
Michael Sigman: Leonard [Stern] was a business genius. He sold the paper at the absolute top of the market, right before the dot-com crash, for a tremendous amount of money. And the people who bought it were heavily leveraged, and it was making a lot of money, but they bought it based on it making more money. LA Weekly and OC Weekly still made a tremendous amount of money for the next two years, but it wasn't enough. So they made a lot of changes throughout the company. Pretty much got rid of everyone. [Sigman left the company in 2002.]
Shelle Murach, PR/special events coordinator, 1998-2003: Under Stern, we were owned by that family, and they were fantastic and very supportive. The paper was growing, there was a lot of support in Orange County, and we really expanded into a lot of things we wanted to do. Then we were sold to Village Voice Media, and it was just different. Things were becoming more corporate, and there were a lot of impacts because of what the economy was going through. After 9/11, we saw a huge decline in advertising, so there were a lot of changes as far as the whole industry.
In April 2000, a writer who would later make an impact on the county appeared.
Gustavo Arellano, staff writer, managing editor and editor in chief, 2000-present: I'd first seen a copy in a trash can in 2000. I was working on a political campaign, stuffing envelopes or something, and I went to throw something away, and there OC Weekly was. The story was "Five Latinos We Really Like," their April Fools' issue. I thought, "What the fuck is this paper? Who are these fuckers?" Then I read it, and I'm like, "Oh, man, these guys are ballsy."
I thought [the story] was hilarious. I knew people were going to be upset by it. So I wrote a fake letter of outrage saying I was shocked, and they published my letter next to one from a professor who had written a serious outrage letter. I saw that and thought, "Ha-ha, OC Weekly. I pulled one over on you guys like you pulled one over on all these Mexicans out there."
And I started reading it all the time. I had never heard of the paper before. The OC Weekly would not have been anywhere where I was growing up: Anaheim, anywhere Mexican. They weren't covering most minority shit at the time, just stories here and there. In general, it seemed a very Costa Mesa/Huntington Beach/Irvine-centric paper. They had a very set vision of what Orange County was like. You saw the staff box, and it was all white guys and white girls, so part of me was like, "You guys are cool, but you're not really covering everything in Orange County. There's a lot of shit going on in Orange County."
But I was an activist, and I emailed Will and asked him, "Hey, if I wanted you guys to do a story, what's the process for that?" So for a while, I would just throw him random story ideas for them to do. And finally, one of the stories I pitched, about the Democratic Party using Pete Wilson to scare away Latino voters, he suggested I write.
Arellano's first byline was in November 2000; he wrote regularly about food, music, culture and news until he was hired as a staff writer in 2003.
Rich Kane: I remember the first Best Of we ever did, in 1996. There was pretty much zero writing on anything in Santa Ana or anything in the Latino community, so I took it upon myself to go there and look around for some things to write about. I wrote about a botánica, I believe. I went to Little Saigon as well. But you can only parachute into these places once before it starts to look really lame. So Gustavo was really needed. I know as music editor, I appreciated having someone who could write about Latino music.
Arellano: The first time I went into the office in Costa Mesa to finally meet Will, he introduced me to someone, and they told me, "Oh, when I saw your name in the paper, I thought our delivery drivers were now writing for us." I was pissed and snapped back something like, "Us Mexicans can write, too, you know?" I thought, "Man, where the fuck are these people coming off saying this to me?"
Will Swaim: He had the attitude we were looking for, but he was also someone who was well-read, really thoughtful and self-aware. He knew who he was and where he was living. I kept him around, and he took a lot of editing at first, but he was one of those rare people who would come into my office and say, "What can I do better? What mistakes did I make, and how can I learn?" Who doesn't love that? He was just voracious, and he'd do that with everybody. Hang around the office and ask anyone he could find about writing. He took advantage of the newsroom in the best sense of the word.
Gustavo's first cover story
Arellano: I just started hanging around the office—literally, I picked a desk to sit at, and it became mine. And I was doing everything: food, art, music, getting more and more into news. And Will, God bless him, would just rip apart my stories. He would be ruthless. I remember his best line, something like "I'd rather lick a dog's butt than print this in my paper." Not the exact words, but it was perfect. But I wasn't offended because I wanted to be a good writer so much, and I knew Will was a genius, so I just wanted him to teach me how to be better. I had no experience—no talent, really, other than my knowledge of the county, since I grew up here. I didn't know how to write a fucking article. But for whatever reason, Will saw something in me.
Steve Lowery: Will is like this Pied Piper, and Gustavo was one of those people who just showed up in the office one day, except he never left. He was a nice kid, and we'd talk about The Simpsons and stuff, and he'd do this or that. But then, after you start talking to him, you realize he's a smart kid. And Will had this great thing. He can take something and mold it, but with a light enough touch that they can then find their own voice, and Gustavo did that pretty quickly.
While the Weekly was staking a claim as the place for sarcasm, satire and skewering, as well as in-depth investigations and thorough coverage of arts, it was also demonstrating a commitment to long-form journalism, stories that weren't particularly issue-oriented, but thoughtful reflections on everything from lifelong hatreds of the California/Anaheim Angels to a middle-class man's time in prison to Kane writing about his time as an OC Register freelancer to Alison M. Rosen's piece about her closeted appreciation of celebrity artist Thomas Kinkade, which ran in early 2001.
Alison M. Rosen, staff writer, 1999-2002: I think, to this day, it is still one of my favorite things I have ever written. That came from just talking to Will. I don't how the subject of Kinkade even came up. But I said I was kind of embarrassed that I liked some things about his work, and he said I should write it. I felt weird, but he kept pushing me, and he was right. He was so good at seeing where there was a story.
Swaim: That's one I still remember. It has something to do with grieving for a friend who had recently died and how stumbling across one of his paintings helped her in a really hard time in her life. It was just a beautiful piece. There are some stories that stick with you. That's one of them for me.
The Weekly also established its reputation as a paper that took on hate groups, from Chicano anti-Semites to anti-immigrant groups to Turkish nationalists who denied the Armenian genocide to Holocaust deniers to gay-bashers to people such as the Reverend Lou Sheldon and various white supremacists. It led to one of the paper's most memorable covers, "Springboard for Hitler," about a club that hosted white-power concerts; the cover showed Hitler's face Photoshopped onto a body holding a bass.
Kane: I think maybe the Times or the Register may have done something small and insubstantial, and then I picked it up and went way deeper into detail. It was in Anaheim, the Shack. I know I did some research and discovered that the club had done a Nazi show there previously, like around December 1999, and that added to the story.
The end result of that story, which ran Sept. 4, 2001, was that the club soon shut down. By the next week, though, the world had changed for a different reason.
Patty Wirth Marsters: When 9/11 happened, it was a Tuesday, and we had a cover planned of a photo of an old airplane crash [accompanying a story by Anthony Pignataro on an environmental-impact report on the proposed airport at El Toro], and we knew we couldn't run that. So we had to redo everything.
The Weekly spent the next 12 hours scrambling for stories. Heather Swaim ran a photo of a choking Manhattan street beneath a thick cover of dust, courtesy of the Village Voice, on the front, and five staffers contributed local reaction stories. But the most prescient article was Jim Washburn's Lost In OC column, which applied a critical lens to American foreign policy, overt and covert, and the American people's obsession with trivial fluff and our myopic, self-centered view of the rest of the world. The subhead was "Vengeance isn't justice."
Jim Washburn [from the article]: Why, at this tragic moment, would I even think of writing an article critical of our country? Because we are the only factor here we can change. We can't kill all the terrorists or shield ourselves against them. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. As we're finding this week, there's little protection in the vigilance we direct outward toward perceived enemies, "rogue states," or "terrorist nations." Rather, if anything protects us, it will be the vigilance we apply to our souls and the institutions that should be representing us.
Lowery: After 9/11, in October, we had our annual Scariest issue. I wrote about the "Muslim Down the Street," and my point was that people were panicked about this guy and looked at him oddly and all this, but it must have been my fault, right? Because a comic never blames his audience. But we got so many letters from the people I was trying to comfort and apparently had hurt, and I felt awful, and I had to write this apology. It's horrible when you have to write it's a joke because then you feel like you're one of these people who says, "I'm not a racist, but . . ."
Washburn: I'd come back in early 2000. Will asked me to do the column again, and since I wouldn't have to be involved in inter-office politics, I thought, "Great." So I did [until 2005], until Will got bored with it. And there was cause to be bored. Doing a weekly column, you've actually got to have something to write about. So I certainly wrote some wasted words, but I also wrote some of my more passionate stuff. I hated the war, hated Bush, and I wound up writing about that a lot. But Will wanted me to write about local stuff, and he was right. The Weekly is the local entity, but that would mean a) caring about local stuff more and b) knowing more about local stuff. And I was kind of lacking in both regards. So I don't blame him for being disenchanted with me the second go-around.
As the Weekly dove into local coverage of the war, it still had its sights very much trained on the local. One investigation that began in 2002 concerned former Irvine mayor Larry Agran.
R. Scott Moxley: For the first four or five years of the paper, Larry was leading the charge against the airport, and we were showcasing him all the time as this great guy. But there was a point in 2002 when I started hearing some things, so I turned my attention to Agran. It was tense between me and Will over that. He was clearly uncomfortable that someone who he had respected for so long was under the microscope, but the great thing was—and it says a lot about Will—he still let me move. He never said, "No, you can't do this." He questioned me, wanting to make sure I was right, which is what he should have done anyway. So I think that was a great moment in OC Weekly history, like Loretta [Sanchez] was five or six years earlier. He was willing to go after someone even that he personally cherished.
Swaim: I remember saying many times I had a conflict of interest. I had worked for Larry, traveled with him all over the country. He was a close friend. So I was skeptical, probably for unfortunate reasons of bias, which I admitted, but also I'd heard some of the stuff before, and I told Scott we had to make sure we have the evidence. This has to be a head shot; it has to be really dead-on serious. And Scott just destroyed him.
I mean, you work with guys like Dave, Scott, Nick, Anthony, Gustavo—they're like little aboriginal people in Latin America. When they aim their blowguns through the forest canopy, you know there's going to be monkey meat in the dinner tonight. It was painful for me personally, but we would not have been this paper if we protected people. On the news side, we told the truth, and in retrospect, that was a very rare opportunity. To really write about what we thought was true and to write what was right. Of course, we had to be correct and accurate, like any paper. But to tell the truth? That's rare in the news business. That's not what it's about always.
Steve Greenhut, former Orange County Register editorial writer: A funny thing happened as we started to cover local issues: the Weekly and the Register editorial board were allied a lot of the time. Mike Carona. Abuses of eminent domain. WMDs in Iraq. Police abuse. Larry Agran was one. The perceived lefties at the Weekly and perceived righties at the Register both realized what he was all about. I think the Weekly always had a left-libertarian bent, and editorial writers at the Register, certainly myself, had an anti-establishment bent. And you had all these liberals and conservatives who were pro-establishment. So I think those who had an anti-establishment bent were fellow travelers on many things.
Chris Reed, former Register editorial writer: I thought the OC Weekly on many occasions had a happy malice, this informed venom, to its writing. Sure, the people being skewered didn't like it, but it made for good reading. Orange County has an amazing piñata-filled landscape. It's been a murderer's row of nincompoops for many years. It's astounding how so many different folks come up, and one goes away and another pops up. The kook-per-elected-official factor in OC is really high. Mike Carona running for re-election on this morbid campaign built around the death of Samantha Runnion. You have so many strange politicians who manage to get elected. [Former supervisors] Chris Norby, Jim Silva. It was astounding to watch these people and realize they're running one of the biggest and richest counties in America, and there was such a klutzy quality to so many of them. I always got a kick out of how Scott went after Silva, who was so stupefied he couldn't run a board meeting unless it was explained to him on cue cards in from of him. The guy could barely function with the adult task of running a meeting.
On Feb. 27, 2003, the Weekly's cover story was headlined "War College: 67 things you might want to know before the bombs drop," an A-to-Z guide to the impending war in Iraq. Thirteen staffers, interns and contributors wrote the issue.
Lowery: That might be our proudest moment. When everybody was jumping on that bandwagon, we did what a newspaper is supposed to do and took a breath. And in that article, we wrote about what going to war really meant—some people are really going to do that, and a lot of people are going to die and suffer. We wanted to make people think about what we were doing. So in that respect, we weren't doing alternative journalism; we were doing journalism. We were doing what journalists are supposed to do: to look at something from a different angle—the right angle, even. And it didn't seem that other people were willing to do that. We weren't being wild and contrary; we were doing what other people should have been doing.?
The struggle over honest reporting and not alienating advertisers is something that, like any newspaper, the Weekly dealt with. Only it was more extreme for a publication that rarely held back.
Jeremy Zachary: Every Thursday morning, [the ad staff] would grab our coffees and read through the paper and make sure we didn't have any issues that would create blowback from our advertisers. When Will ran the ship, he really kept it church and state. So we generally were never given a head's up as far as what stories would be running. I remember a story that was critical of a band that played the House of Blues, and we almost lost their account, and they were advertising a lot. So a lot of reps would get pissed and threaten to quit and this and that. Or they'd cry, and there'd be all kinds of drama: "I can't believe they'd do that. I work so hard to get the accounts, and then editorial slams them. What the fuck?"
So, yeah, that presented some challenges. But it was still phenomenal and fun. We loved the challenge as well. To be able to know that we had true, honest reporting going on in Orange County that no one else would touch.
Perhaps the biggest sales hit stemming from a negative article occurred in June 2003.
Lowery: This is probably everything you need to know about the Weekly: Donald Bren builds the Irvine Spectrum. He says this is what he's most proud of, this is who he is. At the same time, it comes out he has two love children and hasn't been supporting them. So Will says to me, "Go out to the Spectrum, walk around and see if anything comes to you." So I walk around and happen to notice there are a lot of phallic-looking things out there. Obelisks, columns, all this kind of stuff. And I say, "There's seems to be a lot of penis out there, man." He says, "Write it." So I write a piece called "Don Bren's Phallus Complex," but because the Spectrum was new, they were advertising everywhere, including the Weekly. They had a huge budget with us, and I can't tell you how fast they pulled their ads.
Swaim: That was one of the stories where we kind of knew "Okay, this could blow up for us," but it was a story that was based on something that was really important. Scott had written the really heavy-duty news story about it. Steve's piece was mostly a joke about art, like, "Hey, this guy always says the land is his canvas; let's take a look at what's working in his subconscious." And they got really pissed off, and I got a call and a warning, and a couple of days later, they canceled their advertising—a quarter of a million dollars, a lot of money.
Lowery: Every couple of weeks, in the office, I'd run into the poor lady who had that account, and I knew she wanted to stab me in the head with a plastic fork. My little piece cost her thousands of dollars; she probably had to pull her kids out of private school. But Will's thing was "Ads over here, editorial over here—the two are not going to mix." And that is what Will was about. Let's trust the writer and go for it. I can't tell you what it means to have your back covered like that; it makes you so fearless. It opens you up so much and makes you so willing to go for it.
Swaim: I don't want to say our reason for existence was to hurt our clients or our friends. And I learned when I became publisher [in 2004], that sometimes you have to say, "I really don't want to do this story because this could be a problem," and it's easy to say the principle is you have to do it anyway. No, the other principle is you have to make sure people get their paychecks, to make sure the business stays afloat. It's a terrible responsibility, but as publisher, it was mine. So you know, you do these stories and you hope for the best, and it doesn't always work out that way.
Staff writers such as Rosen [who moved to New York], Pignataro [who became editor of an alt-weekly in Maui and was lovingly nicknamed "Tony Long Pants" by Rosen on the rare occasion he wore pants] and Dave Wielenga [who moved to Mexico but would return a few years later] had all departed for other opportunities by the end of 2003. But new blood kept the editorial flow circulating.
Ellen Griley, intern, columnist and managing editor, 2002-2007: It was such a tremendous family and team and everyone just knew their role, which didn't really fit any title or staff position. I never knew what Rebecca's title ever was. She did everything from writing Commie Girl to staying up late and proofing the paper before it went out to print, so her title didn't reflect everything she did. Patty's title has never reflected all that she has done. She is the spine of that institution. I know later [in 2005], when we got bought out by the New Times [media company], management came in and realized quick [about Griley], "Who is this 25-year-old girl in the managing editor role?" They were more into titles than we had been.
But my whole time there, it was hilarious, a nonstop joke from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. You would have Lowery sitting there yelling every nonsensical joke that popped into his mind, and Coker and Wielenga yelling back, and Anthony cracking up the entire time with this totally brilliant laugh. It was the most fun environment I'd ever been in, and I thought, "Oh, my god this is incredible. People get paid to do this." But you also felt you were kicking ass and taking names. It was so easy to look at [Orange County] as a completely vapid model culture, and we did a great job of drilling down to what was actually really cool about Orange County and reminding people who might think, "Ah, I'm behind the Orange Curtain; it really sucks, man" that there was plenty to see and taste and hear.
Tenaya Hills, photo editor, 2004-2006: I used to go with Ellen to shoot her nightlife column [Clubbed!], and there were definitely some days after when we were taking naps under the desk. Hey, we were in our early 20s! We all know what Orange County is supposed to be: conservative, Republican, all that. So to work for a place that had liberal people and gay people and such intelligent people was an amazing and informative time of my life. Kind of formed who I eventually became in life.
Stacy Davies, intern, calendar editor and contributor, 1999-present: It was the first job I ever had where I was totally out of the closet; I could be 100 percent me. Everyone was fabulous. There wasn't a single negative moment. It was really freeing for me, changed me a great deal. And I got a lot of assignments because everyone was like, "Oh, give it to a lesbian because she knows women." But it wasn't exploitative at all. They were so open to this brand-new perspective, and it was exposure I think they felt fit their mantra of covering people and stories that deserved to be written about and were part of our culture, and they weren't going to silence it or ignore it or worry about that anyone was going to pick up the issue. It was kind of like, "Fuck them. This is the right thing to do, and we're going to do it."
Chris Ziegler, copy editor, music editor and contributor, 2000-present: It wasn't journalism-school, master's-degree-type people. They were all people who were self-made, really smart, sarcastic. Kind of like the last of the stereotypical hard-charging, cynical journalists. Just so funny. But also ripping into people. And there was so much freedom. They let me do whatever I wanted. "This guy's into weird music; let him do weird music."
Ziegler continued the Weekly tradition of highlighting up-and-coming bands that would become nationally prominent, from the Cold War Kids to Rage Against the Machine. His encyclopedic knowledge of music helped many a Weekling fill up their iPods.
Ziegler: Will would always talk about how we don't want a Wikipedia [entry] on these people. He'd say, "There are more ideas on the back of an LP than what most [music writers] write about." So instead of doing some kind of Sears catalog thing—here's a band, this is what they're like, describing them as a product—at least talk about their ideas. And if I have my own ideas about what they do, write that. But write about what they're doing creatively instead of a [personal] response. It's an esoteric, kind of backward way to do it, it's complicated, and it's work, but it's valid, and that's what I always tried to do.
Theo Douglas, arts editor and contributor, 2003-2007: It was a place where varied interests were encouraged, and everyone wanted to do their best work. Instead of daily papers that followed every detail of something and wrote these incremental, turn-of-the-screw stories, we were encouraged to step back, look at the bigger picture, write the bigger story and see the deeper implications. One story that kind of epitomized that was when a mountain biker or jogger had been attacked by a mountain lion. Dave and Steve came up with a story that was essentially an interview with a spokesperson for the animal [the spokesperson was named Grrrrrrrrrrrrr]. It was pretty classic, with Steve and Dave just trading lines, and [Dave] had the foresight to throw in a comparison to Shakey's Bunch of Lunch, which was hilarious. They weren't minimizing the attack; it was just an alternative viewpoint. The intent wasn't to put down the person who was injured, but to realize the effect that encroaching civilization has on wildlife.
Douglas brought a sense of underground fashion that the paper lacked since Rose Apodaca left. He started the column Trendzilla, which remains in the paper today. His first cover story, in April 2004, was about Von Dutch and the co-opting of his name.
Douglas [from the article]: Even those who admire Von Dutch don't call him a nice guy. No, they use words like bitter and racist and violent. They describe someone who was jaded young and spent much of his life hiding from the world. His name was a reflection of that, the very symbol of his obstinacy, anger and distrust of the world. So is it ironic or just cruel that his name wound up . . . stitched onto hats and baby-doll T-shirts worn by an army of pretty girls like Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Ashton Kutcher? Is Von Dutch doomed, as one admirer put it, "to be forever remembered for his name in 4-inch letters on someone's ass?"
Meanwhile, the investigations and in-depth reporting continued. Schou looked more into OC's labor movement; Arellano focused on the growing immigrants-rights movement and corruption in Placentia and Santa Ana, as well as on Nativo Lopez, a Latino activist whom the paper had once defended against Bob Dornan but had veered into cronyism and white-baiting. Moxley . . . continued doing what Moxley does. And the three embarked on major Orange County stories that the Weekly either broke or pursued more intently than any other publication. Arellano: In fall 2003, Will asked me to look into the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. I said, "I don't know if I can do it; I'm a practicing Catholic." Will, who in his own way is a very Catholic person, said, "Don't think of it going against the church, but rather helping out the people who need help." He said to sleep on it, and the very next day was when this sex-abuse survivor came in and gave me a shitload of documents that showed how the Diocese of Orange was a pedophile-protecting racket.
Nick Schou: One thing I'm proud of is writing the first articles that began the federal investigation into corruption by Huntington Beach City Councilwoman Pam Houchen. No one was doing anything about it, so I wrote a letter to the city's police chief, asking him to interview this particular guy, and we printed it. Within a week or two, the Register decided to totally tear into the story, and then the Times joined in, and by that time, the feds were already investigating her. So, yeah, there was a blurring of the editorial line a little bit, writing an open letter to the police chief. The case we were making is that it was our job to really represent the public's interests—and also to be entertaining and to be unpredictable. And so we didn't have a mandate or believe in the possibility or even the wisdom of trying to adhere to some objective construct. Sometimes, newspapers get all bent out of shape trying to be so objective they end up essentially missing the truth or obfuscating. And we were never interested in that and never pretended to be.
Arellano: Nick is the great unsung hero of the Weekly, I will always maintain.
In November 2003, Moxley first wrote about a case involving three young men accused of videotaping the gang rape of a teenage girl. Two of the young men had ties with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, including the son of an assistant sheriff, Don Haidl, who would eventually help federal investigators bring down sheriff Mike Carona. The first trial ended in a hung jury in June 2004; in March 2005, the three defendants were found guilty. Moxley pursued the story like a pit bull in heat.
Moxley: So I go to the Haidl prelim, and at the time, the Times and Register were writing this as a he-said/she-said rape. Both papers: She's just as guilty as him. They were not nice to the girl, the victim. So I go in, and the judge makes the defendants watch the video they shot. He puts three televisions with their faces to us, and he put the chairs of the defendants in front of the TVs, so even though we can't see the video, we can hear it. And the defendants are facing us. And I'm thinking, "Oh, my God, we're getting their reactions to what they did." And I look around to see the reaction from the other reporters, and the LA Times person is writing a personal to-do list, the Register guy closes his notebook, and the CBS camera guy had turned the cameras off and went to the back of the room. So I walk back to the producer and cameraman before they start showing the rape video and ask them if they're going to record it, and they said, "We don't care." When I heard that, I knew that I was not leaving the case. And if you compare the coverage of that case, we dominated everyone else.
Later on, Tori Richards, Don Haidl's PR person—how many rape defendants get a press person, right?—introduces me to Haidl as we ride down on the elevator. We get out, and I'm walking away, and Haidl stops and yells my name, "Hey, Scott!" I turn around and he says, "Nice to meet you, buddy," then points his finger like this [mimics shooting a gun]. And I was like, "Ahhh, dude, you have no idea. I'm not going anywhere. I'm living here."
For five and a half years, I was on that case. To this day, I could probably talk about everything in that case more than any other journalist. I wanted to know everything. I read every brief, attended every hearing. No other journalist did this. And I discovered a man who bribed his way into that job, who just wanted the cachet of having the badge and the title and the power. And these are the people who have control of us in some of these agencies, warped people like him. I give him that he was a legitimately caring person, gave a lot to his family and friends, but even that turned into trouble with [his son] Greg, since he clearly didn't have any boundaries. "Daddy will rescue me, no matter what."
After nine years in a Costa Mesa office park, the Weekly needed to move to a bigger space. The company decided to rent the top floor of a five-story building in a city that would get more attention from them.
Arellano: Beginning of 2004, we moved to Santa Ana, into this awesome office space. But a lot of people were afraid, saying, "Santa Ana is dirty, and I'm not going to feel safe there." Some people even quit because they didn't want to work in the city. Just people talking all this racist shit. So Will asked me to write a letter to the sales staff and others—"Welcome to Santa Ana!"—trying to calm everyone down. Shows you how even then, so few people at the paper actually knew the county we were supposed to be covering.
On July 8, 2004, Nadia Afghani, the paper's first Muslim employee, wrote a story accompanied by a photo of a woman wearing an American flag as a hijab. Titled "Terror-fied," it chronicled her experiences living in Orange County post-9/11.
Nadia Afghani, receptionist, ad coordinator and contributor, 2004-2007: Gustavo and Will really pushed me to write it. The FBI was going after the Muslim community really intensely in OC, and it was my own story of the FBI reaching out to me, pretty much asking if I was a terrorist or knew of any terrorists. I was scared, honestly, at the time to publish it. I had friends who were being contacted by the FBI. One of them, her father got locked away without being charged for years and was held under the Patriot Act. It was a very scary time. After that, I was still contacted by the FBI detectives who I had written about. Writing it was almost my way of becoming like a public figure where I couldn't disappear. It was kind of like my protection. That's also when I realized how fake my name sounded, since a lot of people thought Gustavo had written it.
As a receptionist, Afghani dealt with some colorful characters.
Afghani: I'd get the women from the back-page ads coming in to pay for their ad spaces. Some of them were clearly very beautiful transgendered women who all dressed better than I did. They'd all give me fashion and beauty advice; I remember someone giving me advice on how I should do my nails and eyeliner. They were very sweet. One used to bring her child in with her. There were constantly people trying to bring in subpoenas for Will and Scott to try to get their sources. Just like I dealt with every other crazy person who came into reception, I'd tell them to have a seat, and an hour later, I'd tell them, "Oh, I'm sorry; they're not in the office." I wouldn't even leave my chair.
The second line of defense against the crazies was Coker. After Swaim or other editors turned in their stories, Coker would read all the layouts and vet any cover stories or investigative pieces with the Weekly's lawyers.
Coker: I remember once, the first story we looked at ripped into the Register for being incompetent and the next one mentioned something being fact per the Reg. "How do you know it's factual in this story if they are incompetent according to your first story?" asked our lawyer. I think I answered, "Duh . . ."
Arellano: I think 2004 was the best year in OC Weekly history, just all this amazing stuff. Moxley going after Haidl. Nick eventually getting Pam Houchen in prison. Me working the fuck out of the Catholic Church sex scandal. Rebecca doing her thing. Other people working on their shit. Then "Mission Accomplished," which came out the Thursday after the [presidential] election. The one with Bush on the cover flipping off a camera. When we published it, I thought, "This is why I work at the Weekly"—because we can do shit like that. But, oh, God, we had so much fucking blowback: angry phone calls, angry letters, racks being stolen. It was crazy.
The following week, this happened: Dear Mexican: Why do Mexicans call white people gringos?
Arellano: I had been writing a column called Burning Bush, conservative critiques on him, but there was no longer any reason to run it. He'd won. So we had a hole to fill.
Lowery: ¡Ask a Mexican! was purely meant to be a one-week thing. We'd sometimes do these random, absurd columns for a week, like Ask a Nuclear Physicist. In fact, the week Gustavo's ran, we also had one called Ask a Canadian, since we had an intern from Canada.
Swaim: It was really a joke, based on something [Seattle alt-weekly] The Stranger used to do, in which they'd have a starburst above a headline that said, "New Column!"—and it would always be absurd. I told Gustavo people are going to think this is racist, but we were just blasted. Some people loved it, others thought it denigrated Latin American culture, Mexican culture in particular. And Gustavo was somewhat anxious and ambivalent in the beginning, but I think he got over that when he realized, "Holy shit, this thing is really popular," and we ran it every week after that. The goal was to make it funny and make it smart, two things that don't always go together easily.
You see this all the time in the media. There are people who are very glum, who are very sober, and they regard journalism as this thing, but not this other thing: "It's this serious thing I do." It's grave and it's world-shaking and critical and thoughtful and thumb-sucking and footnoted and even academic, where humor has no place and certainly small things, little tidbits or little compositions, like, ¡Ask a Mexican! or Steve Lowery and Matt Coker writing Diary of a Mad County or whatever it was called at that point or little lefty comics. You have two pole stakes out, right? You have Moxley or Nick or Anthony or Dave writing about political stuff that is dense and dark and somewhat complicated, really serious journalism by any measure, and then you have ¡Ask a Mexican! or Commie Girl. It's like yeast in bread, gives it a little bit of lightness, right? Rather than just this darkness.
Arellano: It was Will's idea. I didn't want to do it—not because I thought it was offensive, but I didn't think people would find it that interesting. But Will said, "Go ahead and do it; it's only going be a one-issue joke." And I was like, "All right, fine." And a fucking monster was created. It was a shitstorm. Angry people, happy people, but more important, all these questions started coming in.
I have no fucking idea [why it became so widely read]. The logical answer is any time we wrote about Mexican anything, people would go crazy. But it was also a funny column that was dealing with one of the biggest issues that Orange County has ever had to fuck around with: Mexicans. Mexicans were a huge issue in Orange County; we always have been. To have someone be so flippant and rude and funny but also informative? What a great tag for the year, at least for me, but also for the Weekly. It was near its fattest; we were firing on all the pistons. The future seemed limitless at the end of 2004.
If this were a Ken Burns documentary, you'd hear some foreboding music right about now.
Arellano: For me, the beginning of the end of the culture of the Weekly was when Jeremy and Sharla [Delgado, Zachary's wife] left [in late 2004]. No one knew what the fuck happened. We were all a family, but now all these people are getting fired, and all the ad girls were crying. [Corporate] just kept bringing in all these people from the outside, and that, to me, was the beginning of the end of the culture of the Weekly. Not the product, but the culture. We used to be so tight, all of us: editorial, sales, marketing. But now, it just felt different.
Zachary: The early days were definitely the glory days, but with the different ownership, it had become corporate. Some of the management they brought in was just not real good for the environment. It screwed a lot of things up. Editorial got hammered. Some people were getting tired of that. And also the whole market dynamic was changing as far as some of the music venues closing and just the whole Orange County scene and sound was no longer the cool kids' popular thing, you know? They made some bad calls, really turning the sales department into a shark tank and just kind of pitting people against one another. And it just got unfriendly at that point. It was like, "Okay, this is just a job now."
Zachary would go on to found Inland Empire Weekly in 2005, with Stacy Davies as its first editor. Rich Kane would also serve a stint at the top, and other Weeklings found a home there. It closed in 2014.
Sharla Delgado, account executive, 2000-2004: There was some internal politics that were happening, and apparently, I stepped on a few wrong toes, and so I got let go. Well, I didn't get "let go." They closed the marketing department down. It was some bullshit story. It was politics.
There were more cuts in the sales department in summer 2005, and then, in August, Rich Kane, the Weekly's longest-tenured music editor—seven years—got the knife.
Kane: In the summer of 2004, I had all this accrued vacation time and sick days built up from going to shows, and Will was generous enough to give me five weeks off. But when I came back, I was now co-music editor with Chris Ziegler. We jelled and figured out what we were both responsible for, but I think that's what started the ball rolling to me getting the boot. And one thing that always annoyed me, even though I understand it, was the Weekly's penchant for putting tits and ass on the cover. There was a period in early 2005 when there were tits on the cover three weeks in a row, and I casually mentioned that to Will, and he sent me this blisteringly angry email. He also then mentioned the Coachella coverage we'd had. Coachella was getting bigger and bigger, but for whatever reason that year, I just did a short preview. I thought it was fine because, by that time, it was getting to be so well-known you knew it was happening anyway, and it was instant sell-outs. But Will told me that I'd forced readers to get their Coachella information somewhere else. So then one day, I get this frantic call from Will. He said he's in Irvine and "I've got to meet you, where can we meet?" And I said, "There's a Fatburger down the street. Want to meet there?" He says yes, but then he calls back and says, "That's not going to work. Can you come in the office on Monday? It's really important that I talk to you." So I go in, and before I get a chance to sit down, he says, "I'm letting you go." And he gives me two reasons: One, we've got to make cuts, and second, some people in the office aren't getting along with you. And I asked who, and he said, "I don't know, Rich; I don't know." Looking back, that was just before the merger, so maybe he'd caught wind that we had to downsize or something. But all I know is that had we met that Friday, he would have fired me at a fucking Fatburger.
As all this was going on, Commie Girl was still huge. In 2005, Rebecca Schoenkopf wrote one of her most memorable columns, an account of watching an Angels player [NOT SPIEZIO] getting a blowjob from a groupie in the parking lot of the Grove at Anaheim. But Schoenkopf was always about much more than Commie Girl.
Rebecca Schoenkopf: I worked really fucking hard for that paper. I was the copy editor, I was the arts editor, I was [a] food critic, and I was constantly offering to take on more things because I cared and wanted it to be the best. There was a two-month period in 2005 when I wrote seven cover stories; they were all fucking good—they just were. One was about the OC housing market; it was so fucking prescient, you have no idea. I called the housing collapse three years before it happened. One was going up to Sacramento to see Arnold Schwarzenegger. I went to Waco, Texas, and hung out with Cindy Sheehan when she was trying to meet with George Bush. And as far as the column, around 2003 or 2004, I turned thirtyish, and I was getting tired of the nightclubs, and it did become more of a commentary column, and I think they were pretty good.
And then one day, this happened. . . .
Arellano: So Rebecca got insanely jealous of [Register columnist Frank] Mickadeit. Here's a new columnist in town, getting all this buzz—this was 2004 or 2005. He did a column about getting his nose hairs pulled with [OC politico scumbag] Adam Probolsky. She says, "I'm going to one-up him; I'm going to get my nails done with Mike Carona." We're like, "What? . . . All right, Rebecca, go do whatever you want."
So Nick and I are in the newsroom, and then, out of nowhere, Carona walks in with Rebecca. We're like, "What the fuck is he doing here?" Scott wasn't in his office; he probably would have exploded. He was already starting to crack down on him. Carona shook my hand, shook Nick's hand. But no talk. Bizarre. Dornan showing up to our office was historic; Carona showing up was just bizarre.
The Weekly celebrated its 10th birthday on Sept. 9, 2005. By all accounts, it was a success. The paper was flourishing, enraging and exasperating some, amusing and shocking others. Its page count was fatter than ever, and it had broken or led the charge on the biggest exposés in local journalism in that time. Orange County and other places were talking about the Weekly. But it was the talk in board rooms and newspaper offices from Phoenix to New York that would most affect the paper. For the rumors that had been circulating for months about a major shift in the landscape of alternative weeklies would become reality in just more than a month. Any uncertainty over the future that staff members may have had when the paper was sold in 2000 would pale in comparison to the chaos to come.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.