An Oral History of OC Weekly, Part 3: September 2005-October 2010
OC Weekly's 10th-anniversary edition, a 154-page tome, hit the streets Sept. 9, 2005, as one of America's most beloved cities was drowning. Rebecca Schoenkopf wrote the introductory column, subheaded "It's hard to celebrate 10 years of the Weekly when you're busy hating the president." Little did the Weeklings know the paper would soon descend into its own murky waters.
Matt Coker: One thing they always told us is "We'll never sell you guys to the New Times." We had heard all these horror stories about the New Times. A big part of it was Lowery and Wielenga had worked for New Times Los Angeles and had horrible experiences. And the two chains seemed to hate each other. They seemed bitter rivals. [David] Schneiderman always said, "Don't worry. We'll never sell you to the New Times." So what happened? They sold us to the New Times.
Technically, it was a merger. On Oct. 24, 2005, Village Voice Media, which owned OC Weekly and five other papers, announced it had reached an agreement to be acquired by New Times Media, which began in 1971 with a paper in Phoenix and had grown to 11 across the country. Once sworn adversaries, the two chains had apparently grown closer since 2002, when a deal they'd reached to shut down papers in Los Angeles and Cleveland was blocked by the Justice Department, which charged them with collusion. The new company retained the name Village Voice Media.
Coker: I don't know. Maybe once their lawyers started talking, they started liking each other more?
Michael Sigman: I wasn't remotely surprised. They had been salivating for LA Weekly for many years and had started a paper in Los Angeles to compete with it, which was not successful. It was their dream to build a national network of papers, but without Los Angeles and New York, they could never have accomplished that. They were serious bidders when Leonard [Stern] sold the papers [in 2000], but they weren't the winner. But they kept trying, and to me, it was inevitable that it would happen.
Rebecca Schoenkopf: First they fucked up The Village Voice, then they moved onto LA Weekly. We thought we were safe. We were very profitable. We had a very lean operation, but even so, we weren't doing it in their very formulaic, jigsaw-puzzle sort of way, so that was not acceptable.
Greg Stacy: In 2005, the new owners made up their minds to purge a lot of the freelancers. Matt kept me on as long as he could, but a few days before Christmas, I got the word that a [film] column I'd been writing for 11 years was done, and it was a huge shock.
Tenaya Hills: I left in 2006, and the focus seemed to be on increasing revenue. It definitely changed from a place that everybody loved and believed in to more of a business, and I realized that you can love a business and be passionate about your work, but a business is a business, and when it comes down to it, businesses don't love you back.
Ellen Griley: We had this really hands-off relationship with [the previous owners] where we could do our paper the way we wanted to, without any real regard to ad sales, and I think there was a concern that was going to change. Another concern was that they did not have a very good reputation at that time of promoting female editors. I think Rebecca was pretty scared about that. [At the time of the merger, the new, 17-paper Village Voice Media counted six female editors in chief, far above than the industry average.]
Schoenkopf: Our staff was always about half women, but except for me and Heather [Swaim], most had been in support roles. But they did have decision-making authority. When the New Times people came in, it was really obvious [that would change].
Steve Lowery: For the first year or so, they left us alone, but they'd gone around to the other papers and said, "Hey, this is the way we do things," and finally, they came around to us, and it's like you could almost hear the clock ticking. We had complete local control, and now it was weird to have people parachuting in, telling us what to do. It really was like a death. But kind of a death like when someone has cancer, and you know it's coming. We could just see it. Different people were being hired, and different things were coming in, and different things were being said, and all of a sudden, this office that had always been so cohesive, relatively speaking, now there were whispers, and there had never been whispers before.
Heather Swaim: It became about the numbers very quickly, and they had a different philosophy. I don't how many times I heard the phrase "We run a cookie-cutter operation." The publications needed to look the same, and we were different. It really was hard with those guys. They pressed Will for more sales when publishing wasn't doing so well, and toward the end, he was having to let people go. It was a Catch-22. You need more sales, you need more people, but to keep more people, you had to pay them.
Will Swaim: At first, they were really good at settling us all down, and saying, "We didn't buy you to dismantle you." But I'd been given lots of autonomy at the paper. We made money and had almost no interference and lots of support, and that changed very rapidly. It was an organization that had a much different management philosophy. I felt like I'd run this newspaper from the beginning, and I said, "You guys might want to ask me questions before you make changes." Their argument was pretty simple: "We're always interested in your opinion, but we own the paper." And they were right: They owned it. But there were things they were doing internally with regards to who worked for whom and who reported to whom, and it may have been my own stubbornness and arrogance, but I sure as hell didn't like what was going on.
More on that in a moment. Meanwhile, as tensions were simmering to what would become a boil, in February 2006, two triumphant moments in the paper's history were also igniting: A Mexican was rising, and a sheriff was falling.
Gustavo Arellano: In 2005, ¡Ask a Mexican! starts becoming a juggernaut—all this crazy buzz. I start getting invited to speak about it at colleges. I started doing a regular radio segment on KABC-AM 790 with Al Rantel, in which I would field questions about Mexicans on-air. And by the end of the year, the Los Angeles Times' Daniel Hernandez contacted me and said he wanted to do a story on me. He started hanging out with me, and his editors liked it so much they turned it into a Column One [front-page feature] story. It published on a Thursday in February, I think. And it exploded; it changed my life. Everyone starts calling me: The Today Show, the radio shows. And I'm going on this show and that show, and then the book agents start calling me.
Once I started getting all that attention, [some] people were not having it at the paper, at all. They'd be snide to me, give me the cold shoulder. I took my [future wife] to the office with me in 2006. She wanted to come with me to the office and have lunch. Everyone was so cold. No one talked to us. It was such a cold shoulder. It was crazy because I never had anything against anyone. Rebecca must have mentioned me in at least five columns, writing things so nasty that my female friends wanted to find her and kick her ass. I felt bad.
Will Swaim: I don't think there was any resentment at all. Everyone was really happy for him.
Coker, in a 2007 essay for the Sacramento News & Review: At least [Rebecca] expressed herself openly; other staffers routinely would complain to me privately about Gustavo this and Gustavo that, their language peppered with insinuations that our boy suffered from the ol' inflating-head syndrome.
Griley: I think after ¡Ask a Mexican! blew up the way it did, there was tension in the newsroom between some writers and Gustavo.
Arellano: I was in New York when I signed my book deal [for ¡Ask a Mexican! and Orange County: A Personal History] and heard that when Will announced it at a staff meeting, Rebecca broke down in tears.
Schoenkopf: I was horribly jealous, horribly jealous. I'm the voice of the paper! Me! I burst into tears to the point where the tears came out of my eyes horizontally like laser beams, and I said, "It's not that I'm not happy for him; it's just that I'm so totally not happy for him." It took me a minute of insane jealousy, and then I was so glad for him and said, "We have to get some champagne for when he comes back," and I meant it. But what he heard through the grapevine was "Rebecca's not happy for you," and no one ever bothered to tell him the second part.
Arellano: They never got me any champagne. The only bottle of champagne I remember opening was one given to me by sex-abuse survivors after my stories helped them reach a historic settlement. I remember opening that.
Arellano's ascending star supplied national notoriety for the paper. But something that gave it respect was R. Scott Moxley. In November 2005, he wrote an article that eventually freed wrongfully incarcerated James Ochoa of Buena Park. Other articles helped to imprison Laguna Beach doctor George Kooshian (for watering down AIDS medicine) and GOP operative Jeffrey Ray Nielsen (for having sex with boys; in covering the court case, his father, a former mayor of Fountain Valley, tried to punch Weekly photographer Jack Gould). He also focused his attention on Sheriff Mike Carona. The Weekly's online archives indicate that Carona was mentioned 161 times in the print edition from 1999 to 2014. That does not count any web-only posts. The vast majority ran from early 2005 through April 2009, when Carona was sentenced in federal court to 66 months in prison for witness tampering. And no one kept Carona's misdeeds more in the public eye than Moxley.
R. Scott Moxley: That story stands out because it was us alone for a long time, for years, while other journalists mocked me. They were afraid to take the sheriff on. When I was covering the Haidl case, I started learning about issues with the sheriff. They just kept mounting and mounting. And at some point, I said, "I'm going to learn as much as I can about Mike Carona, and if at the end of it, it's bullshit, then it's bullshit. But if it's not, I'm never going to leave him alone."
The thing about Mike is, he's like anybody else. He's not a monster. There's some great parts to his personality. But even when he knew I was looking at him, he told me, "You're never going to win this." He told me this to my face. And I was, "You know what? It doesn't matter. I'm not going to stop."
Moxley's reporting of the unfolding Carona scandal dominated the paper's hard news during this period, but there was plenty of other stuff. Schou continued reporting on a 2005 cover story he did about OC's own hippie Mafia, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, that eventually turned into a book. He also released a book in 2006 on Gary Webb that eventually became a 2014 movie starring Jeremy Renner. Commie Girl was still as popular as ever; she and Arellano won the 2006 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies awards for best political columnist and columnist, respectively. Theo Douglas continued to write Trendzilla. But the real drama was playing out behind the scenes.
Swaim: It became harder and harder for me to take orders from people whose opinion I didn't always respect. But it was complicated. I could argue from the experience of running one paper, and they could argue from the experience of running a chain. They went from one to two to a half-dozen to a dozen, and now they were at almost 20. Can you imagine what the dashboard looks like on a vehicle that size, trying to pay attention to the bottom-line numbers of 18 different businesses?
Arellano: The first changes started happening on the business side. They started bringing in their publishers, their sales people, but I felt editorial was safe. But then they started changing editorial and advertising, and people [in editorial] started telling little stories, like how corporate was forcing us to run stuff from other papers online.
Swaim: I would never say they were trying to fuck us over. That would be stupid. Why would you buy something for millions of dollars that makes a lot of money for you and just deliberately trash it? That would take a Mongol horde, not business people. And they were business people. I do think inadvertently they did things that helped undermine us, but it wasn't that as much as it was just the way they did business. They had more cooks in the kitchen. It was a much more bureaucratic organization. Heather was our creative director, and she was reporting to a guy in San Francisco or Oakland who I regarded as nowhere near her talent. The calendar section was under the control of someone in, I don't know, St. Louis or Kansas City. So all the levers that were making this thing do what it had done so well were suddenly in other people's hands. It was like a bunch of people fighting over the steering wheel, and I just decided to say, "Fuck it" and ultimately let go.
Schoenkopf: He hadn't been coming to work for a while, which was fine. He'd been there 12 years. I figured, "Fuck it, take six months off." He'd trained us so we all knew how to do his job and get the paper out, and on Tuesday nights, Patty and I would put out the paper.
Swaim: I got very very depressed. I would not sleep at night, contemplate my unshaved mug in the mirror, and say, "I don't know if I could do this." Most days, I would do something to help out, but I didn't decide anything. It was like it decided me. It was bad for my marriage; it was bad for my children. I struggled, loss of motivation, loss of joy in my life, nightmares, anger all the time, self-hatred, hatred of others. I was a thoroughly desperate person. I wanted the psychological pain to stop, and I didn't know how to make it stop. I was terrified of leaving, but I was more terrified at staying. I kept telling Heather [who had already left], "Two months, two months." And she was going through exactly the same thing, I think.
It was awful. You both work at the same place, and you're both having this feeling that something has been lost that you really love. Finally, after talking to people I respected, who said maybe it's time to just take the leap, it came down to me committing to just leaving.
Arellano: Meanwhile, we are still doing our stories and everything was happening like clockwork. We were a team, so he could not show up, and everything would still be fine. But then somehow, word came out that he wanted us all to quit, resign en masse, and we're going to start a paper in Long Beach.
Griley: He told people in waves, kind of one-to-one. I think it was after the New Year in 2007. I know for certain that I was planning on it by the end of January.
Arellano: At one point, Will invited me to his house, and we took a walk, and he said, "Come with us to the paper in Long Beach." I said, "I don't care about Long Beach; I care about Orange County." Then he said something that disappointed me, something like, "Stories can be found anywhere." But I wasn't going to go. This is the OC Weekly. I want to write stories about Orange County.
I found everyone's hysteria about the new owners to be a bit much because I really did think that for the most part, New Times would leave us alone editorially. [Before the merger] I would read those New Times papers, and even though they were our mortal enemy, I thought they were kind of like us. They were snarky; they were jerks. Sure, their politics seemed to be neocon a bit, but why did we talk so much shit about this chain? They had good investigative stories.
Will Swaim resigned Jan. 27, 2007. It was not supposed to be effective immediately.
Mike Lacey, Village Voice Media executive editor, 2005-2012: We were in the middle of meeting people, and he just disappeared. Left a note.
Swaim: I had already told my bosses I was leaving, but I also said that I could leave today or I could leave in six months, whatever they wanted. I wasn't leaving them high and dry. I told the staff in an edit meeting. God, it was uncomfortable. Then they tell everyone, "Things will be fine; he's going to be around for a little while." It's amicable. \
Then they start calling in people one-by-one into the conference room for interviews, and I think it was Rebecca who came into my office, and she was in tears, and she said the whole thing felt like an interrogation, and she was really scared. And I was so fucking mad at that point; I lost my shit. I wrote them a resignation letter, saying this is not something I condone, and I am afraid my presence suggests that I'm okay with how the people who work for me are being treated. I went over to the conference door—don't remember who was in the room with them—knocked on the door and handed [Lacey] my note. I had my backpack over my shoulder and walked out.
Lowery: Right after he resigned, I remember walking into his office and saying, "What are we going to do?" Just to let him know I was with him. And he said, "Why don't you sit tight, and I'm going to see about getting something else, and then I'll let you know."
Nick Schou: The new owners were literally meeting with everybody, and there were certainly some people coming out of those interviews not feeling secure. People were given the option of staying or going with Will. The company never threatened anybody. They were more interested in encouraging people to stay than to alienate the staff. And [for the news reporters], we had heard they treated their writers well and had a preference for hard news and investigative reporting. So that was never really an issue.
Arellano: When they got around to me, they asked, "What can we do to keep everyone here?" I said, "Just leave us alone. Let us maintain this paper the way it is. We have a great crew."
The week after Swaim resigned, Rebecca Schoenkopf wrote a blistering farewell column, published Feb. 1, 2007, and headlined "See You, Suckers!"
Schoenkopf [from her final column]: There was you calling me a Jew, and you calling me a slut, and you calling me a "selfish little wimp." There was you, screaming into my voicemail, "Rebecca Schoenkopf, you are nothing but a terrorist, you fuckin' cunt!" and there was you saying, in what remains the best letter ever to Commie Girl, "Stick to writing your crap, and stop thinking you are an expert in anything other than pathetic, self-centered, pompous dumbasses like yourself. You will be forever doomed to writing your self-involved little bullshit columns on toilet-paper rolls in your cat-feces-infested motel room long after OC Weekly finally wakes up and fires you." Joke's on you, Mary from Rancho Santa Margarita, because I just quit.
That same issue, those who remained published a full-page picture of Will and Heather with the title "Free Will" and the lyrics to the Clash song "Stay Free." Within a few weeks, Griley, Ziegler, Wielenga, Douglas and Lowery all followed, as well as interns, freelancers, and slices of the sales and production staffs. Most would be part of Swaim's new paper, the District Weekly, which launched in April 2007.
Schoenkopf: For all the Will-hate rotation stuff, he was a really good boss who made a really good place to work. I thought it was fucked up and quit in honor of his editorial autonomy, and I wrote that column. I made sure to give it to Patt [Buchanan, production manager] to get it on the presses without the new fucking owners coming in and being all shitty about it. But they did see it and said, "We can't run this; it's terrible, terrible. Pull it." And Beth Sestanovich, who was the publisher of LA Weekly at the time, said, "Of course this can run; we're not pulling it" and made sure it went to the printer. I was really happy she did that.
Arellano: I'll never forget Rebecca's line: "I am not particularly interested in being the last rat off." She was so dismissive of those of us who remained. But when it came out, there was a huge feeling in the newsroom like, "What the fuck? Commie Girl is leaving us? Oh, my God, the Weekly is dying." Then everyone else started leaving.
Schou: Every day, [it seemed] someone was leaving. In the morning, you'd have someone get up and say, "All right, it's been nice working with everyone," and at that point, you knew they'd decided they were going to work for Will, though it was never said publicly.
Theo Douglas: Several of us were offered loyalty bonuses if we remained, I want to say, for the remainder of 2007. It was a sizable bonus, definitely something that made you think a little bit. But I thought joining the District was an interesting opportunity. I lived in Long Beach and had worked for the Press-Telegram, and I was intrigued to cover the city again.
Dave Wielenga: When I worked at New Times LA, I had problems with the corporate side. People in their leadership seemed to feel they had the right to say things to people they didn't have to say. It was a very unfriendly environment. And we all had to do these interviews. I had known people at the Press-Telegram who had to resign and re-apply, and it's such a horrible feeling. You either go into these things thinking you're going to answer questions in a way to save your job, or you don't give a shit, but then you don't project who you really are. Because we gave a shit, we cared a lot. My plan was to stay until it becomes intolerable. But then it appeared in another paper that I was going to be involved in the District. Andy [Van De Voorde, Voice Media Group executive editor] came in and kicked me out of the office. It was one of those put-your-stuff-in-a-cardboard-box kind of things and get out.
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Coker: It was chaos. I remember Andy flying in and putting a different staff member as editor for a week, and then that person would leave. I remember we were planning our next issue, and the next day Steve left.
Lowery and Douglas were the last to leave on March 9.
Lowery: So I was like editor of the paper for a week, and then sent an email saying it was great and thanks a lot and took off. There was no hard feelings for the people who stayed. Everyone understood they had to do what they felt best for the career and family.
Vickie Chang, intern, staff writer and web editor, 2006-2012: I was still in school and didn't want to uproot myself. For a couple of issues, it was mostly just Matt and me. I don't know where everyone else was, but I do remember writing a lot of stuff.
Coker: [The new bosses] were understandably panicked. It seemed like everything was imploding, During those interviews with everybody, they kept asking me what my title meant, executive editor. I said, "I'm the editor of the film section, and I do this and I do that," but they just kept asking me "What do you do?" I guess my answer wasn't good enough, and I thought, "Holy shit, I'm going to get fired."
Scott Moxley actually called me one night and said, "Congratulations, they're going to name you editor of OC Weekly tomorrow." I said, "Really? No one's said anything to me." Next day, they announced Ted [B. Kissell] was editor. It just so happened that day, I got offered a job in Sacramento. I figured I wouldn't have a job much longer, and I better take this one.
Lacey: The reality is that newspapers develop their own culture. It didn't matter that [New Times] won every award there was to win in journalism or we knew how to put out a good newspaper. That doesn't matter to the people on the ground working for a paper that is being absorbed. There's a lot of fear. And it is disruptive and disturbing. It doesn't matter how good you are or how much better papers have become under your leadership. People give in to their imagination. But they didn't all walk away. There were a couple of arts writers who left; you can probably get a head count of the full-time people who left. [There were seven in editorial, more than half the staff.]
Arellano: It came fast and furious. It was just me, Nick, Scott, Vickie, Tom [Child] and Matt. And Patty is on maternity leave. Everyone else was gone. And we were like, "What the fuck are we going to do?" But I think the news guys, we pulled together. We knew we had to present a unified front because we knew the New Times people were newspeople, and that's what we were. We had to be carriers of the Weekly tradition.
Moxley: My recollection was Will saying, "They're not going to let you leave," and that was true.
Arellano: They gave us raises. They said we were horribly underpaid. I'm sure it was because we stayed but also partly "Let's get you some fucking equitable wages here."
Moxley: All the people who we had worked with and cared about and were used to were suddenly gone, and we had to keep doing what we do in spite of the emotional trauma.
Swaim: I wish I could say I had one single, simple, unified field theory of how everything worked then, but there were all kinds of mixed-up feelings—that's the truth. There was a part of me that felt instantly liberated when I left, but also infinitely, deathlessly sad and lost. And I'm getting calls from all over the place, from people who wanted to turn it into an us-versus-them thing, like the evil New Times, they're a bunch of neocons who tried to crush the wonderful Marxist Village Voice group, and here was a guy who said, "Fuck you." That wasn't true, nor was it true that I was, as someone from the new company put it, a hippie who couldn't tolerate the bracing realities of really free-swinging journalism. It was losing control; it was so much more embarrassing and simple and primitive and animal.
I left with no idea what was going to happen next. I certainly thought of the idea of starting another paper. We'd talked about it for years, with The Village Voice people and LA Weekly people, that we should start a Long Beach paper. But I was interviewing all over the country. But then as people left, there seemed to be a certain momentum, a confidence that lightning could strike twice. And people started saying, "Let's create this thing again." So we started talking about the District. But starting a paper with no financial backing seemed like an amazing climb up the hill, and a part of me didn't want to do it.
But also, I didn't want to see [OC Weekly] fail. At all. That was my biggest concern. I had considered this paper so necessary and in some ways a lasting legacy to everybody who has ever worked there. I didn't want it to go away, and frankly, it made me nervous when anybody would call me saying they were thinking [of leaving] or had left. I tried to make sure they understood that they had a regular paycheck and this is really risky. But in retrospect, I would say that guys at [Village Voice Media] should be absolutely fucking grateful in one respect: In a year and a half, they would have to slash payroll dramatically, and the people who had left made it that much easier for them.
The District Weekly launched in April 2007. Ellen Griley was the paper's editor. It lasted three years before closing.
Griley: There was some tension certainly, and then it got trumped up into really stupid stuff. I think it was more aggression by our ad departments going at it with one another, but some of the tension fed off already-existing energy, and a natural extension of that is when you have a rival paper, you come out swinging. And Gustavo, in particular, came out swinging against us. But in terms of the people who left and stayed, there was never any bad blood.
Arellano: Their first issue had an ad making fun of us—ocweakly.com. Even Will apologized to me over that one.?
After Lowery left, Joe Donnelly was named interim editor. He was offered the full-time job, but Donnelly, then deputy editor at LA Weekly, opted to stay in Los Angeles.
Joe Donnelly: I don't know if there's any good guys or bad guys; there's just what happened. It felt a little less like chaos than the atmosphere wasn't particularly upbeat, kind of like a slow letting the air out of the tires. Having said that, though, everyone who was there were total pros. I didn't meet a jaded person. They might have been on the inside, but they were totally into what they were doing and believed in their community. The OC Weekly was kind of founded on an underdog and defiant stance, and I think that posture helped it to carry through some tough times.
Patrice Wirth Marsters, who had been on maternity leave, returned in March.
Patrice Wirth Marsters: It was very somber and sad. It was a scary time. I didn't feel safe; I don't know if anyone else did either. So many voices for the paper were gone, and the people they were bringing in didn't seem very experienced—that was worrisome. I now had a corporate overlord, which I had never had before, a guy in Ohio I answered to. He actually came to visit a couple of times. The first time, he was flabbergasted there was nothing written out for my job description. "How can you not have a job description? We're going to get you one." I didn't want one. Isn't that the whole point of working for an alternative paper: to be alternative?
In late March, Ted B. Kissell, who had worked at the Miami New Times and New Times Broward-Palm Beach and had been a senior editor at the Ventura County Star, was named editor. His first issue was March 29.
Arellano: Those of us who remained were committed, but morale was hell. Then, just as it's announced we're getting a new guy, Coker said, "I'm leaving," but no one held it against him. He should have been the editor.
Schou: Ted had a much different leadership style and personality than Will. And he was an outsider who had a lot of catching up to do and a very difficult job, obviously. I think he really relied on people who had been there for advice on certain issues, but then increasingly, he wanted to put his own stamp of authority on things.
Moxley: Ted is a very smart guy. I think he's got a good heart, but I'm not sure he was suited for an alt-weekly power role where you have to be fearless. Because you're going to get disrespected and take minority opinions, and you have to be willing to stand up for that.
Marsters: He was more concerned about what corporate would think and what corporate wanted—that's the universe he came from. I do know a lot of people were frustrated with him and the way things were going, and to some degree, I think he was frustrated, too. I just don't think the Weekly was ever a good fit for him. I think [corporate] wanted to hire someone who wasn't already here, someone who understood the New Times structure to get us all on that structure.
Amanda Parsons, intern, editorial assistant and contributor, 2005-current: The shake-up was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it gave me an opening to get hired full-time, but a curse in that a lot of really good people who formed the paper and set it up for greatness left. It was really unfortunate for the community to lose all that institutional knowledge. The new writers had to start from square one, which was an unfortunate brain-drain that reduced the quality of the reporting and the paper itself.
Tom Child, calendar editor, 2006-2008: It was definitely a different environment—more tense. It became more of a job, and there wasn't as much of a sense of fun. I feel like people really felt under the gun, struggling to find a direction and a tone. The people that had remained from the previous regime, there was always a little bit of tension there. They were used to doing things a certain way, and it wasn't it the way that New Times wanted it done anymore.
Erin DeWitt, intern, clubs editor and calendar editor, 2007-2014: People were scrambling; things were weird. People were trying to figure out how to put a paper out, but like Patty said, "We've always put out a paper, and we'll get through this." Patty is the glue. She is the one who makes sure that everything gets done. She basically runs the entire ship. Yet, even in the hard times, it was still such an amazing place. I definitely think your workload was creative and different and alternative, which kept things interesting, but really it was the people you sat next to who would make inappropriate comments and crack jokes and play music. It was like hanging out with your friends the whole day.
Former music editor Rich Kane rejoined the paper, now as managing editor, in August 2007.
Rich Kane: When I got back, there was a sign on the window that said, "Welcome back, Rich." That was cool. I [sensed a difference in how things were run], but not as much as some people might have. I'd heard the horror stories about New Times. That they were very controlling and fanatical about certain things, but sometimes in a good way. Ted was mostly okay to get along with. There were a couple of times when he became a screamer and yeller, and that was off-putting because the history of the paper has never been one of those type of management situations. But it was kind of difficult for me. I was middle management. I had to appease Ted, who I had just met. And it was the first time he'd ever helmed his own paper, so he had a lot of stress, not just on that issue, but also from corporate. On the other hand, I had to work with people I'd already worked with and with new writers who didn't know Orange County, so I had to show them the ropes.
Village Voice Media swiftly began hiring to fill in the holes on the staff. Some were former Weeklings, such as DeWitt and Chang. Others—such as staff writers Luke Y. Thompson, Derek Olson and Daffodil Altan; music editor Dave Segal; and web editor Janine Kahn—were new to Orange County. After the dust had settled, the Weekly's staff box was bigger than ever. But the newcomers struggled to find their voice in an institution.
Luke Thompson, staff writer, 2007-2008: It was tough with Ted not being from Orange County. I think if I had an editor who was local to the area, there may have been more of a mentorship. But the chaotic situation led to there not being a whole lot of guidance for me. Everyone was so busy that they didn't really want to mentor anyone new. I would get very vague guidance, but not a whole lot.
Dave Segal, music editor, 2007-2008: I had come from The Stranger and didn't know anyone. So I was dropped into alien territory and had to make sense of it. It seemed like a nuclear war had hit, so that kind of led to pressure to match up to what preceded you. It had been a real funny, sharp-witted staff, and now we've got all these new people, including me, who had big shoes to fill, and I just tried to make my section as great as I could while I was there. It was very businesslike. People were grinding hard: the news guys like Moxley, Nick and Gustavo, and the new writers like [Daffodil Altan] were super-aggressive and really getting the dirt into what was going on. I really respected that. But people were shaken up and putting their heads down and doing their jobs.
Daffodil Altan, staff writer, 2007-2009: I knew there had been this exodus and all this drama around the old history, but I felt like I was walking into a new history and didn't want to get too involved [in any politics]. And it was great working with the people who were still there. It was fantastic. I really only left because my husband got a Fulbright Scholarship and we moved out of the country. Otherwise, I would have stayed. Ted inherited a lot of that history, and I think he did the best he could to steer the paper in some of the same directions to keep the loyal audience, but he also tried to do some new and experimental things. It was a lot to ask of him, and I think he did a great job.
I'd say my most memorable story is one we did on the Orange County swing scene. It led me down this rabbit hole to one of the country's pre-eminent clubs that had developed a lot of the rules around "The Lifestyle" that have been adopted. I learned a lot about that universe and how conservative counties kind of have roaring swing communities. We had left out any identifying details because it was kind of a secret society, and then the Register took our story, decided to find where it was and tried to pin a different angle on it, as if it were scandalous. That led to it being shut down because of some fire code thing. But it was really harmless. Most were older married people, mostly white. Not a young, diverse sex scene at all.
Janine Kahn, web editor, 2007-2008: On my first day, I came into [Kissell's] office, and I was like, "Hey, where is the web team?" And he said, "You're it." We didn't have anything [established online.] So we launched Heard Mentality and the Navel Gazing blog, which Ted named because he liked puns. A lot of the stuff we still have now. I know we doubled the traffic in a year on zero dollars, and the blog won an LA Press Club award, so I think it was well-received.
With a new staff in tow, the Weekly trudged on. They welcomed back original staffer Coker in July 2008, who had edited an alternative weekly in Sacramento since departing in 2007.
Coker: One of the reasons the [Sacramento] guy hired me is he loved the Weekly, and he said, "Make us more like the Weekly." But after my first year was up, I was fired, and he said it was because I had made it too much like the Weekly. I had originally applied to be the [OC Weekly's] web editor, since I was unemployed at the time. But Ted offered me the staff writer position. What I didn't know is I was being hired to replace two guys.
In October 2008, the bottom fell out of the American economy, further weakening an already-battered newspaper industry that was hemorrhaging from the rapid proliferation of the Internet, particularly the loss of classified advertising to Craigslist.
Swaim: At the time I left in 2007, the big shift [toward the Internet] was under way, so the industry is just getting the shit pounded out of it, then the next year, there's a huge economic downturn. I had somebody walk up to me in 2009 and say, "Wow, the Weekly's falling apart without you." And I said, "The Weekly would have fallen apart with me. It's horrible for the industry. No one's getting out of looking like we did." We started the paper when the economy was getting a lift in 1994 and 1995. There was no social media, no Facebook, no blogs to speak of, not a lot of websites. If you wanted to reach this audience, we had a lock on it.
Lacey: The economy had changed because of the Web. You had an explosion of platforms on which people could spend their time and their money on advertising, without an explosion of retail advertising.
Another round of layoffs occurred in late 2008, mostly in sales. But editorial got hit, too.
Arellano: It was already weird, but then Vickie, Nate [Jackson, clubs editor] and Rich were all laid off the same day. Boom. That sucked. I remember feeling really bad for Rich. He was more relaxed than me. I was like, "Oh, my God, you're one of the O.G.s, and now you're leaving."
Kane: When I got fired the second time, I just perceived that to be business, nothing personal.
From 23 full- and part-time ad positions in May 2008, there were 12 by February 2009, and the page count dropped from 80 to 64. The paper's physical look was also different; it was about half an inch shorter lengthwise.
Spencer Kornhaber, editorial fellow and staff writer, 2009-2010: A couple of days before I started the job, Ted called me and said, "You know, I just wanted to let you know that in case you hear some gallows humor around here, I just had to lay off five people." He was right to warn me about the mood in the office because people were not in the best spirits. But there was this in-this-together feeling and that you're still doing cool work and making a difference. So I came to enjoy the embattled mentality.
The economic downturn meant a change in venue for the paper in early 2009.
Arellano: Then we were forced to move from the Santa Ana office. There had been an earthquake, and you could see the building wasn't safe. But we moved to the office park next to our first office, and that was complete regression, demoralizing. All that said, we had to keep working. I wasn't going to go anywhere.
Nor was Moxley. Throughout the chaos, Moxley kept digging into Carona. His work eventually got "America's Sheriff" indicted in the fall of 2007. Moxley kept his focus during the trial, writing cover stories and blog posts to set the table on any Carona coverage.
Moxley: All the crap from all the reporters, the TV, the LA people, who were so hot on their agency for all their tips, and when he was arrested? The hush, right? Even [Register columnist Frank] Mickadeit turned to me one day and went, "You nailed this way before anyone else." I spent a long time working on that one.
Lacey: [Moxley's coverage] didn't play a big part. It was the part. Those guys really raised hell.
Carona was convicted in early 2009.
Mike Schroeder, campaign manager for OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Carona: I think they needed to cover everything that happened. The one point I disagreed with them on is that [Carona] was acquitted of all the corruption charges, and the stories didn't always make that clear. But there clearly was corrupt behavior going on with [assistant sheriffs] Haidl and Jaramillo. That is not a matter of opinion. And so it was clearly something that needed to be reported on and cleaned up, and the Weekly gets credit for breaking the story. Simple as that.
Arellano: I remember when Carona was finally convicted. That was fun; that was a crazy day. We celebrated during our staff meeting. Ted brought out some tequila and toasted to Scott—best thing he ever did.
Barack Obama's election in 2008 sparked the birth of the Tea Party, and Orange County was a major staging area for its rise.
Kornhaber: The one that stands out for me was my story on Orly Taitz, who was the big queen of the Birthers movement, the people claiming Obama faked his birth certificate. She was this really bizarre woman, and shortly after we put her on the cover [in June 2009], she got on The Colbert Report and the TV networks. Orange County was the center of the wacko national freak-out about Obama, and it was cool to cover the beginning of the Tea Party and all that.
As an indicator of the rising importance of the Weekly's blogs, Moxley broke a story in July on Navel Gazing about Yorba Linda assemblyman Mike Duvall, which he recapped in the 2009 year-in-review issue.
Moxley [from his article]: Duvall apparently had no idea his dais microphone became live beginning about a minute before the start of a cable-televised committee hearing as he detailed an ongoing extramarital affair [with a lobbyist whose client had business before a committee he sat on]. The married father of two mentioned his mistress' unmentionables ("little eye-patch underwear"), how often they had made love ("a lot!"), how much he enjoys spanking her ("Yeah, I like it"), what he told her about why he spanked her ("Because you're such a bad girl!") and other intimate details ("She's all, 'I am going up and down the stairs, and you're dripping out of me!' So messy!"). The last line quickly became part of colorful Sacramento political lore, and Duvall put up a defiant front the night the story broke. But he resigned from office the next day, after those who'd been his most ardent supporters demanded he do so.
The Weekly has covered the medical-marijuana industry and efforts to legalize the drug consistantly. With Proposition 19 (a.k.a. the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act) on the November 2010 ballot, it became a particularly busy year for the paper's resident pot professor.
Arellano: Nick has owned medical-marijuana coverage for 20 years, going back to the days of Proposition 215 [a.k.a. the Compassionate Use Act] and [medical-marijuana pioneer] Marvin Chavez. He'd been doing some of the pioneering stuff with Prop. 215, but he was now doing all sorts of stories, from tagging along with guys who did pot-delivery services to all sorts of, um, interesting people.
While the blogs saw an almost-endless parade of stories written in the old Weekly style, from Moxley's Criminal of the Week! column to Coker's trademark humor to a series by Arellano called Profiles In OC Pioneers Who Were Klan Members, the paper edition started becoming something else.
Arellano: As we're starting to post more and more stuff online, we're still dealing with a short-handed staff. So we had to start running more universal features, which were cover stories from our sister papers that had nothing to do with OC. Man, we all hated that. And unlike Will, who wrote all the time, Ted rarely wrote. And with no managing editor and down to just five staffers writing, what else could we do?
Marsters: I remember one time when Ted was on vacation in Colombia [in August 2010], and he was unreachable for a lot of that time. We were supposed to get a story from LA Weekly, and it never showed up. I called the editor there, and he said, "We're not running that story." I think my heart stopped. How could up I fuck up this badly? It was a Thursday, and I'm asking people what can we do, but nobody had anything. Andrea [Adams, layout editor] and I started brainstorming, and the U.S. Open of Surfing was coming up, and her brother went to school with Brett Simpson, who'd won the year before.
Well, we had an intern, Josh Cain, who had done some sportswriting, so I asked him to write the cover story on Simpson—which was pretty much a no-no. Under Ted, interns just did not write cover stories. Josh wrote and [photographer John Gilhooley] got a great shot of Simpson, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. The weekend after it came out, [Simpson] won [the U.S. Open], and he was on the winner's podium holding OC Weekly, and it was all over the news. And I felt this huge sense of victory: We pulled it out—yes!
When Ted came back, he said we should have gone with [a book excerpt corporate sent to all the papers]. I was [deflated]. I thought we had done this really great job. Later, when Josh was leaving [to go back to college], Ted told him, "You know, in all my years at the Weekly, we have never had an intern write a cover story." And I remember thinking—and might have said it out loud—"All your years? How many was that? Three?"
If Ted didn't like something someone suggested, he would say, "This is my paper, damn it." But no. It was mine, too. And Gustavo's and Nick's and Matt's and everyone's. We're all here.
On Sept. 2, 2010, the Weekly celebrated its 15th anniversary with a regular issue.
Arellano: It was slapdash, listicle bullshit. Compare it to other anniversary issues, and it's just tired and going through the motions.
Schou: Morale had plummeted to an all-time low.
Mark Petracca, UC Irvine professor and former Weekly contributor: I think there have been different times since Will left when the paper has been better, and there have been times when it's been not-so-good.
A month later, Arellano would be promoted to managing editor.
Arellano: I kind of hated being there at the time. But I wasn't going anywhere—this paper meant too much to me. But when we got word that we could hire a managing editor, I wanted it. I thought at the very least, I could help some of the newer writers slog through the mess that we'd become.
This was around the time that Scott walks into a staff meeting and says, "I have the diaries of Don Haidl." There's this buzz in the room. Scott's all gleeful, and rightfully so. Ted just gets a smirk and says, "Are they verified?" You could tell Scott is offended. He ruled the Haidl case, and everybody is shocked. In my mind, everyone's thinking, "Ted, you're questioning Moxley? Who got these idiots in jail years before you came around?" The mood in the room just dropped.
Ted B. Kissell politely declined to contribute to this story. But in the 2007 year-in-review issue, he wrote a column reflecting on his first year: "At a meeting of the Orange County Press Club in November, [I was asked] what it was like to succeed the founding editor of the Weekly. . . . I don't waste time thinking about filling shoes or standing on shoulders. I'm too busy standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the talented writers, editors and artists in this newsroom; championing truth, beauty and weirdness; and battling greed, sleaze and banality."
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