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In the Beginning 

An interview with L.A. Weekly founder Jay Levin

Thursday, Dec 11 2003
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Jay Levin was born in New York in 1943. His father was a tool-and-die maker and a used-car salesman, so I guess you could say Levin was a working-class kid. He was also a smart kid who read a lot, and he was ambitious. After graduating from high school, he got a job at the post office, put in time at Hofstra and Queens College, and in 1961 he married and soon after fathered two children. In 1964 he landed a job as assistant to the financial editor of the New York Post, which soon had him covering the then-burgeoning counterculture. He worked that gig until 1974, when he quit and began freelancing.

Around that time, Levin got the idea — which, he says, “came to me out of nowhere” — to start his own magazine. In that quest, he wound up across the table from Larry Flynt, who’d recently purchased the L.A. Free Press. Levin’s marriage had unraveled by that point, so when Flynt asked him to run the Free Press he was happy to decamp to L.A. Shortly after arriving in town, Levin hired a contingent of Austin-based writers that included Michael Ventura, Ginger Varney and Big Boy Medlin, all of whom were left high and dry 10 weeks later when Levin was fired. Levin had enjoyed his taste of running a paper, however, and he wanted more. By the end of 1978 he rustled up the seed money from several investors, including producers Burt Kleiner and Pete Kameron and actor-producer Michael Douglas, to launch the L.A. Weekly, whose debut issue hit the stands on December 7. Helping Levin midwife the Weekly into existence were Joie Davidow, Varney, Ventura and, later, publisher Mike Sigman (who came onboard in 1983). But it was primarily Levin’s show, and he proved to be an extremely colorful editor in chief.

“Other people contributed to the launch of the Weekly, but it was Jay’s vision and Jay’s guts on the floor,” recalls Gary Horowitz, a businessman who was brought in to restructure the paper’s finances in 1989.

By the time Horowitz showed up, Levin had pretty much exhausted himself, along with many of his co-workers, and he turned over the editorship of the paper to Kit Rachlis. Rachlis reigned until 1993, followed in 1994 by Sue Horton, who left the paper in the hands of current editor Laurie Ochoa in 2001. Levin’s withdrawal from the Weekly was completed in 1995, when he sold his shares of the company to Village Voice owner Leonard Stern.

Veterans of the Levin years tend to speak of him with a mixture of admiration and irritation; the general consensus seems to be that he was a tremendous visionary who didn’t have a clue about how to run a business.

“Jay is very smart, but he’d never run anything before — he thought starting a paper wasn’t such an enormous feat, which of course it is,” recalls Laurel Delp, who was managing editor at the Weekly for its first year and is now a freelance travel writer. “He got in way over his head in terms of running the ship because he’s a socially inept person who didn’t know how to deal with employees, and that made him a god-awful editor. But Jay started the paper, he got it going in spite of everything, and it was 100 percent his idea from the gate. Nobody can take that away from him.”

 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Several former colleagues of Levin’s called and wrote in to dispute Delp’s claims and to vigorously defend the L.A. Weekly founder’s business skills. "We grew the paper fast in the first four years," wrote former Weekly advertising director David Cohen. "We were profitable and making money by the third year – a remarkable business achievement that Laurel Delp and your writer give no credit. In further defense of Jay’s instinctive business acumen, let’s not forget that the Weekly was founded with a mere $250,000. Two previous attempts at launching a weekly alternative paper in L.A., in the mid-70s, had failed – one after burning through $1.5 million. Also, the fancier, high-financed competition, The Reader, was marginalized by our passion to win this newspaper war and by our successful business strategy and tactics." "Jay was a relentless competitor who knew how to win," wrote Karen Fund, who started at the Weekly as sales manager in 1980 and became chairman of the board in 1993. "Throughout the paper, and not just in the editorial department, Jay hired a fascinating, diverse, creative and innovative group of employees, whom he managed with respect even if he did not always agree with their points of view. Jay was seen by me and by most others as a man of exceptional honesty and integrity, someone who cared about his staff, who protected them when possible, who was tolerant, open-minded, and who nurtured aspiring, talented young people in a variety of vocations. And when the Weekly was sold, Jay gave the employees a bonus out of his own money." To view full text of these letters, see "Remembrance of Things Past," January 2, 2004, and "Setting the Record Straight," January 9, 2004.]

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