L.A. Weekly: TheWeekly was launched in conjunction with L.A.’s DIY renaissance of the late ’70s that included the small businesses that colonized Melrose Avenue, and the L.A. punk movement. In fact, the Masque, L.A.’s first punk club, was not far from theWeekly’s first office, at Sunset and Western. To what degree is theWeekly simply a product of its time?
JAY Levin: The Weekly is a product of its time, but it also played a role in shaping its time, there’s no question about that. We were simultaneously riding and leading a Zeitgeist, and we provided leadership in regard to several historical themes, which we hadn’t developed on our own, but were clearly at loose in the culture.
What’s your definition of an alternative paper?
Alternative papers are more sophisticated and democratically oriented, and are dedicated to a broader truth in journalism, no matter what the cost.
Are there any good ones out there right now?
There are little progressive papers like The Insurgent, which comes out of Madison, Wisconsin, but the scale and range are so broad now that they’ve been liquefied down from the true counterculture papers of the ’60s that really challenged the mainstream.
The fact that you’re aware ofThe Insurgent suggests you keep abreast of what’s happening in the world of alternative papers. Do you?
Not really. Because of the range of interests I have, I do come across stuff, and I’m a nexus for a lot of Web material that originates in print. Some of the best alternative media is online right now.
What’s the most important quality for an editor in chief to have?
A vision of who the audience is that you want to reach, where you want to lead them, and a plan for how to get there.
You moved to L.A. to run theFree Press, and quickly segued into the launch of the Weekly. How did you go about getting up to speed on a city you’d just moved to?
I was a street journalist, so I’m a quick study, and I have good antennae for stories. There were good writers who’d been here long enough, too, so I didn’t have to know everything. I just had to tap into the talent of the town.
When you started theWeekly you were president, publisher and editor in chief, and you were also writing and line-editing copy. Why were you doing everything?
Because we defined undercapitalized when we started, so I had to fill lots of gaps until we got more money.
Did you have fun during those early years? It sounds insanely grueling.
It was fun, but it was also grueling. Some things got easier after Mike Sigman came to the paper in 1983, but other things got harder. Managing growth wasn’t my expertise, and my response to it was to work around the clock. I wasn’t like that before I started the Weekly, and it was a hard habit to break. When things get into your neural net, it’s always work to get them out.
What was the most difficult thing about the job?
Initially it was being undercapitalized, and after that it was managing growth. I’d never run a business before, so I had a lot to learn about what happens when something grows very quickly. Then, after we launched [the now-defunct glossy magazine] L.A. Style, there was a lot more growth management.
A big moneymaker for theWeekly now are the sex ads. Were you carrying those sorts of ads in the early years?
No — the hardcore sex ads came in after we sold the paper. Those ads aren’t what makes the Weekly profitable; however, they are responsible for making it seriously profitable.
During its early years, the Weekly office is rumored to have been a hotbed of drug abuse and interoffice sex. To what degree have those stories been exaggerated?
Wildly. Some people in the production department may’ve been engaged in those sorts of things, but after about a year we brought in an operations manager who said, “There’s a drug problem here, and I’m getting rid of the people who are causing it.”
Did the chaos in the office during those early days contribute to the spirit of the paper?
Oh yeah, definitely. There are lots of different kinds of drugs, by the way. There were people there who obviously smoked grass, but people weren’t walking around the office openly doing drugs. People like to tell stories about the party times, but we were busy putting out a paper and everybody was working their ass off.
To what degree did you envision theWeekly as a regional paper? Did you feel that a major part of your mandate was to cover local politics in an alternative way?
We wanted to cover everything and find the important stories that were local, statewide, national and international. During the Central American years we got a bit preoccupied with international coverage, but ultimately our biggest issue was space. We felt there was an immense amount to cover as an alternative paper in a town where the main media outlet was the L.A. Times — we could’ve put out a 500-page paper every week just covering what they missed. So we had to pick our shots.