Staff writer, news editor 1983-1984
Media columnist 1986-1988
News feature editor, staff writer 2001-2008
It was in late 1983 and I was working as news editor for the Weekly when founder and then-Editor Jay Levin called me into his office and immediately showered me with precisely the sort of brainstorm for which he was already notorious.
“We’re going to do an entire special issue on Central America,” Jay told me. He didn’t ask me. He ordered me. “A sort of primer so that our readers will get the whole picture. Cover to cover. And you’re going to edit it.” Don’t sweat it, he reassured me. I had something like a whole five or six weeks to pull it all together.
At the time, the Reagan administration was funding a covert contra war in Nicaragua, propping up a bloody war-torn regime in El Salvador, training special forces in Honduras, and running secret operations out of Costa Rica, so this was hardly virgin territory. But talk about Demanding the Impossible. We were a growing but still a relatively modest weekly, with a tiny paid reporting staff and scant resources. And now we were supposed to out-report the Mainstream Media on the hottest foreign policy issue of the day?
Levin, almost alone among editors of America’s alternative weeklies, had a burning passion for international coverage. When other metro weeklies were focused on music, movies and maybe the local gentrification generated by their own base of advertisers, Levin wanted to cover all of that plus half of the rest of the world. He never bought into the conventional wisdom that somehow when the sort of sophisticated Angeleno reader who was attracted to the Weekly picked up the paper, only the portion of his or her brain that concentrated on local affairs remained attractive.
And Levin put his money where his passion led him. He had already paid for expensive stories I had produced from Salvador and Nicaragua. We even had a staff writer, Ginger Varney, actually based in Honduras during that time. A cover story a year or so before by Greg Goldin had compiled the gruesome list of massacres perpetuated with U.S. support in El Salvador.
Within a handful of weeks, somehow, it all amazingly came together. We published a thick, dedicated Central American Primer edition with ground reports and analytical pieces from every hot spot in the region. And it wasn’t just Weekly staffers and freelancers who pitched in. Our collection of pieces also included contributions from noted academics, including Norma Chinchilla and the late UCLA scholar E. Bradford Burns.
No one had ever seen anything like this before from an alt-weekly. And not too much since (with the exception of The Village Voice during a period in the ’80s and early ’90s). Thanks to Levin’s startling idea and his fearlessness in breaking all the supposed rules of engagement for metro weeklies, the California Newspaper Publishers Association gave its 1984 prize for “Best Special Edition” to our Central American Primer.
It was that moment in history, I believe, that the Weekly — only about 5 years old — formally shed its skin as a funky, local throwaway and became a paper of gravitas, which demanded to be taken seriously.