How I Became Publisher of the L.A. Weekly
General manager 1983-1984
President and publisher 1993-2002
I became publisher of L.A. Weekly because I wasn’t an asshole.
It was 25 years ago. I’d just lost the only job I’d ever had. Writing for and then editing the New York–based music trade magazine Record World was a dream come true. But the publication had just folded, a victim of the Reagan recession and owners who wouldn’t speak to each other.
I didn’t know how to find another job that guaranteed a deluge of free records, concert tickets and junkets to San Francisco to hang out with Jefferson Airplane. Then my old high school friend Lenny hooked me up with the Weekly’s founder Jay Levin, who was looking for a publisher so he could concentrate on editing the paper.
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Soon thereafter, Jay was in New York and called to set up a meeting. His first words — “Do you take steam?” — indicated that Jay communicated mysteriously and that he wanted to interview me in a Manhattan sauna. Feeling sweaty enough already, I demurred, and we settled on breakfast at a seedy West Side diner.
It quickly became apparent to both of us that I was not the man for the job. I knew nothing about Los Angeles, alternative weeklies or how to be a publisher. Jay hired a guy named Ed, who was qualified, and that was that.
The L.A. Weekly staff at that time was a glorious collection of angry anarchists, pierced punks and nihilistic malcontents who, shall we say, did not have a healthy relationship with authority. Any new publisher would have been greeted with suspicion, but Ed wasted no time digging his own grave when he told the women on the production staff they needed to shave under their arms because they looked too much like lesbians.
Then “Mr. Ed the talking publisher,” as he was immediately dubbed, buried himself when he told the staff that his baseball cap would be transferred — literally — to the head of production whenever Ed was out of the office. This would symbolize a temporary transfer of power, like when the president undergoes anesthesia and the VP takes over. (John Curry, the production manager, was a budding rock & roll star with a shock of bright orange hair so vivid that I once heard the hookers who shared our corner of Sunset and Hobart yell “Go back to Mars” as he emerged from the haunted house that served as the Weekly building.)
Ed disappeared so quickly he almost seemed an apparition, and suddenly I was a more attractive candidate. Jay invited me to L.A. to talk more about the publisher gig. When the conversations went reasonably well, he offered me the job, perhaps more out of desperation than confidence. (I came in as GM, with the written promise I would be named publisher as soon as I learned the ropes.)
I was thrilled to get in on the ground floor of the Weekly. The paper was full of energy, passion and lefty politics. It provided information, analysis and criticism with a take you couldn’t get anywhere else, and was beginning to bring together many disparate elements of L.A.’s political and cultural life.
I had just one huge reservation. Given my Palinesque lack of experience and Jay’s abrupt firing of Ed, why should I believe I wouldn’t be dispatched just as speedily?
Jay’s answer: “You’re not an asshole.”
I was sold.
The Weekly was painfully, hilariously chaotic when I arrived. Swift action was needed, and at the outset I fashioned three bold policies which, as far as I know, are still in effect today: “No hitting,” “No doing hard drugs in the office (go outside)” and “No stealing other people’s food.”
For the next two decades, I had the best seat in the house as the Weekly chronicled and participated in the astonishing transformation of L.A.’s culture, politics and life. No matter what the challenges — and believe me, “L.A. Weekly, not for the faint-hearted” was a frequently invoked mantra for very good reason — I nearly always felt that I had the best job in the world.
But impermanence is the one thing we can truly count on. One day early in 2002, without warning, the CEO of the Weekly’s parent company strolled into my office and fired me. (The paper was, by then, part of a chain owned by heavily leveraged bankers like Goldman Sachs, whose visionary business savvy you’re hearing so much about these days.)
The explanation for my termination was “It’s time for a change,” which comprised exactly the same number of syllables as “You’re not an asshole.”
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