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In the Beginning

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.]

 

L.A. Weekly: The Weekly 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 the Weekly’s first office, at Sunset and Western. To what degree is the Weekly 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 of The 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 the Free 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 the Weekly 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 the Weekly 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 the Weekly 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.

In reflecting on your last years at the Weekly, you’ve been quoted as saying, “I was going crazy. I was so exhausted I turned toxic from all the stress . . . so I needed out.” That suggests it was your choice to leave the paper. Was it?

Yeah. I’d been on the board of a low-power TV network a buddy of mine, Jeff Nightbyrd, had started, so I got a taste for TV and started thinking about what I could do there. I’m a restless type, and I’d been at the Weekly for 12 years by the time I left, and I’d never felt I was meant to do the Weekly for the rest of my life. I wanted to explore the opportunities in television, but unfortunately I was ahead of the curve with my ideas about that medium.

What did you do after you left television?

I did some community-service work, I worked with some floundering newspaper chains I was asked to help with, and I got involved with a couple of partners in creating some Internet sites that didn’t get launched because our timing was just before the crash. Then I started Share With the Other L.A., an organization that raises money and does pro bono work to educate the public about poverty in L.A. County, which has the most poor people, and by far the most hungry people, in America. I’m not referring to the homeless — that’s a population of approximately 8,500 people, and that’s not where the real poverty is. The real issue is the million and a half people who are working poor and food insecure. The cost of living here is staggering, and we have a Third World economy living next to a First World economy. There are 4 million people here near the poverty line, so it’s roof or food for a lot of people in L.A. County. These things aren’t widely known here, because the media is so bad, and L.A. is a city where people are separated by apartheid. So, I’m involved with that, and I do some work around media reform with a group called Media Challenge.

Rumor has it that you’re now a therapist.

It’s sort of service work I do, not as a “shingle” counselor, but I help people, yes. After leaving the television network, I followed a lifelong interest in spirituality and psychology, and I did a number of programs.

 

Was it you who selected Kit Rachlis (currently the editor of Los Angeles Magazine) to replace you as editor of the Weekly?

Ultimately I did, because I cast the deciding vote that gave him the job. He seemed like the right man for the job because he was culturally sophisticated in ways I felt would work for the paper.

Rachlis has said that when he came onboard in 1989, one of his main goals was “to re-establish the Weekly’s journalistic credibility.” Had the Weekly’s credibility eroded?

In Kit’s mind.

What sort of changes did you see in the paper under Rachlis’ editorship?

There’s a certain passion the Weekly had for consciously working to make a difference with that big story, and the paper abandoned — apparently permanently — really strong journalism that tries to do the big story. It opted instead to provide a forum for writer’s voices, and became much more centrist in terms of its politics. A right-winger won’t say that, but viewed from the perspective of where the Weekly came from, it became significantly more centrist.

Did those changes reflect an overall shift in alternative papers, or were they specific to Rachlis’ editorship?

 

Changes at the Weekly aren’t necessarily reflective of broader cultural shifts, because there are many areas in which the Weekly doesn’t keep up with the world at large.

What sort of changes did Sue Horton (now editor of the L.A. Times Sunday Opinion section) bring to the Weekly?

Sue went to a lot of local coverage and stepped back big time from coverage of national issues. It was solid, dependable local coverage, but the big stories didn’t show up on a regular basis.

And what does the Laurie Ochoa Weekly look like?

She’s tightened and sharpened the local news coverage, and added back some commentary on national affairs, but the focus is mostly on the local culture, both the arts culture and the people culture.

You came of age smack-dab in the middle of the ’60s counterculture; to what degree did it shape your worldview?

Experiencing the ’60s as a young person completely altered my worldview and made me overwhelmingly optimistic. Not more patient, but more optimistic.

To what degree was The Village Voice the model for the Weekly?

The Village Voice was my root model, no question about it, but there were things I wanted the Weekly to cover that The Voice didn’t deal with — the human-development movement and environmentalism, for instance. So, The Voice was missing a piece.

In the Weekly’s 10th-anniversary issue you commented, “We took it as axiomatic that the forces for profound human change were so overwhelming that in our lifetimes it was foreseeable that war, violence and poverty would be put behind us and that the world would come to be led by people like ourselves, committed to economic and social justice.” Why didn’t those changes come to pass?

Because the evolutionary process has been slower than I anticipated. In the optimism of youth, it seemed inconceivable to me that civilization could encounter these truths and not move towards them, but the fundamentalist, patriarchal, capitalist view turned out to be more entrenched than I thought. Still, there’s been enormous progress. Yes, we invaded Iraq, but we also had the largest anti-war demonstration in history, and that’s not insignificant. In the gut there’s a turning away from war on the part of mass populaces.

Do you read the Weekly now?

I’m quite busy, so I don’t read it cover to cover, but I read a fair amount of it.

Can you recall the last great piece you read in it?

Jamie Wolf’s piece on Howard Dean was the last great piece they ran. I also like [science writer] Margaret Wertheim — she’s a major plus.

What compromises has the Weekly had to make in order to survive?

When I was there, I guess you could say the shopping guides we occasionally published were a concession to advertisers. But somebody’s got to pay for a liberated press in this country, and it seemed that for the Weekly to support the small businesses around town that were up against the malls was a nice partnership. If you take a completely anti-consumer point of view, the shopping guides could be seen as a compromise, but we felt they offered good consumer information and were a good wedding of shared interests.

Michael Ventura, one of the Weekly’s founding writers, has said, “The Weekly we started didn’t last 20 years,” and suggests that the only aspect of it that’s survived is the logo. Do you agree?

Some of the founding principles of the paper continue to operate there, but some of them have eroded. To support the more educated elements of Western civilization, and what creative people around town might be up to on a grassroots level — in that sense there’s been some cleaving to the paper’s founding principles. In many other areas I agree with Michael, and that’s as far as I’d like to go.

What was the greatest strength of the Weekly under your stewardship?

Its adventurousness and openness to compelling new voices.

Who are the great writers who’ve emerged from the Weekly?

Michael Ventura, number one, of course. There’s such a bundle of people who grew up writing at the Weekly. John Powers really came of age at the Weekly, Ginger Varney had her moment there, Joie Davidow certainly did some great work, Greg Goldin, Robert Lloyd — almost anybody who wrote for us during a certain period.

What did it cost you in personal terms to launch the Weekly?

It cost me a huge amount of stress, and the stability that’s required in order to maintain a solid relationship.

 

What aspect of your work there are you most proud of?

I’m proud of some of the journalism we did because we had a major impact on cleaning up the air, on Central America, and on the progressive political movement in L.A. County. I recently got an e-mail from somebody I’d never met who said, “The Weekly and the work you did there had an enormous impact on my life because it opened my perspective up and made me take a different path in life.” I get a lot of that, and it’s a very gratifying thing to hear.

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