In the Fight Over LA Weekly, Cannabis Companies Are Caught in the Middle
In 2008, a year after graduating from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, David Welch watched a close friend get sent to prison for three years for selling marijuana to an undercover cop. The experience set his legal destiny.
“Watching my friend handcuffed and led away to lockup gave me my inspiration to change California’s cannabis criminal laws through litigation, political activism and policy,” he would later recall.
The new owners need cannabis ads to keep the paper afloat. But their initial missteps put that plan in jeopardy.
Welch signed on as a member of NORML, the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws. He built a law practice focused less on criminal justice than on legal cannabis capitalism, representing businesses and investors seeking legitimacy in state-regulated marijuana economies.
Along the way, he boldly injected himself into fights against local governments and even between competing marijuana business interests. Welch represented scores of dispensaries that sued the City of Los Angeles when city officials denied them operating permits. When unlicensed dispensaries undermined the customer base of city-permitted operators in neighboring Santa Ana, Welch went to court for the permitted companies, seeking to shutter their unlicensed competitors.
Now, after establishing himself as a high-profile leader in the California cannabis bar, Welch finds himself embroiled in an unlikely–and particularly bitter–scrum over the future of Los Angeles’ venerable alternative newspaper, the LA Weekly. And the cannabis industry is playing a surprisingly central role in the battle.
Banking on Cannabis Ads
Welch is the general counsel and an investor in Semanal Media, the upstart company that purchased the LA Weekly late last year from the Voice Media Group.
A cultural institution since the 1970s, the paper built a loyal readership base that prized its hard-edged reporting, its progressive voice and it close community connections to the Los Angeles scene, from music to cinema, haute cuisine to taco trucks.
While the paper has slimmed considerably from its economic heyday in the 1990s, cannabis was until recently considered the paper’s ace card, a bulwark against the advertising losses that have sunk countless media outlets over the past decade. The pages of LA Weekly brim with ads for medical marijuana dispensaries, delivery services, cannabis physicians and consumption accessories.
The Weekly, and particularly its new owners, were banking on the already huge Los Angeles cannabis sector surging with retail sales of adult-use marijuana that began on Jan. 1.
“The sale wasn’t about a political agenda, it was about money…pot money to be exact,” wrote Lina Lecaro, a freelance contributor who has written about nightlife, music and art for the LA Weekly for over 25 years and intends to continue writing for the paper. In a Dec. 11 article on the sale for the OC Weekly in neighboring Orange County, she wrote: “When recreational cannabis becomes legal there is tons to be made in advertising for the LA Weekly.”
That was clearly the thinking of the new owners, including Welch who–in lieu of a direct interview–agreed to respond to Leafly’s email questions forwarded to him through a public relations representative.
Welch described the Weekly as being in danger of being unable to meet payroll “without a significant cash infusion” from new investors–in addition to staff reductions.
“The publication was going broke,” he said.
Staff reductions aren’t uncommon in the media world. But the reductions at the Weekly weren’t cutbacks so much as the complete elimination of the editorial staff. And the blowback caught Welch and his fellow investors by surprise.
Hello, You’re Fired
On Nov. 29, a few days after Thanksgiving, the LA Weekly’s new ownership group gutted the paper’s editorial staff, firing nine of the newspaper’s 13 editorial staff members. Editor-in-chief Mara Shalhoup (who was among those let go) compared it to a notoriously bloody episode of Game of Thrones.
We were expecting there to be some pain with the sale of @LAWeekly. But we weren’t expecting the Red Wedding. That’s how deep the cuts are. 1/
— Mara Shalhoup (@mshalhoup) November 29, 2017
At the end of the day, the only recognizable name left standing was staff writer Hillel Aron, who was promoted to acting editor-in-chief.
Despite the new ownership group’s embrace of cannabis economics, the layoffs did not spare veteran journalist Dennis Romero, one of California’s most respected cannabis culture and industry reporters. (Romero, who is now a freelance contributor to Leafly, declined to comment for this article.)
The mass firing sent shockwaves through the city, and generated outrage among media professionals nationwide. The laid off staffers didn’t even know exactly who had fired them, because at that point the identity of the investors who made up the Semanal Group had not been disclosed.
For 10 years, Jeff Weiss contributed stories to LA Weekly, including a regular underground music and culture column, Bizarre Ride. After the layoffs of full-time staffers, including his editor, he resigned in protest.
April Wolfe, the paper’s suddenly exiled film critic, joined Weiss in mounting a Twitter campaign calling for boycott of the Weekly, its website and advertisers. Blasting the new owners, she railed in a tweet: “They have the nerve to say that their publication will ‘speak out against injustice’ after they fired all of us and broke our union while reprinting our stories.”
The battle for LA Weekly was on.
Meet the New Boss
Two days after the mass firing, Semanal Media revealed its principal members.
Protesters picketed the alt-weekly’s offices, carrying #Boycott LAWeekly signs and hauling a coffin filled with paper copies of the newspaper.
Leader of the group was Brian Calle, former opinion editor of the Orange County Register, a paper renowned for its mix of bedrock conservatism and devout libertarianism. His fellow investors included Welch; Orange County real estate developers Mike Mugel and Paul Makarechian; Los Angeles biotech entrepreneur Kevin Xu; and two Orange County executives, attorney and technology CEO Steve Mehr and businessman Andy Bequer. Additionally, Calle said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Berkeley law school also planned to invest.
“There is a lot of talk about who owns L.A. Weekly,” Calle wrote. “We’ve seen all the speculation. Is it a Russian oligarch? Is it some Trumpista? Is it Lord Voldemort?
“Rumors are rampant and the assumption is that someone bought the Weekly for some nefarious reason. But that’s not the case.
“Our new ownership team is a patchwork of people who care about Los Angeles, care about the community and want to once again see an incredibly relevant, thriving L.A. Weekly with edge and grit that becomes the cultural center of the city.
Protests Grow Into a Boycott
The uproar over the mass firing quickly turned into a public relations crisis for the new ownership team.
The identity of the new ownership group—in particular, its conservative Orange County Republican slant—only added fuel to the fire.
On Dec. 8, protesters picketed the alt-weekly’s offices in Culver City carrying #Boycott LAWeekly signs and hauling a coffin filled with paper copies of the newspaper.
The demonstrators seized upon a tweet from the new owners that asked “passionate Angelinos” (misspelling Angelenos) to “share stories about their life and culture in L.A.”—a signal, the protestors said, that the Weekly’s new owners intended to stock the paper with free content. The tweet has since been deleted, and the new owners said in a statement that they will continue paying current rates to freelancers, while working to build contributor ranks.
On Dec. 9, Calle and Welch penned a letter of apology on the Weekly’s Facebook page.
“Our missteps have allowed rumor, conjecture, and misinformation to eclipse fact,” they wrote. “False narratives have snowballed in part because we have not adequately provided our vision and plan for the Weekly’s future to the public.”
They went on to assail “media outlets perpetuating the false narrative that we purchased the Weekly to turn it into a right-wing propaganda machine,” writing: “Nothing could be further from the truth.” They also said, “The new ownership is made up of people from many different backgrounds: progressive, conservative, African American, Asian, Persian, Latino, Caucasian, gay, straight, and immigrant. We believe our diversity gives us strength.”
Then, three days later, they announced the unpaid suspension of LA Weekly’s interim editor Hillel Aron – the only staff member who wasn’t laid off on Nov. 29 – after Spin reported on Aron’s past tweets mocking gay men, feminists and women. Aron apologized for what he said were poor attempts at humor. The new owners said the Twitter posts were out-of-touch “with LA Weekly’s values.”
Same Outlook, or a Whole New Angle?
Weiss and other critics of the sale have charged that Calle’s investment group is poised to turn the Weekly into a GOP and Trumpista house organ. The owners claim no such intent.
Harold Meyerson, LA Weekly editor from 1989 to 2001, wrote that the new owners are out-of-touch with the values of both the paper and Los Angeles. He pointed to Calle, “the editorial page editor of the right-wing Orange County Register” and investors who are “chiefly Orange County Republicans, some of them major donors to the party’s campaigns.”
In a Dec. 24 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Meyerson wrote: “At the Register, Calle’s editorials had promoted the kind of cultural and economic libertarianism that some teenage Ayn Rand acolytes carry into adulthood. Clearly, his hope has been that his cultural libertarianism — in particular, his laissez-faire stance toward marijuana — would enable him to find some common ground with the Weekly’s always disproportionately young readers.”
Actor Mark Ruffalo and director Ava DuVernay embraced the boycott call. Amoeba Music stores announced it would pull a full-page ad and reconsider its future business relationship with the paper. Bill Esparza, a renowned Los Angeles writer on all things tacos, announced he was pulling out of the “Tacolandia” festival he helped create and ran in partnership with LA Weekly.
“I’m taking this #TacoTuesday to announce that after 5 years as the curator and host of @LAWeekly’s Tacolandia, I can no longer be a part of this event,” Esparza wrote on Twitter on Dec. 12. “I won’t support @briancalle or his band of LA hating investors.”
‘Working to Save LA Weekly’
The new owners pushed back. They have a strategy for the paper’s comeback, they insist, and cannabis is part of their strategy.
'We have been targeting dispensaries' because the new owners 'represent the opposite of what I think marijuana is supposed to be.'
“We believe we can develop a business model that works to save LA Weekly,” Welch said. “We see opportunities to expand our business events (and) cannabis advertising as legalization moves forward in California.” He said the new ownership hopes to increase cannabis revenues from ads for cannabis products while improving the Weekly’s online traffic and media partnerships.
That could be difficult, though, if the paper’s cannabis advertisers abandon the Weekly.
Weiss and others upset with the Weekly sale have been contacting Los Angeles cannabis businesses, urging the very advertisers the new owners counted on for the paper’s revival to join the boycott.
“We specifically have been targeting dispensaries–because these men [who bought LA Weekly] represent the opposite of what I think marijuana is supposed to be,” Weiss told Leafly. “It is supposed to expand your mind and relieve your anxiety. It’s a benevolent medicine. But these men represent toxicity. Their actions have been nothing but toxic to the citizens of Los Angeles and the writers of Los Angeles.”
Dispensaries: Caught in the Middle
So far, cannabis industry advertisers don’t appear to be pulling their prized display ads out of the paper. But the turmoil and turnover at the Weekly is stirring concerns in the cannabis sector over whether the paper can remain a productive vehicle for advertisers wanting to reach its hip, culturally connected audience.
'Unless we feel some confidence the LA Weekly will be able to retain its readers in this progressive, cannabis-friendly community, we will have to reconsider' doing business with the paper.
“California is about to legalize pot and Los Angeles is going to be the capital of this industry and the LA Weekly has been ahead of the curve in covering this legitimate industry,” Daniel Yi, communications director for MedMen, told me last week, prior to the Jan. 1, 2018 start of adult-use sales. MedMen operates two cannabis dispensaries in the Los Angeles region, with a third L.A. store about to open downtown.
MedMen, which also has retail dispensaries open in West Hollywood and Santa Ana, has an advertising contract with the LA Weekly that runs through early January, 2018. Yi, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, says the company is sympathetic to the boycott calls and may reconsider doing business with the Weekly after the current contract expires. Key in the decision, he said, is whether the paper’s editorial quality and readership diminish.
“I appreciate what the boycott people are saying,” Yi said. “I think they have reason to be concerned about the ownership…Unless we feel some confidence the LA Weekly will be able to retain its readers in this progressive, cannabis-friendly community, we will have to reconsider.
“They just laid off all but one staffer in the newsroom–and that should give anybody pause.”
Decision Time When the Contract Expires
Also concerned about the tumult is Michael Garganese Jr., co-manager of California vaporizer cartridge company, Lola Lola, which hopes to expand its market reach through Los Angeles’ retail cannabis stores. Based in San Francisco, Lola Lola recently began advertising in the Weekly, its first ad partnership with an alt weekly. Lola Lola paid for ads through this month, but now the controversy is unsettling, Garganese said.
“We haven’t heard much about it, other than the staff got fired,” Garganese said. “I don’t know much about the shake-up or why it happened. I want to support the journalists. But I think it’s a little bit premature for us to make a decision on that.”
“We have our advertising campaign in,” he said last week. “It is set and done for December and January. We will be monitoring the situation and making choices as it all plays out.”