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OC Weekly editor quits in dispute with owners

January 26, 2007|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

The founding editor of the OC Weekly, an alternative newspaper that tweaks a county known for conservative politics and master-planned communities, resigned Thursday, citing philosophical differences with new owners.

Will Swaim, 46, announced his resignation at the paper's weekly staff meeting. His resignation was not a surprise, employees said, because it was apparent that his autonomy to run Orange County's only alternative newspaper had eroded since it was purchased last year by the New Times publishing chain, now known as Village Voice Media.

Swaim, who led the paper for 11 years and became publisher in 2004, declined to discuss the differences that led to his departure.

"I just couldn't do the job anymore. There were philosophical differences on how to run the paper. They run a very complicated organization and want to have standardization across all 18 markets," Swaim said, referring to the areas where the owners have newspapers.

"I don't argue whether it's dumb or wrong. It's just not my way."

Village Voice Media also owns the LA Weekly, New Times and the Village Voice, the seminal alternative paper in New York City. The executive editor of Village Voice Media, Michael Lacey, did not return a call for comment.

Swaim said his differences with Village Voice Media were on the business side and did not involve editorial content. He said he would remain on the job "for a while longer" and had no immediate job prospects.

Though the OC Weekly frequently targets conservative politicians, Swaim made the paper "an equal opportunity critic," said Mark Petracca, chairman of the UCI Political Science department and occasional OC Weekly contributor.

"It's critical of the left and right, going after Robert Dornan and Loretta Sanchez with equal fervor," he said, referring to the former GOP congressman and the Democratic congresswoman.

Despite differences over how to run OC Weekly, Swaim said, the new owners praised the quality of journalism produced by a small staff of writers and editors. He supervises a total staff of 38.

Over the years, OC Weekly reporters have jabbed at the county's establishment -- judges, politicians, business and religious leaders -- aiming to expose the hypocrisy hidden under the veneer of what passes for good old American values.

One of their current targets is a Superior Court judge and landlord who has refused to recuse himself from cases involving landlord-tenant disputes. The OC Weekly has made the case that the judge consistently rules against tenants.

The paper has also reported on the sex lives of politicians, including one story that alleged a tryst in a car between a powerful elected official and his female subordinate. The story said the couple's rendezvous was accidentally recorded on voice mail and then inadvertently sent to another person's cellphone.

The newspaper is also known for investigative reporting of stories sometimes overlooked by the county's two major newspapers. Among the more memorable stories uncovered first by OC Weekly were those about former Huntington Beach mayors Dave Garofalo and Pam Julien Houchen.

Garofalo pleaded guilty to a felony and 15 misdemeanors for voting on matters that benefited companies that bought advertising from his publishing business. Houchen pleaded guilty to eight counts of mail and wire fraud in connection with converting two apartment complexes into condominiums.

Rebecca Schoenkopf, who writes the irreverent Commie Girl column, said, "We are so proud of the paper we have put out in the past 11 years.

"A lot of us have been here from the beginning, and we're still here because Will made it a happy and lovely place to work," Schoenkopf said. "We're going to miss him terribly. He has been a gentleman. He has only yelled at me three times in 11 years, and I totally deserved it because I was gossiping about people's salaries."

Gustavo Arellano, a Santa Ana writer whose politically incorrect "¬°Ask a Mexican!" column was conceived by Swaim, said, "Will made me a journalist."

Arellano, who writes occasional opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times, is a former film student who was recruited by Swaim after he wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor threatening to launch a boycott of the paper.

"To see him leave the paper he created, it's crushing," Arellano said. "It was a somber occasion when he announced he was resigning. We gave him a round of applause, and then he asked us what we were working on for next week and went on with the meeting."

Swaim said deciding to walk away from a job he loves was not easy.

"It was one of those things bubbling there for a while, and you get clarity one day," he said. "It was a Zen moment.

"It sounds naive, but I imagined myself retiring at the Weekly one day. I felt I was building an institution that was going to outlast me."

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hgreza@latimes.com

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