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Ex-OC Weekly chief to give Long Beach some attitude

Backed by Republican money, Will Swaim will unleash an alternative paper on 'little Chicago.'

March 18, 2007|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Commie Girl consorting with Republican lawyers? That's one of the odd side effects of last week's announcement that former OC Weekly publisher Will Swaim would launch a new alternative paper in Long Beach.

Swaim quit OC Weekly six weeks ago, citing philosophical differences with the renegade paper's new owner, Phoenix-based Village Voice Media, formerly New Times.

An exodus of writers and editors followed, throwing OC Weekly into turmoil. Even the paper's two interns quit. Most of the defectors have resurfaced at Swaim's Long Beach paper, the District, which is to debut April 11.

Such a massive brain drain to a start-up publication is "pretty unusual" in the alternative press world, said Richard Karpel, executive director of the Assn. of Alternative Newsweeklies.

Even more unusual is that Swaim and his notoriously anti-establishment staff, which includes former OC Weekly columnist Rebecca "Commie Girl" Schoenkopf, are being bankrolled by a team of Republican lawyers from Orange County, he said.

If the new paper flops, Swaim said, the unholy alliance would make "a great premise for a TV sitcom." He declined to name the paper's investors, saying they wished to remain anonymous.

Swaim, who lives in Irvine, predicted that the District would look and sound more like OC Weekly than the real OC Weekly, which is scrambling to replace lost staffers. He described the upheaval at his old paper as "the fast and furious meltdown of a once-great" publication.

Nonsense, replied Gustavo Arellano, one of the writers who stayed put after Swaim left.

Although OC Weekly has lost some distinctive personalities, "the tone of the paper will be the same -- irreverent, with hard-hitting news stories," he said.

Arellano, who pens OC Weekly's popular and sassy Ask a Mexican column (and contributes to The Times' opinion section), acknowledged that some readers were skeptical.

"There's a perception that anybody who would stay with this so-called evil company must have sold out to the dark side," he said. But Arellano disputed allegations that Village Voice Media interferes with editorial content and downplays political writing in its publications.

Even Swaim said his differences with the new owners involved business matters, not articles.

Seeking to restore equilibrium, OC Weekly just hired a new music editor, Dave Segal, from the Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly, and writer Luke Y. Thompson from LA Weekly. More hires are in the works, including a new publisher.

But finding editors and writers who can maintain the vibe established by the old regime might be tough, said Jeffrey Brody, a communications professor at Cal State Fullerton. "We'll read it and see if it still has the same feeling."

Brody also wondered if Squeeze OC, an Orange County Register publication aimed at the same audience, would gain readers in the wake of OC Weekly's woes.

Michael Lacey, executive editor for Village Voice Media, didn't return messages seeking comment on the situation at OC Weekly.

But Karpel predicted the Orange County paper would be fine. Lacey's team "has been [in this business] for 30 years. They know how to do it," he said.

Karpel also predicted success for Swaim's Long Beach venture. "He's a great editor, and I'd bet his new paper will do really well," Karpel said.

Swaim, 46, said he had been eyeing the area for about a decade. In 1998, three years after helping to found OC Weekly, he suggested a Long Beach spinoff to his then-bosses, but the idea went nowhere.

He said he revived the concept after spiraling into depression under OC Weekly's new ownership. "In December, I stopped taking antidepressants and decided to leave the paper," Swaim said.

At first, he toyed with the idea of competing directly with OC Weekly but finally settled on Long Beach.

"It's a city with everything -- visionary artists, great bars and restaurants, a thriving music scene and a culture of political corruption that's like Christmas every day for investigative reporters," Swaim said. "I feel like I've discovered a little Chicago."

Long Beach is already served by several independent weeklies but none in the mold that Swaim envisions.

The District, so named because Long Beach is carved into various districts, will probably debut as a 32-page tabloid, about half the size of OC Weekly's inaugural issue. The initial press run will be 30,000 copies. OC Weekly's circulation is 78,000.

So far, just a handful of ads have been sold for the new paper, but Swaim said that was normal for a start-up. He said the paper had enough seed money to last nine months without turning a profit. To cut overhead, Swaim's staff will telecommute. The District has no offices, he said.

A television version of the paper will follow this summer.

The paper's website, thedistrictweekly.com, will include blogs and -- maybe down the road -- music and film downloads.

Swaim wanted to call his paper the Scorpion, after a Russian attack submarine parked next to the Queen Mary. But his advertising staff vetoed the idea. "We're trying to sell ad space to Macy's," they told him.

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roy.rivenburg@latimes.com

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