East Coast editor shakes up L.A.’s journalism scene
‘I’ve always been an outsider wherever I am,’ says the editor of Los Angeles magazine
Early last month, Maer Roshan, the editor of Los Angeles magazine, received an ominous letter just as he was about to publish a damning and deeply reported feature on Yashar Ali, a former political operative who has more recently achieved widespread admiration as a buccaneering freelance journalist and popular Twitter personality. His impressively sourced stories have, over the past few years, taken down several high-profile figures in the media and entertainment industries.
But the piece told a more complicated story, alleging a “rather checkered history” of legal troubles as well as grifting and other manipulative behavior fundamentally at odds with the righteous persona Ali had crafted for his hundreds of thousands of social media followers. During the fact-checking process, the story took a troubling turn, as Ali disclosed on Twitter that he was suffering from suicidal ideations, “prompting concern and warm words of support from thousands of people,” as the journalist Peter Kiefer wrote in his article.
So it was with some level of concern when, right before press time, Roshan got a lawyer’s note written on Ali’s behalf. The letter, according to Roshan, warned somewhat vaguely that his publication would be held responsible if anything should happen to Ali after the story came out. He published it anyway. The story went viral immediately, trending on Twitter for days and setting new traffic records for the magazine.
Despite its success, the feature story, which took five months to produce, was perhaps more than anyone involved had bargained for. Ali, who did not respond to a request for comment, has yet to publicly address the piece, and he has barely tweeted since it went online at the beginning of June. “I hope everything is well with him,” Roshan, 53, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. But the veteran magazine editor also wonders how other publications had missed it. “It was so obvious,” Roshan marveled. “I was like, why isn’t anyone doing this story?”
The same could be said for any number of articles Roshan has published at Los Angeles magazine since he took over in January 2019. Over that short period of time, Roshan has helped reinvigorate the scrappy monthly periodical, which turns 60 in November, as a formidable presence in California’s contracting media ecosystem, where outlets like Los Angeles Weekly, The Orange County Register and California Sunday Magazine have either faced steep staff reductions or shuttered entirely.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, seems now to be operating on solid footing, though it has also seen cuts in recent years. During the pandemic, when newsstand sales for many magazines experienced steep drops, Los Angeles increased its circulation, Roshan says, and web traffic has quadrupled under his leadership. The magazine, he emphasizes, is profitable.
Published by Hour Media Group, the magazine had been struggling to achieve relevance before Roshan came on. “It was a lot of service journalism, like best parks and stuff like that,” he said of the outlet, which is the oldest independently published city magazine in the country. When he interviewed for the job, Roshan pitched a more ambitious approach, vowing to pursue splashier and scoop-driven features on politics, Hollywood and other power nodes in Los Angeles and beyond. “They were like, ‘Yeah, we’re up for that,’” Roshan said. “I’m like, are you sure?”
Even with a small editorial staff operating on a shoestring budget, Roshan has consistently pushed the magazine to punch above its weight, producing substantive features on local power brokers like Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Gov. Gavin Newsom and Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff who was elected on a progressive mantle but has since taken a sharp turn to the right. “We did a big story which kind of set the tone,” Roshan said of the Villanueva profile. “We called him ‘the Donald Trump of L.A.,’ and I think he’s now adopting that formally.”
Roshan’s coverage has often been prescient. He commissioned an early story on the campaign to free Britney Spears from a controversial conservatorship and scored the first interview with Charlotte Kirk, the British actress entangled in a series of Hollywood sex scandals. Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, Los Angeles was the only outlet to report from inside Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s COVID bunker, and two summers ago, Roshan published a deeply revealing interview with Louise Linton, an actress who is married to former Trump administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
As a recent Los Angeles transplant, Roshan is now drawing on previous high-level editing roles at publications like New York and Talk, where he served as an editorial director in the early aughts. But in many ways, the experience of navigating newfound terrain, on deadline, is a familiar one for the seasoned editorial hand. Throughout his decades-long career in journalism, Roshan averred, his perspective has often been “shaped by a sense of being both a participant and an outsider in very different worlds.”
He grew up in Tehran as a Jewish kid with an American mom, he noted, and entered a Long Island yeshiva as a 12-year-old Iranian immigrant with no knowledge of Hebrew. During high school in Queens, Roshan, who is gay, studied Talmud while “mingling with club kids in Manhattan on the weekends.” For his college essay at New York University, he was asked to write about two people he admired. “I chose Truman Capote and Menachem Begin,” he said.
“The same duality has informed my career,” Roshan said, before going through his diverse resumé. He started a gay weekly in New York City “at the height of the AIDS crisis,” he said, “and a global addiction news site at the height of the opioid epidemic.” Radar, which he started in 2003 on his living-room floor, “regularly took on the sacred cows of the establishment,” Roshan told JI, while being funded by Jeffrey Epstein and Mort Zuckerman. “I think that varied experience has been a valuable asset as a journalist,” Roshan argued, “especially at this awful, polarized moment in our culture and our media.”
So far, readers seem to have appreciated Roshan’s new and more adversarial direction at Los Angeles, though he acknowledges that his tenure has not been without controversy. Near the end of his first year atop the masthead, Roshan published a long profile of Gavin McInnes — the Vice co-founder and Proud Boys figurehead — that was accused by some critics of sanitizing his image as a far-right provocateur. “We got a lot of shit for that one,” Roshan said. “But that story was just in Vanity Fair.”
While Roshan often aims to compete with the Los Angeles Times, the city’s leading daily, he accepts that his publication is operating at a major disadvantage, at least in terms of institutional resources. Still, what the magazine lacks in size, Roshan says, it makes up for in spunk. “What we can bring,” he told JI, is a “different kind of sensibility” as well as “more attitude.”
The former editor of the Times agrees. “He is a careful editor who knows a good story when he sees it and certainly has an appetite for accountability journalism,” said Norman Pearlstine, who tried to hire Roshan after taking over as the paper’s executive editor in 2018. “He got the offer to do L.A. magazine, and understandably opted for something where he could basically run his own show,” Pearlstine, who stepped down from the Times late last year, told JI. “He’s done a few pieces that I certainly looked at and said, when I was in L.A., these are things that the Los Angeles Times should have gone after.”
“Some of the things he doesn’t print are as impressive as the things he does,” Pearlstine added. “I don’t mean that he withholds things, but he’s an editor who encourages people to stretch, encourages them to take risks. But then he does have the ability, when the piece comes in, to be an advocate for the reader, and that distinguishes him from a lot of editors.”
Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, upped the ante when asked for his appraisal of Roshan’s editorial chops. “He’s the last great magazine editor,” Denton said in an email exchange with JI, “but I’m guessing everybody says that.”
Denton’s website, before it went under, was known for its often unsparing documentation of New York’s media machers, and Roshan garnered his fair share of coverage, particularly as the founding editor of Radar, a magazine whose gimlet-eye ethos aligned in many ways with Gawker’s swashbuckling style.
For a time, Roshan was something of a quintessential New York media figure, an in-demand editor courted by Tina Brown and Kurt Andersen who was widely respected for his incisive editorial eye and well-known for his ubiquitous presence on the late-night party circuit. The journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis, who wrote for Roshan during his time as a deputy editor at New York magazine in the ’90s, recalled running into him on the scene when she began doing party coverage early in her career. “He was always the brightest light in any room,” she told JI, “full of laughter, intelligence and kind ribbing.”
“We started working together and he taught me everything I know about reporting,” Grigoriadis said. “Mostly, it was about being fair to people while also telling the story you wanted to tell. I also always think about him whenever I go to a party, because he taught me that you should never leave without saying goodbye to not only the host but everyone you talked to while you were there. I prefer Irish exits myself, but I always think, ‘I should do this for Maer.’”
Roshan seems to have broken his own rule when he left the New York media world a decade or so ago after relaunching Radar. He had good reason for doing so, though, having struggled for some time with alcohol addiction, which precipitated his brief yet messy departure from public life. Roshan sobered up at a rehab facility in the Valley and emerged reenergized, founding a sobriety website called The Fix and finally landing in Los Angeles about six years ago, in part so he could be closer to his family.
The change of scenery has been positive for Roshan as he has immersed himself in his adopted city after decades on the East Coast. “The culture is being made here on all sorts of levels,” he said, noting that he is learning fast about Los Angeles in his new role editing the city’s titular magazine.
It isn’t the first time Roshan has found himself in a new environment following a period of profound disruption. Roshan was relatively insulated from antisemitism growing up in Iran, attending an elite international school where he and his classmates — many of whom were children of diplomats — pledged allegiance to the United Nations.
Roshan’s parents, both Jewish, settled in Iran after meeting at college in the United States. His mother was from Far Rockaway, in Queens, and his father was Persian. “Shockingly, when I think back about it now, my mom, who was raised Orthodox, suddenly decided to marry my dad and move to Iran,” Roshan recalled, “which at the time was not a place where nice Jewish girls were running off to.”
He fled the country with his family in 1979 as the Islamic revolution was underway and before the ayatollah returned from exile. “It was pretty bad by then,” Roshan recalled. “There were people on the streets and they were setting fires.” His father stayed behind to sort things out, escaping nearly a decade later, but died of cancer shortly after arriving on American shores.
In the U.S., Roshan first lived with his maternal grandparents in Queens, and although he was only casually observant in Iran, he was now expected to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle. “We came from this world where we had Passover and Yom Kippur, but there was not much beyond that, really,” Roshan told JI. “Suddenly, we were going to yeshiva and wearing yarmulkes.”
“There were nice things and also vexing things about that experience,” he said. “Shabbos seemed so awful when it started — like, are you kidding, we can’t turn the TV on? But even now, I think there’s something nice about this idea of just turning everything off and engaging with your family or your friends.” At his Jewish day school, Roshan ran for office, which required that he deliver a speech in Hebrew. He hadn’t quite yet mastered the language, he recalled, “so I had to write it down in, like, phonetics.”
Later, Roshan moved to Long Island’s Five Towns with his mother, and they loosened up a bit from a religious standpoint, even as he continued to attend yeshiva through high school. “It was hardcore,” he said of his experience at an all-boys yeshiva in Forest Hills, Queens, though there were some unexpected delights, including his rabbi, whom Roshan describes as something of a formative influence. “He was a special, interesting guy,” said Roshan. “He could talk about the Sex Pistols. He was pretty out there for a rabbi.”
Near the end of high school, Roshan was receiving a different education as he ventured into Manhattan, “hanging out with yeshiva buchers by day and drag queens by night,” as he put it. “It was very interesting, living different parts of life simultaneously.” He came out to his mother right after he graduated from high school, on his way to college and a career in media. “My mom was not incredibly happy when I told her,” he said. “It was hard at times, sure, but it would have been hard if I wasn’t Orthodox.”
While Roshan is no longer Orthodox — he jettisoned his yarmulke when he got to NYU — the former yeshiva student still feels a connection with that part of his past. “It’s kind of baggage you can’t lose, nor do I want to,” he said.
“I think more than anything, my religious education provided me with a very basic moral code — a sense of decency and right and wrong that has proved to be remarkably adaptable throughout my life,” Roshan told JI. “Don’t lie. Be kind. Avoid envy. Stay humble. Basic, even cliché. But they helped me get through moments in my life where such distinctions were sometimes cloudy.”
More than anything, Roshan has been dedicated to journalism. “Other little boys liked baseball stars, and I was really big on the news,” he said of his childhood admiration for such iconic editors as Clay Felker, Harold Hayes and Hugh Hefner.
The journalist Aaron Gell, who worked with Roshan at Radar and has since edited some pieces at Los Angeles on a freelance basis — including the story on Ali — described his old boss in an email to JI as “maybe the only one of us left who, despite all the agonies of the media business, still genuinely loves the game and plays it with unrelenting joy.”
After college, Roshan ventured to Key West, Fla., assuming he would make it work as a writer while working on a fishing boat. “But obviously no one was going to hire me for their fishing boat,” he said. Instead, he got his first job as a crime and Navy reporter for the Key West Citizen. The beats, he said, often intersected.
Back in New York following his southern sojourn, Roshan started a gay weekly magazine, QW, and began working his way up the New York media career ladder, passing through New York and Talk on his way to Radar and The Fix.
When he arrived at Los Angeles not long ago, Roshan remembered being told that his experience would be underwhelming compared with New York. “One of the things people said was, ‘You’re going to get to L.A., and it’s going to be a media backwater’ and ‘no one’s going to pay attention,’” he said. “But I think, if nothing else, we’ve proved that not to be the case.”
Now coming up on his third year at the helm, he believes the magazine is well-poised for success. He has launched a number of podcasts, released special issues and is even experimenting with NFTs for various covers. Events are in the works. He is optimistic about expanding the publication’s portfolio of offerings.
“Maer understands what a mass audience wants, on a deep level,” said Grigoriadis, his former charge. “He knows they want to be told a story, and they want to learn something, but they want to have fun at the same time. He’s also incredibly gifted at identifying ‘who will be hot next.’”
It helps, Roshan suggested, that he can maintain something of a constructive distance from his immediate environment. “I’ve always been an outsider,” he said, “wherever I am.”