Can <em>Slake</em> Quench LA's Media Thirst?

The LA media landscape just got richer. Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa have joined forces to produce the debut issue of the quarterly.
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The LA media landscape just got richer.

Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa -- the deputy editor and editor, respectively, of LA Weekly until both were forced out by corporate overlords from Phoenix in recent years -- have joined forces to produce the debut issue of the quarterly Slake Los Angeles. (You may need to paste into your browser to see the link.) It's a gorgeous, 232-page mix of journalism, fiction, poetry, photography and art, including a provocative take on fruit art by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold, the elegant prose of John Powers on the Beverly Hills Burglars and Fortress LA -- a mind-bending photo essay exposing the legion of military installations that surround Angelenos. Newer writers also weigh in with extended sagas: Jamie Brisick on Malibu, surfing and drugs and actor David Schneider's wild odyssey and jail chronicle Ballad of the Trunk Monkey Bandit.

Having been dispatched by a prior set of LA Weekly corporate overlords, I never got to work with Joe, who earlier in his career edited the avant surf punk magazine Bikini. His groundbreaking work on Sam Slovick's Skid Row series might be the finest example of his editing skills. And his own writing -- from his I Got Feelings Too, Man blog to the gripping tale The Pirate of Penance, the centerpiece in Slake, reveals a deep, funny, passionate voice eager to illuminate LA's problems, its beauty and its contradictions. (Disclosure: I've given publishing advice to the founders, but I have no role or financial interest in Slake.)

Laurie's the only person I know who can say she left a big job to spend less time with her family: Jonathan Gold is her husband and he has stayed on as the Weekly's star attraction. When I hired her in 2001 -- I was the Weekly's publisher at the time and she was executive editor of Gourmet -- Laurie envisioned a paper with a sense of passion and humor and original thinking, a thirst for discovery and uncovering the new and the unconventional. Shortly after Laurie arrived, so did 9/11, and she and the staff, on deadline, tore up the issue they'd been working on all week and replaced it with original, meaningful coverage that captured and foretold the massive impact the day's events would have on our lives. Over the next eight years, she helped bring out the best in such veteran writers as John Powers, Harold Meyerson and Marc Cooper while nurturing such younger talents as Scott Foundas, Daniel Hernandez, David Zahniser, Matthew Fleischer, Deborah Vankin and Dani Katz.

A recent Gregory Rodriguez op ed in the LA Times articulated the city's need to claim its due as a world-class cultural force. (Never mind the irony of where the piece appeared.) Ochoa and Donnelly agree, and hope their small but mighty enterprise can eventually expand to include books, film, documentaries, special projects and even a mentoring/educational program. Donnelly: "It's long been important to me that Los Angeles not outsource its creative and intellectual assets to New York just because that city is the corporate headquarters of publishing. L.A. faces the responsibilities and privileges of the modern world more than any other city in the country. We're the world's ex-pat capital, especially when it comes to South America and the Pacific Rim. It's a city of neighborhoods unified by a subtle, sometimes esoteric idea, and so is Slake."

Convinced there's a hunger among consumers for long-form print journalism and fiction, Slake's editors throw down the gauntlet against the meme -- promoted most notably by Nicholas Carr in his Atlantic essay Is Google Making Us Stupid? and his new book The Shallows -- that today's Internet-obsessed readers can't keep their minds on anything beyond a few minutes of Tweets or YouTubes.

Ochoa says, "Joe and I have been able to bring together a fantastic collection of voices and images in this first issue and we were lucky enough to work with two designers, Alex Bacon and Dan Peterka, who took our impulse of discovery and extended that to the look of the book. I think the mix of voices and looks reflects Los Angeles, which is so hard to define with a single voice."

Slake Los Angeles's limited resources are being poured into the print product, and there was no ad sales effort for the first issue. This naturally raises questions about the viability of Slake's business model. Revenue at the outset will come from newsstand and bookstore sales ($18 per copy), subscriptions ($60 for a year's supply of the quarterly) and sponsorships by such local institutions as Westwood's Hammer Museum and Pasadena's Europane Bakery. Marketing efforts include a launch party, readings at bookstores, radio and TV appearances by the editors and, perhaps, lots of free PR from the journalistic community.

So far, Slake Los Angeles is self-funded and the pockets are not deep. Capital will be needed in order to fulfill their longer-term plans, but Donnelly says they can keep the quarterly going without a big cash infusion until an investor who shares their vision comes along.

Given California's continuing economic woes and the crisis in print publishing -- and that, in a decision that defies the reigning orthodoxy,, the group's new media effort going live this week, will be modest at the outset -- can Slake survive? Who knows. But it's refreshing to see that right now LA has a gloriously expansive new magazine whose existence has nothing to do with distant ownership, multinucleated management, dotted-line org-charts, focus groups, sticky eyeballs or five-year budget projections.

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