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On the Media: Slake jumps right in

The journal's long-form approach was slow to attract backers, so editors Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa went ahead and published the first issue, with work by Jonathan Gold, Michelle Huneven and more.

July 07, 2010|James Rainey

Jonathan Gold takes a sensual look at a 17th century painting and builds to something like rapture. Jerry Stahl asserts that Sammy ("Can you actually cry out of a glass eye?") Davis Jr. did more for the black man than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. John Powers schools us on the thieving Bling Ring, more honest about their consumer gluttony than the celebrity media who pretend to stand above them.

Moments of surprise, whimsy and unconventional truth burst from the pages of Slake: Los Angeles, the new quarterly journal whose editors have essentially flipped the bird at the faster-quicker-shorter imperatives that are supposed to define 21st century media.

Proving they are determinedly retro, founders Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa have only begun to build a website. But they highly buffed an inaugural edition of 232 thick, glossy pages — filled with essays, poetry, photography, short fiction, reported stories and almost no advertising. They'd like to do the same thing at least four times a year, as long as money holds out. It's anybody's guess how long that might be.

The two editors, refugees from the alternative LA Weekly, figured they could wait months or years to build a sensible business plan to sustain the kind of long-form journalism they love. Or they could bank on donations from Donnelly, a bunch of his relatives and a handful of other sponsors and plunge right in.

After some initial stabs at planning and meetings with funders, the two journalists found their vision of storytelling uniquely out of step with the times.

"It just didn't register," Ochoa said. "They wanted to know whether it had an iPhone app [or] can you make it short enough for Twitter. We said 'Let's just do it and show people what we are talking about.' "

Slake has been on sale for roughly a week and is available at selected bookstores, including Vroman's, Book Soup, Skylight Books and Diesel: A Bookstore. (Barnes & Noble has the journal on order. Slakemedia.com plans to post sales locations.)

At $18 a copy and $60 for an annual, four-edition subscription, Slake might seem like a hard sell. But the young twentysomething behind the counter at Vroman's told me he found it winning. Customers had been buying it briskly. And he didn't need to be selling. I had already bought a copy.

Slake relies on commanding writing, distinctive voice and disciplined editing. The stories may be long-form but they're mostly devoid of flab. The worldviews reach outside traditional journalism.

The first edition features authoritative brand names including Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic (who is also Ochoa's husband), and Michelle Huneven, the acclaimed, Altadena-based novelist. But it also offers up fresh, lesser-known writers.

A favorite of this new crop will surely be David Schneider, a sometime actor who gained a moment of cult fame for his role as a car thief in a commercial. In the "Trunk Monkey" ad, a watchful chimp clocks bandit Schneider over the head, then throws him off a bridge.

In his "Ballad of the Trunk Monkey Bandit," Schneider finds his smidgen of commercial acclaim no shield for the slings and arrows (and state troopers) that come his way when he helps a buddy transport a load of pot across the country.

Schneider told me Tuesday that his sudden immersion in the criminal justice system gave him time to focus on his nascent writing. He's emerged with a new focus, which includes developing a comedy series, "What Have You Got to Lose," with creative partner Oliver Azcarate and writing his heartfelt Slake essay.

Ochoa and Donnelly helped Schneider strip down an involved and lengthy tale. They knocked out kitsch, inside jokes and bravado, to help Schneider deliver a painfully funny homage to a road trip gone terribly wrong.

"They gave me the confidence to let my own voice come right through," said Schneider, 32. "Because of the way they approached the process, I didn't really question what they told me. I really trust them with the work."

Slake would like to throw over another of the pernicious traditions of the online world — writers working for little or nothing. In the initial edition, the quarterly paid a standard rate of $200, only slightly above the slave wages of the blogosphere.

Ochoa said she hopes Slake can do better in the future. "I want to develop this so we can pay them more what they are worth," said Ochoa, who edited Gourmet magazine and worked at the L.A. Times before editing the Weekly from 2001 to 2009. "But no one is going to make a living of what they are getting paid from this."

What Slake and its editors offer, in the meantime, is the solace of community with other writers and with the audience.

Ochoa said she connected with a couple of the initial contributors at a conference last fall in Guadalajara that featured Los Angeles writers. If some of the curious came to glean restaurant tips from Gold, they lingered to talk writing.

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