Joe Donnelly on Slake, long-form journalism and launching a vision: “it’s about finding the right rhythm and the right way of presenting it”
Last month, we heard rumors from the West Coast of a new magazine devoted to long-form storytelling – a magazine that existed in print only and had no digital presence. The ghostly enigma turned out to be Slake, an upstart publication run by an editing team formerly with the L.A. Weekly. (Slake has since rolled out a minimal website.) We spoke this week with Joe Donnelly, Slake’s publisher, who also shares editing duties. In his previous life, Donnelly reported for the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and helped edit a variety of publications. In these excerpts from our discussion, he tells us what a Los Angeles magazine can offer the world, shares the silver lining from his divorce and describes why he decided to commit to long-form narrative when so many outlets have abandoned it.
Slake is a quarterly, and it’s just an expansive experiment in narrative journalism, storytelling, art, poetry, fiction – kind of all the things that we’re supposed to not have time for anymore. But the emphasis is on storytelling in its many forms, including deeply reported long-form journalism – even a piece by yours truly.
We’ve been describing it a couple ways. First, it’s an experiment in “slow lit” or “slow journalism.” The other way to think about it is that to my partner Laurie Ochoa and to me, words and images are for more than just information. We seem to be in a completely information-driven age, and information doesn’t always have context. We believe that words and images and art are as much for experience as they are for information.
When you take the experience out of the equations, sometimes something is lost. There’s definitely a place for fast information, and instant dissemination is important as well, but it’s not “either/or,” it’s “and/also.” This is our attempt to provide the “and/also.”
What publications do you admire? What do you hope to do with Slake in the long run?
I admired the L.A. Weekly under Laurie and me – I was her deputy editor there. I admired all the things it did: its openness, its lack of an institutional voice, its respect for the voices of its writers and reporters, its desire to be honest and not have a stuck point of view, its willingness to be sort of freewheeling. It reflected the Los Angeles I knew – with all the diversity of talent, ideas and interest. It’s just a wild, exciting and rich place. It’s the biggest culture mashup – it’s like a big mixed tape out here. And the L.A. Weekly reflected that for a while.
And of course, I love The New Yorker. The presentation isn’t quite suitable for out here, but I like all the things that it does. I like its ambitions and what it tries to tackle. I used to read Harper’s and The Atlantic a lot more. In the past, I liked Esquire and Rolling Stone magazine a lot – Rolling Stone has been a venerable go-to since I was probably 12 or 13. Although I was a music geek and all that, I loved the political coverage. I loved William Greider and Hunter S. Thompson. It’s actually a great American publication, a uniquely American publication. I think that GQ, Esquire kind of got lost in that “how to be an über-man” bullshit of the ’80s and ’90s. I find that completely uninteresting.
At what point did you start to solicit support? Did you find it hard to get quality contributions for a startup?
I went through many different attempts to find the right partners, doing business plans and prototypes. That went on for a couple years. Finally, I realized I was going to be doing it for another couple years and nothing would be out there. Finally, I said, “F*ck it.” I had a little bit of money from selling a house. I got divorced, and the silver lining in that was that I was forced to sell a house at the top of the market – a house that I bought at the bottom of the market. It wasn’t a wild amount of money by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought, “I’m going to take a chance here. I’m going to throw this out there and see what happens.”
The fact that Laurie became available really sealed the deal. Then I had the confidence that what we did would be of the standards and quality that I wanted it to be. She and I work really well together. It’s a great working partnership.
We started in earnest last September or October. It wasn’t hard to get contributors, mostly because over the years, she and I built up a lot of good will in the community. Folks were really wanting to help us, and also they were really interested in having a place to do work that isn’t going to be censored, really, by the needs of whatever organization they’re working for. It’s not going to have a word length, it’s not going to have a set point of view, it’s not going to have an ax to grind. That was really refreshing for a lot of people, so they were more than willing to give us great work at less than their usual rates.
So you yourself are Slake’s publisher, right? This is your and Laurie’s baby?
Yes, absolutely. It’s really on a thin margin.
Does it worry you, artistically or financially, that a lot of media outlets have cut back on or dropped long-form narrative?
I think it’s a challenge. What did I just read somewhere? That The Atlantic is hiring a whole team of kids to do short-shorter-shortest for them online. But I don’t think it’s necessarily what a lot of venerable institutions want to do. I think that they feel forced to it by the marketplace. And I guess we’re not so sure that the conventional wisdom is true, and certainly the reaction we’re getting to what we’re doing would belie that a little bit. It’s almost like Beatlemania out here with this thing.
It doesn’t worry me, because I think there’s a place for what we’re doing; it’s just a matter of finding the right way to offer it up. McSweeney’s has shown that there’s a pretty good model for what they do. And even Vice magazine, which is a little more raw, has shown that there’s a model for this type of thing.
So that doesn’t worry me. I think it’s about finding the right rhythm and the right way of presenting it.
One of the things we try to do is to treat this like books within books. People can say, “Oh, this is my summer reading.” You can pick it up and read it anywhere, open the book up anywhere and find something fun. You can turn the corner, the page, and find something new and exciting. What we’re trying to do is find the right form to do what we want to do, which is tell stories, share stories – share what binds us together as a society and a culture. It’s kind of all we’ve got, especially in a space as vast as Los Angeles. We need to talk with each other the best way we can, because we don’t see each other enough. That was one of the things that I loved about L.A. Weekly. It provided a little glue to our civic life out here.
So you really mean it to be a Los Angeles magazine, even in the long run?
Yes, it is, but it’s for L.A. and the world beyond. Los Angeles seems to be in a place where it’s accepting both the challenges and the privileges of the 21st century more than any other city in America right now. We’re kind of the expat capital of Latin America and the Pacific Rim. That’s really the kind of the way our country is turning: The sun rose in Europe and it’s going to set in the West. I just think that what’s of interest in Los Angeles is of interest to the world. That’s the premise we’re coming from.
We have pieces that are coming out of other places. There’s a piece out of Mexico City in the first issue. It ties into Los Angeles on a number of levels: culturally, geographically and pyschographically as well. There’s going to continue to be pieces like that from around the country and around the world that tie into Los Angeles in some way.
Now you’ve finally started a website, and I see you joined Facebook and Twitter. But is it true that you didn’t have a site prior to publication of the first issue?
Yeah, it’s true. It’s really just me and Laurie and a couple people helping us here and there. We had to focus on getting the book out first before we could turn our attention elsewhere.
The real launch for the website should be any day now, really. What you see now is kind of just a placeholder. We’ve been working on a much better website.
Yeah, our designers created most of that artwork themselves.
It has a kind of retro feel.
It feels handmade.
Originally, we thought we were going to have an in-house printing press. The idea was that every single page could be individually created. We were going to get really crazy with it, and we almost did that anyway.
Still, it’s all hand-crafted, and we wanted that to show. We wanted to say this is handcrafted journalism and art. I’m not sure that’ll be the look for the next one.
We wanted to make it seductive. We wanted people to have a hard time putting it down. We want them to keep it. We don’t want it to be disposable. I know that the Internet is always there, but so is space. When you launch something out into space, unless it’s orbiting, it’s really hard to find it. It’s vast. This is something that we think people will keep on their bookshelves for a while.
So at this point, you’re not looking at having a digital version accessible through a paywall?
We probably will do something, but certainly not with the first issue and not until we have a second one out. We’re looking into that, but right now, we’re focusing on this niche that we’re filling.
Nieman Storyboard is all about storytelling. Is there anything you think you’re positioned to do that’s not already being done with nonfiction storytelling?
There’s an 11,000-word piece in there. It’s hard to find that anywhere anymore, even in The New Yorker. There’s the “Trunk Monkey” piece, and the “Blood in the Water” piece. There are off-the-radar names, and I think that we’re going to continue to break talent like that. I also think that this is a place where, hopefully we’re an incubator and a feeder for books and other forms of expression. Any savvy publisher could probably look through here and see four or five really great books in the making. That’s something we want to do down the line as well.
You want to publish books?
We do, and we’d like to do documentaries. We’d like to use the Internet for things that go along with the spirit of what we’re doing and find ways to tell stories richly – not truncated versions of better stories.
As for book publishing – I think that the model that we’re working on doesn’t require huge returns. We’re not a big machine. So hopefully, we can be in the position to do things where a book might not make sense for a big publisher, but it might make sense for us. If we keep our overhead and per unit costs down, hopefully we can get stuff out there in the world that might not otherwise be out there but should be out there.
So your initial run was 1,000 copies, and that sold out?
No, we had 5,000, but the clamor was getting so great that we had to pay to get 1,000 of them air freighted to us, rather than having them all come on the slow boat from Korea. Those were gone in two weeks. Whether that keeps up, we’ll see. Now we have the rest of the 4,000 coming off the dock as we speak. We’ll see what happens.
Anything you want to add about the magazine?
Everyone focuses on the business model and asks, “Will it be successful?” When I started this, Laurie and I didn’t know if this would last. But I did think, “We’ll at least do one issue, and it’ll be great.” And we have done one issue, and in my humble opinion, I think it’s pretty great. And now I know we’re gonna do a second issue, and I’m pretty sure that one will also be great. I have a pretty high expectation that there’s another one in us after that.
That’s how you see where things go. The alternative to that was doing nothing. So to me it’s already successful.