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Joe Donnelly at a Slake readingEXPAND
Joe Donnelly at a Slake reading
Hank Cherry

Former L.A. Weekly Editor Joe Donnelly Talks Immersive Journalism and Blowing Up the Alt-Weekly Model

Joe Donnelly was the deputy editor of this publication from 2002 to 2008, but when I look back on my time working with him, it feels like it was a lot longer. That's because he and Laurie Ochoa, the Weekly's editor-in-chief for around the same time frame, worked together to accomplish so much while they were at the helm here. They had a vision to elevate L.A. Weekly beyond the constraints of an "alternative" paper, and that meant telling stories in a way that provided depth and historical context while maintaining the writer's voice and point of view, no matter how weird or unique it might have been. Joe gave me my first cover story at the Weekly —  about a guy who made a film about Charles Manson and the apocalypse. With puppets. And punk rock stars like Billie Joe Armstrong and John Doe voicing the puppets. It was bloody and pornographic and just plain bizarre, but the filmmaker, John Roecker, was an L.A. native and local scenester legend with a story to tell. I got to tell it, my way, thanks to Joe. He and Laurie also gave me my first nightlife column in the Weekly, Nightranger (he named it), so I feel indebted to both for giving me a chance, and always will.

Taking chances is pretty much what Donnelly's new book, L.A. Man, is all about. In it, he shares profiles from his prolific career writing published pieces in the Weekly, L.A. Times, Raygun, Bikini, Surfer's Journal and his own Slake, the revered literary journal he created with Ochoa. He takes a road trip to Texas with Wes Anderson (and visits him 10 years later, after he's a filmmaker icon, in a follow-up piece), shoots pool with Sean Penn, surfs with Chris Malloy, argues with Christian Bale and goes on a date with Carmen Electra (they didn't hook up). His profiles capture the essence and spark of each and every subject (Drew Barrymore, Lou Reed, Craig Stecyk and many more) and they make us want to hang out with them, too.

Joe and I met up at a Silver Lake coffee house last week to reminisce, muse about the current state of journalism (and off the record, parenthood), to talk about the book and share our enduring love for this city, an "L.A. Man" and an "L.A. Woman," who had the privilege to write about what we loved when things seemed more simple. It became evident that neither of us intend to stop now just because things are complicated. Ironic elephant in the room: the last time I saw him in person was probably after he was let go when new owners took over the L.A. Weekly.  Anyway, looking back provided perspective for me, and I think it can for outsiders as well. This incredible journalist is an inspiring interview (of course!) and his new book is sure to inspire many others, from writers to fans, in Los Angeles and beyond.

L.A. Weekly: Tell me how your new book, L.A. Man, came about.

Joe Donnelly: Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird Books put out this wonderful companion, The Best of Slake, which was awesome because it sort of put it on the permanent record.

Explain Slake, for readers who may not know.

Laurie Ochoa and I started this journal called Slake Los Angeles. It was this big sprawling, beautiful, highly edited, highly art-directed, a highly curated, journal of long-form journalism, essays, fiction, poetry, photography and art. Our vision for it was I really wanted something that was uniquely "Los Angeles," meaning smart and sexy. Los Angeles, as you know, has this incredible reservoir of intellectual creative talent. With the demise of local media at the time, I knew that the local talent was going to be really needing something to gravitate around. … So I just sort of dumped into it all this money I got from selling my house after I got divorced.

And Slake was a result of you and Laurie both being let go by L.A. Weekly, right?

Things were happening. L.A. Weekly was shrinking. L.A. Times was shrinking. All of the media in Los Angeles was challenged but also, ever since I first worked at the Times in 1994, I was designing a magazine. When Laurie and I took over at the L.A. Weekly, it came the closest to that vision in my mind. I just wanted something beautiful and smart and sexy. With Slake I wanted to create something that would put L.A. in the big leagues in terms of its literary and creative capital, and that's what we did.

Why did it end? Was it not financially viable?

We were pretty determined to make it be what we wanted it to be. And so I focused on making every issue as wonderful as possible. Every single page was designed. Every single word was designed. We hired artists to create a whole artistic vocabulary for each issue. It was painstaking and took time and money, but I didn't want to compromise. It ended in 2012 and the Slake book came out the next year. And so, then this idea of a collection of my work started.

So what were your intentions for L.A. Man?

It first started as this sprawling thing. It was going to be everything — my published essays, memoir, short stories, you know, all this stuff, and I felt it was a little bit unruly and a little bit hard to understand. Then I got this idea: I just want something that will be a great bathroom read.

I saw that, so I keep my copy in there! But these days we all take cellphones in the bathroom with us, so you're competing with that.

Yeah, well, it'll be much less expensive to replace if you drop it in the toilet. So yeah, now you can take a crap with Drew Barrymore or Christian Bale or Carmen Electra.

Great marketing!

I thought, let's just do profiles. I've done so many of them, you know. So that gave it some definition.

Tell me about the title, L.A. Man. It’s a Doors reference right? A riff on "L.A. Woman"?

There’s a little bit of that. But the idea was that it was meant to be subliminally, a “layman.” [picks up the book and points to the palm trees on the cover]. This was supposed to look like a “Y.” These trees were supposed form that between the A and the M. It didn't quite work out in the design. But yeah, the message was, you know, journalists are laymen. There's a lot of immersive journalism in there.

There really is. And the reader gets immersed.

I go surfing with a professional surfers, and a road trip with Wes Anderson for like 16 hours. With immersive journalism, you try and participate with them and do what they're doing.  So yeah, we're all kind of like laymen in a way — that was the idea. There's a lot of participation in it. Journalists have to sort of translate for everyone. We are standing in for everyone. For the audience.

You have such a prolific body of work to choose from. How did you finally narrow it down to these pieces?

Things were relatively easily accessible because I had a long digital career, writing professionally since 1992. But there's a lot of stuff that been lost in print, especially after I moved..

Which stories are most meaningful to you? What are you most proud of and/or what conveys your sensibility most?

The Wes Anderson ones. It was kind of a bromance but then 10 years later, things weren't quite the same. like when you visit someone you had a crush on 10 years ago. Certainly, I'm very proud of the Craig Stecyk piece, because he's such an important and enigmatic figure. He was such an important figure and he's so underappreciated, really misunderstood for who he really is.  And Sean Penn. That was great. The Eddie Padilla piece. Someone should really read that if they' actually want to make a good movie about surfing and drugs. I mean, I'm proud of all of it but some of it means more to me than others. Of course road tripping with my dad while he was dying was very meaningful.

How do you feel about the state of journalism right now in terms of experimentation? I feel like there's really not that many outlets that let us take chances the way you did in this book, to play with unconventional structures or even inject ourselves into stories the way you did.

It feels like we don't have the time or attention spans. And really no one wants to see that all the time. I mean, some of this is overboard. But I put stuff in there, even stuff that I'm embarrassed by, because it conveys a time when we tried cool things. When we could stretch and everything wasn’t so controlled. There were editors and publications that gave writers a little freedom this way. Even when I read profiles in like GQ now or whatever, they feel really controlled and bridled. Formulaic. Not to knock anything, but this shows a time when the Weekly was wild and open, and Raygun and Bikini same thing, Surfer’s Journal too.

What struck me is, you take chances but they are effective, you get sucked in. Not everyone can take chances and pull it off.

Good. I’m glad to hear you say that. A few things make me cringe, but that’s probably true of all writers.

Let’s talk about journalism in general. You teach it, right? What are your sort of general observations about journalism right now and the challenges that journalists face?

I teach journalism and English. It’s incredibly challenged right now. It's weird because on the one hand, there's this revival of The New York Times and the Washington Post, and even magazines like Esquire and The Atlantic having a rekindling of relevance, but those are just a handful of publications. Alternative weeklies —and by the way, the L.A. Weekly wasn’t an alternative paper when we worked there — are challenged. They were when I was there, but what we decided to do was to transcend the alternative ghetto.

Ok, so when you came in, you and Laurie made conscious changes with the intention to, what? Make it more accessible?

No. It was more about higher production values and looking at it as New York Magazine for Los Angeles. I mean, Tom Christie got world-class writers into the literary supplement. It had as much gravitas as a big-city publication. We wanted it to be the weekly mag of record and still retain its institutional memory. But the problem, what happened with [owner] New Times, was they put it squarely back into ghetto alternative press at exactly the wrong time to do it. And they cheapened it. So it had no chance of surviving the coming economic and digital challenges. We transcended the alternative ghetto, but they put it back in.

Of course, I witnessed a lot of this firsthand. I didn't know what was going on behind the scenes, but I do remember the New Times era. Then soon after you and Laurie leaving, and the move to Culver City ... not fondly. You came from the New Times originally but after quitting there. They were our bitter competitors. When you and Laurie started accomplishing your vision at the paper, things were good, but then our competitor purchased us. And then...

They fired me. I mean, they fired everybody. Eventually. The great Tom Christie. Alan Mittelstaedt, the news editor was first to go, I think. Laurie lasted another year maybe.

You were OK with leaving because you weren’t happy with that ownership?

I would say it wasn't a love match. I didn't agree with their vision, which was focused on franchising. The franchise vision was never going to work in Los Angeles and frankly, the Weekly is still suffering from that. So they franchised it into the dirt, and it's a slippery slope between what they did and the Sinclair media-ization of local television news happening now. Los Angeles cannot be part of a franchise where you are stamping out, you know, one-size-fits-all content. I'm not sure they ever understood that Santa Monica wasn't downtown L.A.. I mean, moving to Culver City — c'mon,  that’s not Los Angeles. I think the Weekly is —whatever happens, even with Trump in office—  it’s still, like the country, trying to recover from the Bush administration.

Did you have concerns with the previous owner’s politics when you were at the Weekly?

Working with Mike Lacey I never got the sense that politics were the issue. Misunderstanding this market was the issue. The way they ran things in Phoenix and Cleveland wasn’t going to work in L.A. Also, there were some journalistic agendas that I didn't agree with.

Going back to the challenges of being a journalist and just the viability of this profession, L.A. Man is an example of writing that takes chances in a lot of ways. But this is just not easy to do these days. Why? Is it the internet? Shorter attentIon spans? What?

Well, there’s economic imperatives in place and you know, those were often blamed on the internet, but I think that's a little bit too facile. One of the problems with New Times buying out the L.A. Weekly back then was they had these massive amounts of debt that they needed to service. So the Weekly — obviously the recession had an impact — but it was churning cash. I mean, I was privy to the numbers, it made money and it was profitable, but a lot of it went to that. I think the same thing happened with the L.A. Times. Both were diminished not just by the digital era but by owners who came in and used the profits to service their debt from larger companies. This idea that everything is because of the internet is limiting. … I think it has a role. Advertising has definitely decreased, but there are still advertisers that would go to the print version of L.A. Weekly and L.A. Times if done right.

Former L.A. Weekly Editor Joe Donnelly Talks Immersive Journalism and Blowing Up the Alt-Weekly Model
Hank Cherry

But magazines keep folding. Print is dying. Why?

Well, I mean the world is going digital. But it's not just because of the internet, it's the not nimbly changing to the markets, and also because of debt-saddled organizations taking over the L.A. Times and the L.A. Weekly and using the revenues to service that. It’s a problem of media being owned by large companies that have their own interests and only think about the bottom line.

Interestingly, the Weekly and the Times are currently owned by smaller, noncorporate, singular owners or entities now.

Yeah and look at the Washington Post. It’s doing better. It's maintained its brand. And if you can maintain your brand, you can stick around. The problem with the L.A. Weekly and the L.A. Times now is their brands have been damaged. And so how do you transition to the digital world when brand is everything. It’s hard to transition to a digital world when you've damaged your brand.

As a freelance writer I’ve somehow weathered these challenges, but it’s really hard. And there's so many questions about who’s to blame. Why are we here? Why do writers get paid half of what we did 20 years ago? I guess it's not as simple as "blame the internet."

I recommend reading Scott Timberg’s book Culture Crash — he puts a lot of it into perspective there. It's a combination of things but it didn’t have to be this way. There was money for investing, plenty of money for a long time. But when you become beholden to your investment bankers, venture capitalists or Wall Street, well, they don't give a fuck about the quality of the paper. They don't give a fuck about investing. They don't give a fuck about your brand. They just want your quarterly reports to show the margins that they want to show. The L.A. Weekly started ruining itself 10, 12 years ago. What's left can maybe salvaged, but it’s never going to be what it was.

OK, so bigger picture, the alt-weekly model, how do we save it?

Fuck the alt-weekly model. That stopped mattering when the Village Voice went down-market after Time Out New York came, and they went free and deflated their brand. The alt-weekly model didn’t matter after the L.A. Weekly proved that it didn't matter. The Weekly wasn’t doing "alt-weekly" work, it was doing national publication-level work. The L.A. Weekly's brand wasn't 'alt weekly.'  It was cool. I don't mean as a silly, juvenile definition of cool. I mean cool aesthetically, cool smart, cool insightful, cool zeitgeist-y. We were able to decipher zeitgeist. You were. Laurie was. Let's not just recognize good stories but, you know, be ahead of them.

Yes, that’s the key. Guess I’m still trying. So what about new writers? What should they do? And older writers... where do all these changes leave them? Do we need more new outlets?

I don't know. I mean, I'm wrestling with this myself. I'm kind of out to pasture — no one's gonna hire me at anywhere near what I was making back in the day. But yeah, I’m working with some folks who are trying to figure that out. We're trying to come up with a new model, an idea — we’ll see. We don't know yet. It's to be determined.

So you still have hope for journalism?

I have hope. I think there's going to be increasingly interesting new ways of storytelling. I think the internet at first diminished storytelling capacity and I think it's still doing that, to some degree, but we’re going to get to a point where narrative is more important. People are always going to want narrative. Just information isn’t working. It's turned the country into dummies, and people can't tell what's real. We've had a lot of bad and false narrative too, so it's incumbent upon journalists, and it's incumbent upon your new ownership, and whoever else to make sure that journalism is propping up true narratives, real narratives, not agendas.

Joe Donnelly reads and signs L.A. Man on Thursday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. skylightbooks.com.

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