Jay Levin tilts at print mills

A tireless editor launches a monthly magazine aimed at L.A.'s 'fusion culture' – the city's rising immigrant class

No shortage of experts exists proclaiming that print is dying. Magazines in particular are the polar ice cap of the publishing world, receding at an alarming rate in the face of the superheated Internet. We are told there are no readers anymore – just "eyeballs" and "clicks."

On the scorched earth of this media battlefield (if you'll allow me an old-era print metaphor) littered with the burned-out shells of once mighty magazines, one man is launching a new entry. What's more, he's chosen to roll it out in possibly the least reader-friendly location in the United States – Los Angeles.

It's a city renowned for its municipal attention-deficit disorder, where few people have lingered over anything since the O.J. Simpson trial – and that, of course, was televised. In this town, "reader" is a job, someone who summarizes scripts, the idea presumably being that no one would read voluntarily.

So who is the nut launching a publication in what, if the experts are to be believed, may be the most hostile time for print since Gutenberg? That would be Jay Levin, a middle-aged man with a medium build and a New York accent tempered by nearly 30 years in Los Angeles. His new monthly magazine is called RealTALK LA.

Mr. Levin is remarkably soft-spoken – the antithesis of the caricatured cigar-chomping editor who is once again being imprinted upon us by this summer's arbiter of cultural imagery: "Spider-Man 3."

He is a self-described "pragmatic visionary," with an activist bent and a critical eye. That criticism is often focused on the media, and their failure to serve their readers.

Now Levin is putting his own theories about serving the reader to the ultimate test. Will he prove to be savant or simple failure?

***

Born and raised in New York City, Levin was lured to L.A. in 1978 by, of all things, a porn king – Larry Flynt. "It was just after he became a born-again Christian," says Levin. "He was a rebel publisher looking for something to do with his energy." Mr. Flynt bought a small alternative paper, the Los Angeles Free Press, and asked Levin to "make it the Village Voice of L.A." Their partnership lasted just 10 weeks, at which time Flynt fired Levin over editorial control – Levin says he insisted that the sex ads be dropped. One week later, Flynt was shot in an assassination attempt, and the Free Press, which had been losing money, was shuttered.

The paper was gone, but, according to Levin, not the need for it. "The L.A. Times was doing a terrible job of covering the city," he says.

Nine months later, he had found backers to hire a staff largely culled from the former Free Press and cobbled together the first issue of an alternative paper called LA Weekly. It was 24 pages, with virtually no advertising. According to longtime staff writer Steven Mikulan, Levin pulled together the disparate elements of an urban-hippie sensibility with a young club-scene set. Although Levin was sometimes ridiculed for being Quixotic and New Age-ish, the mix found a considerable audience.

"It took someone who was obsessed ... for L.A. to have a literary paper," says Mr. Mikulan. "He was in the right place at the right time."

Levin ran the paper for 13 years. He sold it in 1991 to, appropriately enough, the Village Voice for $10 million. From there, he set off on a series of ventures that included launching a television channel, consulting, pursuing a master's degree in spiritual psychology, and founding a nonprofit to serve L.A.'s poor.

His nonprofit work and a consulting job with what used to be called a "minority-owned" chain of newspapers (there is no "majority" ethnic or racial group in L.A. anymore) led to a realization: "I could see tremendous growth in the middle and professional classes. I had a vision to create a different model for a city magazine."

City magazines are glossy monthlies, usually with eponymous titles (New York, Boston, Tuscaloosa). They have traditionally found readers in educated new money, old money, and dental offices. Los Angeles already has one of these – not surprisingly called "Los Angeles."

Levin wanted something different for an audience he felt was being ignored: L.A.'s "fusion culture." Along with a growing black middle class, he identified educated, affluent second- and third-generation immigrants from three big populations – Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern. What sets them apart from traditional city magazine readers, he believes, is their fluidity: They mix together professionally and socially more easily than previous generations.

But launching a new magazine requires more than identifying a demographic. Levin had to address the elephant in the print room – the Internet. In the decade and a half since he had sold the LA Weekly, the Internet had grown beyond even Al Gore's imagination. Pundit after pundit decreed that the "new media" would annihilate all forebears – TV, movies, radio, and print. Especially print.

Even a temperate voice like Robert Niles, editor of University of Southern California's Annenberg Online Journalism Review, says that the media landscape today is "brutally competitive." He cuts to the heart of the struggle: "There are literally millions of new Web publications chasing a finite amount of advertising dollars."

Levin's biggest challenge would be to find funding and figure out how to fuse print and the Web. "Print is suffering in certain areas," Levin admits. "But publications targeted to more prosperous segments of the population are doing well. [Los Angeles] magazine had its best year ever."

Levin began by approaching the usual suspects – corporations. But big money is cautious money. Eventually, he persuaded several individuals to invest.

Now all he had to do was come up with a magazine and, of course, its website, which, depending on whom you talked to, would either complement or drive the publication. Levin set up headquarters in an industrial area just outside downtown L.A.: The office was a cinder-block island surrounded by metal fabricators, seafood processing plants, and, most arrestingly, stretches of open space.

He brought in Judi Jordan from Latin Style magazine to be the editor. With a background in arts and fashion design, she brought, well, style to Levin's political activism. And with a heritage that was Latino, African-American, Jamaican, and native American, she embodied fusion culture.

For the website, Levin hired Sridhar Rao, a second-generation Indian from Maryland who was rooted in the dotcom world. For months, Levin and staff toiled on articles, photos, marketing, and ad sales. Finally, the first weekend of this May, the première issue hit the streets, and the website went online.

Time for celebrating? Not quite.

***

A media-watch website, LA Observed, reported shortly after the magazine debuted that it was in trouble. It said RealTALK hadn't met its payroll and was closing – a claim Levin denied vigorously the next day. But in a subsequent interview, he acknowledged that there were financial problems, calling the situation "anoma-lous" and saying that they were "restructuring."

The early woes are a reminder of just how turbulent the magazine publishing world is today. Mr. Niles asserts that there needs to be a new model for magazine/Internet publications. But no one has found it yet. "You can't just go out and copy someone," he says.

RealTALK, meantime, is about to come out with its second issue – in July instead of on the normal publishing schedule in June. Talk persists outside the magazine of a short life. But Levin, a survivor and dreamer, remains optimistic. "We've got challenges," he says of the magazine's long-term prognosis on a late Friday afternoon." But we'll make it through. We'll be successful."

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