Former LA Weekly Deputy Editor Joe Donnelly is now at the helm of a new publication telling crucial stories about climate and social issues. Photo courtesy of Joe Donnelly.

Red Canary Emerges with Long-Form Ambitions Tackling Climate and Social Justice Issues

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A new publication from a renowned Los Angeles journalist and editor is telling crucial stories about climate and social issues. It’s the kind of writing we don’t get enough of, but that is so important right now.

Red Canary Collective is a social change agency dedicated to amplifying and supporting voices in environmental and social justice. Its co-founders, childhood friends Tracy Kendal McCartney and Key Youra, approached former LA Weekly Deputy Editor Joe Donnelly about helming an accompanying publication. They’d been referred to Donnelly by another childhood friend, journalist Sam Slovick. Donnelly and Slovick had worked together many times before, including on a recent series for Los Angeleno about our city’s shrinking middle class. Donnelly says he told Red Canary that if he were to do it, the project would have to be completely independent.

“[I told them] I don’t want there to ever be any connection between whatever you’re doing on the business side and what we’re doing on the editorial side,” he says. “And they fully understand that and support that. I also told them it’s going to have to be up to my standards as a publication, which are very high. I threw down this gauntlet, and they said, ‘OK, great.’ So my goal is to establish this as a world-class publication that goes to the issues of the climate crisis and social justice.”

Though they had considered waiting until after the election, Donnelly pushed to launch in October. The stories were ready and, more importantly, they were timely.

Ada Trillo photographs a group of 800 migrants as they cross a river into Mexico. Photo by Ada Trillo.

For example, “A Trail of Hope and Fear” by Ada Trillo, who won the Guardian’s Portfolio Review award in August, documents her journey alongside a caravan of migrants traveling from Honduras to seek asylum in the United States. People trying to enter the U.S. in search of better lives sometimes band together in large groups to avoid the dangers that smaller groups face — extortion, theft, rape and murder. But larger groups are more prone to detection. At one point, Trillo walked for four hours with a group of about 800 who, when they stopped to rest, were surrounded by Guardia Nacional troops near Ciudad Hidalgo in Mexico, loaded onto buses and deported.

Another piece by Chris Barton takes readers to Portland at the juxtaposition of protests, wildfires, clashing political ideologies and a pandemic. The story weaves back and forth between the city’s liberal — and mostly white — urban center and the conservative rural areas that surround it. In an election year, this story couldn’t be more topical.

Chris Barton’s “Flaming Portland” highlights the clash of political ideologies in Oregon’s largest city and across the U.S. Photo by John Rudoff.

Red Canary’s stories are riveting because their authors each offer a unique voice and are often embedded within the narrative. Barton breathed in the smoke-choked air of the Portland he writes at times “felt like a pilot program for a looming civil war.” Trillo slept in the desert beside the would-be asylum seekers. Dean Kuipers, who writes about food sovereignty in his piece “You Should Know a Farmer,” spoke with several urban farmers to get their insights, but not only that, he and his wife are urban farmers as well. The accompanying photos are equally gripping, depicting everything from Portland protesters shielding themselves with umbrellas to the everyday life of a West Coast man adjusting to life in landlocked Oklahoma.

“And that’s the work of journalists that we want to amplify,” Donnelly says. “Journalism is a heroic undertaking, and it deserves to be treated with respect and exalted and given a good home.”

 “On my days off work, I love spending time just visiting different neighborhoods around Oklahoma City. I carry a camera with me everywhere, taking pictures of the people I meet and the things I find interesting,” Alex Bacon writes in “Reverse Dust Bowl Diaries.” He left the skyrocketing costs of California for Oklahoma, his wife’s home state.

Poignant, long-form writing remains far too rare in this age of aggregate journalism, in which many online publications ask staff to sit at their desks and churn out five pieces of content each day. That’s not Donnelly’s style.

“My brand is pretty aggressive, I think, in terms of framing the narratives and giving people something to think about,” he says. “I like to do provocative stuff. Well-reported, well-written, well-sourced, well-substantiated, but provocative stuff.”

A scene from Portland during a protests. Photo by John Rudoff.

After Donnelly left LA Weekly, he started Slake: Los Angeles in 2010 with the help of another former LA Weekly editor — Laurie Ochoa. The quarterly publication featured long-form journalism, fiction and poetry. At the time, he told LAist the pair created Slake because they felt the media landscape “was not up to par with what the city has to offer in terms of its intellectual and cultural life. When we were at the LA Weekly, we found a good outlet for showcasing talented writers and artists, but things have changed.”

It’s been a decade since Slake debuted its first issue. In that time, LA Weekly laid off nearly all of its remaining staff, prompting many former writers and freelancers to attend a faux-funeral outside its Culver City headquarters in the days that followed. Shortly thereafter, some of them started their own print publication — The LAnd.

We’ve watched plenty of outlets deteriorate as misinformation spreads on social media, the climate crisis deepens and political divisions hit an all-time high. But we’ve also seen plenty of them rise to highlight important voices. The key is supporting those outlets before all we’re left with is 24-hour cable news and clickbait.

“There’s no strong, functioning democracy without a vital, vibrant and good press,” Donnelly says. “We certainly have some good legacy outlets and some good new publications, but the New York Times and Washington Post can’t take care of the whole country. We need good, strong local journalism.”

To read Red Canary Magazine‘s stories as they come out, sign up for their newsletter here.

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