The California Sunday Magazine sets out to win the West

Out-of-the-box distribution, all-of-the-above revenue, and a West Coast storytelling sensibility

After many months of eager anticipation in media circles, The California Sunday Magazine launched Oct. 5 with a print run of more than 400,000 copies. Just don’t call it a “print launch” to Douglas McGray, the co-founder and editor in chief.

“None of us see this as a print launch,” he said, a little over a week after the first issue came out. “We have a print edition, and it’s beautiful and we got a great response to it. It’s one piece of what we’re doing.”

It was a characteristic response from McGray, a writer and think tank fellow whose journalistic ventures tend to cross platforms. California Sunday grew out of Pop-Up Magazine, a San Francisco-based “live magazine” showcasing writers, photographers, filmmakers and other journalists and artists. And of course, the new publication has an attractive website and apps for every major smartphone and tablet platform.

But in 2014, it’s that huge print run that stands out. Rather than build print circulation a copy at a time, California Sunday bought its first 400,000 or so subscribers. Like an advertising insert, the magazine has paid for distribution in select Sunday editions of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee. It is targeting neighborhoods of creative-class, tech-friendly young professionals who are a good fit for the magazine’s editorial sensibility—and the advertisers it’s cultivating.

“There’s still a good deal of interest in print advertising among national brands, if you’re reaching a good audience,” McGray said. “The challenge with print is, you have to get there. How a print magazine would traditionally start, you might have a distribution of 50,000 or 75,000, and that wouldn’t be enough to have conversations with national advertisers. That’s where I got this notion of doing distribution deals with the major newspapers in California.”

The out-of-the-box approach to distribution is married to an all-of-the-above revenue model. A metered paywall allows readers to see three free articles a month; California Sunday sells all-access web/mobile subscriptions for about $40 a year. To get “complimentary” print issues mailed to you, along with digital access and other perks, costs $100. The magazine is also offering “patron” memberships, with extras including tickets to Pop-Up Magazine events, for a cool $1,299.99 annually. (Publisher and co-founder Chas Edwards wouldn’t release subscriber information, including whether any “patron” pledges have been made.) Then there’s the “story fund,” which invites readers to sponsor coverage of specific topics, like education, inequality, environment, or health, with contributions ranging from 99 cents to $9.99 per month.

The reader revenue mix supplements advertising revenue and about $2 million in backing from investors. The first issue has advertising from eight companies, including Nest, Lexus, Google; the book rate for a one-time full-page ad has been set at $42,000, Edwards said, though most advertisers will see discounts. Some of the spots are “story advertisements,” such as a Lexus ad structured as a travel piece on Napa and Sonoma wine country.

That ad follows the magazine’s ethos: It’s a storytelling publication, meant to be read at a leisurely, weekend pace. There aren’t many news hooks, even in the short front-of-the-book pieces, and there won’t be hourly or daily online updates.

And it’s of the West, drawing on material from California, the western US, Asia, and Latin America, and produced for a core group of California subscribers but with a national audience in mind. The first issue has two long features, both by freelancers: “The Last Medium,” by Carina Chocano, on Hollywood’s exploration of virtual reality; and “The Contestant,” by Daniel Alarcon, about the disappearance of a young woman in Peru who had been a star contestant on the country’s biggest game show. (Not for nothing is it being discussed as “California’s answer to The New Yorker.)

 The next issue won’t be out until early November; California Sunday is a monthly, for now. McGray, whose own resume includes pieces for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, Foreign Policy, and This American Life, plans to scale up to twice a month and then weekly as the business grows.

“I know that there are people who all they’ve ever wanted to do was start a magazine, and that’s just not the case with me,” he said. “I really enjoy making things. I loved making deeply reported magazine articles when I was a writer, and when I started doing a live show I loved that. I had the idea to make a magazine because it seemed interesting and it seemed like something we could pull off. The goal here is to make a magazine that is part of the culture and is around for a long time.”

Tapping in to a distinctly “Californian” identity and culture will be one of the biggest challenges for the magazine, said Ken Doctor, a media analyst and former newspaper executive.

“What it’s trying to do editorially is very interesting and very difficult, to try to create a sense of California as a whole,” he said. “There is a sense of California, but there’s really a sense of Northern California and Southern California. It’s trying to create a California sensibility, which both is and isn’t there.” (The magazine’s main office is in San Francisco; it also has Los Angeles-area staff, and there are plans to open an L.A. office at some point.)

But there is some recent precedent. Pacific Standard debuted in May 2012, after a rebranding of the former Miller-McCune magazine; the Santa Barbara, CA-based publication deals mainly in politics and science, from a Western and Californian perspective.

“I hate to deal in stereotypes, but sometimes the stereotypes are true,” said Maria Streshinsky, Pacific Standard’s editor in chief. “The West is just less traditional. It’s really joyful and exciting.”

If McGray is swimming against the tide a bit by launching a literary nonfiction title from anywhere other than New York, Streshinsky would seem to be swimming up a waterfall. But Pacific Standard has inserted itself into the same national conversation as century-old titles like The New Republic and The Atlantic.

“You can run a magazine from anywhere nowadays,” Streshinsky said.

And while it’s early to draw conclusions, both she and Doctor are enthusiastic about what they’ve seen of California Sunday so far.

 “I’m impressed that they’re thinking of different ways to do this, and mixing new and old ways,” Streshinsky said. “Just looking at the old ways of doing things can be our biggest downfall.”

(Photograph by Holly Andres, courtesy of The California Sunday Magazine)

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.