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Why This Media Startup Is Betting On Print Newspapers

California Sunday, based in San Francisco, is giving the West Coast some new weekend reading.

Why This Media Startup Is Betting On Print Newspapers
[Photo: Flickr user Jojo Bombardo]

Most of America’s magazines are based in New York City, which houses media giants like Conde Nast and Time Inc. But it always struck Douglas McGray, a journalist who has contributed to the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker, as a bit odd that there wasn’t a similar national general interest magazine that reflected a West Coast perspective.

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So he decided to make one.

On October 5, he and his business partner, Federated Media cofounder Chas Edwards, will launch the first issue of California Sunday, a monthly magazine available nationally via the web, an Android app, an iOS app, on Kindle, and also–most surprisingly for a media startup–in glossy print pages designed by the former design director of Wired.

What makes the print magazine scalable from the start is a deal that the company has struck with the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Sacramento Bee. California Sunday will pay to be inserted in these papers along with the catalogs and coupon books–a move that allows it to start out with a circulation of 400,000 on day one. “It skips the frustrating part of building a print edition of a national title and gets us to the good part,” McGray says.

The distribution format also fits well with the company’s mission to provide media for nights and weekends.

Douglas McGray Chas EdwardsPhoto: Jake Stangel, courtesy of “California Sunday

McGray has been working on new ways to deliver media at night for some time. In 2009, he created a live magazine show called Pop-Up Magazine, in which writers, filmmakers, radio producers, photographers, and illustrators perform new, reported stories at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. His new company will continue to produce that show as well as what it considers weekend reading: meaty narrative storytelling–even on its apps and website–which will feature the exact same content as its print magazine. There will be no daily news updates. Most stories will be sourced from California, elsewhere on the West Coast, Latin America, and Asia.

Because the publication will include a print edition, it has the options of both selling ads at print rates as well as creating interactive ads for digital. But McGray’s enterprise is by no means a sure bet; this is a time when general interest magazines are struggling. New York Magazine, for instance, recently reduced its print edition from weekly to bi-weekly. Newsweek stopped printing issues altogether. And the print future of California Sunday’s delivery mechanism, newspapers? Not looking so hot.

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But just as entrepreneurs behind new software tend to be developers, it shouldn’t be surprising that the people who create the product of media are thinking about how to make it better. McGray has company among other journalists who are founding ambitious media ventures. Alex Blumberg, a former producer for This American Life and the cofounder of Planet Money, recently set out to create a new podcast company. Jessica Lessin, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, founded a site called The Information that charges readers $399 per year, slightly more than the WSJ charges for its digital and print subscriptions.

“The idea of going to work for one media company for 10 years or 20 years or longer, it’s not the sure career path it might have been a decade ago,” McGray says. “You have to be entrepreneurial anyway. You’re already thinking about, how you can build an interesting career and do good work. It’s not a huge of a leap to think that part of that might actually be building something new.”

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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