Ruminations

Golden State of Mind

Photo courtesy of The California Sunday Magazine Instagram.

Photo courtesy of The California Sunday Magazine Instagram.

I have always felt wary of California, unnerved by the dreamers and their golden dream. My persistent memory of San Diego is the discovery that thousands — perhaps millions — of sand fleas live just beneath the surface of every beach. Of Los Angeles, I remember next to nothing; the Hollywood sign, perhaps, which was inconsequential to me. And of San Francisco, a persistent dread that fills me whenever I encounter anomie, look chaos square in the eyes.  

But I nonetheless deeply connected with the stories told in the August 2017 issue of The California Sunday Magazine, the first edition to find itself stuffed in my Brooklyn, New York mailbox.

Founded in 2014, the award-winning publication has already earned itself a permanent place in the grand tradition of hyper-regionalist magazine reporting currently exemplified by Texas Monthly. In other words, it feels like the state in which its made, from its punchy, zine-like illustrations to its coverage, which in the most recent issue ranged from an update on a breast pump start-up in Silicon Valley to an electric photo essay on underground eateries in East LA. But its clear the magazine still strives for even more, for a status like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, which while inspired by the tastes of their original readership (New York City and Boston respectively) have transcended geography and cover, in truth, the world. 

The potential for global domination oozes out of this issue's profile of Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, which is ripe with not just observation, but rigorous analysis. Despite the challenges facing Oakland, reporter Jennifer Kahn writes, "Schaaf remains uncynical — sometimes eerily so." Khan tries to push beyond Schaaf's unreflective enthusiasm, her "Pollyanna" exterior and "awkward" public persona. Failing, Khan writes, "[H]er authentic self happens to sound like a politician giving a cheesy speech about civic pride. One person familiar with Oakland politics told me that 'she's sort of like Hillary Clinton, in that she's good in person, but the minute she's onstage, you start looking for her power cord." 

This potential is also found in the magazine's establishing charter: From the start, founders Douglas McGray and Chas Edwards committed themselves to not just covering California, but its influences, including the Western United States writ large, as well as Latin America and Asia. In the most recent issue, a reporter follows counterfeit detectives as they track down trademark violations in China. In past issues, they're covered urbanization in India and refugee resettlement in Idaho. 

Unfortunately, the successes of the Schaaf profile stand in contrast to the issue's cover story, "After the Shooting," which tells the story of a Bayview-area mother who lost her son to police violence. It's difficult material, but promising. Earlier this year, for example, the podcast Radiolab did a beautiful piece of reporting from a reunion of the mothers of sons killed by the police. But in the capable hands of Jaeah Lee, who spent almost two years reporting the piece, Gwen Woods's story ends up feeling like an isolated recitation of facts, a glorified bit of local newspaper reporting instead of the transcendent universalism magazines typically try to mine from specific events. 

This uneven tone suggests that California Sunday has not yet ironed out some internal inconsistencies — or perhaps that it doesn't intend to. 

An assortment of illustrated stories from California Sunday.

An assortment of illustrated stories from California Sunday.

The New Yorker, which has the strongest style and most cohesive issues of any magazine of the market, was always intended for a very slim subset of the population. It was meant to be read by people who un-ironically identified as "metropolitan" or "cosmopolitan," who wanted a dash of humor between the deeply-reported stories that made them feel they had a handle on the world. In other words, it was for the wealthy, the educated, and the white.

Recent issues of California Sunday have flashes of stylistic synergy, of an emerging editorial tone all its own. That's seen most clearly in graffiti-inspired illustrations and vibrant photography, which the sensibilities of The New Yorker would never allow. It's also clear that though it's a print operation, it's founders have a clear digital mission, with all of the stories and art beautifully adapted to the internet. But when it comes to its written word, the magazine roams. But then again, maybe California roams, too. 

To cater to its elite club, The New Yorker engaged in aggressive world-building unlike anything seen in non-fiction, comparable only to Tolkein or Martin. It built out a rigorous copy desk, today led by "Comma Queen" Mary Norris, to enforce both tastes and the careful application of that double dot, the diaeresis. The editors, meanwhile, are known to allow a story — and its anxious author — to languish for months, sometimes years, not placing it in the magazine until it perfectly fits with all of the other contents of that issue. Of course it's expanded in the digital era, but its history remains it heart. 

The readership of California Sunday is fundamentally different. It encompasses, at least in theory, everyone in a diverse state of almost 40 million (not to mention everyone on the internet). It's written by, for and about surfers in San Diego, striving artists in Los Angeles, and residents of San Francisco's Chinatown, the oldest in the United States. They might all be pursuing the same golden dream, but their paths hardly look the same. It's fitting, then, that they have a magazine as bright and varied as they are.

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