California Print Magazine Is Born From Pop-Up Storytelling Show

The sellout San Francisco show Pop-Up Magazine embraces paper

Since 2009 one of the hardest-to-get tickets in San Francisco has been for an evening of entertainment called, oddly, Pop-Up Magazine, where authors and other performers stand onstage and tell stories. The event, held two or three times a year in venues such as the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, has featured authors Michael Pollan, Susan Orlean, and Alice Walker, as well as actors and musicians such as John C. Reilly and Beck. Tickets, priced from $25 to $65, sell out in minutes.

Courtesy California Sunday Magazine

The organizers of Pop-Up Magazine have turned their franchise into something even more old-fashioned: a media company with a print edition. Starting on Oct. 2, their company, California Sunday, will publish original articles by (and largely for) Californians on a mobile app and website as well as in a glossy, monthly print edition packaged with Sunday issues of the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and Sacramento Bee. “It seemed odd to me that so many of us who gathered to put our stories in front of so many people were calling editors in New York when we wanted to get published,” says Douglas McGray, co-founder of Pop-Up Magazine and editor-in-chief of the California Sunday Magazine.

For years, California journalists have dreamed of a Left Coast publication to rival media icons such as New York magazine and the New Yorker. The editorial operations of Condé Nast-owned Wired are in San Francisco, but most publications that tried to set up shop there—such as the Industry Standard, which had a moment during the first dot-com boom—have failed. (The audiences for Los Angeles and San Francisco magazines are loyal but local.) John Battelle, chairman of online ad company Federated Media, helped launch Wired and the Industry Standard and is an investor in California Sunday. “I think they are really on to something,” Battelle says. His first effort at a Bay Area-based magazine, the Pacific, never got off the ground. “The biggest impediment was the cost of circulation,” he says, and California Sunday solves that problem by paying an insertion fee to bundle with newspapers.

Courtesy California Sunday Magazine

McGray and his colleagues have raised about $2 million from tech startup investors, and the first print magazine will arrive on Oct. 5. The format’s pretty (ahem) standard: a few pages of short articles upfront, three features of a few thousand words each, and a back-page column. Contributors include New York Times Magazine veteran Carina Chocano and novelist Daniel Alarcón.

The print edition is less about countering conventional wisdom and more about enticing advertisers, says Chas Edwards, publisher and president of California Sunday. While print ads may be declining, “thousands of readers of print are still an order of magnitude more valuable to advertisers” than thousands online, Edwards says. His advertisers include Lexus, Google, Ace Hotel, and the University of California.

McGray says it’s no accident that his company is targeting Californians’ nights and weekends. “These are the times when you can make a bid for people’s attention,” he says. He acknowledges that the name of the publication evokes a bygone era but says that’s intentional: “It’s surprising to me that an institution like this doesn’t exist already. We think it’s the right moment to build something that can be around for a long time.”