Five Questions with: Douglas McGray, Editor-in-Chief of California Sunday Magazine

So I’ve been doing these “Five Questions” interviews recently and, personally, I’ve enjoyed hearing from, and helping to spotlight, different folks from the tech community. The format brings me back to my brief stint at Late Night with Conan O’Brien where I worked on the team researching guests and helping to write interview questions. Usually with these posts I’m reaching out to people I already know but sometimes it’s an opportunity to meet someone new. Like Douglas McGray, the CEO and EIC of California Sunday Magazine, a newly launched multiplatform magazine. This article on the donut business was the first that made me say “damn, this is good writing” and I’ve enjoyed many issues since. 

Hunter Walk: So a few months back this amazing magazine called California Sunday started showing up monthly. How do you describe California Sunday to people and why does it exist?

Douglas McGray: I’m

you’re enjoying it! The California Sunday Magazine tells stories about people and culture and ideas in California, the West, Asia, and Latin America for a national audience. We pair those stories with really striking, original photography and design and deliver them to people when they have time to enjoy them: the weekend. We create a great reading experience for the web, as well as a print edition, which gets delivered with select Sunday editions of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee.

HW: Why “California” Sunday? Would New York Sunday work? Texas Sunday?

DMcG: Most of the really good magazine-style features we read are published by East Coast media companies. Those companies tend to be pretty East Coast–centric. But the West Coast is huge and fascinating and influential. And when you live here you feel an especially close connection to Asia and Latin America. All that makes California an unusually great place to find compelling stories, and a pretty perfect home (we’re based in San Francisco and Los Angeles) for a premium media company launching today, looking forward.

Plus, when you think about it, California is more than a place. It represents a set of ideas and values; a look and a feel. We reflect those qualities in our work and in California Sunday’s brand.

HW: You took an interesting approach to initial distribution, getting bundled alongside the Sunday newspaper in several cities. Can you talk more about how that developed?

DMcG: A few years ago we created a live event series, Pop-Up Magazine, which features writers, radio producers, photographers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians performing multimedia stories for a live audience. (We have fun shows coming later this month in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Details at www.popupmagazine.com.) The series had become popular. We held shows at the 2700-seat symphony hall in San Francisco that sold out in a few minutes. We collaborated on a music show with Beck and McSweeney’s and a sports show with ESPN. I thought there was an opportunity to start reaching a bigger audience, bringing stories to people in different ways.

I was especially interested in leisure time, when people have more time to pay attention, take something in, enjoy it, remember it. By design, Pop-Up Magazine produces shows for evenings out. The other time of the week that interested me was the weekend. I noticed that none of the big West Coast newspapers included a high-end, feature-driven magazine. Despite what you hear sometimes, print can be a great platform and a great business, or part of a great business, if you can reach a certain scale. It occurred to me, we could pay the newspapers to insert the print edition of a new magazine in some number of their copies — and pick zip codes where demographic research shows the most enthusiastic audience for this kind of magazine is likely to live. Newspapers offered an efficient, existing distribution channel. So a lean, nimble media company could launch with, say, 400,000 circulation, a huge launch for a traditional media company. And that reach that would appeal, right away, to national advertisers. And we wouldn’t have to spend years and tens of millions of dollars getting there. We approached the newspapers about buying insertion, and they knew Pop-Up Magazine’s reputation. They thought it was a great idea. So we were on our way.

HW: When I talk with tech startups we focus a lot on quick learning and iteration. What have you learned after the inaugural issues? Where were you right, where were you wrong?

DMcG: We thought it was important for a media company today to have multiple sources of revenue. Too many media companies are overly dependent on one revenue stream, like web advertising. We sell subscriptions and live event tickets; we can offer advertisers print pages, digital experiences, live event sponsorship; we have a small in-house studio, separate from editorial, that partners with brands and agencies to design creative “story advertisements” (a campaign with Google has gotten admiring coverage not just from advertising press but also Rolling Stone and New York Magazine); and there are at least a couple additional revenue streams we’ll be looking at in the weeks and months ahead. This approach has gotten us off to a good start. We’re just a few months old, we have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but the mix of live, print, digital, and creative services, and perhaps more seems like a sturdy foundation.

Also, we continue to love publishing for leisure time. So many huge, rich media companies are competing for the same slivers of time — when you’re killing a few seconds or minutes during the workday. We thought we could reach a great audience offering a complement to that, focusing on nights and weekends, and so far we think it’s going really well.

Initially, we published monthly, pushing stories online when they came out in print. Now we’re publishing stories online just about every weekend, and we like that rhythm better. I’m eager to publish more stories every weekend.

Our biggest mistake… We thought there was an opportunity to launch as a lean company, and produce big-media-company products (a high-quality, big-audience print and digital title; ambitious, big-audience events). We wanted to be cautious about growing the company too quickly. A few months in, we think there’s an opportunity to grow faster than we projected, and especially produce more Pop-Up Magazine events, including new kinds of events. We’d like to take some steps to make that possible. But, frankly, I’d make the mistake again. We could have bet big on the wrong approach. We have a very good idea, now, exactly where the greatest immediate opportunities are.

HW: More content and more formats than ever. Fixed amount of attention. What happens?

DMcG: Great opportunities to bring people stories in old ways and new ways. Smart, beautiful stuff has a way of finding an audience. It really is an exciting time.