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California Sunday stops publishing and becomes media's latest pandemic casualty

Andrea Chang
·4 mins read
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 07: Douglas McGray accepts the Design award on behalf of The California Sunday Magazine from Lester Holt during Ellie Awards 2017 at Cipriani, Wall Street on February 7, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for The Ellies )
Douglas McGray, right, co-founder and editor in chief of California Sunday Magazine, accepts the Design award from Lester Holt during the Ellie Awards in 2017. (Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for the Ellies)

California Sunday Magazine, a home for long-form journalism focused on the West, is ceasing publication and will lay off much of its staff after its billionaire backer severed ties. It is the latest publication to fold during the pandemic, which has further roiled the long-suffering print media industry.

Cal Sunday’s union revealed the cost-cutting measures Wednesday, saying it and the magazine's staff had been abruptly informed two days earlier and didn't get the opportunity to bargain. The Media Guild of the West said nine of its members were “illegally notified that they will lose their jobs” and two nonunion employees were also told they would be laid off.

“What happened this week was an insult that we expect the company to rectify,” the guild said in a statement.

Founded in San Francisco six years ago, Cal Sunday spotlighted news and features from California, other parts of the West, Asia and Latin America. It published online regularly and in print every other month.

Two years ago, its publisher, Pop-Up Magazine Productions, was purchased for an undisclosed amount by social impact firm Emerson Collective, founded by billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs. The acquisition included Pop-Up Magazine, a series of live events held in theaters around the country before the pandemic.

Powell Jobs, who is Emerson Collective’s president and the widow of the late Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs, has made a cause out of supporting magazines and other media outlets; her firm also took a majority stake in the Atlantic in 2017. Just last month, she said in an interview that “our involvement in media is not to turn a profit."

“It's an honor for me and my team to be associated with some of the greatest journalists,” Powell Jobs said during the Information’s WTF Summit. “It’s important that everyone know that great journalism should not be for free. It’s a civic good.”

But that philosophy and Powell Jobs’ deep pockets — she is the 30th-wealthiest American, with an estimated $19.4-billion net worth, according to Forbes, all of which she has said she hopes to give away during her lifetime — have been tested by the sharp downturn that began with the arrival of the novel coronavirus. In May, just weeks after lockdowns began, the Atlantic said it would lay off 68 staffers.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Douglas McGray, co-founder of Pop-Up Magazine Productions and Cal Sunday's editor in chief, read a joint statement from the company and Emerson Collective saying they “look forward to possible future collaborations.” He declined to comment further.

In a separate statement, an Emerson Collective spokeswoman said the companies in August "agreed to a mutual separation that included an additional substantial contribution from Emerson Collective to allow Pop-Up to operate independently."

News of Cal Sunday’s demise saddened editors and writers, who touted the magazine’s narrative takes on a range of topics, including art, business, entertainment, politics, social issues, sports and technology. It was included as an insert in major newspapers around the state, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, mailed to subscribers and sold at retail outlets. The company declined to provide readership numbers.

Megan Greenwell, an editor at Wired, called Cal Sunday her “dream magazine — creative, beautiful, covering my home state with depth and rigor when few others did.”

“Writing a feature for them was one of my proudest career achievements; reading their stories felt like a gift,” she said in a tweet. “I am heartbroken the magazine’s run is ending.”

Although Cal Sunday is no more, Pop-Up Magazine — which transitioned to online publication during the pandemic because of theater shutdowns — is scheduled to publish its fall issue next week.

As advertisers have slashed spending since the spring, hundreds of news organizations around the country have implemented furloughs, buyouts, layoffs and other cost-reduction measures, according to a tally by media organization Poynter.

Over the weekend, Surfer magazine Editor in Chief Todd Prodanovich said on Instagram that the Carlsbad publication had printed its final edition after 60 years. “The whole staff got let go yesterday,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported the owner of Quartz is looking to sell the business news site two years after acquiring it for $86 million.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.