Christensen talks of a familiar three-pronged strategy—a subscription print publication ($34.95 a year); a website that offers some (but not all) of the journal’s articles for free, along with a blog and links to social media; and public events, often put on with partners—for sparking conversation about major California issues and growing Boom’s reach. He boils the strategy down to “going where the conversations are” and emphasizes that partnering with other organizations—libraries, museums, and media outlets, including Burbank-based public television station KCET—in terms of both content and events is crucial to the Boom mission. “We don’t do anything alone,” he says.
Like its editorial effort, the business model for Boom is a work in progress that shows, at least, promise. Boom does accept advertising, but it is primarily a subscription-based publication that is sold, in clusters of UC Press journals, to university and other libraries. These kinds of library subscriptions are “very valuable” to academic publishers, Robinson says. Still, library sales are a complex business, and a movement toward open access (read: free) journals is challenging traditional academic publishing models. “It’s a quick and changing landscape,” Robinson says wryly, acknowledging that although Boom has a three-year plan for achieving sustainability, it “may need some outside philanthropic support in perpetuity.”
There is a natural connection between major research universities and the thought-leader category of magazines. The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s and other long-form journalism outlets have a long tradition of mining the academic landscape for ideas that journalists use as the core of their think pieces. But the digital revolution has changed the relationship between scholars and journalists. Increasingly, leading academics are interested in reaching out directly to a wider public through subject-based group blogs and think tank websites—the Council on Foreign Relations, for example—that edge ever closer to looking like, well, digital magazines. And increasingly academics and other experts are cutting out the middleman in another way, by writing directly for established popular magazines, a trend that the list of bloggers at, for example, Foreign Policy, illustrates well.
Boom is an attempt to blend scholarship and journalism in a different way, one based in the academy but still accessible to a general audience. It uses a business model that includes not only subscription fees, advertising revenue, and foundation grants, but also in-kind help from the University of California system. UCLA provides office space and administrative support, Christensen says, and the history and English departments have allowed three graduate students to work as assistant editors. This support is crucial to making Boom an evocative publication, he says, in both the verbal and visual senses.
It would be difficult to overstate the challenges Boom faces in its attempt to become a significant voice in California’s public conversation. California is a huge and enormously diverse state that has defeated most journalistic attempts (including the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful New West and California magazines) to treat it as a whole. Whether quarterlies can make sense, somehow, in the turbo-charged, 24/7 news cycle of the Internet Age remains an unanswered question. There are numerous other doubts that could be raised about Boom’s prospects. Still, the best academics and smartest journalists should be natural allies in the effort to bring new ideas to the public square. Boom has made a nice start toward fostering such an alliance.
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