Boom started as a way for researchers to converse with the public about California studies, but, Christensen says, he hopes to expand the magazine’s reach, so it speaks to people outside the state as well, addressing the idea of “California in the world.” He also hopes the journal can help break down, if not do away with, the mutual suspicion—some might say disdain—that often characterizes the relationship between academics and journalists. So far, Christenson says, he’s been heartened by the response from humanities scholars, social scientists, journalists, and independent writers taking part in the fall issue of Boom, which focuses on the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which has carried the water LA needed to grow from the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and been a center of controversy through much of its life. (For the pop culture version of part of the controversy, revisit the film Chinatown.) The issue is partly supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation’s Metabolic Studio.
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.