Boom’s time?

The promising nonprofit quarterly, Boom: A Journal of California, aims to bridge academia and journalism, reach beyond California--and stay afloat.

SANTA BARBARA, CA — Nonprofit journalism is now central to the American national news ecosystem; ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Center For Public Integrity, among others, regularly make distribution agreements with major media organizations that give them enormous reach.

For example, when CNN recently lambasted a cancer charity that raised millions of dollars, most of which went to fundraising and administrative costs rather than cancer patients, it was doing so in partnership with and largely on the strength of reporting by the Tampa Bay Times and CIR, both of which are nonprofits. And this is not to mention the burgeoning ranks of serious local and regional nonprofit news enterprises, from the Texas Tribune (see CJR’s recent piece on the Trib) to the Voice of San Diego to Minnpost and beyond.

A fairly recent addition to this nonprofit movement is worth examination, first because it has done some good work over the last couple of years, but also because it is breaking ground, in terms of the character of its content and its business model. Boom: A Journal of California is a quarterly founded, in part, with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; it is published by the University of California Press, a nonprofit.

Kim Robinson, regional publisher for UC Press, says Boom was conceived as an interdisciplinary “scholarly magazine” that would translate the best ideas of academics in the UC system, making them accessible to the general public. Boom includes journalists and photographers among its contributors because it is consciously “not just another academic journal,” Robinson says. “It is this hybrid, but it’s still an experiment.” (It’s not a lone experiment, though; another UC Press scholarly magazine, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, won the 2012 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Publication of the Year for, the awards committee said, “proving that food can be the catalyst for meaningful and serious discussions about culture, history, literature, art, and politics.”)

Since Boom launched in 2011, it has published work ranging from long, scholarly, peer-reviewed articles to almost quirky personal essays, under the leadership of two editors, Carolyn de la Peña, an American studies professor, and Louis Warren, a professor of Western US history, both at UC Davis. Named one of Library Journal’s 10 best magazines of 2011, Boom commissions articles that are usually thoughtful and often offbeat, in the best meaning of the latter term. Whether it is a Rebecca Solnit essay on abandoned military bunkers facing the Pacific on the Marin headlands or a Matt Black photo essay on the poorest congressional district in the country—California’s 20th “just a few hundred miles up the highway from the opulent Hollywood Hills”—Boom seems to regularly look hard at subjects the mainstream press tends to deal glancingly with, if it deals with them at all. Along with a goodly amount of culture and arts coverage, Boom has focused its gaze on how to fix California’s dysfunctional state government, on the troubled state of California public universities, and on the California immigration experience (although many of these in-depth articles are available only via the print subscription journal).

Starting with the coming fall issue, Jon Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor and Pritzker fellow in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of History at UCLA, takes over as editor of Boom. Christensen’s journalistic and scholarly bona fides include a long career as an in-depth environmental and science writer and a stint as the executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, an interdisciplinary effort located at Stanford University that attempts to meld scholarly research and smart journalism.

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.

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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John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: , ,