The California Sunday Magazine channels its inner teen with new issue

Raha Naddaf first met Sati at a three-day writing workshop in San Francisco. Naddaf, the executive editor of The California Sunday Magazine, was teaching a group of teenagers about personal essay writing. On the first day, she noticed the 13-year-old Sati typing away on her computer with laser focus and headphones in her ears. “I later read that draft and was so blown away by how polished and sophisticated and honest and raw and beautifully structured that piece was,” she says.

That draft, which focused on the teen’s complicated relationship with eating and weight, eventually became one of 26 stories to appear on the pages of the latest issue of California Sunday. Since launching in late 2014, the longform, monthly magazine, which tells stories from California, the West, Asia, and Latin America, has become known for its highly visual, cinematic approach to narrative storytelling. Every year, the magazine produces a special issue. Last year, the special issue was about sound. This year’s focus was the American teenager. “We wanted to give people a look at their lives right now through their eyes,” says Doug McGray, the magazine’s editor in chief. That meant relying on teens to tell their own stories, and consulting with teens on content produced by adult contributors.

Cover of the teens issue.

“When I was a teenager, I had the luxury of divorcing myself from the world and being very interested in my own things,” Naddaf says. “Things are different now. A lot of teenagers are so engaged and don’t necessarily have the option, or want the option, of focusing on themselves. It feels like a very different time to be growing up.” The issue offered them the opportunity to explore that—to understand how things have changed, and in some cases, how they haven’t. It’s not just a single teenage voice, but a collection of them. “I never wanted us to speak for teenagers, but for them to speak for themselves,” Naddaf says.

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Early on, the California Sunday team created an informal advisory board of teenagers by tapping into their own networks and also youth-oriented organizations like Youth Radio and 826 Valencia (who co-organized the initial writing workshop). Assistant Editor Joy Shan reached out to over 100 teenagers during the making of the magazine, interviewing them about their routines, interests, thoughts, and concerns.

An issue of the magazine usually consists of an ambitious feature well—four to five longform stories—plus the same number of shorter pieces. This issue breaks from that form, jam-packing its pages with a mix of 20-plus pieces from shorter “as told to” sections to reported features on border patrol agents in training to photo essays on the places where teens hang out. The first piece, “The Two-Hour School Commute,” details the daily routes of three teenagers; another looks at the impact of witnessing a school shooting. Throughout the issue, sidebars from “teen experts” give advice on everything from how to share your stuff to how to organize a political rally. “I wanted it to be something that felt incredibly authentic and that teenagers played a central role in conceiving and creating,” Naddaf says. “I didn’t want it to be this editing process by an adult walking into the teen world and pretending to have a certain type of authority there.”

A photo essay on the places teens hang out.

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Working with teen contributors was no different than working with professional writers (the magazine is entirely written by freelancers). The staff had phone calls and editing sessions to understand what the teens needed from the magazine in terms of support, guidance, or feedback. “It was really about, ‘Let’s hone this sentence,’ and ‘This part is confusing,’” Naddaf says. The biggest challenge was working with the teens’ busy schedules. Between school, extracurricular activities, and jobs, getting hold of them could be difficult; sometimes they even ghosted on their editors.

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California Sunday threw the standard conventions of magazine structure, like a table of contents, out the window. Instead, the issue begins at 5am and proceeds hour by hour through a day in the life of the American teenager. Timestamps are strewn across the pages where page numbers would usually appear. Interstitial photographs break up sections of the day—morning, afternoon, evening—employing the shifting light of the sun as a visual cue to the time of day. The magazine’s design and content force the reader to embed with the teen as they flip through the pages.

Those pages are bursting with stories are rich, fun, important, complicated, and intimate. For teens, the issue is a reflection of their lives today. For adults, it’s nostalgia for those years and understanding what’s different today. “Teenagers are fascinating and thoughtful and know things adults don’t know and have an important view on the world,” McGray says. We’re all teenagers at some point, and California Sunday asks the reader to see the world through their eyes today as they flip through its pages.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.