Publishing the debut issue of the Journal of Alta California in October 2017, William R. Hearst III opened California’s literary floodgates.
One year after launch, the multi-platform Alta is an oversize quarterly print magazine, website and social media presence, newsletter, podcast and host or partner of special events in collaboration with local literary and news organizations.
Contributions from an eclectic list of in-demand writers and dramatic images from photographers meet rigorous editorial standards that result in tight, engaging stories. The first articles delved into topics of interest to West Coast readers: Yosemite climbers, the ethics of hunting, honeybee bandits threatening the almond industry, Silicon Valley sexism, zoning laws related to the increasing number and intensity of wildfires and insightful profiles and reviews of California people, places, history and culture.
“We’ve only done five issues; there’s an entire ocean of possible stories out there we still want to get to,” Hearst says in an email.
Hearst cut his journalistic teeth as an apprentice with his family’s publishing companies, including a stint as editor of the San Francisco Examiner. (The paper today is under different ownership.) An editor at Outside in the 1970s, he returned to Hearst Corporation and made strides with broadband and internet holdings.
Alta, Hearst’s entirely independent, self-published project, was provoked by a mystery.
“In thinking about it over the years, I was concerned — and somewhat mystified — that there has not been a serious, literate magazine about this region. I launched Alta last year to try to fill that need,” says Hearst.
“Slow news” stories, the purview of print media, allow the magazine to sidestep “riding the up and down currents of the daily news maelstrom,” he says. The magazine thus presents itself as a keepsake, with stunning nature photography and articles worth extended consideration to better understand a period of history or multifaceted angles of a trend as it becomes embedded in West Coast culture.
Alternatively, the immediacy of breaking news is handled by Alta’s website, newsletter and social media: ”We’ve used all of those to give our readers stories that can’t wait for the magazine to be printed,” says Hearst.
Alta started with one man’s dream and the flexibility of its structure results from his nearly 20 years of thought. Hearst considers as models the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the New York Review of Books — but with the Alta lens facing the world from a California perspective, not New York.
Most important to Hearst is that the synergy of print, online and live elements resonate with targeted “ideal” readers he describes as well-educated, passionate people who love the West.
Projecting into Alta’s second year, plans include more coverage of the arts, contributions from former Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer, continued partnered stories from Emeryville’s Center for Investigative Reporting/Reveal and additional content exclusive to Alta subscribers.
“We’ve already stepped up coverage of things like science, adventure and food,” says Hearst. “And our membership program, as it develops, will give us more ways to interact with readers and their interests. There’s such a broad palette of subjects and stories available to us in California and the West, and as a quarterly, we can’t be all things to all people. But we think we’re carving out a strong niche as a smart, thoughtful, informative publication and online voice that represents all of what this region has to offer.”
With current demographics showing readers are age 40 and up, split 50-50 by gender, primarily California residents, and the numbers of subscribers growing, the Alta flagship in its first year demonstrates strong sailing.
Hearst has only one complaint: “So many stories, so little time!”