In just over three years of existence, The California Sunday Magazine has emerged as one of the best magazines in the country. The San Francisco-based publication has been a finalist for 10 National Magazine Awards (including for General Excellence, Reporting and Single-Topic Issue in 2018) and won three times, for design and photography. Despite the title, its coverage extends far beyond California to encompass the American West, Asia and Latin America, and its orientation is distinctly national.
The magazine has been called “California’s answer to The New Yorker.” While Editor in Chief Douglas McGray insists that “The New Yorker of the West Coast is the New Yorker,” he appreciates the nod to the newcomer’s caliber. “A lot of what we read right now feels disposable,” he says. “We set out to put a lot of time and care into stories and make something special and memorable.”
A clear distinction is California Sunday’s strong focus on visual storytelling, particularly photography. The magazine also bears the marks of its roots in Pop-Up Magazine, a sister project that showcases untold, reported stories in front of live audiences in the style of a magazine or radio program.
“There’s an intimacy to radio that we aspire to in our stories,” McGray says. “Sometimes magazine stories put subjects on a pedestal, but we want the people we write about to feel knowable and for the reader to feel present.”
I talked to McGray, who freelanced for more than a decade before cofounding the magazine, about how writers can break into California Sunday. We also took a close look at writer Ashley Powers’ pitch for “The Vegas Plot,” which appeared in the August 2015 issue of the magazine. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. (Writers can request a contributor guide by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and the guide for Pop-Up Magazine is online.)
“With us, erring on the side of too long rather than too short is a good policy. But I think pitches are like stories: They should be as long as they should be and no longer than that.”
What is a California Sunday story, and what is definitely not?
We’re looking for stories that take place in the regions we cover and are of interest to a national audience. We take investigative stories; we do very little memoir and history. We accommodate a wide range of voices: people who write formally or more casually, people who use a lot of voicey first-person and those who are invisible behind the scenes.
And we’re really looking for stories. There are wonderful magazines that do argument-driven stuff or criticism or reviews. That’s not what we do. A California Sunday story transports the reader, introduces a character or cast of characters, takes you into some world. It often explores an idea, but it’s always in the context of a story that propels you forward. When we get pitches, a lot of our conversation is: How curious or invested we are in the characters? What’s the animating tension that’s going to keep us reading? What are we going to learn along the way? And why does it matter now? We’ll occasionally do an evergreen story if it’s incredibly compelling, but we like to tell people about something they should know about right now.
In terms of both subject and geography, what kinds of pitches are you oversaturated with, and what would you like to see more of?
The pitches we turn down the most feel too small and offbeat for us. They’re personal curiosities that caught the interest of a writer but aren’t necessarily something meant for a lot of people to read. We also see pitches that struggle to answer the question of “Why now?” We only have so much time and attention, so why is this something we should be reading about?
We don’t see quite as many tech or entertainment pitches as we’d like. We’re not doing thinly reported celebrity profiles or product launches, but we are deeply interested in how these industries shape our culture and our lives. We hold crime features to a pretty high bar: We want to know why we’re reading this, not just that it seems juicy.
We get a pretty good geographic spread in pitches, but we’re hungry for pitches from Latin America and China.
We have no staff writers, which means that we are constantly looking to work with new writers. You can pitch an individual editor — everyone’s email is on our website — or email@example.com. Either way, the pitch is read by an editor. If it’s in the ballpark of something we would assign, it gets circulated and read by every editor. It doesn’t matter to me at all if I recognize your name or who you’ve written for. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve never written anything, though I might have some questions in that case. We really put a lot of weight on the pitch. In the space of a pitch, you have to tell a good story and write in the voice you will write the piece in. If you just describe the facts and don’t give us a sense of you as a writer, the pitch isn’t going to stand out. I do read clips, but usually I’ve already decided whether I like an idea. We assign features all the time to writers we’ve never worked with before.
We’re always looking for pitches for Shorts, which are between 800 and 1,500 words. These are short profiles and interviews and dispatches. We get fewer pitches for those, so your odds are better.
Is there a higher bar for stories that require travel, especially for a writer that’s new to you?
Certainly. We send reporters to stories, but if we feel like a story is borderline for us and going to be more expensive than a typical piece, it’s something we talk about. In general, if you’re an early-career writer, it’s a good idea to propose stories that are around you because it makes the assignment less expensive and isn’t such a big bet for us. And if your reporting is local, you have more time. You can go back if you don’t get what you need. With reporting trips, as soon as you land the clock is ticking.
The pitch we’re going to discuss is pretty long. What are your thoughts on the ideal length for a California Sunday pitch?
With us, erring on the side of too long rather than too short is a good policy. But I think pitches are like stories: They should be as long as they should be and no longer than that. The longest pitch we have ever gotten that we assigned was 1,700 words. Objectively, it was too long, but it was also totally riveting. We’ve also gotten long pitches that concern us about how somebody’s going to tackle a feature if they’re not being economical at this length. But we get far more pitches that are too short. If we get a paragraph or two for a feature, it’s really hard to get to know somebody as a writer, to explain a story in any sort of detail, or to get at a reporting plan. Generally speaking, successful feature pitches fall between four and eight paragraphs. But you’ll get different answers on this, and it’s a good idea to find out the preferences of a particular outlet or editor. Some outlets publish vastly more than we do and may want a shorter pitch.
“We’re always looking for pitches for Shorts, which are between 800 and 1,500 words. These are short profiles and interviews and dispatches. We get fewer pitches for those, so your odds are better.”
How often should writers follow up on a pitch, and what should they think if they don’t get a response?
We reply to everyone. If you haven’t gotten a reply, it means that something got overlooked or we’re really busy and running a bit behind. Generally, follow up in a week. We try to get everyone answers on stories within a week or two. Never hesitate to follow up; just give us a minute because we’re a small team.
How far in advance of an issue should writers be pitching?
If there’s a news peg for something, it should be a minimum of three to four months out for a feature. For a short, we can move faster.
Do you have any other tips to share from your time as a freelancer?
If an outlet says no, it never hurts to write back briefly and ask if they want to share what didn’t work so you can send them a pitch that’s a better fit next time. You may get a reply, or you may not. When I was freelancing, I learned really useful things from stories that were rejected. But I’d make it really clear in the note that they don’t have to reply, because everyone is really busy.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the pitch without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.Was this a cold pitch, or did you know the writer? We’d worked with Ashley once before. We knew she was a really wonderful reporter and writer and were eager to work with her again. Of the would-be terrorists that law enforcement agencies track, sovereign citizens are among the most bewildering. They number about 100,000 and are mainly clustered in the heavily libertarian West. They believe all branches of government are illegitimate, but they have no formal organization and rarely turn to violence. Mostly, they employ what’s called paper terrorism: They create their own driver’s licenses. They carry out tax-evasion schemes. They file false liens on the homes of police and other public employees. Compared to other groups, they’re more of a nuisance than a threat. The pitch doesn’t start with the main narrative, but rather with background about “sovereign citizens.” Was this an effective opening and why? When you’re writing a pitch, you’re telling a story. Stories can begin in different ways. If you were sitting down on a bar stool and telling someone this, what do they need to know first? Sometimes it’s introducing a character, sometimes it’s setting the stage, sometimes you want to explain something before you get into the plot. In this case, it was useful for her to set the stage a bit before we get really close to the people she intends to write about. When is it advisable to start with a scene? I think it doesn’t work more often than it works. But again, imagine you’re sitting next to your editor. How are you going to drop them into the story and launch them forward? If something crazy happened, you might effectively start with a scene. But that’s not the right approach to every story, and if a scene isn’t especially dramatic, that can start you off on the wrong note.
That’s why what happened to David Brutsche and Devon Newman is so stunning. The two were living an unremarkable, somewhat lonely existence amid the stucco sprawl of Las Vegas. Brutsche was a convicted felon in his 40s who paid bills by peddling water on the Strip. His roommate Newman, a grandmother in her 60s with no criminal record, had a bit of a crush on him. One thing Ashley did especially effectively is include moments like this that reveal character detail efficiently. The fact that she had a crush on him is an intriguing detail. Sometimes people spend the whole first paragraph of a pitch describing what someone looks like, since they know we’re interested in characters and plot. In a pitch, everything has to move faster. Both enjoyed ranting about what they described as the fascism of the U.S. government – a view that’s not uncommon in Nevada, the birthplace of the Sagebrush Rebellion and a state where a recent U.S. Senate nominee spoke of using “2nd Amendment remedies” to deal with a “tyrannical” Congress.
Brutsche and Newman weren’t part of any larger cabal, and they had never attempted an act of paper terrorism, let alone violence — until they made a new friend. At his urging, they spent four months hatching a scheme to broadcast their sovereign views to the world: They would kidnap a cop, imprison him in a “sovereign jail,” and videotape his trial and execution. The plan injected purpose and excitement into Brutsche and Newman’s days. Their new friend took them to a gun store, secured a house to serve as the jail, and helped plan what to do with the body afterward: stuff it into a plastic bag, douse it with bleach and vinegar, and discard it in the desert.
The plot was never set into motion. Their new friend turned out to be an undercover cop, and Brutsche and Newman were arrested with much fanfare in the summer of 2013. Despite more than 100 hours of video, however, the case against them crumbled. I recently spoke to Newman’s attorney, and he said the recordings mainly show police stoking the pair’s anti-government fury and goading them into a scheme that police cooked up – actions that border on entrapment. At one point, Newman even backed away from the kidnapping plan; instead, she wanted to videotape cops misbehaving and send the footage to reporters. Brutsche agreed, but their new friend bullied them into getting back on board.
In the end, prosecutors dropped every serious charge against them, something that never would have happened if they truly seemed capable of killing cops.
At a time when hate group activity has spiked, the saga raises an important question, one that’s particularly relevant in the West, where anti-government screeds are so common that it’s hard to tell which ones could turn deadly. How do you distinguish between the political fringe and potential terrorists? How important is it to spell out the central question in this type of “so what” paragraph? Is that something you’re looking for in every story? Some stories can just be stories, but they’re pretty rare and harder to sell. If you believe in it, it’s better to pitch the best version of something to an outlet you can imagine publishing it in than to try to make it something it’s not. That said, pitches that combine a compelling narrative with an animating issue or idea or question that feels timely and important are going to do better. Here, the question at the heart of this made it much more than a crime story: When you look at domestic terrorism and the rise of hate groups, how do you tell whether somebody’s really dangerous? And the narrative is complicated. On the one hand, it seems like the undercover officer was driving this plot, but at the same time the protagonists seemed willing to talk aloud about plans to do horrible things.
I’m envisioning a narrative built around the kidnapping plot — and then the revelation that it was a ruse. How important is it to include a reporting plan? If a writer doesn’t, we’re probably going to ask about it. Explaining how you’re going to do this is a good idea. You’re telling an editor a story and proposing that you work together, so it’s useful to say what the work is going to be. You don’t need to go into a great deal of detail, like “two reporting trips of five days,” but give the editor a sense of how you’re going to report the story. Newman’s attorney, who still has the undercover videos in his garage, said that he’d make them available to me and that Newman would be willing to be interviewed. Of course I’d try for Brutsche and the police too. There’s also a big stack of court documents, which include six hours of testimony from the cop who ran the sting operation and Brutsche’s in-court rants about his anti-government philosophy. One of the things I found especially compelling about the pitch was the volume of material she had to work with. Hundreds of hours of video would make the piece feel really intimate and vivid, and there’s all this dialogue. Using that, as well as interviews with people who know Brutsche and Newman and insight from experts who study fringe groups, I could paint a rich portrait of the sovereign mindset and the sting-gone-awry. Before pitching, she talked to the attorney and possibly viewed court documents, but didn’t watch the videos or do other interviews. What’s the right time in the reporting process to pitch? This is such a hard question, and I think even really experienced writers ask themselves this. You want to report enough to pitch with confidence. At the same time, especially if you’re earlier in your career and your pitches aren’t accepted quite as often, you don’t want to be spending days on things you can’t sell. If you haven’t answered big questions about whether story is viable, it may be a little early to pitch. If you think the story has a chance to be special, take a little more time to pre-report it. It’s worth it, because not every piece is like that.