OpinionOp-Ed

Jon Christensen, the man behind Boom: A Journal of California

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A hundred years ago, California yanked a water-engineering wonder out of a desert, so why can't we conjure a thoughtful ink-and-paper magazine out of the era of digital publishing? The watery miracle worker was William Mulholland, whose spectacular and politically divisive Los Angeles Aqueduct opened Nov. 5, 1913, and the magazine is the redesigned Boom: A Journal of California, a UC Press quarterly that takes the aqueduct centenary as the theme for its relaunch issue. Its editor is a veteran science journalist named Jon Christensen, who also teaches history at UCLA, and he hopes that Boom's Oct. 24 reboot party in downtown Los Angeles will set the pace for taking conversations beyond the page and to the California people who are its subjects.

Why a paper publication in an increasingly paperless age?

The beautiful, evocative object still has an important role to play. You can do so much with beautiful photography, with words on the page, with art, with the way that the rhythm of the magazine unfolds.

We don't think of print just alone but as an object at the center of conversations that happen online, on our website, in social media, that happen in person. We're going to start hosting dinner parties around the state to bring authors and subscribers and readers and subjects face to face. I tell my writers to keep that in mind when they're writing.

The new media don't replace the old media. Although we communicate in these new ways, it's important to meet and talk face to face. I see those three things as having powerful synergy: print, online and face to face.

Who's your audience?

All of California! And beyond. When you travel around the world and people ask where you're from and you say "California," their eyes light up. Because California is not just ours, it belongs to the world, it's an idea that means something around the world. We also see the world in California. We have an audience of scholars and researchers, but the whole point of the magazine is to open up that conversation between our great universities and the community.

Were you one of those kids who'd lie on the living room floor with your elbows propped, reading a magazine?

My grandfather and his cousin owned and ran Vroman's [the more than 100-year-old Pasadena bookstore]. I remember sitting between the shelves of books and having that enormous pleasure of pulling down any book and starting to read it and spending hours engrossed in other worlds. That has been true my whole life.

What about magazines in particular?

As a kid, Mad magazine. Then the great Rolling Stone, Harper's, the New Yorker, of course. Then New West and California magazines. We see Boom as the statewide magazine we haven't had.

Apart from, say, Texas Monthly, are there other state-themed magazines like this?

A great example that's not just ad-driven and tourism-driven is Sunset magazine. It's really a child of California but has spoken to the wider region of the West. It has helped to shape the modern American West as much as it has chronicled it.

[Boom is] fortunate; we are not driven by the same business model as most magazines because we're at a university press. The business model is predicated on the fact that communicating with the world is part of UC's mission. It starts with listening, and that will shape our work.

Boom accepts ads, but we're not dependent on advertising revenue. The UC Press business model for journals is based on library subscriptions. This means some of our content stays behind a subscriber pay wall. We're a nonprofit. So we also raise money for special issues around important themes and public events, like the current issue, which was supported by the Metabolic Studio [a Los Angeles think tank].

You have scholars and journalists as contributors, two disparate groups.

I've been a journalist for 30 years and still have ink running in my veins. I can't tell you how many times I just sigh when a journalist uses "academic" as a pejorative, or an academic uses "journalist" as a pejorative.

I take a deep breath and explain that we share the same basic values of openness about how we do our work and communicate our findings, our knowledge, our stories. That we both value careful sourcing. We value fairness, we value not setting up strawman arguments but taking things on at their core. I think there's a lot of room for collaboration.

This is a relaunch, and Boom has moved its offices from UC Davis to UCLA. How does this Boom differ from the original?

We've gone through a redesign. We've done away with [some] departments and designed it more so it has the rhythm and flow of a magazine [as opposed to an academic journal]. There's something so pleasurable about the magazine as a form that we're trying that: the lighter pieces, the deeper pieces, the pieces more centered around photography and art, making sure that has an honored place.

Where did the title come from?

That's a good question — it's still debated. I think it was to capture the feeling that there's always the promise of the boom in California, the hope of striking it rich, what's the new-new thing that's going to create the next boom — but also that uneasiness with the boom, the dark side, the people who are left behind. I think the editors hoped to capture both that eternal optimism and the anxiety behind that eternal optimism. And it fits nicely on the cover of a magazine.

This issue is about water, and the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a viciously disputed project to this day.

It's like original sin in the American West and the signal accomplishment at the same time. Without the aqueduct, we would not have L.A. as we know it, we would not have California as we know it. Exploring the complexity of that story gives us an opportunity to explore Los Angeles and its relationship to the rest of California and the West.

And it gives us an opportunity to reintroduce Los Angeles to Californians and our [other] readers as an increasingly reflective city. I don't think people know about how much creative discussion is going on in Los Angeles, about what it has been and what it is and wants to become. Water is such an important part of that: how we manage water, how we think about water, re-engineering it, re-imagining our relationship with Owens Valley, with the delta, the Colorado River, so it expands out from there.

There are second acts and third acts. We can't rewind the tape, but our history is full of all kinds of possibilities that were never realized. Some can't be redeemed, but some can be, and understanding that also attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today, to pay attention to them and nurture them and advocate for them.

You sound like a native, but you're not.

My mom grew up in Pasadena and went to college in Minnesota, and that's where I was born. For me, the childhood memory of coming to California to visit my grandparents is like Proust's madeleine: landing at Burbank airport, coming down the stairs to the tarmac, and the smell of citrus and sun and the desert and petroleum.

patt.morrison@latimes.com.

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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