With a Family Legacy (and Deep Pockets), Alta’s Publisher Charts an Ambitious Course
"From the Rocky Mountains to the West," Will Hearst's new quarterly journal aims to carve out a niche.
Over the years, any number of publishers have made a run at producing a magazine that serves the interests of Californians—not just Angelenos or San Diegans or the caffeinated crowd up in Silicon Valley, but residents across the entirety of America’s most creative, diverse, and economically productive state. Despite some admirable efforts, no one quite yet hit the mark. New West (later renamed California) may have come closest, but it folded 17 years ago, following 15 years of trying to earn its keep.
Now comes Alta, a new magazine that hopes to win the hearts, minds, and wallets of millions of Californians. The fourth issue of Alta, a quarterly, is being produced at this very moment.
What’s it got that its predecessors didn’t? The answer is Will Hearst, the magazine’s billionaire founder, editor, and publisher. He is a big name with an equally big ambition.
Hearst brings more than cash; he is not a vanity publisher. Nor is he merely a country-club scion of the legendary Hearst publishing family. Will Hearst has spent much of his life working in magazine and newspaper publishing, and his commitment to print is strong. He’s the real deal. [Editor’s note: William R. Hearst III has been chairman of the Hearst Corp. board of directors since 2013.]
When we talked recently, he told me that he had flirted with the notion of publishing some sort of magazine for his favorite state and the adjacent territory for a number of years. There remains a wildness and a vibrancy about those places that speaks to his heart. Hearst checked in with friends and colleagues about his idea, asking for their thoughts.
Last year, he decided it was time to either pull the trigger or let the dream die. He chose to go for it. If it would demand a huge upfront investment, Hearst said, it would be a venture better suited for the budgets at Hearst Magazines; but “if all that was required was a modest success, I thought, ‘I can afford to do it.’”
Alta’s editorial point of view is entirely Will Hearst’s—“I’m in charge of what we’re all about,” as he put it—although he’s assembled a large and impressive editorial board.
“I want the editorial to draw from my generation—after World War II, but before Facebook,” Hearst said. “It should be a record of what we thought about.”
While Alta will look forward, there will be a lot of looking back as well. It is no accident that he refers to his magazine as a “Journal.” Tellingly, the catalog of people he lists on his masthead as “Our Inspiration” includes the likes of Jack London, Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel West, Orson Welles, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. That’s a strong clue as to the mindset and the vision of Hearst’s Alta.
“Reflective” is how Hearst characterized it. Not newsy or flashy, but leisurely, a magazine to digest at a pre-21st Century pace. “I’m not interested in what’s happening now,” Hearst added, for the same reason that Alta‘s focus is on print, and not the internet. “I just don’t want to update every three hours.”
Hearst thinks of his new book as being “a clubhouse periodical” with “a Western point of view.”
“We have a different history; therefore, we think about the world differently,” he said.
Currently, Hearst devotes roughly half of his workweek to Alta. Much of the actual assigning of stories is done by managing editor Mark Potts. The journalism is, in my estimation, both smart and serious.
The book—which comes in at a large 10″ by 13″ trim size—is bold, a little brassy, anything but effete. It bears exactly zero resemblance to The New Yorker, which is one of the magazines Hearst aspires to emulate in some respects. “Our most direct competition is paperback books,” Hearst told me. I’m not sure he’s right, but more about that later.
Hearst chose, as the full title of his magazine, the Journal of Alta California, which refers more to a state of mind than to a place. He knows everyone will just call his magazine Alta. Eventually, he hopes, the subject matter will be less specific to California, but will range “from the Rocky Mountains to the West,” which he believes is an audience not well-served by other magazines—not even the venerable Sunset, which he admires but, as he noted, has become more of a service-oriented title.
The first several issues of Alta have been a (mildly) spicy stew: pieces about politics, science, technology, food, and the environment. Kamala Harris, California’s high-profile senator, was on the cover of the second issue. A coyote scored the starring role in the third. So, yes, unpredictable.
Hearst said he channeled his former colleague, Rolling Stone founder, Jann Wenner, when he launched the magazine, and in a way, there’s a lot of Rolling Stone in Alta.
It’s evident in its idealism, to be sure. More than that, though, Alta bears a noticeable resemblance to Rolling Stone in its design. That’s not coincidence. As Hearst’s magazine moved from wishful thinking to the this-is-gonna happen phase, he reached out to his old friend Roger Black, the legendary designer still arguably best known for his stint at Rolling Stone. Hearst asked him to “look at templates for the design, typefaces,” and so on. Black obliged.
“I did a few sketches and, as these things happen, one of my logos was used,” Black acknowledged in note to me a few days ago.
Alta is an easy magazine to read and to like. But it’s far too early to say it has established a rhythm or even a clear identity. Is it intended to be about the culture of California? Its political life? The people? The landscape? The food and the architecture and the venues? Yes. Yes to all. That’s asking a lot of a quarterly.
Hearst told me that if the book proves popular, he’d rather add pages to each issue than add issues. Quarterly feels comfy to him.
Best as he and his team can tell, Alta’s audience, at this stage, is “largely interested in arts and culture,” topics not well covered, Hearst maintained, by local newspapers. Also, he said, “We’ve found our readers do respond [positively] to stories about nature and the environment.”
That’s the main reason Alta is printed in a large format, on quality stock—to allow for sprawling photographs of California’s spectacular topography and its native animals. “We want to show the West,” is how Hearst put it—and that is why he likens Alta to paperback books. To me, that’s a stretch.
As it stands, Alta is a conventional magazine, sliced into familiar magazine-y sections. Nothing ground-breaking. Hearst was not looking to publish a fashion-forward quarterly. What we have in Alta, to this point, is a very handsome, easy-to-understand, somewhat eclectic book that speaks lovingly of the places and people that Will Hearst adores.
Will that be enough? The odds are long, but Hearst’s pockets are deep. The first three issues—at a modest cover price of $5.99 or $11.99 for a year’s subscription—carried just a few pages of advertising. So, this will take time.
Roger Black has an opinion about this, which he shared with me in a text message. “Alta points to a magazine strategy that may be viable: intensely local reporting, high quality writing, editing and design.” Plus, he added, “a healthy backer!”