For 120 years, Sunset magazine has been synonymous with California living.
Created by Southern Pacific Railroad to promote westward travel, Sunset has long been a tastemaker for the masses, popularizing backyard barbecues, hot tubs, midcentury architecture, weekend getaways, California wines and food culture, including a boom in avocados. The pioneering publication survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Great Depression and ownership changes.
But there are dark clouds on Sunset’s horizon.
More than a dozen current and former employees and contributors interviewed by The Times describe an organization in disarray. Five top editors, including the editor in chief, have quit in recent weeks. Some freelance writers haven’t been paid for months. Sunset’s holiday issue, which typically lands in mailboxes in late November, has been delayed until nearly Christmas, in part because of a lack of advertising.
In September, Sunset’s staff was abruptly moved from its upscale waterfront offices to a WeWork communal workspace several blocks away in downtown Oakland. Without a test kitchen to fine-tune recipes or prepare dishes for photo shoots, editors schlepped food and supplies to a basement kitchen in Mountain View, which they shared with food truck vendors. Feral cats congregated near the door.
As staffers were settling into the WeWork space, the parking manager from the previous offices showed up unannounced, demanding that Sunset pay its past-due parking fees.
Problems have mounted since the magazine was sold a year ago to Regent, a small Beverly Hills private equity firm, for about $12 million (including liabilities) — a sliver of its value three decades ago.
Regent founder Michael A. Reinstein, in an interview, acknowledged a rocky transition from the previous owner, Time Inc. Editors left voluntarily, he said, because they decided they weren’t a good fit with the new cost-conscious approach. He added that he also wanted his own team, and had hired a new editor in chief from New York.
“This was a complete reboot,” said Reinstein, who specializes in buying distressed assets. “We’ve taken a start-up mentality.”
Reinstein said Sunset was not experiencing a cash crunch. He said his firm was simply working through a backlog of bills, and that he was invested in the magazine’s future.
“I view Sunset as my life’s work; making it live another 120 years is core to me,” he said. “I treasure this brand.”
Sunset’s struggles are emblematic of the challenges facing print media. Publications are suffering from a defection of advertisers to the internet. Magazines have been particularly hard hit; publisher Condé Nast last week announced it was ending the print edition of Glamour. Hearst is no longer printing Seventeen. Some billionaires have come to the rescue. This week, the philanthropic firm led by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of the Apple Inc. co-founder, acquired the publisher of Pop-Up magazine and the California Sunday magazine. But such instances are rare.
“What makes this so sad is that it’s Sunset,” said Matt Villano, a travel writer and contributor since 2003. “This is a magazine that has existed almost as long as California.”
Sunset’s growth parallels that of California in the 20th century.
The magazine was born to coax travelers aboard Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited line, which cut through the Southwest from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The inaugural issue in May 1898, which sold for a nickel, depicted the sun setting over San Francisco’s Golden Gate strait, decades before the famed bridge was built.