A Look at California Today, and Tomorrow

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When Soumya Karlamangla, who lives in San Francisco, tells someone she works for The New York Times, the reaction is often the same: a look of confusion.

“People that I’m interviewing in the field will say, ‘Oh, they flew you out here for this?’” she said in a recent conversation. “I usually tell them that there’s a good number of Times reporters in California. We have two bureaus.”

Ms. Karlamangla, who writes the California Today newsletter, joined The Times in July 2021 from The Los Angeles Times, where she covered health care news.

“I was tired of writing about Covid-19,” she said. When The Times approached her with an opportunity to cover news in the Golden State, she didn’t hesitate.

Ms. Karlamangla grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, where she moved from the Midwest when she was 4. Now living in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco, she finds much of her inspiration for the newsletter, which publishes every weekday, in her surroundings. Last year, for example, she observed a number of Burmese restaurants in her neighborhood and wrote about the rise of the cuisine. She recently reported on how California got its name, answering a question she’d long had.

In a phone interview, Ms. Karlamangla shared her favorite part about reporting from California and her pursuit to report from all 58 of its counties. The conversation below has been edited and condensed.

How do you decide what to cover for the newsletter?

It’s a combination of what I find interesting, what I think readers could benefit from and what my editors are paying attention to. One thing that’s different about writing a newsletter versus being a beat reporter is that I think about the newsletter on a weekly basis. We have five newsletters a week, so are they all adding something of value to readers? Are we leaning too hard on light news or too hard on heavier news? Because this is a newsletter that lands in people’s inbox first thing in the morning, you have to be a little bit more gentle. People don’t want to click on a newsletter at 6:30 a.m. and find out the world is going to catch on fire in a year.

I want to help explain things to people who have seen headlines about certain news but maybe don’t have the full context, like why U.C.L.A.’s chancellor is testifying on Capitol Hill, or what the Santa Cruz City Council is doing with the collapse of the beachside promenade.

How much of your reporting is on the ground?

When I took over the newsletter, I had a goal that I wanted to visit and report from all 58 counties in California. I’ve made it to 50. On most days, I am in my apartment writing. But this is the kind of job where I might fly out to San Diego, for example, to spend four days there and report several stories for the newsletter.

I often get tapped to report breaking news in the state, too. I was in Half Moon Bay last year because of the mass shooting there. A few weeks ago, I woke up at 6 a.m. to a phone call from my editor who wanted me to go to U.C.L.A so that I could report on the protests there over the war in Gaza.

You’ve written a lot about the recent rebranding of California — the changing of its slogan, the redesign of Hollywood Boulevard and Disneyland. Is there a reason all of this is happening now?

California is huge and a place of reinvention, so there’s always stuff like that happening. I think the state tourism board is trying to get ahead of a situation where people outside of California only see the state through a political lens and therefore don’t see it as a fun place to vacation. I feel like California is always trying to walk a fine line and figure out the right way to present itself.

What’s the biggest challenge of writing California Today?

Trying to find stories and perspectives that feel representative of 39 million people. California has so many different identities, places, geographies. Trying to narrow down what we might write about, where The Times can add value and where my reporting experience and expertise can add value is really hard.

What’s the most common feedback you receive from readers?

Our reader emails are amazing. They’ll say something like: “I start my day with this newsletter and a cup of coffee. Thank you so much for all the hard work that you do.” I get one of those once a day. This newsletter is kind of a public service. It’s free. People are so invested in it.

What’s a perfect day in California look like for you?

To me, any perfect day in San Francisco involves visiting Golden Gate Park and walking around seeing all the people. In L.A., the weather is always the same. In San Francisco, there is slightly more weather variation, and it has brought me great joy to live here and visit the park when the weather is nice. Feeling that communal joy is something I’ve honestly never experienced before.

What’s your favorite part of living in California?

The diversity of geography. There are so many things you could see in one day, like the beach or snowy mountains. We have so many national parks here, and they all look wildly different.

And your least favorite?

It’s expensive. The cost of living is not great.

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