Dead in its Tracks
Shift seemed to have as many lives as a cat. Or at least it did, until Multi-Vision Publishing put it out of its misery
It’s a cold, mid-November night, but inside at Shift‘s annual “State of the Net” party, things are heating up. The scene: the vast open space of the Guvernment, a Toronto nightclub, where the thump, thump, thump of the bass is pounding so forcefully that it feels like a second heartbeat in your chest and where the strobe lights are flashing and fading so quickly that even a second set of eyes wouldn’t help you see the complete bodies of the disjointed dancers. Behind the DJ blasting techno, yellow liquid bubbles are floating up and down a glass wall while bright green laser beams are spiraling across the ceiling. Technology has infiltrated every corner of this event as the publication that until recently had a tagline of “Digital Culture Now”?a reference to the wired and wireless world of computers, VCRs, MP3s, the Internet and other high-tech innovations?celebrates its staff, freelancers, advertisers and readers.
On this evening, following more than 10 years of struggle, upheaval and red ink, Shift‘s latest owners?Toronto-based Multi-Vision Publishing Inc. (MVP)?must have felt they were turning a corner. The September/October 2002 issue, they had announced publicly, was the first under their two-year watch to actually turn a profit. This move toward a firmer financial footing, they added with the hype typical of commercial publishers, would give them the means to make a good editorial product even better. In turn, they suggested, that better product would attract new advertisers to appeal to the legions of smart, young, tech-savvy readers with cash to spend on the latest gadgets and gear from the labs of Silicon Valley and beyond.
Skeptics weren’t so sure. They were fond of pointing out that for much of its history Shift had been reaching out to those same readers and, so far, had never found enough of them to sustain a viable business. The reason? Well, it depended on whom you asked. Critics, such as Robert Fulford, argued that digital culture had no meaning. Nor was it a subject, he believed, that many people wanted to read about. As he wrote inToronto Life back in 1999: “But what do they mean? Is there a metaphorical place called ?digital culture,’ and can we?do we?live there?” What’s more, he also noted that the digital age had done no more to warrant being talked about as a cultural revolution on glossy pages than the automobile revolution had.
Devoted Shift supporters, though, felt Fulford was an old fogy who just didn’t get it. They maintained that a magazine that documented the development of new digital devices and discussed their societal implications would have a significant, stable readership if only Shift hadn’t gone through such ownership chaos. And now, thanks to MVP, the turnaround was beginning to happen. The new issue was flush with lifestyle ads from such corporate giants as Adobe, Players and Nikon. There was a new editorial mix, one that, yes, did cut back on the skepticism and analysis that characterized the previous incarnation of Shift. But if giving a greater emphasis to service, lifestyle, lists and product reviews kept the magazine alive, well then, wasn’t that an acceptable trade-off?
Inside the Guvernment the thump, thump, thump of the driving techno-beat is reverberating so intensely that few people in the crowd of 2,700 or so hip and trendy 20- to 30-somethings are talking to one another?curious behaviour for people associated with a magazine that has always been about communication. Instead, they are bunched shoulder to shoulder, swaying to the music, happy to be hanging out with others who have a bond with this seemingly indefatigable publication, one that two weeks before this celebration would be described by co-founder Mark Hyland this way: “Shift has changed along with the times, which I think any good magazine does. The nature of Shift has this built-in process of renewal?it’s basically looking for new stuff, what’s happening, and changes accordingly.”
But the story of Shift‘s 10-year-and-a-bit existence also included looking for new funding, which the magazine against all odds managed to do time and time again. Or at least it did until, to the shock of Shift loyalists, MVP unexpectedly pulled the plug in mid-February and the only thump, thump, thump on that day was the sound of hearts just before they broke.
The first Shift:
A literary publication with a first print run of 800 at $3.95 a copy
The origins of Shift can be traced to Montreal pubs along Rue St. Laurent, where two young friends, Andrew Heintzman, age 24, and Evan Solomon, age 23, started talking about the creation of a magazine that spoke to their generation. The result? A literary publication?both were McGill University English grads (Solomon also majored in religious studies)?that featured interviews with Canadian authors such as Doug Cooper and Daniel Richler, while the rest of the black-and-white magazine was filled with original fiction written by Heintzman, Solomon and other young, previously unpublished authors. Funded by the $800 the two co-founders had borrowed from their parents, the magazine, says Heintzman, was “for us and the people we know. And fiction was what we were getting at the time, so fiction’s what it became.”
That first issue, all 800 copies of it, was put together in the summer of 1992 in the basement of Heintzman’s parents’ house in Toronto and printed at a commercial printer for around $1,000. “We had no idea how to start a magazine, run a magazine, manage circulation. All we had was the passion to tell a story,” says Solomon. Undaunted, they started knocking on retailers’ doors, looking for ad support. The “are you crazy?” stare and turndown they got at Cantel, a cell-phone service, was a typical reaction.
More encouraging was the media attention the pair got when they announced in Toronto that Shift was going to “kick in the teeth of the literary establishment and not publish anyone over the age of 35.” Immediately afterShift launched, it appeared on the cover of the Globe’s Arts section and the two founders were lauded as bold, young entrepreneurs. Heintzman and Solomon were even interviewed on CBC Radio’s Morningside by Ralph Benmergui.
Helping the co-founders get the fledgling publication off the ground was 25-year-old Hyland, who was a high school friend and band buddy of Heintzman’s and whose mother, Barbara, was publisher of The Financial Times of Canada. He brought much-needed computer skills to the team along with his Mac and access to a laser printer. “The timing was just kind of neat,” says Hyland. “The desktop publishing was at an early- enough stage. You didn’t need an expert.” Hyland had done research and writing for the Globe and had started up his own one-man consulting company. His office at Yonge and King streets would become Shift‘s first commercial home. In fact, it would also help finance their next home after one of the corporate neighbours tried to kick the Shift boys out. They fought the illegal eviction, winning a substantial payment to vacate their office.
It was Hyland, with his knowledge of desktop publishing, databases and graphics, who would bring the digital world into the pages of the magazine. In Shift‘s second issue, along with more short fiction and interviews with Michael Ondaatje and Douglas Copeland, Hyland wrote an opinion piece on censorship in response to a story about University of Toronto computers being used to transmit porn. That piece gave birth to a little section in the magazine called Mediascape.
Solomon freely admits, “We used our ignorance and poverty because we had nothing.” And they didn’t shy away from soliciting the support of people like John Fraser, then the editor of Saturday Night. They put a proposition to him: if they could manage to publish four issues of Shift, then he would agree to take an ad in their magazine for Saturday Night. They did and a pleasantly surprised Fraser was out $500. “They grew on spin more than results, but they had their finger on something,” says Fraser.
Over the next two years, Shift started delving deeper into the effects of the Internet and computers. The founders also started to think seriously about how to profitably fund the venture on a consistent basis. At the time the magazine was operating on a shoestring and surviving on the little money it received from grants, subscriptions, ads and newsstand sales, and through admission at Shift parties, where everyone was given the latest issue.
The second Shift:
Becoming wired?and a bit more business savvy
By 1994, Solomon had returned from freelancing in Hong Kong and Heintzman had left his job as operations manager at Burchell Publishing to work for Shift full time. Cultural, political and technological issues were taking over more pages in the magazine, which was now calling itself the publication of “New Media and Culture.” Typical features of the period included a special swimsuit edition, which featured Canadian writers and artists in beachwear, and witty interviews with such authors as Douglas Copeland and Camille Paglia.
By this point circulation stood at around 3,500, and copies still cost $3.95 for a 56-page magazine that was printed with spot colour. Advertisers were starting to see that Shift could be a good vehicle for reaching a younger audience. Among those that paid for full-page ads were Molson and GM.
It was during this period that Shift launched one of the first magazine Websites in Canada. Before most people had personal e-mail addresses, Hyland was using volunteered server space at York University and had finally found others to e-mail besides his one friend with the technology to reply. At a Macworld conference, Hyland accidentally stumbled upon the launch of Wired magazine, a U.S. publication that attracted plenty of notice for its unconventional art direction and its coverage of high-tech advances and their effect on people and institutions?in effect, an entrepreneurial model for what Shift would strive to become. Since both publications had their own Websites, Hyland conducted an on-line interview with Wired’s founding editor, Louis Rossetto, and both exchanged office tours and beers in subsequent face-time meetings. When Hyland and company saw the advertising banners on hotwired.com, they thought: “That doesn’t look too hard. We have computers, we have scanners, we can do those banners in two seconds.”
But exposing this new medium to advertisers meant that Hyland (by now company president) and Heinzman (the publisher) had to haul their Mac laptop and a monitor to agencies to show them how the Internet worked. “I think most were pretty intrigued by what we were showing them because the Web was very new then. Not everyone got it, but many did,” says Hyland. They had some success, managing to get four advertisers, among them Molson and Nestl?, at $1,000 per month each. However, most advertisers didn’t renew their contracts, calculating that their ad dollars would be more effective where there were more eyeballs than the Internet was attracting. Still, Shift was using new technology to generate revenue from advertising, which helped Hyland and his partners to sell themselves to some still-skeptical agencies as “the next big thing.”
Their efforts worked some of the time. Shift was progressing slowly. “To psyche ourselves up, we had to remind ourselves: owning your own company is a great feeling,” says Hyland. “You’re the captain of your own ship, even if your boat is a leaking rowboat. You can still call yourself the captain, you can still choose where you want your boat to go.”
As they were becoming more sophisticated editorially, the Shift captains were also getting a crash course in how to develop a proper business plan and how to properly sell their product to ad agencies and their clients. Now they were listening to industry insiders like Kerry Mitchell, then vice-president of Where Magazines International at Toronto’s Key Publishers, who acted as a catalyst for the magazine’s principals, doing mock interviews and helping to map out strategies and business plans. “I answered questions they had and offered guidance,” Mitchell recalls of that time “At the end of the process they were talking in a language that media consultants could understand.”
The third Shift:
Even more wired?and with a big-time corporate partner, but only for a short time
The trio learned their lessons well. By September 1995 they had convinced Maclean Hunter Publishing to purchase 10 per cent of Shift for around $100,000, giving the magazine some much needed funding. MH also provided subscription-services support, since part of the plan was to boost circulation. “John Tory at MH was a corporate boss who gave us lots of his time. He never made us feel like interlopers in the culture,” says Solomon. By this time, the literary and fiction content had long been muscled out by ever-increasing amounts of coverage given to media and culture. And when there were literary figures, like Salman Rushdie, they were more likely to be talking about media and the Internet. More common were articles like MuchMusic VJ Sook-Yin Lee on how she would save music TV.
One issue during this period caught the attention of broadcaster Patrick Watson, best known for his role as co-host of the contentious public affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days that aired on CBC-TV in the 1960s. In a letter to Solomon (who took the title editor about a year and a half after Shift‘s inception), Watson started off by saying he admired the magazine before this particular issue. He also stated that he had been looking forward to reading the new issue, which featured a “Media Hit List” and actress Jennifer Aniston on the cover?on a plane ride to Toronto. But when he opened the issue, wrote Watson, he discovered he had misjudged the magazine. The broadcaster then went on to list all the problems with the publication, including that it was shallow, derivative and didn’t contribute anything positive to the public. Solomon was ready to write a poisonous reply to the tune of “screw you,” but realized that Watson was right; he was wrong.
“Learning was a pleasurable discomfort and we needed that,” says Solomon. “We had to do something that made a difference to the public good?we had to find a point of view and that takes work.” In a grown-up moment, Solomon decided that instead of sassy, ironic and snooty, the magazine was going to try harder to be original and a lot less cynical.
As part of its agreement with MH, print runs were increased from 3,500 to 12,000 to 16,000. Slowly, ad revenues increased from less than $1,500 to $15,000 per issue. Still, they made serious stabs at keeping expenses low. One way they did so was to do their own postal carrier presort. After they had gummed up their only printer with sticky labels, Solomon, Heintzman and Hyland would line the floor of the office with magazines to be mailed?late at night so they had enough room. Their back-breaking work saved them a minimal sum, but every dollar counted.
Efforts like this weren’t enough. Shift was still losing money, though by now it had established itself as a brand name that had some value as a way of reaching a young, prosperous demographic group. So even though Tory was reluctant to give up the publication a year after MH bought in, his corporate bosses felt otherwise when a Montreal-based company came knocking with an offer to buy Shift outright.
The fourth Shift:
Still wired?but one big-time corporate partner is replaced by another
BHVR Communications Inc., part of the Behaviour multimedia company, bought Shift for a rumoured price of $1 million. It had big plans for the magazine. With a hefty budget of $10 million, it planned to launch Shift in the U.S. and compete directly with, among others, Wired. Solomon, Hyland and Heintzman thought they had found their saviour and, with that, Hyland left to become associate publisher of the Canadian edition of TV Guide Magazine.
Montreal businessman Richard Szalwinski, who owned BHVR, had made millions in the computer software industry. Now he wanted to try his luck in media. Although Szalwinski was new to publishing, he knew what he wanted: a North American magazine with its own television and Web components and a name to leverage into retail. Shift appealed to him because it had an established brand name plus a Website, a TV presence (for CBC Newsworld it produced Shift Media Minutes) and plans for a radio station. Freelance writer Felix Vikhman, then a Shift editorial assistant, remembers the excitement: “Evan said there were big changes in the midst and we were about to experience a ShiftShift of Shift-like proportions.”
BHVR’s first move: stopping publication after the August 1996 issue for four months in order to prepare for a relaunch. In that period, the number of staff increased from eight to 15 and, over time, to 25 and more. The office was relocated to more spacious quarters at the corner of Spadina and Adelaide. The numbers of copies published was increased to 90,000 (10,000 for newsstands, 10,000 for subscribers, 55,000 for controlled circulation in urban weeklies such as Vancouver’s Georgia Straight and Toronto’s NOW, and 15,000 for trade shows and postal walks in chosen neighbourhoods).
The first BHVR issue featured Alanis Morrisette on the cover and, for the first time, the bent arrow logo of the “Shift” key appeared. Amidst pop culture references and celebrity covers, Shift was also publishing stories that contemplated the online needs in Third World countries. The Dalai Lama even graced one cover. “Evan’s regular disposition is a 14-year-old boy, excited by the world?excited to be alive and see the world unfold around him. At its best, that’s what Shift was,” says Vikhman.
The fifth Shift:
The old editor leaves, a new one arrives, and the magazine goes south, literally and financially
In the late summer of 1998, with the magazine financially stable for the moment, Solomon left on a book tour for his first novel, Crossing the Distance. But that wasn’t the only reason for his departure. It was very hard to work for Shift, he says, when he no longer owned it. Replacing him was Laas Turnbull, who had worked as a senior editor at Toronto Life and Report on Business Magazine. Turnbull, known in the industry for his packaging skills, gave the magazine its “For Living in Digital Culture” tagline, a measure designed to help focus the editorial and to signal to the reader what the magazine was all about?a culture being redefined by technology.
“I don’t even think anyone had even heard the term ?digital culture’ back then, and now everyone uses that phrase,” says former Shift editor-at-large Clive Thompson.
In anticipation of the November 1999 U.S. launch, the magazine set up Heintzman in an office in midtown Manhattan (most of the staff, however, stayed in Toronto). But even then, signs of what would grow into a huge schism between visions were visible. Both Szalwinski and Heintzman thought Shift would succeed internationally, but made the move for different reasons. Szalwinski was in search of a potentially huge payoff from a hot brand in the richest consumer market in the world, while Shift staff held the idea that digital culture was an international phenomenon and that it had more potential as an international magazine.
With a print run of 210,000, Shift did manage to attract attention. Though placement on newsstands was poor, Shift was able to grab the media’s interest, including four write-ups in the New York Post. Perhaps most encouraging was the jump in traffic to Shift.com?from one to five million users in just four months.
It seemed, for a time, that Shift could compete with the likes of Spin and Wired. After all, the dot.com boom was sweeping the planet. Surely there was a place for several magazines to grow and prosper in a world that had undergone a revolution?
Maybe there was, but Shift wasn’t going to be one of them despite winning design and editorial awards and praise for an editorial product that was “swimming upstream in the hype of a new marketplace, not praising it,” says Thompson. Indeed, it was one of the few publications at the time to question the social impact of technology, giving rise to stories like “Why Your Fabulous Job Sucks” and asking questions like “What Happened to the Future We Imagined?”
On the business side, Szalwinski’s idea was to build not just one, but three strong brands ?Vice (for those aged 16 to 18), Shift (for a demographic aged 18 to 34) and another publication for an older generation. Each brand, of course, would have a magazine, TV, retail outlet and
By 1999, Szalwinski had poured $30 million into his ill-fated venture. And about all he had got in return were lawsuits, losses and loathing from many quarters, including the editorial side of Shift. One internal critic, online producer Barnaby Marshall, was fired for opposing the notion of branding Shift through e-commerce. Clive Thompson cheekily suggested that the entire staff resign and then get rehired by Time Warner, which had been interested in buying
the magazine before talks went sour with Szalwinski. “We were just beginning to make a little headway as an editorial production and, basically, we did not only not have a brand to leverage into retail, but if we went into retail, we’d be undercutting whatever brand we’d already established as being a good editorial voice,” says Vikhman.
“Basically, what got lost over the years was the original notion Andy and Evan had of a literary generational voice. Instead, it became fascinated by product,” says Daniel Richler, who had been interviewed for Shift‘s first issue.
Shift was mired in debt once again and the search began for a new saviour back home in Canada. When asked to comment on the tumultuous period, Turnbull, who is now the editor of ROB Magazine and who was the target of several media attacks for his performance as editor, chose to remain silent. “Unfortunately,” he explained, “I’m not prepared to talk about the past.”
The sixth Shift:
In limbo and searching for another saviour
The magazine went into receivership and the staff, as they were clearing out their personal belongings from their about-to-be-vacated Toronto quarters, were watched over by heavy-set men in suits who were making sure that no one stole anything. Still, the incredible devotion of those who either worked for or supported Shiftin other ways did not dissipate. In fact, many of them worked collectively to buy the magazine back for $1 plus the debt in the summer of 2000, and took a 35 per cent pay cut while publishing without BHVR.
“It was inspiring to see such staff spirit, this group of people banding together and willing to save something they believed in?something I didn’t think people were capable of anymore,” says then-office manager Marijke de Looze.
Heintzman, who had left the magazine to pursue a career at Key Publishers, returned to try to find a buyer while Shift ceased publication for the next few months, but still managed to print a November-December double issue as a volunteer effort from the staff.
Impressed by this kind of commitment of the staff and?probably far more importantly, recognizing that theShift brand still had value?Multi-Vision Publishing bought the publication and helped pay off outstanding debts. With rigorous cost controls, said MVP President Greg MacNeil, “The idea was to breathe financial life back into it, to fight another day.”
The seventh Shift:
Still wired?but a disciplined focus on the bottom line. Still skeptical, too?but not as much as before
Under MVP’s plan, the magazine would only publish six times a year. Circulation would be 70,000?9,000 paid and 61,000 controlled-circulation copies (still through alt-weeklies like NOW, Georgia Straight and Hour). Among the big-name advertisers that had signed up: Subaru and Compaq.
New Shift editor-in-chief Neil Morton described the publication this way: “It is applied to a different world now than it was in the euphoric, hype-driven tech days of ’98, ’99, 2000. The tech bubble has burst (and with it much of the hype), the economy hasn’t been the greatest, 9/11 happened, terrorist threats are a day-to-day reality, the environment continues to take a beating, war is on the horizon, but we still try to have as much fun as possible.”
Morton knew from fun. He used to be editor of Pursuit, the lifestyle cigarette loyalty magazine that MVP also publishes. His new tagline was fun?”Canada’s Technology and Entertainment Magazine.” So were many of his features?such as, in the November 2002 edition, “75 People, Places, Things That Will Make You Happy,” a look at people creating and innovating in new media.
But he had a serious side, too, as seen by such features as “Why Technology Is Failing Us (and How We Can Fix It)” and “Culture Where Art Thou?” Both articles took sober looks at the implications of technology upon society and offered the skepticism that most other tech magazines didn’t. “Shift had recognized the digital culture ripples were affecting a wider outlet and the magazine is edging toward it,” said former Shiftwriter John Turner. But he also added that the magazine was missing the cultural importance it once had.
During MVP’s ownership, there had been successes. There were glossy ads, magazine awards, such as the two Chris Turner’s story “Why Technology Is Failing Us” won in 2002, a kudo from co-founder Heintzman (it’s “not far from where we were when we started”) and a brand that still had value (Shift, said Eric Kuiper of the Media Company, was one of the few good publications that cater to the 18-34 year-old market).
But, as Masthead editor William Shields pointed out: “Neil has taken a much more hard digital focus than general-interest digital culture, but the problem is that if it has room to grow, why isn’t it?”
Just three months after that November night at the Guvernment, an unexpected thumping took place. On Tuesday, February 18?one day before a splashy party for Saturday Night, another MVP turnaround project, was scheduled?it was announced that the board of directors of St. Joseph Media, which controls MVP, had decided to suspend publication of Shift.
Why? According to MacNeil it was because MVP had lost $750,000 on Shift?not to mention the $10 million the magazine had lost over the previous eight years?and simply could not take any more losses without a turnaround in the technology sector, which seems to be nowhere in sight. “We knew the technology sector was soft and it hasn’t come back, and it’s hard to do a niche magazine without the driver of the niche being present,” says MacNeil.
With only so much to invest, funds that would have been put toward Shift will be used for three new projects, including the growth of Fashion18 magazine. MacNeil also pointed out that his company had come on board to keep the publication alive two years and two months longer than anyone else in the country had been prepared to.
It was a sad day for Shift‘s eight staffers when Morton called them into his office for what they thought was to be a production meeting. But rather than a rundown of what was happening with various stories, they realized something was wrong when Morton grabbed de Looze’s papers out of her hands, and associate publisher Kevin Siu broke the news.
Morton was one of the many devoted Shifters who hadn’t seen the blow coming. He’d already had his budget for the next year approved and had mapped out future issues when he was told, the night before the official announcement, that his magazine would be shut down, taking his job with it. “We’d met our revenue ad budget in the first issue this year, which was great, but based on the past couple of years and based on the market right now, we still stood to lose more this year. Even if we had a reasonably good year, we’d still lose a couple hundred grand,” says Morton, who admits to feeling sick to his stomach when he first heard the news and, later that night, to throwing up.
The day after they got the word, the staff looked out over their candy-coloured Mac lap-tops and into their uncharacteristically quiet office. They all had sad eyes and shocked faces. De Looze, who marked the occasion by dressing all in black, remembered that she had felt the same pain following the BHVR debacle. “We were really starting to emerge as a strong cultural voice and now our vocal cords have been severed,” she said.
But maybe not forever. With the Shift Website still in existence, the magazine is still breathing. “I’m surprised, but not totally shocked, by MVP’s decision,” said co-founder Heintzman on the day after the announcement. “Though it wouldn’t surprise me if Shift continued in another shape or form.”