After a Refashion
Canada's top business magazines needed overhauls. Art Jonhson of Canadian Business went bimonthly. Patricia Best of ROB Magazine chose an edgy redesign. More than a year has passed. Are the changes working?
There’s no apparent order to this meeting, but there’s one pressing concern: Johnson needs ideas and he needs them fast. Due to a sudden infusion of advertising dollars for the November 27, 1998, issue, he has to fill 80 editorial pages, up from a 60 to 70 average. “We’re going to be feeling the pressure to build those pages,” Johnson tells his staff. They have about 10 days to do so.
Before the fall of 1997, CB was a monthly. Then, as now, it was geared toward a specific audience. “Canadian Business, Canada’s best-selling business magazine, is written for managers, with the senior corporate manager as the prime reader. It delivers to these strategists discerning and relevant stories about business transformation through technology, the changing face of the workplace and Canadian entrepreneurship here and abroad. By doing so, it gives Canada’s business achievers the insight and inspiration to capitalize on change,” reads CB’s target market profile. On September 26, 1997, CB relaunched itself as a bimonthly, one with more features and new departments that focus on the changing needs of its readership. “As a monthly, because you’re doing a summing up of a person or company, event or situation, it tends to be very retrospective,” says Johnson. “Overall, there’s much, much more of a sense of urgency with what we’re doing now.”
Since the September debut, CB has published some of the most timely and prescient business stories in Canada. For example, when North American investors faced a bear market last fall, the magazine beatFortune, Forbes and The Globe and Mail‘s Report on Business Magazine with a story that warned investors of a stagnating market. Canadian Business also featured a story on the volatility of Newcourt Credit Group shares just days before the firm’s stock price tanked. Johnson and staff also picked up on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference scandal in Vancouver 10 months before former Solicitor General Andy Scott’s mile-high follies and CBC reporter Terry Milewski’s suspension. An editorial written by Bruce Headlam, then features editor, in the January 30, 1998, issue, attacked Chr?tien and government officials for violating the civil rights of Canadians. In the October 30, 1998, issue, CB followed up with an editorial by staff writer David Berman on how the scandal can hurt business abroad.
Plans to relaunch the magazine as a bimonthly began with publisher Paul Jones in the early 1990s, but were shelved when the recession took a big chunk out of CB‘s ad revenues. In 1995, Jones returned to the blueprints and began working with the numbers. In 1996, he submitted a formal business plan to the board of directors at Maclean Hunter and CB Media, which was approved for the following year. The strategy contained three objectives: to introduce a new brand of business journalism to Canada?one similar to the bimonthly format of Fortune and Forbes in the United States; to raise subscription prices, thus increasing revenue; and to sell more advertising, another way to enhance revenue. It was a bold move by CB, since it would differentiate the magazine from its Canadian competitors, which, in addition to ROB, includes theFinancial Post Magazine (see “Post Recovery?” on page 11).
By choosing Fortune and Forbes?business magazines that have a long and successful tradition in the United States?as approximate models, Johnson and Jones have their sights set high. “I think because of the quality [Fortune and Forbes] have?the depth of the research, the writing, the presentation?they’re extremely well-informed, excellent magazines,” says Charles Davies, a former CB editor who’s now the deputy features editor at the National Post. Fortune has been successful in addressing the needs of managers at all levels, with stories about the way selected companies run their businesses. For its part, Forbes is an investor-oriented magazine. “We’re doing much the same as Forbes as far as investing is concerned, but from a Canadian perspective and for a Canadian audience,” says Johnson. “But it’s a much smaller market in Canada, so you can’t be a pure investment book. I think you have to straddle the two?you have to be right for investors and managers.”
On the third floor of The Globe and Mail, Patricia Best, editor of Report on Business Magazine and co-author of the award-winning business books A Matter of Trust and The Brass Ring, sits in her office. Her desk is neat and orderly, with the exception of a few errant pens and a stack of magazines in her in-box. On her desk is a framed picture of her three-year-old daughter, who looks like her mom. They both share brown, wavy hair, big blue eyes and round cheeks. Dressed in a mossy green tweed suit and a matching turtleneck, Best is flipping through ROB back issues, ones published after her relaunch in April 1998. According to publisher Stephen Petherbridge, ROB Magazine was in need of change. He believes there were editorial weaknesses and the magazine was a bit stodgy. “I think we were bland and we were too corporate,” says Petherbridge. “There wasn’t any sense of fun or edge to the magazine.” The tone, in his opinion, was too reverent and the look was typographically dated. “It was so 1970s. It just didn’t look like a modern magazine.” After editor David Olive stepped down due to illness in November 1996, the Globe started looking for someone who would initiate changes. Eight months later, Best was hired.
“I wanted the job because I wanted an edgier, faster-paced, more relevant magazine?and the people who hired me wanted that,” says Best. As a result, she has added several new departments and has made the content more news-oriented. A new design was also part of the relaunch. All the changes were done to attract more of the magazine’s target audience. “Report on Business Magazine reaches a select national audience of Canada’s business leaders?executives, professionals, senior managers and owners who play a decisive role in this country’s economic and political development. Well-educated, high-income earners, they rely on Report on Business Magazine to keep them up to date on business news, views and personalities,” says the magazine’s reader profile. “They are influential. They are affluent. And they look to Report on Business Magazine for timely, authoritative information about business in Canada.” “We want to get as many readers of The Globe and Mail as possible reading ROB Magazine,” says Petherbridge, who says that the content change and redesign are a better way to appeal to the Globe‘s 343,000 subscribers, over two-thirds of whom get the 15-year-old magazine tucked inside their paper on the last Friday of the month. And although the design change has received mixed reviews, Petherbridge argues that the magazine’s appearance is what gets people reading: “I’m an old tabloid journalist. I’m used to page one being the thing that sells. If page one is a grey slab, no one is going to buy it. The same goes for magazines inside of papers.” His colourful slab boasts the largest circulation of all business magazines in Canada (over 280,000 versus CB‘s 82,000). A controlled-circulation publication, ROB Magazine charges more for its advertising, since it’s available to more houses and offices across the country. But despite the new content and design, there’s no guarantee that people will read it. As Barbara Moon, former editor-at-large at Saturday Night, once joked in a newspaper interview, a controlled-circulation magazine is like a cow turd that falls out of your newspaper?the trick is to get someone to pick it up. In Best’s office, she has turned to the last page of her October 1998 issue. Exit Interview, one of the magazine’s new signature ideas, profiles a prominent Canadian figure who has recently left a top position. This department is symbolic of the content change, since it deals with an edgy subject in a timely fashion. “Someone who has been an Exit Interview subject was going to parties and people were commenting on this person’s appearance in Exit Interview. Do you know how hard it is to have readers know the proper name of a feature? To get the logo and the branding of it? So obviously we were meeting a need,” says Best. “People like to read it.”
As a monthly magazine, CB was becoming irrelevant to its target audience. According to Johnson, some important business issues couldn’t be covered under the old format. “You can’t for the most part deal with personal finance or investing because you simply couldn’t do it in a way that’s sensible to your readers.” To address this need, he added Risk & Reward, a personal finance department that deals with current investment issues. In the November 27, 1998, issue, for instance, investment editor Jonathan Harris examined the “amazing comeback” of Silcorp Ltd., the country’s largest convenience-store operator, which had filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992. Although the turnaround brought record profits, primarily from such subsidiaries as Mac’s, Mike’s Mart and Becker’s, Harris argued that the annual report is written in such a way that made it “nearly impossible for investors to assess the degree of the turnaround.” To help investors, Harris, with the help of a finance lecturer and a lawyer, went through the organization’s balance sheet and highlighted the good and bad points.
Another new element, Front & Centre, is the first department after the editor’s and publisher’s notes. It allows the magazine to comment on newsworthy issues that directly affect the business lives of readers. In one editorial titled “Memo to Paul Martin: It’s Time for Some Serious Tax cuts?Now,” published four days before Martin’s February 16 budget speech, David Berman wrote about the tax burden of Canadians. As for his bimonthly editor’s note, Johnson steers away from the standard here’s-what’s-in-this-issue approach. Instead, he takes a stand on an issue, such as the lack of English-language education in Quebec.
Perhaps the biggest change to the magazine is in the features section. It still focuses on companies and business personalities, but there are more, shorter articles. Stories in the February 26, 1999, issue illustrate the new approach: a feature on Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc., for instance, was 3,000 words on a Montreal-based software firm that recently introduced a controversial internet software package. Another example was a 1,500-word piece on Magna International’s Frank Stronach. It reported on the entrepreneur’s plans to consider ventures outside his auto parts business.
Johnson will also occasionally assign longer pieces, for instance, Paul Kaihla’s November 13, 1998, 5,000 word feature on the mysterious death of OBUS Forme CEO Frank Roberts, who was murdered last summer. Business readers, Johnson believes, prefer a wider range of stories on different issues. “Our approach before was probably closer to The Atlantic Monthly,” he says. Now, Johnson contends, CB‘s sense of urgency has increased. Stories are more recent and directly affect the way readers spend their money or run their companies.
But due to the need for more stories, CB cannot rely on the system that generates copy for most monthly magazines in Canada: a small number of staff writers (if any) coupled with a larger number of freelancers. When plans were underway to increase frequency, one of CB Media’s fears was a shortage of good business writers. Three years ago, to address this problem, CB began a paid internship program. Its goal? To develop the necessary talent that was essential if the bimonthly initiative was to succeed. “Art’s circumstance atCanadian Business is one of economic necessity,” says Bruce Headlam, who worked as a features editor atCB before joining The New York Times last year. “He needs a lot of stories and he needs a lot of stories done quickly.” The transition from monthly to bimonthly was also aided by a publication introduced by CB Media in late 1995. CB Technology, which was edited by Headlam during its two-year life, started as a one-off production but eventually became a quarterly. It allowed CB to produce 16 issues a year, which was a test run for the eventual increase to 21 issues a year. When the magazine went bimonthly, CB Technology was scrapped, but its content was folded into CB, much of it in a new department called Plugged In, which informs readers of the latest high-tech products. In this section, Johnson has covered various stories, including “Boot Up, Log On, Cash In,” a piece on online trading and finance tracking written by Andrew Wahl, one of last year’s interns, in the February 26, 1999, issue. This type of coverage also offers an editorial showcase that attracts advertising from the big-spending high-tech sector.
“The transition has been almost embarrassingly hiccup free,” Johnson boasts. “We were braced for terrible things to happen. We were braced for all kinds of production crunches and I think we were braced for a lot of stress and turmoil. I’m not going to say there’s no stress and turmoil, but most of the surprises have been on the pleasant side rather than the unpleasant side.”
In September 1997, the same month as the CB relaunch, Best published her first ROB Magazine as editor. In this issue, she made her first major change. Loose Lips, written by an anonymous Bay Street money manager, is a critical look into Canada’s financial centre. It is similar in scope to Stanley Bing’s columns inFortune, in which he describes life in the corporate world in the U.S. Bing (a pseudonym) is a Fortune 500 company executive who depicts his surroundings in an irreverent fashion. Loose Lips does likewise. “He manned the phones to trash-talk the Faceless Foe’s bid, using contacts he’d made during his 25 years on Bay Street. ?Yeah, Lyle, long time no see. Say, I’m calling [here I heard] Kay Beck Sawmills. These jokers at the Faceless Foe are offering shit Consolidated paper that’s worth less than $10 a share,'” writes the author of a colleague who is dealing with a stock in the author’s pension account.
This column was the beginning of a massive facelift that would occur eight months later. In her April relaunch issue, Best revamped the entire magazine and updated one major department. In the front of the book, Best brings several funny and irreverent departments together in a section called Reporter. Rap Sheet, for instance, analyzes an issue in the news with quotes from various critics and experts on the subject. In the first issue, Rap Sheet took a look at the proposed bank mergers with comments from people including federal Finance Minister Paul Martin (“This isn’t some kind of barnyard struggle between kids…. I think the Canadian people are entitled to engage in a debate”). Audit, another front-of-book department, looks at business in an ironic, almost cheeky manner. Typical is the mock letter from Royal Bank chairman John Cleghorn that ran in the February 1999 issue: “Oh boy, did we goof. I mean, what was in the eggnog the day I suggested to my counterpart at the Bank of Montreal, Matt Barrett, that we might engage in some corporate cohabitation.”
Other Reporter sections include Hyperbole Check, a look at the hype of a certain issue or company, which is then cut down to size with “the reality” of the exaggeration. In the May 1998 issue, Hyperbole Check focused on Netscape, the internet software company that touted itself as the top Web browser “without a competitor out there like it.” However, as the ROB pointed out, the company announced huge losses in 1997 and laid off 10 percent of its workforce. As well, there’s Spectrum, the Harper‘s Index rip-off featuring business trivia that had run on the back page since 1985 but had been dropped from the relaunch. “We have a relationship with our reader and that became very clear to me when I made the huge mistake of taking Spectrum out of the book,” says Best, who received letters from readers “begging” her to bring it back. “Lots of our readers love it?it’s a break from the heavy stuff they deal with every day.”
The back of the book, according to Best, steers away from hardcore business issues and helps the reader spend money. It also offers lifestyle information to the Globe reader who isn’t interested in business. In Style Manager, readers can ask questions about fashion and dining etiquette. In Booze, the Globe’s John Allemang looks at the world of expensive wines and liqueurs. As for personal finance, there’s Wealth, which offers investing tips.
Change has also come to the feature section, primarily through the introduction of the monthly Moving Target, a minifeature on a newsworthy business item. In the February 1999 issue, for instance, freelancer John Lorinc examined the financial plight of SkyDome and its search for a new owner. “One of my aims when I got here was to introduce some shorter pieces,” says Best, who argues that the reader shouldn’t be inundated with long stories. “I really want to make sure that everyone understands that the thing I wanted to change the most was the content of the magazine,” she says. “We have the biggest readership and the biggest circulation so we’re on pretty good ground, which doesn’t mean you can be complacent. You have to be vigilant, you have to be aggressive, and you have to make sure the reader is getting the best he can get.”
Nowhere is Best more aggressive than in ROB Magazine‘s controversial redesign, which completely altered the look and attitude of the publication. “The question we were asked in advance of this issue was, ?Why are you changing?’ The answer: As Canada’s leading business magazine, we intend to stay ahead of the pack. In today’s business marketplace, that means continuously evolving and improving,” wrote Best in the editor’s note in the relaunch issue. So after a search for a design consultant, which considered Canadian candidates, she looked to New York and found Robert Priest, the influential British art director who is currently on his second stint with Esquire. Priest, who art directed in Canada over 20 years ago, helped to redesign Toronto Life in the 1990s. He has also worked at other big American magazines, such as Newsweek, US, GQ andHouse & Garden.
The change is most visible in the logo and display copy. The typefaces resemble those used in music or surfer magazines; Base Mononarrow and Base 9 seem big, bold and aggressive compared to the old book’s traditional fonts, Helvetica and Franklin for the display copy and Sabon for the text type. “[The typefaces] are not that cutting edge, but you can’t call them conservative and that’s what we’re trying to get away from?just a general conservative look that we’re so tired of,” says senior designer Domenic Macri.
The body type, Poynter, is also uncommon. It was chosen because of its “nice, clean cut.” The photography and illustrations are now more modern and abstract than they used to be; the photos, Macri says, no longer attempt to explain the story in one picture. But many in the magazine industry argue that the redesign is too cutting edge for the publication’s target audience. According to John Macfarlane, editor of Toronto Life and Best’s old boss at the now-defunct Financial Times, the look might be repelling readers, not attracting them. Macfarlane calls the visual style “rock ‘n roll in a church”?two worlds that don’t go very well together. “It’s too leading edge and too hip for a business magazine that’s meant to appeal to what is essentially a very conservative group of people,” says Macfarlane. But this metaphor is more symbolic for Best than her former boss might think. “You know the church is losing members,” she says, “and if your magazine is too careful, too moribund, too circumspect, too conservative and too scared to make a statement, you’re going to lose members.”
“The problem with ROB Magazine is that it looks like a bunch of 50-year-olds decided to pretend that they were 22 and you just can’t do that,” says 31-year-old Tony Keller, the former assistant editor at The Globe and Mail‘s editorial board, who was recently hired as the editor of The Financial Post Magazine. “It’s a bunch of people who ride Barcaloungers pretending that they’re on skateboards.”
Charles Davies was also taken aback by ROB Magazine‘s redesign, but noticed that it has been toned down. He now finds it pleasing to read. “With a major design change, you’re not going to get it right [the first time]. It’s a horrifying kind of experience to undergo and most people will tell you that,” he says. “But you get that with any redesign. You have to fine tune it and adjust.” In response to the negative feedback, Best and Petherbridge felt it was necessary to soften some parts of the book. For instance, the designers no longer put black type on a brown background, which happened in the front of the book in the first two issues after the relaunch. According to Petherbridge, the magazine was not redesigned for the sake of redesigning. But the change, he admits, is a vehicle to make people notice edgier articles. “There’s no shame in saying that journalism of any kind is actually a form of marketing?you have to market your content,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you’re not going to get through to the reader.”
A new design was also part of CB‘s overhaul. The new look, done in-house, took advantage of the contemporary feel of CB Technology. “We decided to make the whole process of reading the magazine easier and faster,” says art director Donna Braggins. It’s also easy to read. Since most of the stories in CBare told through people, photography is used more often than illustrations. But there was a subtle shift in the types of photos used. “We’re creating portraits with a point of view, that are more active,” she says, referring to the debut issue which featured Sears Canada executive Paul Walters taking a punch at the camera with “Take That, Wal-Mart!” written around the fist.
It has been a year since ROB Magazine relaunched and almost two years since CB went bimonthly. Reactions to the respective editorial changes have been varied, but generally positive. David Olive, the former editor of ROB who’s now a senior writer at the National Post‘s Financial Post section, says both magazines are doing a great job of reaching their target audiences. He commends Johnson for bringing a real sense of urgency to CB, and he’s impressed with ROB Magazine‘s livelier content and redesign. But the changes haven’t brought perfection. “I give lots of credit to Canadian Business for being closer to the news, but it’s still a little out of date compared to Maclean’s,” says Olive, who contends that there’s still a monthly mentality in the way stories are assigned at CB. He is also wary of ROB Magazine‘s dramatic new design, which he argues might not last: “There’s a certain trendiness to it that suggests to me that two or three years down the road, it will have to change markedly.”
Charles Davies says CB has improved significantly. In his opinion, the publication he once edited is “looking good” and is “generally hitting the stories properly.” He also applauds ROB Magazine for having a good story selection, but is not sure about its attempts to produce newsier stories. “My sense is that they’re not really leading the news so much as kind of responding to it, which is the perpetual problem of a monthly magazine. I wouldn’t want to be a monthly magazine editor these days, because it throws you into this position of trying to define a new sense of utility to your readers and it’s not easy.”
Terence Corcoran, editor of the Financial Post, skims through both magazines as a part of his regular readings. He says both publications are significantly better. “But in terms of providing top-notch business and economic news and information, there’s still no comparison with the U.S. magazines.” Patrick Walshe, vice-president account director with the Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell Inc. agency in Toronto, says the changes at CB and ROB Magazine have made the business-magazine category more vibrant. He congratulates Best for making her book edgier and more critical. He’s also impressed with what Johnson has done. CB, he adds, has become more timely. But for his clients like American Express, Mackenzie Mutual Funds and Sprint, the changes haven’t made much of a difference. “No one magazine has a lock on the category,” he says. “Neither one of them is clearly dominating.” “I don’t think advertisers think there are significant changes,” says Janet Landreth, vice-president, group media director, at OMD, a Toronto ad agency. She acknowledges that the magazines look better, but not to the point where one leaps ahead of the other. “I don’t think it’s had a huge change in anybody’s readership from the numbers I’ve seen,” says Landreth. “There hasn’t been anything drastic that way.”
Since ROB Magazine is a controlled-circulation magazine, it is difficult to measure the number of readers it may have gained or lost. The Globe adjunct has the largest readership, at about 600,000. Between 1996 and ’97, advertising pages dropped from 831 to 778. “The biggest challenge we faced in ’98 was the fact thatCanadian Business had changed its frequency and in the beginning it looked like they were doing very well,” says Petherbridge. But after the relaunch, advertisers bought 876 pages in ROB Magazine; a 12 percent increase from the year before. However, as a paid-circulation publication with a readership of 387,000, CBhas also seen gains. Paul Jones’s goal of increasing ad market share was accomplished when it rose by two percent in 1997. The percentage dropped slightly in 1998, but CB still has 39 percent of the advertising market share whereas ROB Magazine only has 29. Jones’s objective of increasing circulation revenue, however, has not yet been achieved; but, he says any shortfall on circulation revenue is made up on the ad side. The problem, he adds, is partly due to a poor showing from magazine subscription agencies such as Publisher’s Clearing House. But CB‘s first objective?introducing a new brand of journalism to Canada?has been met, according to some business people who read the magazine. Brian McKay, a Toronto-based investment banker with Morgan Stanley, the world’s second-largest investment bank, reads CB to keep himself informed on Canadian business issues. “I think their entrepreneur articles are interesting, regardless of what the story is or what the success is,” says McKay. John Witkowski, co-owner of a commercial and industrial electrical contracting company based in Mississauga, Ontario, subscribed to CB five years ago, but cancelled when he realized he wasn’t getting anything out of it. “When it was a monthly, it was almost like reading about history,” he recalls. Recently, Witkowski subscribed again and looks forward to the magazine’s arrival in the mail.
However, he feels it doesn’t come close to matching the quality of coverage offered in Fortune, a magazine he’s been subscribing to for almost 10 years. Too many stories, he says, just “scratch the surface” of real business issues. “I find sometimes I get a better perspective of what’s happening in the business world inMaclean’s rather than Canadian Business.” Johnson is proud of the work he has done so far, but realizes there’s room for improvement. “I think we’ll be raising the bar on some stuff. We’ll be doing stories that will be much, much more challenging,” he says. At the Globe, Best is not concerned about the competition. “I just think we achieve a higher quality on every single plane,” she says, comparing her book to CB. “No offense to Arthur, but you can’t worry about quality when you’re doing quantity.” CB publisher Paul Jones believes his magazine is doing quality and quantity. In fact, he wants more of both. He is also comfortable with his position and is looking forward to making CB a pure bimonthly, publishing 26 issues a year instead of the current 21. However, to do that, he would need 100 to 150 more ad pages a year?a goal he hopes to achieve within the next two to three years. But in the future, he believes one of the two controlled-circulation magazines?be itROB Magazine or The Financial Post Magazine?will go under, leaving a huge chunk of unclaimed ad money. “In the long run, there’ll be only one national newspaper in Canada, and when that day comes, then this magazine will have the option of becoming a Canadian business weekly,” says Jones, who is confident that Conrad Black will one day own The Globe and Mail. “The destiny of this magazine is to become a weekly.”
Paul Zanettos was the Managing Editor, Advertising for the Summer 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.