Heather Li

Blame Game

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After Masthead, the magazine industry's trade publication, announced its next issue would be its last, Heather Li discovered the usual suspects—weak ad sales and a small circulation—may not have acted alone

On Thursday October 23, Doug Bennet, publisher of Masthead, asked editor Marco Ursi, to meet him in the lunchroom. He told Ursi that, after 21 years in print, the November/December 2008 issue of the magazine would be its last.

Illustration by: Gavin McCarthy

Illustration by: Gavin McCarthy

“Oh fuck,” said Ursi, who had been editor for just over a year.

“Yeah.… Oh fuck,” repeated Bennet, the magazine’s founding editor and a partner at North Island Publishing Ltd.

Ursi was shocked, but understood the business decision and wasn’t really surprised because he knew the magazine struggled financially—the advertising base, dominated by printing companies, has always been small, and Masthead had only 2,800 subscribers.

But weak revenues and a small circulation may not have been the only reasons behind the closure, as it so often was when Masthead covered the demise of a magazine. Instead, the fatal blow may have been a trade show and conference that stretched the magazine’s resources beyond its limits after one of the partners—Magazines Canada, a not-for-profit advocacy association, which counts Masthead as a member—pulled out to start a competing event.

Bennet and Alexander (Sandy) Donald, president of North Island, created  “The Magazine About Magazines” in 1987. It provided readers with information about circulation tactics and methods; exclusive surveys on issues such as salaries and production; profiles on magazines and industry people; and general news about Canadian magazines. People in the business quickly embraced the magazine as a valuable resource, and Jessica Ross, executive editor of Homemakers, says she’ll miss the in-depth analyses, including regular columns by circulation expert, Scott Bullock, and business consultant, Paul Jones. “I hope those voices find another home,” she says, “because we need them to understand how our industry works and to collaborate on best practices.”

In addition, the magazine’s website, MastheadOnline, is more popular than ever—with more than 60,000 page views a month—after a revamp by Ursi that included new blogs by Corinna vanGerwen and Kat Tancock, on career advice and web publishing, respectively. Its job board is one of the most used features. North Island says it can’t afford to continue the website either, but has yet to say when it will close.

One of Masthead’s largest revenue streams was Magazines University, an annual trade show and professional-development conference. In 1991, Masthead joined with Magazines Canada and other leading publishing associations, to launch the event. A huge success, it has attracted 1,100 to 1,400 delegates a year. But after 16 years, Magazines Canada broke from Mags U and expanded its own professional-development conference in 2007 called MagNet.

Although Bennet says the competing conference played a minor role in the “cold-hearted business decision” to close the magazine, Donald points to this split as one factor in Masthead’s demise. “Revenue started suffering primarily over the past two years,” he explains. “The time and effort involved in Mags U, relative to the income, got way out of whack.” Originally, Masthead ran the trade show and helped promote the event while Magazines Canada organized the seminars and speakers. When MagsCan dropped out, Masthead had to invest more resources to put on the show.

It’s still a mystery to Bennet why Magazines Canada left. The attendance at Mags U was consistently high in the years leading up to the departure. On average, it brought in about $200,000 to $250,000 per year, of which roughly one-third went to Magazines Canada and one-quarter to Masthead, with the rest divided among the other association partners. But Magazines Canada CEO, Mark Jamison, says he can’t see the parallel between Mags U and MagNet and that it’s comparing apples to oranges. In an email, Jamison explains that a 2004 survey of its professional-development association members suggested a “more modern” conference should be explored. In response, the association launched a task force that concluded, “the logistical and financial structure [of Mags U] was dysfunctional” and a “ground-up change was needed.”

So, together with other industry associations, Magazines Canada continued with the professional-development conference, renaming it MagNet. Offered in downtown Toronto, rather than the west-end Old Mill, where Mags U is held, the conference offers lower session fees and aims to serve a broader group of magazine professionals.

D. B. Scott, a leading magazine-industry consultant, echoes Jamison’s statements. “MagNet came about because of long-term dissatisfaction with Magazines University and the way it was being run,” says Scott, who sits on two committees at Magazines Canada and writes a regular Masthead column, “Good Question” that answered queries about the business of magazines. He doesn’t think the conference rift was the fatal blow and attributes Masthead’s closing to the usual problems: a shortage of paid subscribers and a shrinking market. When Masthead launched in 1987, printers competed for contracts with several big magazine publishers such as Maclean-Hunter and Telemedia, giving Masthead numerous potential advertisers. However media giants, notably Rogers and Transcontinental, eventually purchased these publishers. “In some sense, the magazine industry is a division of other industries like telecommunications or printing,” says Bennet, with a handful of corporations controlling many of the largest magazines.

Although Masthead had been in the red for years, ad sales were actually up 29 percent from its fiscal 2007 year to 2008, in large part to its 20th anniversary issue in the fall of 2007. But they were still operating at a loss. Bennet and Donald stressed to their staff that the faltering global economy was purely coincidental in the magazine’s closing. Masthead just wasn’t delivering enough return on investment, and North Island needed to focus its energies on prosperous projects, including its trade titles, Design Edge CanadaandGraphic Monthly.

Over the past year Bennet and Donald tried to find a new publisher for Masthead and, up until one week before they announced the bad news, North Island thought it had found one. But the deal went sour. “Indirectly, Magazines Canada basically messed that one up too,” sighs Donald. He couldn’t give the specific details about the confidential agreement but laments, “Unfortunately, the fact is we kept on running into Magazines Canada.”

Although, it’s unclear how much Magazines Canada contributed to Masthead’s downfall, North Island maintains that from a business standpoint, it cannot continue with the magazine or the website. However, there is still hope: a few more publishers are now showing interest. “Since the announcement,” says Bennet, “people have come out of the woodwork.”

Listen to journalist Heather Li speak about her experiences writing “Blame Game” on the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s Podcast.


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