Kate Grainger

Burnout Blues

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Smaller publications swim outside the mainstream, and connect with communities that don't always have a voice. But all that swimming can tire a magazine out

The March 2009 issue of This Magazine will premier a redesigned look that accommodates the vision of the latest editor, Graham F. Scott. The position of editor at This Magazine offers a great opportunity to put your own mark on a magazine that already has an established readership. This may be great for Scott, but from a subscriber’s perspective it’s not always the best thing to happen to a favourite read. Most editors only stay at This Magazine for two to four years before moving on to something else. Scott took over the position in August 2008 from Jessica Johnston. There have been five editors at the magazine in the last decade. “One would hope the editorial vision and mandate of the magazine would be strong enough to carry it through,” Johnston says of the turnover.” This [Magazine] does have a very loyal readership, but it’s true that some periods are editorially stronger than others. There are ups and downs.”

Working at a small Canadian publication offers many challenges in itself. “Often you are required to work an unsustainable amount of hours for an unsustainable amount of money,” says Johnston. At some magazines it is this combination that leads to the burnout and subsequent turnover of editorial staff. With a constantly evolving masthead and the vision for a magazine changing with every new editor, it’s difficult to maintain readership and produce a high-quality publication that can compete in today’s market.

Besides turnover of staff, another dilemma small magazines face is the reliance on volunteers. “It can be tough on the editor having to manage a volunteer staff that is prone to fleeing after only a few months of hard work for little or no money,” says Johnston. burnout

Burnout Blues “The lines between personal life and professional life got really blurred, and I realized after several years that I didn’t have any hobbies or outside interests anymore—publishing the magazine ate up all the “spare” time I might’ve had,” says Shameless magazine’s co-founding editor, Melinda Mattos who held this position until spring 2007. “By then we realized that we had both exhausted ourselves to the point that we couldn’t do it anymore. It was really tough deciding to pass the reins over to a new editor and publisher. But, it felt like the right thing to do, both for the future of the magazine and for our own sake,” says Mattos. Shameless operates on a small budget, and depends on an entirely volunteer-driven staff that fit working on the magazine around their full-time jobs. “At first, it was energizing to be working on a project I really believed in, even if it had to happen in my spare time, sitting at my computer in my pyjamas at 3am. But working the equivalent of two full-time jobs gets exhausting,” says Mattos.

“You need to delegate whenever possible. Capitalize on people’s good will for the magazine,” was Johnston’s advice to Scott when he took over the editor’s position at This. Although there is a lot of work required “people are really eager to be involved,” says Scott. “Part of that means choosing the right people and choosing a job that works for their skills and their schedules,” he adds.

Even though there are some challenges working at small magazines, many people are still drawn to this medium. “I think many of the folks who gravitate to small magazines do so because they want to make a difference somehow. They want to reach a specific community, or create one. They want to engage with our culture and with politics in a way that’s just not sexy enough for the mainstream newsstand,” says Mattos.

“People don’t plan on staying forever. They [staff members at small mags] learn the skills and how to do the job and then move on,” says Canadian Dimension associate publisher James Patterson. His own publication however, proves an exception. Almost all the editorial work gets done by founding editor Cy Gonick, who has been working on the publication for nearly 46 years. Gonick also works with a collective group of freelancers and an editorial board. Given that he has been in charge of editorial since the magazine’s conception, there haven’t been too many dramatic changes in terms of content. “When there is turnover in senior roles there is a big change because whoever takes over the role wants to make an impact,” says Patterson. “Readers are quick to pick up on changes and turnover of editors can mean a change in the readership,” he adds. This doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for these publications instead it does create the opportunity to gain a larger audience, but only if done right.

“Small magazines in Canada give a specific voice to Canadian interests. Maclean’s can’t cover everything, although they try every week,” says Patterson. “Unfortunately, editorial burnout and high turnover are the realities of working at a small magazine in this economic climate. Everyone is overworked and under-paid. It’s a tight-rope act trying to find a job that you believe in that also pays the bills. There always seems to be some sacrifice required—do I want to sell out and pay my rent or maintain my integrity and starve?” says Mattos. “Neither of those options sounds particularly appealing.”


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