Jacqueline Nelson

Custom Brokers

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Custom publications may seem like the dark side. But as these marketing books adopt higher journalistic standards, Jacqueline Nelson says it’s getting harder to tell the difference between them and consumer magazines

I’m going to say something kind of incendiary,” Ilana Weitzman says carefully. The editor-in-chief of enRoute, Air Canada’s in-flight magazine, knows she’s tiptoeing through landmines. “Look at fashion magazines,” she says, referring to her old job as editor of the Montreal-based fashion title Strut. “The idea that content is completely free of any interested party influence in the magazine world is a little bit suspect.” Even, she says, in independent consumer magazines. For some purists, custom books aren’t “true” magazines, but at least when it comes to enRoute, Weitzman is clear: the difference is an illusion.

While Transcontinental Media’s purchase of Redwood Custom Communications Inc. attracted much attention, Rogers Publishing Ltd., Canada Wide Media Ltd. and Business Information Group have all expanded, dabbling in both consumer and custom publishing. Most consumer magazines try to keep church and state separate. At custom publications, though, church, state and monarch all snuggle together. But as the custom publishing industry swells in North America—using many of the same writers and editors as consumer magazines, and gravitating towards similar journalistic methods—custom is looking more like consumer. Meanwhile, many consumer publications make decisions with advertisers in mind, and some have gone as far as placing flashy ads on cover flaps and skimping on fact-checking. Rather than being polar opposites, magazines span a spectrum, with publications such as The Walrus at one end, and custom books like Proctor & Gamble’s Rouge on the other. Hybrids including enRoute—where a sponsor isn’t heavily involved and editorial content has integrity—fit somewhere in the middle.

In the past, the National Magazine Awards Foundation decided which magazines were “real” (read: consumer). While custom publications weren’t banned outright, entry rules for several major categories disqualified magazines “produced for the purpose of promoting the interest of the principal business of the person who publishes it.” Looking through the list of past winners (other than enRoute which has won a couple of awards) the custom books—Up!Glow and Zellers Family, for example—don’t seem to get past honorable mention. But the tide may be turning. Arjun Basu, the editorial director for Spafax Canada Inc., the company responsible for enRoute and Pure Canada (produced for the Canadian Tourism Commission), now sits on the Foundation’s board of directors and says the rules have changed slightly. Now discretion rests primarily in the hands of the judges.

Despite feeling unwelcome at past NMAs, custom publications have found recognition elsewhere. The Pearl Awards, created in 2003, honour excellence in the industry—consumer mags need not apply—and last year enRoute won the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors Magazine of the Year in the large circulation category. Even if custom pubs are still fighting for recognition in the form of awards, opportunities for writers and editors to work may be more enticing—or simply necessary—in the face of the economic downturn.

And custom writing doesn’t have to mean compromising a writer’s or editor’s integrity—some custom books are more equal than others, especially when it comes to getting things right. Marco Ursi, editor of Masthead Online, thinks checking the facts is a good start for any custom book claiming journalistic integrity. “A lot of magazines that we would consider more traditional journalism magazines can’t afford fact checking and don’t do it,” says Ursi, citing various trade magazines or smaller independent magazines with fewer editorial employees. But some custom mags do. Spafax Canada, for example, checks all its magazines.

Jasmine Miller edits Sears’ custom-published magazines New Outlook and Family Outlook, and both of her magazines fact-check. Miller’s resume includes stints at Style at HomeToday’s Parent, and Canadian Business, and she views her move to custom as “just another job in journalism.” About half of both of her magazines’ content, done by some of the same journalists who work with her consumer competitors, is written independently, with no leverage from Sears. The other half, such as photo spreads of families dressed head to toe in Sears’ fashions, however, is obviously influenced by the client. For the editorial stories she oversees, Miller says there are few differences between working with a consumer or custom title. “I can see why people who are in consumer publishing, and have been for a long time, would look at custom titles and make some assumptions about where the differences are,” she says. “Sometimes those differences are true, but sometimes, if you look a little harder, a little closer, it’s not really that different.” Ultimately, she says, you’re just producing a magazine.

Nevertheless, even Miller acknowledges the similarities only go so far, and may not extend past beauty, décor, fashion and other such frolicsome titles. “There are no life or death choices for the readers of those magazines to be making. You want to see beautiful products highlighted in a beautiful way—and where to get it.” Custom publishing rarely takes a critical, investigative look into society’s ills. “It’s primarily lifestyle journalism and it’s almost inevitably positive stories,” says Ursi, “but that said, custom publishing does quite a nice job with it.”

Of course, not all consumer magazines run hard-hitting stories, and they can’t exist without advertising. The may not have clients overseeing the line up of features, but consumer titles consider their advertisers when laying out ads, including the cover and nearby editorial content concerning them. A parenting magazine, for example, may think twice about placing an article promoting breast-feeding next to an ad for formula if it wants to keep the advertiser (and its cash) close by.

But ultimately, no matter if the funding is coming from one conglomerate or from many one-page ads, all magazines have one thing in common: if they want to survive, they need good writing, strong editing and stories readers want to read.


Listen to journalist Jacqueline Nelson speak about her experiences writing “Custom Brokers” on the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s Podcast


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