Jackie Skender
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No Mean Businesses

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As the editors of two leading business magazines, Joann Webb and Margaret Wente are hard-driving rivals-but they don't sell each other short

Joann Webb’s office door is usually open. Busy as she is, it’s the policy of Canadian Business’s 36-year-old editor to allow the publisher or a staff member to pop in during the day to discuss anything from next month’s budget to a copy-editing problem.

But today the glass door is closed. Visitors are ignored, phone messages go unanswered and the pile of paperwork grows. Webb and writer David Olive are hammering out the final draft of an adaptation from Olive’s book, Just Rewards: The Case for Ethical Reform in Business, slated for the November 1987 issue. Although Webb works closely with every writer she edits, this time it seems even more important: corporate morality is a subject she feels strongly about (her father died of asbestosis acquired from working as a pipe fitter), and Olive is a writer she admires and would love to have on her staff.

At the time, however, Olive worked for one of CB’s most visible competitors, The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Magazine (he has since left there to become senior writer at Toronto Life magazine).. Some observers thought it unwise for Webb to run the adaptation because of Olive’s connection with RoB Magazine, but Webb is more interested in high quality journalism than in what others think. She wants the best for her magazine. And although she runs CB on a tight budget, she succeeds in delivering awardwinning journalism to its readers.

Olive, a boyish 30-year-old, steps out of the office for a break; he looks distracted, a bit tired. Webb is a perfectionist who will work into the night to get a piece just right. Olive stretches, lights a cigarette, then crushes the butt in a nearby ashtray. As he returns to Webb’s office, he peers over a divider at a desk cluttered with manuscripts and editorial schedules; with a wry grin he says to no one in particular: “Is there anything lying around here I shouldn’t see?” And the door shuts again. About two kilometres west of CB’s offices, which are in a fashionable block of renovated, rosy brick buildings in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market district, is The Globe and Mail building, a pale rectangular structure that exudes a corporate air. The area is filled with the sounds of construction (the domed stadium is going up nearby) and the only spot of color is a corner billboard trumpeting the Globe’s glossy upscale magazines, including its most successful venture: Report on Business Magazine.

On the top floor of the Globe building, Margaret Wente, 38, known as Peggy everywhere but on the masthead of RoB Magazine, occupies an unassuming office she half-jokingly refers to as “the penthouse.” Wente and RoB Magazine belie their newsprint-grey surroundings. Since she’s taken it over, the magazine has lost some of its stodgy self-importance. She’s added show biz, says her counterpart at Canadian Business.

Wente also knows what it’s like to be in Webb’s position-she edited CB for almost four years with few resources at her fingertips. But that’s not a problem at RoB Magazine, where she has two staff writers, a pool of talent and information to draw from at the newspaper and the option of using freelancers. “I knew it would be terrific here,” Wente says, “but I underestimated how terrific.” If one of her writers needs to interview a subject in Vancouver, he can hop on a plane. “It’s only $1,000,”she says.

Olive says Wente didn’t seem pleased when he told her of Canadian Business’s interest in Just Rewards. But she’d clearly rather not talk about it. “It’s fine with me,” she says quickly. “Anything to help David’s book.”

There is an implicit-and perhaps unavoidable-sense of rivalry between these two national monthly magazines and the hard-driving, ambitious editors who run them. Although Canadian Business is geared towards the business reader and RoB Magazine has a more general focus, both magazines essentially compete for the same readers, advertisers, stories and writers. “You can’t be a good journalist and not be competitive,” says Webb. “Both Peggy and I want to be number one.” Being number one has sometimes meant raiding the other magazine for talent: shortly after Wente joined RoB Magazine in the fall of 1986, for example, she hired away CB’s art director, Cate Cochran. CB countered by bringing in Jim Ireland, who designed the original RoB Magazine for Saturday Night Publishing Services, which contracted it for The Globe and Mail (the Globe has since moved the design and production in-house).

Canadian Business has a history that goes back 60 years. It was a Canadian Chamber of Commerce publication based in Montreal until 1977, when it was purchased by CB Media Ltd., a company formed for the purpose by Michael de Pencier (president of Toronto Life and Key Publishers), journalist Alexander Ross and businessman Roy MacLaren. As the new editor, Ross created the magazine’s personality-informative and thought-provoking business stories mixed with just the right amount of humor and irreverence. Its broad definition of business allows Webb, the third editor since Ross, to explore many avenues of journalism, from strong service pieces on how to run a business to long, hard-hitting investigative stories. Explains Calgary-based business writer Robert Bott: “Joann is interested in the issues-the politics of a piece beyond whether it works as a magazine article.”

And she, like Ross, is not afraid to experiment. Last fall, for example, she ran an operetta-like satire on the free-trade negotiations called “Die Freitradermaus.”

“Canadian Business has an edge, it’s more gutsy and has a fun tone. It was the first to really think of exploring the rock and roll business, as it did in the October 1987 issue,” says Rob Wilson, who writes the “In Print” column for Marketing magazine. “But RoB Magazine is moving a bit more in that direction. Peggy is injecting that entertainment element.”

RoB Magazine is -a relative newcomer, first published in March, 1985. It’s the flagship publication of the Globe’s growing magazine division, which currently includes city (Toronto) and travel (Destinations) titles, to be joined in September by Domino, an upscale fashion book. RoB Magazine was intended to ride on the reputation of the highly respected Report on Business newspaper section, and under its first editor, Peter Cook, it was a combination of in-depth national and international business stories. Wente’s goal is to make the magazine appeal to all The Globe and Mail’s readers with business stories and profiles, usually under 3,000 words. “Some people said that RoB Magazine was becoming more like CB and vice versa. I think there is plenty of room for both of them,” says Wente. “We’re simply going to try to satisfy that hunger for information and good wri ting and good packaging.”

The Globe’s resources have given her the freedom to create a sort of Vanity Fair of the business wotld. “The magazine is a more professional product in the sense that it’s crisper. She’s fussier about art, she’s more particular about display copy. It may be better edited,” admits Cook, who now writes a column in the RoB section of the paper. “A vast improvement.”

Jim Ireland says RoB Magazine’s sleek, modern look has caused CB to rethink its overall packaging. Perfect binding and higher-quality stock were introduced last year, and a new logo and design were unveiled in January, 1988. Ireland and Webb have launched some strong covers to try to improve the magazine’s newsstand sales. One early example was the April 1987 “How to Get Money out of the Government” cover, which advised: “Let’s face it: if you don’t grab it someone else will.” And indeed it was grabbed up on newsstands, selling 47 per cent higher than the same issue in 1986. But RoB Magazine has had a few sassy moments of its own, even though Cochran says it must maintain a more corporate image to suit the Globe’s readers. The shot of Toronto clothier Harry Rosen wearing nothing but a very wide tie in last October’s issue may have been the result of a serendipitous photo session, but it took a sure hand to publish it.

“She has an easier job because she does not have to survive on newsstands and I do,” says Webb. “I have to get people to pay [$3] for the magazine. I consider you have to work very hard to make somebody want to buy something if they think they can get something just as good for free. We have to be that much better.” She admits she’s envious of RoB Magazine’s automatic circulation in The Globe and Mail and Wente’s access to the newspaper’s resources, but insists she prefers the challenge of a paid-circulation magazine.

RoB Magazine’s distribution with the Globe has more advantages than meet the eye: because it goes out to more readers, it can command high ad rates. According to the newspaper’s own research, 880,000 people read RoB Magazine, and although Wente admits this figure is “a bit optimistic,” the magazine can claim a guaranteed distribution of 320,000. CB’s circulation from subscription and newsstand sales is just over 88,000 and it has an estimated readership of 403,000, according to research by the Print Measurement Bureau. That means RoB Magazine can charge almost double CB’s rates: $14,000 compared with $8,000 for a four-color, full-page ad. Last year, however, CB carried more pages of advertising-1,020 (an eight per cent increase over 1986) versus RoB Magazine’s 727.

“In school, I had the kind of competitiveness that made me want to get five stars in kindergarten,” Margaret Wente said in a 1985 article in City Woman magazine. A friend calls her an ambitious achiever-“a type A.” Wente went after the editorship of RoB Magazine just when Peter Cook was itching to return to the Globe’s newsroom and she had become disenchanted after a two-year stint in television. Born in a suburb of Chicago, the daughter of two business people, she moved to Toronto at 15. Wente’s mother became a financial vice-president of a mid-sized company, so Wente was sure that she too was careerbound. After earning an MA in English literature at the University of Toronto, she worked for a book publisher, then edited books at the Royal Ontario Museum, where working on the members’ publication, Rotunda, gave her a taste of magazine editing. It felt right, and in 1977 she joined The Canadian magazine as a copy editor.

Wente moved to Canadian Business in 1978 and two years later, at 30, became its editor. She was lucky, she says-opportunities like that are rare at the more established magazines. Wente worked hard to consolidate the magazine and strengthen Alexander Ross’s creation. After six years, however, she’d reached a plateau and took a $15,000 pay cut to go to CBC Television as a senior editor on the business program Venture. It wasn’t what she expected. Linda Sims, a producer-reporter for Venture, says Wente had the ability to take often-dry business information and turn it into a “tale with drama and passion,” but Wente found the atmosphere rushed and unfriendly. “TV is very hard on people, and TV people are very hard on each other,” she now says. Just the same, the experience did give her a stronger visual sense and improved her ability to focus stones.

Wente is proud of RoB Magazine’s progress under her direction and is not afraid to say so. She is especially pleased that many of the Globe’s reporters have turned out to be good magazine writers. “Some of the journalism is even better than I expected,” she says. One example is Stephen Strauss, the paper’s science writer, who complained to colleagues that he was in “magazine hell” for six weeks while producing an article for the magazine on scientist Tak Mak for the October 1987 issue. Despite his baptism of fire, Strauss now says that Wente and her staff were supportive throughout.
David Olive, who has worked with both Wente and Webb, says he always left Wente’s office “supercharged” and certain of how to proceed with a story. “Peggy is quicker to offer her own strong ideas,” says Olive, who is now also a contributing writer at Canadian Business. “Joann makes minor suggestions and would rather you seized on ideas yourself.”

Webb’s style is more chatty and personal, compared with Wente’s businesslike approach. Wente, who has never been married, doesn’t mix her social and professional lives and seems reserved, even a bit shy, when the subject steers away from the journalistic world. “She is more of a malelike manager,” remarks Olive.

But some view Wente as blunt and intimidating. “Peggy can insult you with snarky comments about your work,” says a writer who has worked with both editors, and who asked not to be identified. “She doesn’t have the sensitivity of Joann.”

Webb grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Toronto’s east end, the second of four girls and a boy. “Joann has always been kind of fierce about her background,” says a former co-worker. “When she was younger she had a reverse snobbery about being what she considered ‘poor,’ and I think to some extent she still carries that around with her.”

But Webb managed to put herself through Carleton University’s journalism program and in 1974 joined Weekend Magazine in Montreal as a copy editor. Liz Primeau, who was copy chief at the time, remembers Webb as hardworking, intense and idealistic. “We always used to tease her about a green dress she wore incessantly, and she got pretty sensitive about it,” says Primeau. “But she was so conscientious about paying off her student loans and helping out her family that she wouldn’t buy any clothes.”

Webb moved back to Toronto from Montreal and took a job at Maclean’s. She became managing editor of Toronto Life in 1977, but quit in 1979 because of a personal conflict with the upscale values of the magazine. She returned to Maclean’s until 1981, when she became editor of Harrowsmith. That lasted a year, until former editor James Lawrence regained ownership of the magazine in a divorce action. She then went on a year-long Southam Fellowship-a journalism sabbatical awarded in association with Massey College at the University of Toronto. In October, 1984, she joined Canadian Business as a senior editor and left on maternity leave eight months later. She was named editor in January, 1987. Webb finds her roles as editor and mother to her daughter Callan, now 2, “constantly exhausting” even with a lot of help from her husband, writer John Gault. Her competitive nature makes her push herself and her staff to the limit. She explains: “Mostly I compete with my own standards, which are so rigorous that I never meet them. I always, always, always want things better, better, better.”

When Webb joined CB, she had little experience with business journalism and admits to an aversion to numbers. Overseeing the magazine’s last annual issue on the country’s top 500 businesses was “a descent into hell,” she says. To complement her generalist background, she hired Wayne Gooding, a former editor at The Financial Post and partner in his own business, as managing editor. She relies on experienced and loyal writers, people like Mike Macbeth, who has written for CB under each of its editors and won’t write for a competing magazine. She calls Webb a writer’s editor who never insults and always consults before making changes to a manuscript. “I’ve won six or seven awards for business writing in the last two years,” she says. “I was never even nominated for one before working with Joann.”

When it comes to industry awards, Canadian Business is winning the competition hands down. In 1987, it picked up three gold National Magazine Awards, a National Business Writing Award, two first placings at the Authors’ Awards, four Canadian Business Press Awards and top placings at the Canadian Food Writers’ Awards. RoB Magazine, while winning top awards for its art, has lagged behind on the editorial side. Wente finds this lack of industry recognition a bit discouraging, but has learned over the years to be philosophical about awards. But Webb is ebullient: “I am very proud we cleaned their clock over awards.”

Even with the inevitable rivalry between them, Webb and Wente are hardly enemies. “But we don’t have lunch and trade story ideas,” Wente says with a laugh. They are just respectful acquaintances who recognize each other’s talents.

Webb and Cate Cochran, however, remain close friends despite Cochran’s move to RoB Magazine. Explains Webb: “Cate wants to be the art director of the best magazine and I want to be the editor of the best magazine. On that level we’re in direct competition, but not conflict. I think we have survived very well. We’ve brought in one of the most gifted people ever as our art director, and that was our bold countermove. It’s a small world.” Then she adds with a slight smirk, “Touches of incest.”

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