Publish or Perish?
Struggling against a social shift to the right, threatened by financial perils on both sides, will Canada's acclaimed magazine of the Left escape a dastardly end?
By the end of his first day as This Magazine‘s new business manager, Trevor Hutchinson knew that the historic left-wing magazine was in serious financial trouble. He began his new job by studying the accounts of the Toronto-based title, starting with payroll. He concentrated on the figures for a few minutes, and then looked at the numbers on the computer screen again. Confused, he asked whether This had another bank account, wondering how he would meet the next day’s payroll. There wasn’t another account.
Through fund-raising, calling people who owed money to This and preselling an entire year of ads, Hutchinson was able to raise the $3,000 for payroll. But as soon as that crisis was solved, others followed. “My first day marked my beginning and really outlined what I would do for a year,” recalls Hutchinson, “which was just crisis management.”
Hutchinson was surprised by the extent of the problems. Before joining This in May 1995, the 28-year-old had worked as a financial manager for the Ontario Federation of Students. He certainly knew that many nonprofit organizations had some financial problems, but he never realized that This Magazine, which is published by the nonprofit Red Maple Foundation, was in so much trouble. After all, he had joined the magazine at a time when it was infused with a fresh editorial energy that seemed to signal a promising future.
After years of being shaped largely by a collective of 1960s leftists, This Magazine wanted to focus on a broader audience, mainly younger readers. This new shift was sealed with the hiring of 23-year-old Naomi Klein for the top job as managing editor in early 1994. Klein brought new ideas and a handful of talented young writers to This, and freshened and broadened the magazine’s focus beyond politics to embrace subjects such as youth culture, advertising, fashion, music and the media. At the 1996 National Magazine Awards, the new spirit received industry approval as This Magazine enjoyed its best year ever, being nominated for seven awards and winning two golds for articles and a silver for art direction of a single issue. Clearly, the new This contained a lot of quality work at the same time as it carried on the magazine’s long-term role as one of the few Canadian forums for intelligent left journalism. “This Magazine is alternate opinion; it’s new voices, progressive voices and criticism of the conventional wisdom,” says admirer Val Ross, publishing reporter for The Globe and Mail.
However, it takes more than progressive views and quality editorial to make a magazine viable. Although Hutchinson has worked for close to two years to improve the finances of This, its very survival continues to be threatened by outside factors beyond its control. The right-leaning political climate of the times makes it tough for a left-wing magazine to find broad respect and readership. And the uncertain future of government arts policies threatens the grants that form a critical financial base for a nonprofit publication such as This Magazine.
On the readership question, This Magazine‘s new editor, 27-year-old Andrea Curtis, who assumed her position in March 1997, faces the same problem as the last couple of editors: to redefine the voice and purpose of the magazine at a time when the Canadian left is in a state of disarray. Since the arrival of Klein, This has stepped up its struggle to attract a new generation of politically progressive readers. In doing so, however, it risks losing its critically valuable base of older subscribers who grew up with a magazine focussed on their intellectual preoccupations: Canadian nationalism, union activism and left-wing party politics.
“We don’t have a typical reader, I swear we don’t,” says Clive Thompson, 28, who succeeded Klein as editor, but left last February after a draining 15 months on the job. “We compose an issue thinking, here are some of the stories that are going to appeal to people that are really old guard; here are some of the stories that are going to appeal to the new guard; and here’s some stuff that will probably float in the middle. It’s fucking impossible, it’s crazy. It creates a really strange mandate for the magazine.”
And the meagre finances of This, a relatively small magazine with a paid circulation of about 5,500, make it tough to fulfill any mandate, let alone maintain quality editorial. With its annual operating budget of $200,000, This can only offer its editor and associate publisher entry-level salaries of $20,000 and pays its writers about $250 for features-compared to the $1,500 to $4,000 range of major consumer magazines.
Of all its problems, the most threatening may be its reliance on government grants. As a nonprofit title with a mandate of public education, This is kept alive by grants from by the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, which account for about 25 percent of its revenues. Through the 1980s, such grants were easier to obtain; however, in the last half-decade or so, tight-fisted governments have been progressively cutting subsidies to small magazines such as This. To produce its May/June 1996 to March/April 1997 issues, This received only $25,500 from the Ontario Arts Council-a 15 percent cut from the year before-while its Canada Council grant has been reduced by 25 percent over the last six years, from $32,750 to $24,500. Insiders now worry that This may soon be reclassified as ineligible for any funding at all. At government whim, the national media may lose a valuable forum for voices and views that aren’t likely to find a home anywhere else.
This Magazine was founded in 1966 under the title This Magazine Is About Schools. Focussed originally on the alternative education movement, its goal was to “bring together the utopian counterculture in schools and communes,” a mission accomplished through a mix of letters, commentary, essays and fiction. By 1973, the magazine’s collective editorial board decided that education and schools were no longer the key to changing society. And so the periodical was reborn as This Magazine, with coverage broadened to include more arts and culture. The goal was to “contribute to the discussion that was needed to build an open and just society,” remembers author and columnist Rick Salutin, who for 21 years was a member of the This board, which for many years was largely made up of union organizers and left-wing activists. By the end of the 1970s, the magazine’s list of contributors was quite impressive, including the likes of novelist Margaret Atwood and journalist Linda McQuaig.
In the late eighties and early nineties, This focussed primarily on political issues, especially the trade union movement, Canadian nationalism, the Meech Lake Accord and free trade. At one fateful meeting in the late 1980s, a board member suggested that This needed editors who had been born since the Korean War. (At that time, Lorraine Filyer had been working at the magazine since 1971 and as its managing editor since 1976.) Discussions followed, and there was general agreement that the magazine needed a new generation of board members and writers-to avoid growing old and out of touch, appealing only to its aging long-term readers. “We actually had this situation,” Salutin recalls, “where some of the subscribers were starting to say the print was too small.”
Filyer left the magazine in the spring of 1990 for a position at the Ontario Arts Council, and, under the direction of a new managing editor, Judy MacDonald, and her successor, Moira Farr, younger writers were brought into the magazine. Old cover stories on Big-P politics gradually gave way to pieces on youth-culture subjects such as fashion, media and advertising. One of the new writers was Naomi Klein, who at age 21 debuted in This with a piece on how university students were really more concerned about their own financial problems than about the faddish subject of political correctness. In March 1994, Klein became the new managing editor of This Magazine and quickly pushed the magazine into the sharpest transition in its 31-year history. “It was her laser-keen concentration on areas of youth culture that This Magazine had previously ignored,” says Clive Thompson. “In terms of understanding where progressive activism is taking place, she realized that a lot of it is happening outside political parties.”
For new voices, Klein drew heavily on people she had known in the student press. Over the next year, many young writers joined This Magazine‘s editorial board, while some long-time members stepped down. “She did something that hadn’t been done for 20 years-she created a new group of people around the magazine,” says Mel Watkins, an economics professor at the University of Toronto and This board member since 1979. Historically, the board had operated as a collective in guiding the magazine-even though the managing editor ran the show, she could be outvoted on any story idea by a majority of the collective board. “I found it incredibly offensive that I was there working for basically no money, and same with the staff, and we were the ones doing the work, and yet nothing could run in This Magazine if it was vetoed,” says Klein. The newer, younger board decided to restructure the old system and give Klein the title-and true decision-making power-of editor. “Within six months, the whole composition of the board had changed, and it was the salvation of the magazine,” adds Watkins.
Klein’s influence was soon clear as she filled the pages of This with articles on pop culture and youth issues. “My target was to get young, progressive people reading This Magazine.” she says. “Left politics has changed and we wanted to reflect that change. And we didn’t want to do it at the exclusion of the older generation, but we had to broaden the definition of what is progressive politics.” Klein’s first full issue, April/May 1994, signalled the shift with coverlines such as “Rock On! Why Real-Life Politics Were too Much for MuchMusic” and “I Was a Cog in the Gen X Marketing Machine.”
Speaking to a younger crowd also meant updating the magazine’s design. Dismissing the notion that ideas publications should only concentrate on content, the This board decided to execute a makeover by hiring Carol Moskot, an experienced designer who was then working as an art director for the beauty and fashion magazine Images. The board asked Moskot to do a redesign that would reflect the magazine’s history but also make it visually exciting to the new left. “It not only had to be a reflection of the desires of the left, it also had to be somewhat Gen X,” says Moskot. Her new design, which premiered on the newsstands in March 1995, featured strong typography, bold headlines and hard-edged illustrations, a look that echoed a graphic style used by the left earlier this century.
While many of Klein’s initiatives had a fresh feel, it was soon clear that defining a new left-wing sensibility for Generation X was going to be a challenging job. For instance, one of Klein’s most celebrated moves was her July 1995 special issue on the New Right. It examined how right-wing thought has influenced public opinion and explored the Canadian media personalities on the new right, including Kenneth Whyte, Andrew Coyne, David Frum and Michael Coren. Ultimately, however, the package of stories ended up saying as much about what was wrong with the contemporary left-and, by extension, the prospects of This Magazine-than it exposed flaws in the right. In a profile of neo-conservative writer Andrew Coyne, who is now a national affairs columnist for Southam News, This author Doug Saunders congratulated Coyne for asking his readers to imagine what a new government would look like, and wrote, “Why isn’t that question being asked by anyone on the left? Possibly because they’re busy defending themselves against Andrew Coyne. Or maybe they just haven’t thought about it for a while. In any case, Coyne’s the one who’s trying to imagine a new government.” Coyne himself comments: “What was interesting about that issue was, while it was ostensibly about the right, the subtext, it seems to me, was about the left. Over and over again, in that issue, you hear basically the theme of, ‘Okay, we don’t like these people, we don’t agree with them, but how come they seem to have all the ideas?'”
When Clive Thompson succeeded Klein as editor with the November 1995 issue, he joined the struggle to find a voice for This Magazine. He admits that this was a balancing act, and even involved a bit of sophistry. “I basically define This depending on whom I’m talking to,” he says. “If I’m talking to my mother, I will not use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘left wing.’ If I’m talking to a left-wing audience, I’ll say, ‘This is a hard-core, left-wing magazine.'”
Instead of worrying about labels, Thompson decided to focus his energies on articles that would appeal to both younger readers and older subscribers-mainly innovative economic stories, investigative reports and literary writing. Last summer, the staff set up a debate between right- and left-wingers at downtown Toronto’s trendy Bar Italia to coincide with This Magazine‘s July/August issue cover story, “Going for Broke,” in which author H.S. Bhabra satirically argued that Canada should declare bankruptcy, just like the Reichmanns. Another story that Thompson went after was “Labour’s Dirty Secret,” written by Jason Ziedenberg. The investigative article, which appeared in the November/December 1996 issue, looked at why a large number of people in the labour movement in Ontario are voting for neo-con politicians, as well as the growing power of highly conservative unionists.
Although the quality of the work done by Klein and Thompson has been applauded by industry peers, some readers have been angry and confused by all the changes. Klein admits that she thought that these changes might have alienated some older subscribers, but not most of them: “I wasn’t too afraid. Maybe I was just stupid,” she says. “We lost a handful of readers, but that’s life. There were people out there who just wanted a nostalgia magazine and were not interested in listening to these new voices and thought that we were writing about a culture that was basically their kids’ culture.” In Klein’s last issue as editor, one reader wrote: “Naomi Klein is leaving. I just may resubscribe.”
Thompson, Klein’s successor, admires her for the changes that she made to the magazine. But he also inherited a readership that was at least in part disgruntled by them. “I had to deal with people going, ‘Enough of this youth culture shit.’ People were cancelling subscriptions, writing letters, saying, ‘Forget it, you just lost me. This is not what This Magazine should be.'”
One of Thompson’s own gambles was his May/June 1996 issue, which focussed on high technology, including articles on digital cash, interactive pornographic CD-ROMs and biotechnology regulations. Even though he knew some of This Magazine‘s older board members were not too interested in the idea and that the left is extremely technophobic, he went ahead with the issue, with the board’s blessing, because he sees media technology such as the Internet as both a tool of social activism and a way to communicate with the new left. “I know that the technology issue pissed off a lot of people,” he says. “In many ways, I think that was probably one of the most controversial things that we did that year.”
Though Thompson was willing to take such a risk, he is also well aware that This cannot afford to lose all of its long-time subscribers. He points out, for instance, that many loyalists donate $50 to $100 each year to the Red Maple Foundation, along with their regular subscription renewal fee of almost $25. It is that kind of loyalty that colours the views of board old-timer Mel Watkins. While Watkins says he is proud of the editorial rejuvenation executed by Klein and Thompson, he is also worried that the kind of younger readers they may have attracted aren’t ideal from a business perspective. “You have to make sure people don’t just browse on the newsstands, but buy the magazine, subscribe to the magazine, have a permanent address,” he says. “And we want to make sure that our older subscribers stay with us.”
Beyond all of the philosophical questions, the future of This Magazine hangs on some cold, hard business facts. If the magazine fails, it will have succumbed to the perennial problems of small-magazine publishing. Clive Thompson received a harsh lesson in them when he joined as editor in September of 1995. At the time, the magazine owed more than $60,000 to about a dozen major creditors. During Thompson’s first few weeks that fall, a debt collection agency began calling the office, demanding payment of a $13,000 printing bill. Bell called, threatening to shut off the phone lines, and Canada Post was refusing to issue any more postage unless an outstanding bill was paid.
By November of that year, then-business manager Trevor Hutchinson realized that This Magazine was in serious trouble-it had lost more than $100,000, cumulatively, in the three years before he came aboard. He also found out that the magazine would be faced with a huge deficit, as well as cash flow problems, unless its expenditures were cut. The editorial board conducted emergency meetings and considered a number of dire solutions-even ceasing publication. By the end of December, they decided to cut one staff position (managing editor), one contract position (circulation manager) and to reduce publishing frequency from eight to six issues annually. “For the first little while after this change, it was just crazy,” recalls Hutchinson. “Both Clive and I were doing jobs that used to be two other people’s jobs-and for $20,000 a year.”
These days, Thompson credits Hutchinson, who is now This Magazine‘s associate publisher, for saving the magazine. “The reason we are still publishing owes, I would say, entirely to him,” says Thompson. “He could be finance minister after this.” So far, through aggressive fund-raising campaigns and sophisticated financial planning, Hutchinson has managed to pay off most of the magazine’s old debts. For the year ending January 31, 1996, This Magazine recorded a $5,500 surplus, its first in five years; the 1996-97 surplus was higher-$20,000 (although Hutchinson says that this didn’t mean actual dollars in the bank).
“I never really thought of quitting,” says Hutchinson. “The challenge was just too big. First it was the challenge of saving it-and I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet-and now it’s a challenge of growing it.” Hutchinson’s dreams face one potential final obstacle that is as unpredictable as it is severely threatening. In October 1996, the Red Maple Foundation, the registered charity that publishes This, was audited by Revenue Canada. After spending two days reviewing the foundation’s accounts and charitable records, the auditor went away with a few back issues of the magazine. Her intent is to check whether its content fulfills the mandate that the magazine outlined when Red Maple applied for charitable status in 1983: to educate the public through informative and thought-provoking articles on issues of public interest in the fields of politics, education, labour and culture.
Hutchinson is extremely worried that This could lose its charitable status and therefore its ability to accept tax-deductible donations. Charitable donations are a major revenue source. For the 1997-98 year, they will account for about 17 percent (while circulation sales account for approximately 35 percent, grants 24 percent and ads about 10 percent). Hutchinson’s fears are not unfounded. In September 1996, Briarpatch, an alternative magazine based in Regina, Saskatchewan, found out that its charitable status had been revoked. Another concern is the possibility that This may lose grant funding in the future. New Maritimes, another left-wing magazine, was recently denied Canada Council grant money and has since ceased publishing. “Our problem is how do we survive without advertising? And it’s always been by government subsidies, but they’re frozen or they aren’t going anywhere, or they say, ‘Well, you’re doing so well, you’re using funds you don’t need so much,'” says Watkins.
Revenue Canada could take up to two years to come to a decision. Meantime, Hutchinson can only try to plan for the worst and wait. He has done the best he can to improve the business state of This-the accounts are in order, most of the major creditors have been paid and the magazine has made a paper surplus two years in a row. For all that, one of Canada’s most historic, progressive magazines is still up against an endangered future, as it awaits the decisions made by various faceless bureaucrats on various committees of the federal and provincial governments.
The only certainty is that Andrea Curtis, the new editor of This, will face the grinding task of conserving thoughtful left journalism in Canada, trying to offset an age of right-leaning politics and left-wing confusion. “People have a real craving for a voice of dissidence in this era of neo-conservatism. I think that This Magazine can be that place,” says Curtis. And the new editor has the full sympathy of the last two. Clive Thompson thinks the new candidate probably won’t make a long career of it. “You’re never, ever going to get someone to work for five years in downtown Toronto for 20 grand a year,” he says. Naomi Klein suggests that it’s hard to keep an editor at This because of the salary, as well as the limited resources of the magazine. “The model, and I don’t think it’s a bad model,” she says, “is that you come in, you work like hell, you give it everything you have, find a good replacement and then you leave.”
Shannon Cassidy was a Senior Editor for the Spring 1997 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.