Sara Marett

Redesigning Women

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Three new editors, two face-lifts and a corporate shift—will four of our best-read magazines survive the shake up?

Patricia just turned 55, but with her youthful skin and blond-highlighted hair, she could easily pass for 45. She has three kids, a full-time career, enjoys the outdoors, has weekends with the girls and steals from her daughter’s closet. For almost 40 years she has read, argued with, got advice from and generally been educated by Chatelaine‘s pages. Today, though, as she sorts through a barrel-sized wicker basket of magazines in the family room, she’s not too sad to part with the magazine. “Here you go,” she says as she hands me a pile of recent copies. “Oh, wait a minute.” Taking the September issue back, she flips through to the recipe section. She pauses at one page featuring a risotto recipe before ripping it from its perfect-bound spine, and says with a sigh: “I just want this recipe. That’s all I read anymore in here anyway.”

Patricia is also my mother, and from Chatelaine‘s point of view, that’s the problem. As Rona Maynard, editor in chief of Chatelaine, says, “It’s very clear that if you just follow the baby boom, you’re going to follow them to the grave.” This fear of going out with the old was partly what drove Chatelaine – at 71, the grandmother of Canadian women’s magazines – to start bringing in the new. A high-profile re-launch that cost more than $2 million in March 1999 was supposed to attract new readers in the 25-to-34 age bracket. The resulting splashy cover, spruced-up logo, slightly risqu? cover lines (“Toys for lovers”) and perky tag line “Passion, Purpose, Possibility” had older readers raising their eyebrows in confusion and younger readers wondering what was going on with their mom’s magazine.

But Chatelaine was not the only women’s book going through “the change.” In the past year Homemaker’sand Canadian Living (see sidebar), the country’s other established women’s magazines, have both undergone redesigns, repositionings or face-lifts. They, along with their younger competitor, Elm Street, have new editors, and in the case of Homemaker’s and Canadian Living, a new owner as well. In the process, women’s magazines, generally viewed within the industry as about as exciting as meat loaf, have been the focus of much scrutiny as each tries to elbow the other out in the fight for readers and advertising dollars. As media critic John Fraser says, all the recent manoeuvrings are a “sign of turmoil and uncertainty.”

“Uncertainty” is also an accurate description of the general climate of magazines in the country, as publishers await what they see as an inevitable incursion of U.S. titles after Canada dismantled most of its protectionist measures for magazines last fall, in the wake of a World Trade Organization ruling. The anxiety is even higher for publishers of women’s titles, since the American magazines that have the highest circulations in this country are largely women’s books. As the women’s magazines alter their content, as well as their look, in response to these forces, it is not just readers’ loyalties that are at stake. Traditionally, Chatelaine,Canadian Living and Homemaker’s have been the cash cows for their parent publishing companies. There have been times, for example, when Maclean’s might have folded were it not for Chatelaine‘s fat revenues. Val Ross, who covered the magazine beat for The Globe and Mail for six and a half years, warns that too radical a departure in style and content “would be like changing the diet of your best milk cow that is providing milk for everybody else.” Now, with each of the women’s magazines struggling with its own identity crisis on newsstands and in family rooms, there are implications not just for these books but for many of the best-known titles in the country.

At the time of Chatelaine‘s makeover last spring, senior editor Peter Carter was nervous. “I was concerned we were throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” he says, “that we were going to lose what we’re strong at in order to gain something we didn’t have.” Chatelaine may not have thrown out the baby, but it did throw out the baby boomer.

“Those readers are not key to our future. I think there is certainly a readership for a magazine that would target women in their 50s, but we can’t be that magazine,” explains the 50-year-old Maynard diplomatically. (Internally, other editorial staff mordantly refer to still-loyal but no-longer-desirable older readers as “Chatelhags.”)

The idea of the redesign was initiated in July 1998 when it became apparent that Chatelaine‘s core readership in the key 25-to-49-year-old group had dropped from 1.14 million in 1988 to 887,000. In fact, readership in general was declining, down from 2.7 million in 1996 to 2.2 million in 1998, while in the same period, readership per copy had dropped from 3 to 2.6. Factor in the looming threat of invading U.S. titles andChatelaine management felt it was time to turn the matron into a swinging young thing. It was also time for a new publisher, someone who could introduce the shiny, revamped product.

“From my experience in packaged goods marketing, I understand that the consumer is everything,” says Donna Clark, 44, publisher of Chatelaine since May 1998. “Pleasing and delighting your consumer is the same as pleasing and delighting your reader. She’s who makes us successful and makes us money, too.” Clark came to Chatelaine with no publishing experience, having spent her career marketing packaged goods for Warner-Lambert, Pillsbury and Campbell Soup before becoming vice president of marketing at Mattel. Her background comes through when she talks about her current position: “I was attracted to the Chatelainebrand. I wanted to see what could be done to make a pretty healthy business even healthier.” Freshening up the brand meant targeting a younger age group.

While, according to Clark, advertisers have responded favourably to the new Chatelaine, numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show Chatelaine‘s circulation continued to decline post-relaunch, from 819,000 in late 1998 to less than 800,000 by last June. Most significant is the drop in subscriptions, from almost 780,000 in January 1999 to just over 720,000 in June – a loss of approximately 57,000 in the six months on either side of the relaunch.

Clark is predictably upbeat about the numbers: “Yes, we’ve lost some readers, but smaller numbers than we thought and more are coming in on the other side,” she says. However, Clarence Poirier, Chatelaine‘s director of research, says 40 per cent of the magazine’s current subscribers are 50-plus, while only 14 per cent are 18 to 34. “This worries us,” Poirier says. “Not because we see the 50-plus group as lesser value, but it’s the younger group the advertisers want to reach, and advertising is 80 per cent of our revenue.”

To determine what younger readers wanted, Chatelaine conducted extensive research. Out went the knitting patterns and in came passion, purpose and possibility. Gone were gritty reads like Kim Pittaway’s “Who is Jane Doe? (about a woman who proved police used her as rape bait) and in came “Toys in Babeland” (about sex toys) and Bob Reguly’s “The Dominatrix” (a onetime prostitute and drug addict finds her dream job). Pull quotes went from “Teenagers like intimidating people. They like the power, it makes them feel good” to “I have big breasts and a big ass. I remind regressives of their mommy and submissives of my authority.”

Another area of Chatelaine that underwent significant change is the front of the book. Traditionally, this section was filled with one-page service pieces, advice columns and short reviews of movies and books. Now, the service pieces are usually on style, fashion and beauty, and the entertainment section, renamed Fast Forward, caters to a younger, hipper audience with quick bites of entertainment news, some of which border on the ridiculous. The relaunch issue carried a picture of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler with a quotation at the top of the page that read: “I’d like to have my ashes spread all over the beach, so even after I’m dead, I’m still gonna get in girls’ pants.” The September issue featured National Iguana Awareness Day, October showed shots of the “pasty Irish butt” of a character on the television show NYPD Blue and November posed the thought-provoking theory that Hollywood actresses’ hairstyles are in fact copied from canines, comparingFriends star Jennifer Aniston’s hair to that of a Chinese-crested dog. Not surprisingly, Fast Forward scored dead last in a readership survey conducted by Chatelaine in October. Maynard says Chatelaine‘s goal is to produce controversial articles to attract the new audience. “Younger readers want an article to come to a conclusion and take a stand. We’re more cutting-edge now.” In case readers don’t twig to this, one feature each month carries the label ” Chatelaine Controversy.” In November, for example, it was a piece about a couple’s struggle over whether to circumcise their son.

Chatelaine is also publishing more of what former Elm Street editor Stevie Cameron calls “good gal” stories: pieces about successful women (such as January’s profiles of 15 women under 40 who are “blazing the way into the 21st century”).

This doesn’t mean Chatelaine is not still producing strong journalism. Associate editor Beth Hitchcock’s profile on Deborah Cox in the December 1999 issue not only unveiled the singer’s personality, but also discussed Cox’s struggle to get the attention she deserves in her home country. (An article about Cox published two months earlier in Elm Street was much less developed.) Maynard’s recent hiring of former Homemaker’seditor Sally Armstrong to write six articles a year was a huge coup; Armstrong’s “Sally goes to war” stories will bring more issues-based journalism to the magazine.

Although Armstrong remains a freelancer, she has the title “editor at large,” a move criticized by her former boss. “I think Chatelaine is putting her on their masthead and trying to make it look like she’s a staff member when she’s not,” says Homemaker’s publisher Barrie Wykes. Armstrong defends her decision to go to the competition. She says she was upfront with her plans to freelance. “I write on women’s issues. Who did they think I would freelance for, The Economist?” Armstrong’s first piece, in the February issue, profiled a female forensic pathologist from Calgary who exhumes Kosovo war victims. “Armstrong may be what saves the magazine, in that she will give it an identifiable personality, much like former editor Doris Anderson did,” says Janet Callaghan, vice president and corporate media director at The Media Company in Toronto.

Reader response to the “new” Chatelaine is mixed. Jennifer Boulanger, a 25-year-old assistant at an investment dealer for the oil and gas industry in Calgary, used to consider Chatelaine her mom’s magazine, but started reading it after the relaunch. “I like the new look. The fashion, beauty and health are more directed at women my age and the articles are more lively,” she says. However, Sandra Dimitrakopoulos, a 24-year-old Toronto student, isn’t as positive: “I used to read Chatelaine for its articles, but after the first couple of new issues since the relaunch, I stopped. It seems they have created a concept of what they think a young person would like, but it’s too trendy for the Chatelaine I used to know.” And what about the Chatelhags? Doris Anderson, editor of the magazine between 1957 and 1977, confesses: “I don’t read it much anymore.” She thinks Chatelaine and other women’s magazines are now only skimming the surface with their features and are not covering many of today’s important stories. “They very rarely tackle articles on the declining middle class, which is particularly hard on single mothers. There is no questioning of the system. The magazines that succeed best challenge the reader with thought-provoking articles.”

Media buyers’ reactions are equally mixed. Sheri Metcalfe, associate media director at Cossette Media in Toronto, believes Chatelaine‘s relaunch was a wise move, particularly with the threat of U.S. titles on their way to the Canadian market: “It was looking kind of stodgy and old and needed some freshening up,” she says. But Callaghan identifies the magazine’s greatest challenge: to appeal to both moms and their daughters. ” Chatelaine is really struggling,” she says. “They face a difficult task and are damned every step they take, in fear of losing a very large and loyal readership if they are too radical, and not attracting new readers because they are too staid, too Chatelaine.”

It’s 11:30 p.m. on a September Friday, and Mary McIver, managing editor of Homemaker’s, is leaving work. The November issue has finally been put to bed and she’s looking forward to going there, too. She feels as if she just did six months’ work in one week. Production is not usually this demanding, but the new editor in chief, Dianne Rinehart, took over on Monday and wasted no time putting her stamp on the magazine. “All the copy was in and we were putting it together, but she wanted to revisit everything, and certain things she didn’t like, she pulled, no bones about it. I felt like I was galloping just to keep up.”

Although heads were spinning with the arrival of an energetic new editor, a week earlier they were hanging low as the staff said goodbye to Armstrong, who had been the editor in chief for 11 years. “By the time she left we were a pretty emotionally wrecked bunch,” says McIver, who worked with Armstrong for more than 10 years. Armstrong had almost single-handedly shaped the identity of the magazine with her hard-hitting, award-winning stories on international women’s rights. A 1997 piece about the women of Afghanistan brought 9,000 letters from readers demanding that action be taken to halt the human rights catastrophe in that country. A 1998 story on the efforts to end female genital mutilation in Senegal generated more than $6,000 for a program aimed at eliminating the practice.

“Women’s magazines have been marginalized as fluffy and light reading, but if you think about it, it’s women’s magazines that have changed the status quo of the entire country,” says Armstrong. “People often asked me how we could publish these hard-hitting stories in the same magazine as recipes, and I thought, is there some bizarre notion that if you’re interested in human rights you’re not interested in making a birthday cake for your child?”

This combination of conventional women’s-book fare and investigative coverage of women’s human rights won Armstrong four National Magazine Awards and helped Homemaker’s successfully convert from controlled to paid circulation – a feat that Quill & Quire publisher and circulation expert Sharon McAuley calls “a circulation miracle.” By last year, the subscription base was 780,000 paid (albeit at a modest $9.95 a year for 10 issues). Then, at 56, Armstrong left her job – not with retirement in mind, but rather to go back to school, write a book on the stories of six women in the Balkans and continue her crusading journalism. “I realized I didn’t want to be the editor of Homemaker’s for the rest of my life,” she says frankly.

Homemaker’s Wykes puts a positive spin on her departure. “Parallel to Sally needing change, Homemaker’sneeded to make some changes, too – not wild and dramatic change, but change,” he says. A new editor is a surefire way to alter a magazine, and Rinehart, a journalist with 25 years’ experience, was eager to take over. “At 9:02 Monday morning she had her sleeves rolled up and was right in the thick of it,” says Wykes.

Rinehart, 47, worked under Bonnie Fuller at Flare in the 1980s before leaving for Moscow to freelance for USA Today; she then moved on to Ottawa, where she was a parliamentary correspondent with Canadian Press. Following that, she spent three years as a senior news reporter with The Vancouver Sun. “She’s feisty, tenacious, competitive,” says Graham Rockingham, who was her assignment editor at the Sun, where Rinehart’s main beats were native issues and immigration. “She loves this business. She eats, sleeps and breathes a story,” he says. “Kind of like the Energizer bunny?” I ask. “More like the Energizer bull,” he replies.

Just before Rinehart’s takeover, Homemaker’s concluded an extensive survey that showed readers asking for more. They wanted arts and entertainment, travel, gardening and finance, as well as more health and nutrition. Rinehart implemented these changes. “It’s not like I’m tearing the magazine apart and starting from scratch, but we are going to respond to their requests,” she says. Rinehart changed the front-of-the-book section, which seldom contained pieces longer than 200 words, to even quicker hits of newsy items such as the Hot List, which features everything from movies to women, and The View, which covers trends in food, fashion, beauty and travel. She also cut McIver’s eight-and-a-half-year-old column of quirky news and notes at the back of the book and replaced it with Parting Shot, a full-page photo of a “good gal.” (In the December/January issue it was ballerina Kimberly Glasco.) Rinehart’s short, snappy newspaper style comes through in the entire magazine. “She doesn’t seem to care as much about whether we have four or five features as long as there are some meaty reads in there, because she views other sections as features,” says McIver. “Sally wrote stories that were very passionate, compassionate, pulled at the heartstrings and celebrated good work. Dianne has a less emotional style. She doesn’t seem to favour long, introspective pieces as part of the narrative.”

But Rinehart insists she is still committed to issues-based features that call for change – and so far, she is following through. The December 1999 issue featured a piece on homelessness, which included reports from Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The February/March issue included a piece on raising awareness of heart disease, the number-one killer of Canadian women. The Homemaker’s tradition of conventional women’s fare and investigative journalism is not expected to change under Montreal’s Transcontinental Publications, which bought Homemaker’s, Canadian Living and Telemedia’s nine other consumer titles in late January. Rinehart feels comfortable with the new ownership. “I think it’s the best group we could have been sold to,” she says, pointing out that Transcontinental – unlike Rogers Media, Chatelaine‘s parent company, which also aggressively bid on the Telemedia books – does not own magazines that directly compete with Homemaker’s. Had Rogers succeeded, it’s possible that either Homemaker’s or Canadian Living might have been folded to reduce competition with Chatelaine. “Transcontinental has an interest in making us grow,” says Rinehart, who is optimistic the new parent company will protect her book. “They want to take care of us.”

It was Friday the 13th, 1995, when Greg MacNeil resigned from Telemedia to start Multi-Vision Publishing. He had spent 10 years at Telemedia – where he was, at different times, publisher of Homemaker’s andCanadian Living – but left, he says, because he had a different point of view from Jim McCoubrey, Telemedia’s CEO at the time. The speculation is that he launched Elm Street to spite his former employer; whether this is true or not, it can be argued that Elm Street‘s identity crisis started at birth, when MacNeil, along with his partner, Lilia Lozinski, hired Stevie Cameron as editor. “We wanted to do something nontraditional, and we thought her reputation would add buzz to the mag,” he says. There’s no doubt Cameron has a strong reputation, but as an investigative newspaper reporter, not a magazine editor. Her vision of what the magazine should be diverged from MacNeil’s from the beginning. Cameron says she wanted a city magazine for men and women: “I wanted a mix of things. I wanted a Toronto Life for the entire country.” MacNeil wanted a magazine with the tag line “For Canadian Women.”

The dissonance was apparent last fall when I visited Cameron, 56, at the Elm Street office. As we began to chat, she commented on some copy she had on her desk. “It says, ?Tis the season,’ and I want to gag. I hate that stuff. I’m a journalist. I don’t like exclamation points in headlines or sappy stuff. I like to write. I don’t move back and forth well between editor and writer mode, and I’m a writer,” she confided. “I’m just going to get the holiday issue out.” A few days later her decision that she could no longer be editor in chief of Elm Streetbecame public.

“She didn’t want the job in the first place,” said MacNeil in his smooth salesman’s voice at the time of Cameron’s resignation. “I’m not surprised by Stevie’s departure. I knew it was coming.” Nevertheless MacNeil spent most of last fall trying to keep her at the magazine in some capacity. During that time, Cameron signed a multibook deal with her publishing company, Macfarlane Walter & Ross – which brought out her big-selling Mulroney-bashing book On the Take – and took a stint with the Globe as a “writer at large.” Her successor is Gwen Smith, a longtime pal whom Cameron has described as “tough, careful and curious.” She adds that Smith will have a different idea about how to run Elm Street. “We’ll see more sports, I think, and perhaps more health stories.”

Patrick Walshe, vice president of media management company Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, believes the impact of Cameron leaving Elm Street is definitely more significant than Armstrong leaving Homemaker’s. “Stevie is the founding editor and it was her energy and vision that formed a lot of what Elm Street is.” But what Elm Street is has always been hard to define. Articles have ranged from fluffy pieces on Canadian personalities (a cover story on actor Matthew Perry appeared in the premiere issue) to strong, investigative pieces (such as Michael Valpy’s profile of Dr. Nancy Olivieri in the Holiday 1998 issue). As Anne Kingston, aNational Post columnist and self-confessed magazine junkie, says, “Elm Street needs some retooling in order to get some cohesion. There is no sense of progression as you read it. There’s some strong journalism in there that has gotten lost in the midst of everything. It doesn’t have a clear identity, and given the amount of stuff out there, this is a problem. You must have a strong editorial voice.”

This lack of a clear identity is reflected in the magazine’s performance. Although Elm Street claims a 700,000 readership base, almost 660,000 of that is non-paid and its readership per copy is an embarrassing 0.9. Advertising revenue fell six per cent from 1998 to 1999, and ad pages dropped 5.2 per cent during the same time.

To boost income, Elm Street is trying to convert a portion of its controlled circulation to paid, offering eight issues for $9.95. Although Elm Street is modelling its conversion after Homemaker’s, it is questionable whether it has the same presence and reader loyalty to succeed. While Homemaker’s was 30 years old when it started its switch to paid circulation, Elm Street is only four, and its single-copy sales per issue are a miserable 1,700.

Will Elm Street‘s new editor, Gwen Smith, be able to create a magazine with an editorial voice strong enough to appeal to readers and advertisers? “I’m going to make sure we have a killer piece in every issue,” she says, adding she favours Cameron’s style of investigative journalism. Still, like both Cameron and Rinehart, she has little background in magazine editing. Her 21-year career has been spent at newspapers such as the Globe and The Toronto Star as well as seven years in broadcasting. Although she has freelanced for Cottage Life and Toronto Life among others, her sole magazine editing experience was six months at Elm Street while Cameron was on leave writing her book Blue Trust in 1998 and, most recently, as an assistant managing editor at Maclean’s. “I’m not going in imposing my will on the magazine,” she says. “But one of the first things we will do is an internal review of the magazine to find out what is liked and what is not so liked.” But Elm Street’s new tag line, “Canadian Life, People, Issues, Style,” which debuted on the February/March issue, illustrates the magazine’s greatest insecurity: in trying to be everything, it may not master anything.

The news in mid-January that Telemedia was putting its entire stable of magazines on the block signalled many publishers’ current pessimism about the future prospects for Canadian magazines. The subtext to the sale was the federal government’s decision last year to back away from legislation it had drafted in the aftermath of an unfavourable ruling by the World Trade Organization. At issue were Canada’s longtime ban on the importation of magazines carrying advertising aimed at a Canadian audience and its more recent law that clawed back any advertising revenue that non-Canadian magazines received from domestic advertisers. The WTO found that both initiatives contravened its rules. The measures had been developed to ensure that Canadian advertisers put their ad dollars into Canadian magazines, reflecting the fact that magazines depend on advertising for more than 50 per cent of their revenues. Publishers feared that American split-run magazines – with the same editorial content as in their home editions but different ads – would skim off ad dollars, perhaps even putting Canadian magazines out of business. However, before Bill C-55 was passed, the government bowed to pressure from the U.S. and gutted its bill.

Instead, the revised Bill C-55 allows foreign split-runs with no Canadian content to carry up to 12 per cent Canadian advertising (this will rise to 18 per cent in several years). For the first time, it is legal for foreign publishers to purchase up to 49-per-cent interest in domestic titles and, as of later this year, to start their own magazines in Canada. Concern about the impact of these changes is wide-spread in the industry, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the women’s book sector. The American titles with the largest circulations in Canada are women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan, YM, Good Housekeeping and Woman’s World, all of which have a Canadian circulation of just under 200,000.

Masthead editor Patrick Walsh notes that “to date, American publishers have been testing the Canadian waters with subscription drives to determine if they can drive up their rate bases before selling ads against split-runs or spillovers. “Now,” he predicts, “expect to see more U.S. initiatives to penetrate this market, as well as the emergence of powerhouse cross-border partnerships.” Telemedia reportedly tried, and failed, to find an American partner before selling to Transcontinental, while Rogers Media is seeking a deal with a large U.S. publishing company.

Meanwhile, the women’s magazines, in trying to position themselves with ad agencies to survive the anticipated invasion from the south, seem in danger of overlooking the most important person in the business: the reader. I’m sure my mom isn’t the only one who wants more than risotto recipes.

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