Requiem for a Magazine
The late editor of Quest on his loss and ours
When a corporation goes broke, it declares bankruptcy. Or goes under. Or is “forced to shut its doors.” But when the same thing suddenly happens to a magazine (and the event is usually sudden), people use the words “died” or “was killed.” Which is an odd use of the terms.
The people who describe the endgame of a publication as a death mean something very particular. They mean that a magazine or a newspaper is something more than its inanimate parts, something almost human.
Without torturing the metaphor, it is fair to say that magazines and newspapers reach out to people and form very real connections with their lives. When that connection is broken, there is a palpable loss. The emptiness is felt first by the people who made the words and the pictures. It is felt later by the readers of the expired publication. Everybody loses something.
On November 6, 1984, it was announced in a hushed boardroom in north Toronto that Quest magazine was going out of business, was going to die. Later in the day, it was announced that Ronald ‘Reagan had been reelected president by the largest margin in the history of the U.S.
Both announcements were upset ting to me, but let’s not lose our heads. Quest was only a magazine. I was its second and final editor.
Quest began its life-if we may call it that-as a men’s magazine. What was unique about this new magazine was the way it was distributed. Instead of being sold through the traditional means-subscriptions and newsstands -it was given away to selected homes across the country.
This kind of distribution, controlled circulation, was the brainchild of Comac Communications Ltd., Quest’s publisher. The theory behind it was that advertisers did not want to advertise to everybody, or just anybody. They wanted to reach only those people who had the requisite amount of disposable income to buy their products.
Two things happened. Advertisers bought the concept and, second, Comac made a smart move. It decided that Quest could not be just another free magazine. It had to have editorial merit built on the best editorial content. The approach Comac adopted made sense: people would only read the magazine, including the ads, if the content was strong.
Quest flourished throughout the ’70s and Comac clung to its editorial commitment. In 1980, however, company officials were becoming impatient with the magazine. They felt its standardized formula of service and self-help journalism was becoming something of a bore. Readers, they felt, were interested in more than RRSPs and how to have a healthier lawn. There were, of course, the shared concerns of money, family, careers, health and so on, but there was a wider world and Quest was not speaking to it on behalf of its readers.
As it was later put to me, Quest was becoming predictable.
I had never worked for a publication that people didn’t pay for. I had toiled in magazines, Time and Maclean’s, and in a number of newspapers. It had never occurred to me that something given away could be any good in terms of the kind of journalism I wanted to follow.
I was convinced otherwise by a man named Jeffrey Shearer, Comac’s executive vice-president and editorial director. Shearer was not a journalist; he was a marketing expert. But he was smart enough to know that the quality of audience Quest had to reach in order to keep its promises to its advertisers demanded quality in everything, including its journalism. His argument was persuasive and energetic. I took the job.
The first thing that struck me was that while Quest had a national circulation of 710,000 and more than a million readers, it seemed to be written by a few people who lived in Toronto. Much of the writing was excellent, but everything turned on a Toronto perspective. The other thing that intrigued me was the lack of narrative reporting, of simply telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. As any bartender can testify, people love to be told stories.
Narrative journalism is probably the toughest kind of reporting because it means reducing abstraction to form. Instead of merely reciting facts, the writer has to create a context, a landscape against which those facts stand out. At its best, it takes the magazine piece within shouting distance of the novel. Done badly, it sticks out like a vinyl thumb.
When I joined Quest, its managing editor was Lynn Cunningham. She too seemed somewhat bored within the confines of the old Quest formula. We decided that if the magazine was going to have any hope of credibility and authority, it had to come from the writing. To find new writers, Cunningham made several trips across the country. To the old regulars we said Quest had changed. We said the magazine was still open to them but their work would have to improve to conform to the new standards we were trying to create. Some longtime Quest contributors were incensed by the new rules and never wrote for the magazine again.
Slowly, the new Quest began to extend the reach of the magazine. People who earlier had ignored it because of its methods of distribution became readers. Quest began to be quoted by columnists and journalists in other media.
The subject matter was as varied as the daily lives of ordinary Canadians. We began to assign stories on national politics in a way that made politics accessible and, at the same time, compelling. The old Quest had been notoriously unfunny. We began to treat humor as a sensible topic for discussion; in 1982, the magazine won a gold medal for humor writing. We told writers that research consists of more than quoting from academic texts or serving up warmed-over newspaper clippings. We wanted original reporting.
We started publishing some of the best names in Canadian print journalism: George Woodcock, Harry Bruce, George Bain, Norman Snider, Margaret Atwood, Jay Teitel, John Lownsbrough, Katherine Govier, Doug Fetherling, Silver Donald Cameron, Erna Paris, Joey Slinger, Matt Cohen. We printed fiction for the first time in the magazine’s history. We raised the payment rates to $2,000 for a 3,000-word piece. We hired the best photographers and illustrators in the business for the graphics.
With the exception of Saturday Night, Quest was the last national general interest magazine in Canada. Where other magazines were rushing to single-interest subjects, usually business, Quest clung to the heresy that intelligent readers wanted to read interesting stories about people, politics, entertainment, issues.
The mix was eclectic-some said eccentric. We were daring enough to create a magazine that would allow people the simple, glorious delight of reading. For example, we wanted to do a story on something Canadian that was unique in the world, the best of its kind. We didn’t care what it was, only that it be the best. A writer named Matthew Hart proposed profiling a particular cow that was the best dairy producer in the world. The resulting piece, “Rhapsody in Moo,” was a brilliant, hilarious treatment of a spectacular lady cow. After it appeared, editors phoned me asking, “Who’s this guy Hart anyway?” At another point, I learned that sportswriter Earl McRae had written a profile of Bobby Orr in retirement that the publisher of Today magazine had killed because he thought it too tough on Orr. I read it, bought it and ran it as a cover story entitled “Poor Bobby.” That one piece brought us more angry mail than anything we ever did. People threatened to blow up our offices. But the magazine was being read. And making an impact.
As with any controlled-circulation publication, Quest was accused from time to time of being under the thumb of its advertisers. I was aware of that danger and was overly sensitive about it. I did not want Quest put into the same category as such magazines as Goodlife and Avenue. Both the publisher, Hugh Rosser, and Shearer were resolute in insisting that our obligations to advertisers ended when we cashed their cheques. One time we profiled the Canadian auto expert Phil Edmonston, who criticized a number of new car models. The piece was scheduled to run in the very issue that carried a number of new car ads. Rosser was concerned. He did not order me to kill the story, thus relieving us both of a moral crisis. I agreed to hold the story until the following issue. It was for me an easy and sensible compromise out of a difficult problem.
We continued to win awards, both for writing excellence and graphics. The first signs of trouble appeared in June, 1983, when the Print Measurement Bureau released its readership survey. The PMB is the bible of the magazine industry-what the Nielsen ratings are to television. It purports to be able to tell editors, publishers and, above all, advertisers, how many people are actually reading a given magazine. It is on the basis of the PMB numbers that advertisers decide which publications to advertise in.
Advertising is a lucrative and important ally to magazine publishing. Without it there would be no magazines. But its members comprise the most conservative, frightened, sheep-like group I have ever encountered. There is little innovation, no chance-taking and very little creativity in Canadian ad agencies. No one dares make a move with a client’s money unless everybody else makes the same move on behalf of their clients. Agency people do not read the magazines they recommend to their clients. Sometimes they do not even look at them. Their only interests are costs and readership. PMB exists to serve those advertising agencies. They read the numbers and spend their clients’ money on the basis of those numbers.
The PMB ’83 showed that Quest had lost 600,000 readers since the PMB survey issued in 1981. This absurdity quickly became received truth in the advertising community. The ads began to dry up and Quest’s revenues fell. No one at Quest or indeed in Comac believed it was humanly possible to lose so many readers in two years. None of that mattered. The advertising agencies believed the numbers. Throughout the early part of 1984, the prognosis for Quest’s health worsened. Projected ad pages evaporated. Revenue estimates were woefully out of line.
Every facet of Quest-advertising, research, marketing, promotion, editorial-was examined by the company. Quest set out to woo back its lost advertisers. We began to print on better stock. The magazine was redesigned and we introduced features geared to a business-oriented audience. But by then Comac had lost the will and the imagination to deal with the magazine’s problem.
Teledirect, the subsidiary of Bell Canada Enterprises Inc. that owns Comac, knew nothing about publishing unless you consider the telephone book. Its only interest was black ink. If the company could make a profit with a living Quest, that was fine. If Quest had to be killed, well, that was fine too.
I was told about the magazine’s imminent demise last October. The closing came a month later. Most of the staff, including the art director, the managing editor and myself was fired. The same day Quest was killed, Comac announced the launch of a new magazine called Ontario Living, aglitter, upscale magazine that would concentrate on furniture, home decor, recipes and conspicuous consumption.
The relationship between a magazine and its readers is a delicate thing. It can disappear like a puff of smoke in a cathedral. Or it can be destroyed by an insensitivity that treats readers as robotic consumers of products. Handled with intelligence and sensitivity to the concerns of readers, the relationship can flourish.
But in Canada at the moment, publishing is in the hands of businessmen, MBAs with calculators who plot costs per-thousands and demographic reach. These are the bloodless ones who feel secure only within the comfortable confines of measurable numbers.
Quest tried, I think, to give its readers something worthy of their time and energies. It tried to move, to educate, to delight, to disturb.
It has been argued that Quest went beyond its time. According to marketing logic, the general-interest magazine has become a vestigial holdover from some muted golden age. That may be true. But I would like to think that, given publishers who know what a magazine is and advertisers un-intimidated by surveys and editors who know from instinct what is quality and what is not, such a magazine could again flourish.
If not, then journalism has been reduced and our lives somehow made smaller…
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.