Rookie of the Year
The challenge for new Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford: rejuvenate a tired product. The result: a fresher, brasher approach that often generates more heat than enlightenment
Sarah Fulford had too much to drink last night. Or so she says. Though she claims she’s a little hungover from her “celebration and debauchery,” she shows her usual poise. It’s early evening, November 5, less than 24 hours since Barack Obama made history and Toronto is still abuzz with excitement. But on the second floor of Deer Park Library, in a small room filled with about 30 people (mostly women, all magazine hopefuls) the focus is on Fulford. She’s leading an Ed2010 event on landing your dream job-fitting because last year, at the age of 33, she became editor of Toronto Life magazine.
Tonight, with furrowed brow, glasses and an aura of authority, she looks older. Listening with thoughtful concentration to questions from the audience, she thinks before responding, scrunching up her mouth and nose, half-adorable, half-awkward. She wants to give good advice, but despite the intimate surroundings, she doesn’t want to share too much. When a woman presses Fulford on her biggest mistake, she brushes the question off, admitting only to a recent typo. Unsatisfied, the woman keeps pushing: “There must besomething.” In response, the editor turns the question around. “Do you have an experience you want to share?” she asks the woman. “Is something on your mind?” It’s a joke, of course, but it’s also classic Fulford-clear, bright … and shrewdly evasive.
When the presentation ends, she approaches Marco Ursi, editor of Masthead, offering her condolences for his magazine’s imminent closure. When Ursi admits to telling the same anecdote again and again on a recent media blitz, Fulford responds confidently, “I think with those things it’s best to have your answers and go in there like a politician.” And with that, she bids Ursi farewell and slips out into the night.
In January 2008, nine years after joining the magazine as an associate editor, Fulford reached the top ofToronto Life. She knows what she wants-for herself and for the magazine-but she’s hit a few bumps in her first year on the job. Critics have accused her of sensationalism, of foolishly hiring an art director with no magazine experience and of skewing Toronto Life younger. A magazine whose best-selling covers promote service stories may not be ready for a young iconoclast as its editor, but years of ambition have brought Fulford to where she is today. And she isn’t going to let a few snags stop her from making her mark on the magazine. Ready or not, here comes Sarah Fulford.
With almost 80,000 paid subscribers and (according to MastheadOnline), just over $11 million in revenue last year, Toronto Life is Canada’s most financially successful paid-circulation city magazine. Though it avoids detailing a target demographic-instead describing its audience as “above average” people who “are engaged with the city”-research shows a third of its readers fall into the category of “owner/manager/professional,” and 41 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. At an average age of 45 and with an average household income of $93,381, these people seem to have some discretionary income to toss around and want help spending it. Enter Toronto Life.
Those readers rely on the magazine’s service journalism, specifically its restaurant and wine reviews, and its three annual guides to real estate, eating and drinking, and shopping. Toronto Life‘s September 2007 real estate issue won Cover of the Year at the Canadian Newsstand Awards, selling almost 16,000 single copies for a final sell-through rate of 59 percent (most magazines sell about 35 percent).
The focus on service helps pay the bills, but the lifestyle it’s aimed at generates criticism. While Eye Weekly, Now magazine, Spacing and websites such as Torontoist target a less-affluent demographic,Toronto Life doesn’t shy away from the rich and aspirational. A long-time fascination with Rosedale society and high-priced luxury items leaves some readers feeling the magazine doesn’t represent the Toronto they live in; one whose median family income is just under $60,000, not the $100,000 to $250,000 four young professionals in last year’s money issue said a couple in the city needed to live comfortably.
Despite the alienation some readers feel from its service sections, the 42-year-old magazine is widely praised for its long-form journalism. Last June, it won Magazine of the Year at the National Magazine Awards, along with four gold and two silver medals. John Macfarlane, who manned the mag for 15 years before Fulford’s appointment and for another two years in the early 1970s, accepted the award on Toronto Life‘s behalf.
Although she and Macfarlane weren’t friends until several years ago, Fulford first met him when she was a child. Her father, Robert, was editor of Saturday Night, where Macfarlane was publisher; her mother, Geraldine Sherman, was a CBC Radio producer. This created a household dedicated to telling stories. The family dissected Sherman’s show, State of the Arts, during Sunday brunches, and Fulford remembers often accompanying her father to neighbourhood magazine stores and hauling back two full bags. Still, she never thought she’d be a journalist.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1996, when the recent University of King’s College graduate spent a year exploring her Jewish roots in Jerusalem, that Fulford realized she needed magazines in her life. English-language publications were expensive, but she scoured used-book stores for issues of Harper’s and People.
While Fulford willingly discusses her time abroad, her version lacks the vigour found in Raymond and Hannah, the novel written by her husband, Stephen Marche. Though the pair-who married in a small ceremony at Toronto’s City Hall in 2001-insists the book is fictional, comparisons are inevitable. In Raymond and Hannah, the protagonists hit it off at a party (as Marche and Fulford did) and enjoy a week of hot sex, food and conversation before Hannah leaves to study Judaism at a yeshiva in the Holy City. (“Raymond and Hannah spill it into each other and splash it against the walls of the apartment … with no comfort but flesh. Scream, scream. Scream.”) Back in Toronto, Raymond sends his lover boxes of English-language magazines before he, like Marche, joins her in Israel. When Fulford’s friends were asked about her relationship with Marche, several mentioned his book. Laughed one friend, “I hope they had as good a time as [the characters] did!” Fulford says speculation goes with the territory of being married to a novelist. Nevertheless, when writer Brett Grainger lamented to his friend about the difficulties of airing his personal life in his work, Fulford asked him wryly, “Well, how do you think I feel?”
Back in Canada, Fulford worked at a bookstore before she got her first full-time journalism gig in the fall of 1997. Together with Gabe Gonda, now Saturday Insight editor at the Toronto Star, Fulford edited a University of Toronto student weekly called The Newspaper before becoming an assistant editor at the now-defunctElm Street, doing fact-checking and light editing. A year later, after the launch of the National Post created a job shuffle, she moved to Toronto Life. There, she edited the front of the book for four years, commissioning short pieces, procuring writers and overseeing the magazine’s gossip column, which Fulford admits was a great education in the who’s who of Toronto society. When the magazine published an annotated helicopter photo of Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz’s monster-house renovations in 2002, Fulford felt extremely satisfied. “I had that experience of going to parties and having people say, ‘Oh my God, did you read that thing in Toronto Life?'”
In 2003, she won a silver National Magazine Award for the memoir she wrote about her high school music teacher, Graham Wishart. Before being arrested for sexual abuse-related offences in 1991, he taught Fulford, a promising cellist, the value of discipline. “I had never taken anything that serious before in my life,” she says. “And there I was waking up at six in the morning to practice arpeggios … he was behind all of that.” In the feature, her first for the magazine, Fulford detailed the difficulty of reconciling betrayal with gratitude. “Despite the anger, disgust and heartbreak,” she wrote, “I’m still grateful to have been his student.”
Macfarlane says he recognized Fulford’s potential during her first two years at Toronto Life. “I began to see in her a kind of ambition that made me think she may have what it takes to be the editor of This or some other magazine,” he says. Freelance writer Katrina Onstad also took notice. “I think there might be a misperception out there that ‘to the manor born and handed this’ because of her last name or something, but that woman works,” she says. “I would see her on weekends at a café, with all her stuff spread out in front of her and it never looked unhealthy to me. Because most people who work like that, I think they have some sort of deep-seeded sickness or something, but she really loves it.”
It wasn’t easy for those in Fulford’s shadow. “Toronto Life was hard to be at if you weren’t Sarah,” says a former staffer who likened her to a favourite child, and says it felt “like nothing you did was ever going to be recognized.” Fulford, meanwhile, made the most of it. She jokes about “bullying” her way into relationships with Macfarlane, current executive editor Angie Gardos, and former fellow associate editor Gary Ross. “I sat at their feet,” says Fulford. “I asked to see their scraps, I keyed in things for them if they were too busy.” The result was a promotion to senior editor in 2004.
A year later, during a redesign of Toronto Life, Fulford refused to be left out of the process and spent several weeks dissecting city magazines. She produced an eight-page memo of proposed improvements-more changes than Macfarlane had considered making at the time. “For a few minutes,” he says, “I thought, ‘My God, I should have written this memo.'”
In April 2005, Macfarlane told Fulford he was thinking of retiring and that, although he couldn’t guarantee it, he wanted her to become his successor. She would be smart to start imagining what she would do with the magazine.
In August 2006, Fulford and Marche moved to Brooklyn with their infant son after Marche accepted a teaching job at City College in New York City. Fulford continued her work with the magazine, but also seized the opportunity to network and learn from editors in the Big Apple-almost, her close friend Laura Penny suggests, getting a job with The New York Times. (Fulford says there were talks but won’t comment further.)
But she was back in the office soon enough. In 2007, Macfarlane informed the head honchos at Toronto Lifeof his retirement plans and they set out to secure a replacement. Several candidates-including someone from New York-were considered, but on June 15 at the National Magazine Awards, after months of scrutiny, memos and conversations about the magazine’s future, publisher Sharon McAuley offered Fulford the job.
Her first year in charge featured cover stories on stroller wars, house-poor couples, finding the right schools and renovations gone wrong, all prompting the media and readers to take notice: Toronto Life was skewing young.
Some change was inevitable. Instead of a now 67-year-old male at the helm, a woman half Macfarlane’s age was running the show. He hasn’t seen a lot of changes in the magazine, but suggests Fulford is more attuned to pop culture, from which he feels increasingly alienated: “I think she has a connection with, and understands, the thought processes of younger people better than me.” Fulford, however, denies she’s targeting a younger demographic, claiming it’s normal for city magazines to cover topics concerning people in their 30s and 40s. If you die at 80, she says, 40 is actually middle-aged.
But writer Richard Poplak thinks it’s no accident Toronto Life hired a 33-year-old. “If you’re the board, why are you bringing on someone young if you don’t want to skew the magazine? There are a number of highly qualified editors in their mid-50s … obviously they wanted something a bit different.” Onstad, who attacked hipster parents taking over the city in “Baby Wars” and detailed disastrous renovations in “Gutted,” says Fulford, whom she calls “ridiculously young,” wants to bring Toronto Life not just to Rosedale and high society but also to a previously-neglected downtown audience. “Magazines are a living entity and they have to change, they have to be alive to their readers,” the writer says. “North-of-Bloor people won’t be around forever, so she’s got to reflect the changing nature of the city.”
While shaking things up, Fulford rattled some nerves. The cover for December 2008’s “The Immigrant Experience” issue featured a softened Facebook photo of a teenage girl with brown skin and dark hair. Mouth slightly open, arm behind her head, she looks out with a half-demure, half-come-hither stare. It seemed an unusual cover choice because few people would immediately recognize her, but Aqsa Parvez was a 16-year-old Muslim allegedly murdered by her brother and father (the cover line reads, “She refused to wear a head scarf-and paid the ultimate price”).
“Girl, Interrupted,” the story written by Mary Rogan, focused on information from two of Parvez’s best friends and describes Aqsa’s exploration of Western values-removing her hijab, wearing tight jeans, skipping class-as well as her fear of her brother and father. The piece places Aqsa’s murder in the context of the arrest of the Toronto 18 and debates about Shariah law, asking whether Toronto has “become too tolerant of cultural difference.”
From the beginning, the editors anticipated controversy-and they weren’t disappointed. Last fall, a Facebook group created by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, among others, criticized Rogan’s feature, accusingToronto Life of perpetuating racism and Islamophobia while drawing attention away from domestic violence. By focusing on concerns that “recent waves of Muslim immigrants aren’t integrating, or embracing our liberal values,” the group says the article presumes two types of people: authentic Canadians and backward immigrants. And while Rogan focuses on Aqsa’s school, she neglects to consider its role in the teen’s death, says Farrah Khan, one of the women behind the Facebook group. Instead of following cultural procedures and calling an imam, she says, the school should have called the Children’s Aid Society. “Where was the intervention that would have actually saved this woman?” Why, she asks, wasn’t that addressed in the article? It’s an issue Rogan was particularly concerned about as well. “Personally, I would have liked to have seen the school board’s hand being held to the fire a little bit more,” she says, “and I certainly did that in my research.”
Then there was the cover, which both Khan and co-organizer Michelle Cho call disrespectful. “Do we put sexualized pictures of Jane Creba on the cover of the Toronto Star? Have you ever seen pictures like that?” asks Khan. “No. Why is it that a young woman of colour’s body is treated this way? Why isn’t her body, her death, her life respected?”
But Rogan challenges the rationale behind calling the cover offensive. “It makes me uncomfortable because the suggestion is that women shouldn’t flaunt their sexuality, that they shouldn’t look hot,” she says. “That’s not something I’m comfortable buying into.” When the group called for a day of protest, Fulford-who’s repeatedly said she’s proud of the package-estimated Toronto Life received 80 to 100 calls and e-mails, almost evenly split between positive and negative comments. Describing Aqsa’s story as an extreme example of the clash between Old World and New World that is common in immigrant households, Fulford told This Magazine that questioning the success of immigrant integration was important because “to deny that [Muhammad Parvez’s] religious view and cultural perspective influenced his behaviour is willfully blind.” Besides, she says, it was a question Torontonians were asking.
If they weren’t then, they are now. “We’ve had more page views in one day on our very controversial ‘Girl, Interrupted’ story than in a full month for some of the discontinued blogs,” wrote McAuley in an e-mail. The magazine also created an “Aqsa Parvez Forum.” But after Fulford failed to show up at the Facebook group’s press conference-she says she never attends press conferences and can’t respond to everyone who contacts the magazine-Cho accused the editor of being more interested in selling magazines than creating dialogue. “Clearly she’s unwilling to consider exploring our criticism,” she says. “And I understand, as an editor, she’s going to stand by her magazine. It’s just disappointing.”
When a story for the October issue fell through at the last minute, Fulford commissioned Poplak to write a feature on someone everyone was talking about: Igor Kenk, the bicycle thief. The catch was Poplak had only a week to do the story. Nevertheless, “it was an enormous opportunity and she couldn’t let it go stale,” says the writer, though he admits magazines can’t afford to take such chances too often. When asked if he’s impressed by the gamble, he responds, “Yes. I don’t know-how many editors in the country would do it?”
Not many. Most would prefer to wait until the trial ended and then write a comprehensive feature on the case, or not cover it at all. But through the Kenk and Parvez stories, Fulford has revealed a penchant for tapping into the zeitgeist-or at least trying to. This year, the magazine will change when each issue hits the streets. Instead of coming out the first week of the month before the cover date, it will land on newsstands seven days later (May, for example, will now come out the second week of April). The idea is that by reducing the time between release and cover dates, Toronto Life will be more current and readers will benefit. If the move proves successful, the publication may consider becoming a third-week-of-the-month magazine in 2010, further tightening the gap. But by focusing on timeliness, the magazine may be choosing currency over quality.
Rogan’s story contained few details about Muhammad and Waqas Parvez-she couldn’t speak with them or the family-and Poplak’s story said little the newspapers hadn’t said already. The latter feature was a risk, says Fulford. “Worst-case scenario was [it was] going to be a synopsis of what was already out there with added insight, good writing.” Nevertheless, she justifies the decision with a story: after speaking at a young persons’ development event, Fulford asked several participants who praised the Kenk article whether they’d seen the information before. No, they said, we hadn’t even heard about the guy. But, he was all over the newspapers, said Fulford. Their response? We don’t read newspapers. “And I thought, right. This is an interesting environment in which to be a magazine editor, because I’m producing a magazine for two kinds of readers,” she says, meaning some who subscribe to several newspapers and others who read news online or don’t read newspapers at all. These young people “just thought it was really interesting. And maybe they don’t have confidence that the Star or the Globe or whatever is always going to be really interesting.”
If you want interesting, consider Toronto Life‘s new art director, Jessica Rose. Unlike Fulford, Rose had no experience in magazines before 2008. Instead, at 29, her resumé included stints as art director and curator at The Drake Hotel, as one of the organizers of the inaugural Nuit Blanche and as a performance artist. But Carmen Dunjko, former art director of Saturday Night, recommended Rose to Fulford and the pair met several times as Rose completed various tests, including a redesign of some covers and sections of the magazine. The editor was impressed. “She was just this sort of sponge,” says Fulford. “From one meeting to the next she was closer to a magazine art director than she was the time we had met before. I just saw this increasing growth.”
Rose’s debut came with a bang. The cover of the August issue, which featured a story on gun violence, was adorned with several dozen bullets but devoid of sell lines. It was an unconventional move. “There’s no text saying, ‘These are the five hot new trends,'” says Ursi. “A circulator would see that as a risky proposition.” That Fulford and Rose went ahead with the cover anyway suggests they’re more interested in subscribers than newsstand sales.
Drawing on recent downtown shootings, the story was intended to be a wake-up call, says its writer John Lorinc. Next to the image of a single large bullet, the display copy read: “Violent crime is migrating downtown and innocent bystanders are getting caught in the crossfire. The most alarming thing is our slow but certain acclimatization to it all. How Toronto learned to live with the gun.” Juicy stuff, but not the whole story. In an article for J-Source, a website produced by the Canadian Journalism Project, former Toronto Life blogger Doug Bell criticized the magazine for failing to place these deaths within a larger trend. “The issue is violence, not guns,” wrote Bell. “By conflating the two, Toronto Life gets to leverage its readership by way of the oldest, most reliable editorial draw there is: fear.” It’s understandable but reprehensible, he wrote, that the publication ignored stats suggestingcrime and homicide rates were actually declining.
Lorinc, who’s written for the magazine for 15 years, admits the criticism was valid, but says his editors wanted to focus on random shootings, innocent bystanders and downtown Toronto. “People get worked up on things, not necessarily based on the correct facts,” he says. “So you’re tapping into sentiment and the zeitgeist, whatever that is. I think that a lot of people generally think a lot more about guns because of these incidences.”
She might be a risk-taker, but Fulford’s no fool. Rose offers her an easy way to shake up the magazine without causing too much of a stir. “If you’re at a magazine that’s doing well and that’s sort of a known quantity, and you don’t want to tamper too much with the editorial, then what can you play with?” asksNational Post writer Nathalie Atkinson, Fulford’s friend and production designer back at The Newspaper. “Maybe it’s still going to be Sylvia Fraser writing, but it’s going to be jazzy-looking.”
Years ago, while visiting Fulford at her home, Grainger noticed a photocopied article from The New Yorker, completely dissected and covered with marks. “It was like a clock,” he says, “and she took the whole thing apart and analyzed what made it successful as a piece. That was when I realized, ‘Okay, she’s serious about this. This is an art for her and it’s also a science.'” Several other writers also noted this professionalism. Atkinson says Fulford always made time for constructive criticism, so she could fix things herself. “Because you don’t really want to make the next sentence better,” says Atkinson, “but you want to make the next article you write better.” Onstad praises her friend’s invisible hand, saying, “Her final tweaks would be very, very quiet, but I always knew they were making my work better.”
But not everyone is impressed. After having Fulford as an editor, magazine veteran Wayne Grady says he’s not likely to write for Toronto Life again, adding, “I have never been so severely edited before in my 30 years.” For the June 2007 “Green Edition” issue, Macfarlane asked Grady to write about how global warming would change the city in 30 or 40 years. Fulford edited the piece from New York. At first, she told Grady to make it as long as it needed to be. However, after he gave her a 5,000- to 6,000-word draft, Fulford cut the piece in half, rewriting his lead and removing the quotes from the story. “I had spent a lot of time interviewing people like health authorities and global-warming specialists and she took all of my quotes out of quotation marks and made it sound like I was the one saying the things instead of an expert. It completely changed the story,” says Grady. Later, in an e-mail, he clarifies: “If she didn’t like the story, she could have sent it back with a request that I cut it down to 3,000 words or whatever and do a rewrite. Instead, she did that herself.”
The writer admits it’s possible, “in fact, probable, that I’m not a young writer, not a fresh new voice, and she just wanted to make the piece sound more brash or something. I was trying to back away from the authorial voice, and she wanted more in-your-face kind of writing.”
Grady, who calls himself “a dinosaur,” understands young editors want to develop their own stables of writers. “You get to my age and you’ve been working with certain editors all your life and you wonder ‘what’s going to happen to me now?'” Tellingly, he recounts the time Macfarlane told him he was doing great work in magazines. “Yeah?” replied Grady. “Well, as long as you stay as editor, I’ll stay as writer.” Several months later, Macfarlane announced his retirement.
When Fulford first became editor, she was worried because her contemporaries weren’t reading Toronto Life. “I don’t think the magazine should exist specifically for 30-something professionals,” she says, “but I think they ought to be engaged with the magazine,” as should 20-somethings and seniors. “We can’t afford not to cast the net wide, but I would like to see my peers read it, and I would like to hear them talk about it.”
Part of Fulford’s plan to get readers talking may include an increase in controversy, sex and scandal. Although Penny disputes the idea that the front of the book has changed-saying Fulford’s touch has been present since she first edited the section-online editor Matthew Fox now finds it “pluckier and funnier.” The This City section, now edited by Courtney Shea, has featured profiles on Martina Sorbara (daughter of MPP Greg Sorbara and front woman for the band Dragonette), who sings about sex, boys and infidelity while prancing around in leather, and Air India 182 filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson, who suggested that if the victims had been “blond-haired and blue-eyed, the bombing would have transformed Canadian society.” In “Guitar Zero,” the author notes Bryan Adams’s run-in at a Toronto International Film Festival after-party when the door staff didn’t recognize him. The kicker is: “Cuts like a knife, don’t it, Bry?” That prompted one reader to call it a “pissy little piece.”
A comparison of two random, somewhat recent issues under Macfarlane-the September 2006 issue on the 10 Best Schools and the January 2007 one featuring George Stroumboulopoulos on the cover-reveals a different front-of-book. The older edition opens with a profile of opera production designer and director Michael Levine, photos from Honest Ed Mirvish’s 65th wedding anniversary and several light pieces on real estate and the film festival. Similarly, the 2007 issue begins with a puff piece on Sara Angel, then the editor of Chatelaine (she received a rougher treatment in February 2008), and includes bits on fashion e-newsletters, Rosedale properties, obese cities and a Q&A with TV pranksters Kenny and Spenny. Nowhere in Macfarlane’s issues is there the same piss and vinegar that now thrives in Toronto Life.
Gardos says Fulford’s first year has led to an increase in letters to the editor, an indicator that the buzz has grown. Lorinc has noticed a greater premium on controversy. “I think Sarah has more of a taste for it and I think she wants to get people reading the stories and talking about them and debating them.” Although indifference is the enemy, he says, controversy isn’t a danger-free strategy-editors have to get things right.
But at least it keeps things lively. Penny says Fulford is “really, really gossipy,” in the best possible way and that’s a great way for a magazine editor to be. “Gossip is social anthropology, and I think it gets a bum rap.”
Although 2008 was Fulford’s first year as boss, she’s wielded power there for years. Having played an integral role in the 2005 redesign, it’s not likely she’ll overhaul the entire publication. Last fall, Atkinson noticed slight changes but didn’t believe there was a huge difference editorially. “You have some of the same writers who’ve been stalwarts of the magazine for years, doing the same beats they’ve covered for years. You can’t throw everything out. The formula works.” However, by January of this year, she said Fulford’s vision was beginning to assert itself.
While a number of writers and editors have suggested it is too early to conclusively say how Fulford’s hand will shape Toronto Life, her grip is certainly becoming firmer. Before the new year, the editor repeated several times that she hadn’t yet been in charge for a full 12 months. But as Fulford enters her sophomore year, she’s ready for the scrutiny: “They can judge if they want to judge.”
Being new to the position, coming from within, never having run a magazine before, being Toronto Life‘s first female editor and one of its youngest ever all make for a tremendous amount of pressure on Fulford. “But,” says Gardos, “any new editor at the magazine would be watched like a hawk, by the media and by the magazine-reading community.” Although Fulford declares an ardent allegiance and responsibility to readers, she shuns pressure from elsewhere. “Barack Obama has a lot of pressure,” she says with a smile. “Louise Arbour at The Hague had a lot of pressure on her. Ben Bernanke has a lot of pressure on him. This is a significant job in the life of the city and it’s an important publication and it’s an honour and it’s a lot of fun.” But, she adds, “It’s also a magazine.” Notice she didn’t say “just a magazine.” Because, coming from Sarah Fulford, you wouldn’t believe her if she did.
by Morgan Passi
Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ