Selling the farm
The ad appeared on page 93 of Harrowsmith number 95, the first issue of 1991. It read: “A disposal concept 2 billion years in the making.” Atomic Energy of Canada had paid Telemedia Communications, owner of Harrowsmith, about $5,000 to advocate its plan to store nuclear waste in the Canadian Shield.
In that same issue an editorial appeared by then-editor Michael Webster. Like the ad, it spelled the beginning of the end of Harrowsmith as its readers knew it. Anticipating the outcry from the magazine’s ever-vigilant, largely anti-nuclear audience, Webster explained that AECL had at least been forced to qualify its claims (by adding the word “proposed” to its “solution”), and that he, as editor, no longer had final say over which ads were accepted or rejected.
No one had to read between the lines to understand Webster’s real message: only a few years after being sold to publishing giant Telemedia on the promise that its involvement would be “hands-off,” Harrowsmith had been sold out. Acceptance of AECL’s ad by publisher Fred Laflamme, a Telemedia import, was a violation of the standards set when Harrowsmith’s publisher and editor were one person, with one mandate: to produce an environmentally courageous, editorially uncompromised magazine. It was clear now that Telemedia had something else in mind.
The masthead in that issue was a bit short, as senior contributing editor Merilyn Mohr, former editor Wayne Grady and writer Andrew Nikiforuk had all asked that their names be removed. When asked about the incident, Grady’s anger still speaks. “Nobody could say that ad was remotely true; no scientist in the world could say they had found a safe solution for nuclear waste. Telemedia was saying that anyone with 5,000 bucks can say anything they want in Harrowsmith magazine.” Grady remembers the article “Forever Ours” in Harrowsmith number 65, which blew holes in the same “solution” pushed by AECL in number 95. And apparently so did readers. A couple of them even offered Mohr a free weekend in British Columbia in praise of her objection to the ad.
Despite the opposition from his entire editorial staff and a generous helping of not-so-flattering media coverage, Laflamme didn’t regret his decision then, nor does he now. He insists that “advertising does not speak to editorial,” and that “readers should be trusted to make their own decisions.” But his most passionate defence rests not on advertising principles or reader intelligence, but his own view of nuclear power-which was heretical to Harrowsmith thinking at the time. “As publisher, I don’t know that my kids’ kids will still have a sun up in the sky that will keep them warm,” he says. “I don’t know that electricity will still be viable. I don’t know that wood-stove heating will still be on the face of this earth. I don’t know what the future holds and maybe nuclear power will be the answer one hundred years from now.”
Founder James Lawrence’s magazine would never have looked to nuclear power for the answer. Harrowsmith was created in 1976, around the kitchen table of a rented farmhouse by a handful of friends with a bank loan for $3,500, a Charge x card with a $2,000 limit and a priceless vision: to provide Canadians with their first forum on alternative living-alternative, that is, to the “big city” and the destructive, wasteful materialism it stood for. Dubbed Harrowsmith after a tiny country town in eastern Ontario because Lawrence liked the spirit of the name, and published out of Camden East, another village near Kingston, it was a rural magazine dedicated to self-sufficiency and respect for the environment and the healthier, more conscientious society that both produced.
Former gardening editor Jennifer Bennett explains, “Our readers came to Harrowsmith because they weren’t just getting articles on how to build a house or grow a garden, but how to build an energy-efficient house or grow an organic garden. We were looking at the larger society, the effect your actions have on other people.” Bennett speaks in the past tense not just because she left Harrowsmith last fall after 14 years, but also because she is speaking of a magazine whose heart no longer beats in the one sold on today’s newsstands. To compare numbers 31 and 106, from 1980 and 1992 respectively, is to see two different moods, two different directions, two different publications.
On the cover of 31 is the image of a skull. It is surrounded by the dark shapes of endangered species circling toward the midnight hour of a clock. Above them is the headline “The Sinking Ark: Navigating the Swelling Tides of Species Extinction.” The colours are soft, the story is strong. On the cover of 106 is the branch of an orange tree in fruit, and above it the sell line “Orange Blossom Special: Get in the Grove with Indoor Citrus.” The colours are strong, the story is …soft.
Number 106 calls itself “Canada’s Magazine of Country Living” and writes about shrubs, pound cake and timberframe bridges. The “how-to” element remains, but gone is the feeling of urgency and concern and commitment to the environmental cause that carried the reader from front to back of the issue 12 years its senior. Former editors and staff-all of whom have left in one way or another since the takeover-charge that Telemedia has turned their thought-provoking, trail breaking magazine into what Wayne Grady calls “a countrified Canadian Living [another Telemedia publication], a magazine about frilly, quilted curtains and the best darn apple pie mom ever made.” Fred Laflamme, who is not about to admit to the deliberate declawing of hard hitting, potentially ad-losing editorial policy, claims the magazine is simply “evolving with its readers.” He says it will continue to grow as a “more friendly, more open magazine than it was.” And he’s right-the tone is less confrontational, the mandate is less controversial and the magazine is less relevant than it was.
How did it happen? Ironically, because James Lawrence wanted his Harrowsmith to survive. In 1987, he found himself publisher of not just one magazine, but three-Harrowsmith, Equinox, and the American Harrowsmith Country Life-as well as the boss of a book-publishing company; All of them needed more time and more money than he could afford.
Because Lawrence hadn’t venture into publishing for profit but to sell a me~ sage, any earnings had always bee] ploughed back into Harrowsmith (adding more colour, more pages, more staff) 0 into new publications. His printer and distributor, also supporters of the cause, hal allowed him to accumulate unpaid bill~ But in 1986, both were bought out-jus as the bank called his line of credit Lawrence had no choice but to close down or sell.
Barry Estabrook, who held various editorial positions during those Harrowsmiti years, recalls the predicament: “James was finding he had to be at all the magazine eight days a week; he was in a whirlwind running back and forth putting out little brushfires. We also found we had to get int( bed with someone who had much deeper pockets. That someone was Telemedia.” The deal was that Lawrence would continue to publish and edit the American Harrowsmith Country Life while Telemedia paid the bills for both the Canadiar and American magazines. Wayne Grady became editor of the Canadian Harrow smith and all full-time staff kept their positions. The editors were pleased that they would be able to put out the magazines that they believed in without the worry of going under. Grady remembers, “Telemedia came out making all the right noises. They said they would not touch the editorial product, would work on the business side, would leave us to put out these great magazines.”
Naively perhaps, Lawrence thought it would be so. He assured readers in an editorial that, although the times they were a-changing, the new owners weren’t going to change them that much. What’s more, the president, Jeffrey Shearer, was a country dweller and Harrowsmith reader himself, and would “ensure” the stability of the magazine.
For the first few years Harrowsmith did remain essentially unchanged. “Telemedia was as good a corporate stepparent as we could have asked for,” concedes Estabrook. “There was friction, but it was not unhealthy, and any pressure to change was fended off.” Jeffrey Shearer was largely responsible for this benevolence, says Estabrook, because he “understood the value of letting editors do what they do. A few times when conflicts between advertising and editorial were taken to the highest court, the highest court being Jeff, he sided with the editors.”
In one such incident, in 1989, an ad for a chemical insecticide had accidentally squeaked into the magazine. Because the company that made the insecticide also made garden equipment, the editors had thought they were running an ad for the more benign product. Naturally, it caused an uproar among readers, who were, as Michael Webster explains, “accustomed to seeing a consistent philosophy throughout the magazine.”
The philosophy, legendary among magazines at the time, had been consistent from day one: no snowmobiles, no guns, no three-wheel off-roads, no pesticides, no alcohol, no gas-guzzling cars, no CFC-creating products. Though Lawrence eventually relented on some restrictions, like alcohol, he refused to carry ads that “by their own nature were harmful to the environment,” says Grady. It wasn’t that Harrowsmith didn’t need the ad revenue; it was that Lawrence needed a magazine with principles more.
But Lawrence was no longer in charge. When Grady prepared an editorial to run in the next issue, apologizing for the insecticide ad mix-up and reaffirming the editorial philosophy, Tim McNicoll, who was the first Telemedia-picked publisher, objected. Shearer stepped in, and the editorial was printed. But Shearer’s support for Harrowsmith’s policy and principles was not always so staunch, says Wayne Grady. Advertisers, especially industrial advertisers, were now jumping on the environmental bandwagon, keen to get the “green stamp of approval,” as Merilyn Mohr puts it, by running their ads in Harrowsmith. In 1988, nickel producer Inco came knocking with an ad describing its contribution to reducing acid rain. Shearer, who at the time was the volunteer president of the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain, says he could not deny the accuracy of the ad: “Inco was, in fact, cutting down on acid-rain emissions.” But Grady doesn’t think that should have entitled a major polluter to place an ad in a magazine that demanded a far deeper environmental commitment. “We had published stoties saying they played a large role in the creation of acid rain,” he explains. “The fact is, they were the largest producer of acid rain and they were only making changes because they’d been forced to by the government.” Inco got the green stamp anyway.
A year later, when their magazine carried an ad advocating nuclear power, staffers knew the long arm of Telemedia was taking Harrowsmith someplace it didn’t want to go. Wayne Grady, for one, had already decided he didn’t want to be along for the ride. He got out the year of the Inco incident, he says, “while Telemedia was spreading itself like a cancer through the whole organization.” Michael Webster was moved into the editor’s chair, Fred Laflamme was brought in to replace Tim McNicoll, and Jeff Shearer left Telemedia after a management shuffle. Though Webster emerged from the ranks of Harrowsmith, he was not one of the old guard. Having overseen the gradual softening of the magazine’s content he not surprisingly defends it, agreeing with Laflamme that Harrowsmith needed to change with the times. “Dozens of magazines report on the environment; it’s no longer unusual,” he says (as if Harrowsmith’s coverage had been based more on fad than conviction). “It’s time for Harrowsmith to be a leader in something else.” But did Harrowsmith’s readers want “something else”? Well, it depends how you define their reasons for reading the magazine. Telemedia’s version, which Webster supports, is that there were two types of reader: the back-to-the-land country dweller interested in survival issues and the city dweller who merely dreamed of a cosy, simple country life (the kind of reader the publishers of Canadian Living could relate to).
Grady, Mohr, Bennett and others of the old guard said then, and say now, that Telemedia’s definition was wrong. It wasn’t that there weren’t both country and city-dwelling readers-the split has always been about 50-50. But to characterize the city readers as armchair dreamers who weren’t interested in issues of survival was to question the commitment of half of Harrowsmith’s audience-which, Grady and the rest believed, was exactly Telemedia’s intention.
When asked to define his Harrowsmith reader, Wayne Grady sighs the deep sigh of one who has told his tale too many times. He even devoted one of his editorials to the concept. In it, he tells his readers who they are better than he ever could in a telephone interview: “They care about the kind of food they eat and the quality of the air they breathe and the degree to which their houses are destroying the earth’s resources,” Grady wrote. “When they look at a green pepper in a grocery store or at a batt of fibre glass in the local hardware, they know what they are looking at, where it came from and what it will do to or for them if they bring it home.” In other words, Grady insists, the city-dwelling readers felt that food, the environment, air and water quality were important issues for them as well.
Nevertheless, in order to increase readership, Telemedia began to push the cozy country line to Canadian Living subscribers. And naturally, says Merilyn Mohr, when you offer up a magazine of “gingham and lace and fire in the fireplace,” and the readers get “serious, indepth, disturbing articles about the health of the wotld, they aren’t getting what they thought they bought,” she explains.
But according to Laflamme, the problem wasn’t that Telemedia had pitched the right magazine to the wrong audience, but that the Harrowsmith audience no longer wanted to hear what Harrowsmith had to say. As proof, he points to the reader discussion groups he conducted across the country a couple of years ago, polling old and new subscribers, city and country dwellers, on what Harrowsmith should change and what it should keep. The upshot, says Laflamme, is that readers no longer wanted “to be preached at about the environment and what’s supposedly good for them.”
Laflamme says the actual survey results are confidential, but is willing to share some of the readers’ comments. One that he briefly mentions is that “some participants felt Harrowsmith had moved away from its roots,” but he’s quick to add that this was by no means felt by the majority. The one he brings up numerous times is that readers insist the magazine “not be a banner carrier for Greenpeace; that it be supportive of the environmental movement, not an advocate.”
Laflamme likes the comment, clearly finding it justification for his de-greening of Harrowsmith. But it’s also clear he misconstrues both its meaning and the magazine’s. Harrowsmith was never an advocate for anybody’s movement but its own, a movement of informed, intelligent people who care about the environment, how their actions affect it and how they can better the quality of their lives. Harrowsmith looked at the environment on its own terms, terms that were unconditional, terms that might offend.
There is no way a magazine of “country living,” a magazine that plays it safe and steers clear of hard issues, is being “supportive” of the environmental movement. But that’s what Laflamme would have readers believe. He wants to “empower” them, he says, by “letting them know what’s happening [in the environmental movement], but still leaving them with a positive feeling. After all, Harrowsmith is supposed to be a magazine to celebrate country living.”
This is news to some of his own writers, who don’t see themselves as professional cheerleaders. Andrew Nikiforuk, who’s been writing for the magazine for 10 years, says Harrowsmith “has never been a downer magazine. It’s been serious journalism that made people think twicenot a magazine of happy-faced journalism.” Nikiforuk hasn’t yet been told to write a happy ending, but anything is possible now that Telemedia has begun to dictate free-lancer policy. Last summer, when Laflamme found out that free-lance contributors Wayne Grady and Merilyn Mohr were also working full time for This Country Canada, a new magazine that Laflamme felt directly competed with Equinox, he banned them (and any others) from appearing in Harrowsmith until they dropped the other job. “I’ll be damned if they’re going to write for our magazine while they’re working for another magazine that’s trying to put our magazine out of business,” says Laflamme. “Equinox and Harrowsmith are sister magazines and anything that hurts one, hurts the other.”
But Laflamme’s interference hurt Michael Webster, who believed the hiring and firing of free-lancers to be the sole jurisdiction of the editor. He felt compelled to resign. With him went Jennifer Bennett, partly out of loyalty and partly because she didn’t like what was happening. “The publisher was flexing his muscles and making editorial decisions. It’s a wasteful way of doing things.” They were the last two staff members left from the time of James Lawrence. In Webster’s place, Telemedia appointed Arlene Stacey, former managing editor of Canadian Living.
A short week after her arrival in Camden East this past December, Stacey walks around the double-bay-window office as if unsure what to do with the space, or herself for that matter, now that she’s been transplanted to the country. Used to a tiny office at Telemedia in Toronto, she clearly appreciates the beauty of the river that flows through her view, and says she’s “committed to keeping the environment as an underlying theme” in every article of Harrowsmith. But the editor who came from Canadian Living has no current plans for a tough, investigative environmental piece; she prefers issues such as the examination of rural schools that ran in number 105.
Although Stacey doesn’t seem quite at home at Camden House, it won’t be home for long. Just as soon as Laflamme can find a buyer, he wants to move the magazines out of the “17 -room mansion in the middle of nowhere” to Kingston. “The place might seem almost romantic to some,” says Laflamme, pulling on his suspenders in exasperation, “but I can’t even run a simple errand like going to the bank, because it’s a 30-minute drive to Kingston.”
The bank, of course, is ever on his mind. After all, as publisher of Harrowsmith, Laflamme says, “I’m responsible for profit and loss. I keep my eye on trying to make a profit.” And for the past three years, Harrowsmith has made money, something James Lawrence never managed to do. But then, as Barry Estabrook says, Lawrence wasn’t “driven by a quarterly financial report.” He was driven by the dream of building Harrowsmith. While Lawrence’s magazine created 50 to 60 fulltime jobs from scratch, Telemedia’s magazine has lost any sign of growth, while managing to steadily shed Lawrence’s passionate editorial staff.
Nor has circulation improved in the six years since the sale to Telemedia-it’s stayed at about 156,000, despite the promises that former staffers recall, and which Laflamme denies, to raise readership to 200,000. He says Harrowsmith’s subscriber renewal rate is second only to Canadian Living’s, at 65 per cent. But that’s still 10-20 per cent below the renewal rates of Lawrence’s time, showing that a good chunk of the original readers has given up on the magazine of country living.
If they came looking for their old Harrowsmith now, they wouldn’t find a trace. These days, the receptionist at the magazine answers the phone “Telemedia,” so for all the caller knows, Camden House could be home to anyone of the media giant’s 18 magazines, or even one of various radio or television stations, or book publishing companies.
The only sign of James Lawrence ever having touched the magazine is the presence of his name at the very top of the masthead, under the title “Founder.” He said his good-bye to readers in a guest editorial in number 100 (November/December 1991), explaining neither his departure nor his plans, but wishing his readers and his magazine well and signing off with the note: “He leaves with ambitions to do something ‘smaller and simpler.'”
That he did, opening a small book publishing company in Vermont, a few miles up the road from the headquarters of the American Harrowsmith, and taking right-hand man Barry Estabrook with him. Lawrence still won’t discuss his departure, saying he is involved in a legal dispute with the company. Whatever Lawrence’s case, Fran~ois de Gaspe Beaubien, the son of Telemedia’s owner, sits as publisher in Lawrence’s old office.
In fact, all that survives of the magazine that Lawrence sold to save is its name, and that may be the final irony of all. Perhaps in naming the magazine after a small town that most people had never seen or heard of, James Lawrence was creating something that, ultimately, only he and his committed Harrowsmith kin would completely understand, something that wasn’t meant to be understood, or undertaken, by anything larger than the place that inspired it.