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Social Conscience + Making Money = Successful Business Magazine Strategy

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The editors of the six-year-old Corporate Knights and the recently launched unlimited are confident their mix of corporate social responsibility and profit will appeal to the growing pool of millennial workers

Social conscience

Illustration by: Hyein Lee

With three days to go until the third issue goes to press,unlimited editor Dan Rubinstein isbusy. Hunched over his computer, he does the last edit on the cover story for January-February’s “Transformation” issue. The story is a feature on 24-year-old millwright Billie Lyons, a woman who symbolizes the gender shift in the trades industry.

Rubinstein peers at the type on the screen, then his fingers tap the keys. Folders, reference books and full-size pageproofs are strewn across his desk. He stands up and pushes his chair away. He heads to the printer. The phone rings. He grabs some papers off the tray. The phone continues ringing. He walks in the direction of his art director’s office.

unlimited is a nationally distributed business magazine based in Edmonton. Type its name into Google and the following tagline appears: “unlimited is Canada’s hottest new business magazine, aimed at 20-35 year old business up and comers.” Rubinstein describes it as a “business and work culture magazine.” The concept departs from traditional Canadian business magazines in that it is aimed at people just coming into the workforce. And it’s not just about making a profit, according to Rubinstein. It’s about making a positive impact in the world through work and business. “You want to pay your bills and make a living whether you own a business or not,” he says, sitting at his cluttered desk in Edmonton, “but you also want to do it in a way that has a positive impact on others around you.”

Rubinstein bets there are enough new workers interested in business issues for whom the adage “business is business” doesn’t necessarily apply. unlimited and the more established Toronto-based Corporate Knights, edited by Toby Heaps, seem to cut across the old bottom-line precepts of business journalism and instead focus on what they see as the new business reader: tech-savvy, and socially and environmentally conscious-in short, the Generation Y “millennial worker.” By aiming their editorial content at this audience, Heaps and Rubinstein hope Corporate Knights and unlimited will become the next generation of successful business magazines. Signs are encouraging but both have a long slog ahead of them.

unlimited was launched this fall by Alberta-based Venture Publishing, Inc., which also has in its stable a more conventional business magazine, the 11-year-old Alberta Venture. unlimited targets the 20-35-year-old demographic and publishes theme-based issues every other month. Total circulation of the magazine is 20,000, with 15,200 copies distributed through controlled circulation and 7,300 available on newsstands.

Ruth Kelly, who is also publisher and editor-in-chief of Alberta Venture, started unlimited after a conversation with one of her readers, who told her Alberta Venture was useful but didn’t resonate with him. He said the magazine was more about the people he’d like to do business with and less about him as a businessperson or his peers. Then he uttered the magic words to Kelly: “You know, you should make a magazine for me, Ruth!”

Kelly thought of the many workforce and labour issues pertinent to Albertans. With significant numbers of younger Canadians moving to Alberta to take part in its booming economy, many long-time residents found themselves scratching their heads at new, unfamiliar ideas. “Millennial, Gen. Y employees have a different approach to work than the more traditional boomer like myself,” she says. Many are flexible but not smitten with long hours, and they tend to look for fulfilment from their work. The New York Times reported recently that surveys in the last few years have found that millennials look for jobs that embrace a “flexible work schedule” (92 per cent), “require creativity” (96 per cent) and “[allow them] to have an impact on the world” (97 per cent).

Kelly believes launching unlimited also makes sense as a basic business strategy for her company. “My audience for Alberta Venture continues to mature and grow,” she says from her office in downtown Edmonton. “I need to make sure we’re bringing in people from the younger ranks so readership doesn’t decline.” She points out that her readership, a group that ranges in age from 35-60, isn’t shrinking, but does say that the percentage of their target readership isn’t growing.

unlimited uses profiles to illustrate the different work and life possibilities available to readers. The current “Giving” issue features Calgarian Brian Boulanger, a successful businessman who also volunteers his time to the United Way. In the piece he says he gets “huge returns” back. The issue also features a profile of Bacon, a small Edmonton restaurant, where owner Juliana Mimande tries to source locally as much of the food on her menu as possible. The article ends with a “Bacon Bits” section that offers advice for opening your own restaurant.

Unlike the larger national magazines, such as Report on Business and Financial Post Business, unlimitedfocuses on businesses and issues that affect the work and life of the employee. “[Other magazines] focus on more established businesses and older white guys in suits who call the shots,” Rubinstein says. “There’s a whole other world, and that’s where we fit in.”

The magazine has received positive feedback since launching in September, but there’s been some reader criticism as well. One Toronto reader asked when they were planning to be less Alberta-centric. Rubinstein admits he looks for stories that have at least an element of Alberta content, but says they also go beyond provincial borders. Kelly contends, “That’s a question I would only hear from people in Ontario.” With most national publications based in Toronto, Kelly says a publication with content from Alberta shouldn’t be problematic for a national audience, since most Canadians are used to reading about provinces and issues that aren’t always pertinent to their own. And anyway, she points out that Venture Publishing is a regional company that uses the strength in Alberta circulation and maximizes opportunities in Alberta first.

unlimited is not the only new-wave business magazine on Canadian newsstands. The older Corporate Knights doesn’t look at business from a traditional corporate perspective either. Rather, it gives its readers information on socially and environmentally responsible businesses.

Co-founder Toby A.A. Heaps was managing editor of both Mutual Review magazine and Planning for Profitmagazine when he realized established business magazines were missing something. “They cover business from the perspective of who’s making money, who’s losing money, why, with the odd personality piece thrown in,” Heaps says from a press junket in Bali, where he’s covering the United Nations Climate Change Conference for Corporate Knights and blogging for the Toronto Star.

Published quarterly, Corporate Knights reaches most of its readers as an insert in TheGlobe and Mail. Of its 101,300 total circulation, 95,500 are delivered to Globe subscribers in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and Calgary. The rest are distributed through subscriptions to various readers such as CEOs, MBA and law students, and MPs and senior civil servants. Although Heaps would like more of a public presence, currently just five hundred copies of the magazine’s print run are sent to Chapters and Indigo newsstands.

Corporate Knights publishes guides to socially responsible investing, a list of the “Toxic 50” companies,a survey of the who’s who of green and responsible businesses and investigative stories from a business perspective. “We’re looking at where business is going,” Heaps says. To that end, he’s trying to launch aCorporate Knights global issue, with which he hopes to target G8+5 countries (the leading world economies, plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa).

In the shaky world of Canadian start-up magazines, surviving six years seems like a major success story. As to whether Corporate Knights actually makes money, publisher Karen Kun says she’s happy with the results so far. “Nobody should go into the magazine business to make a lot of money,” she says. “Our goal is always to break even or turn a small profit, even though we’re a for-profit organization.” One reason for Kun’s optimism might be the encouraging increase in advertising support from financial sector companies looking to reach readers with ethical investment portfolios. The current “2007 Cleantech Issue” contains ads from Sun Life Financial, Enbridge and Royal Bank.

There are numbers to back up the optimism. The past few years have seen a surge in socially responsible investments in Canada. According to the Toronto-based Social Investment Organization, a national non-profit association for the socially responsible investment industry in Canada, “assets invested according to socially responsible guidelines have increased significantly, from an estimated $65.46 billion in 2004 to $503.61 billion, as of June 30, 2006.”

That’s the sweet spot associate editor Melissa Shin is convinced Corporate Knights must move toward. It used to be about the bottom line, but now’s it about the triple bottom line. “You’re looking at the environment, you’re looking at your stakeholders and you’re looking at your monetary profit,” she explains. “When people are unhappy with the way things are going and they see the need for change, they may not necessarily know that the triple bottom line is one way to do it.”

While unlimited and Corporate Knights chase younger business readers, FP Biz editor Brian Banks doesn’t spend much time pondering the greying of his average reader. “We try to do a range of stories cognizant of the fact that we have an average reader age of 45, but we have a wide range of ages reading the magazine.”

FP Biz does cover corporate social responsibility and green business trends, Banks says, but he doesn’t cater to younger readers just because they seem more interested in those topics. He figures intelligent business readers are interested in new trends no matter what their age. His magazine provides direct advice and aims its personal finance service journalism at readers in every stage of life. “There is a dramatic difference,” he says, “in financial planning when you’re 30 versus when you’re 55.”

That said, Banks says he does take notice of what interests younger readers. “These kids are into all this green stuff,” Banks says. And he’s taken note of what his sales reps are thinking. “You have the advertising crowd saying there is probably a lot of advertisingbusiness if we were doing more stuff in this area.”

So maybe Heaps and Rubinstein are onto something with their respective editorial strategies at Corporate Knights and unlimited. Rubinstein is certainly confident that as his beloved millennials take over the workplace and become a larger target readership group, his approach to business journalism will inevitably become increasingly popular. “Our magazine will become more relevant as a place where people can go to find useful information,” he says, “as well as context for the work environments they find themselves in.”

As to whether this next generation of business magazines can survive, Banks is noncommittal, saying, “Every few years something comes up and certain magazines stick and others come and go.”

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