Suzanna Lusky
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Stayin’ Alive

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Publisher Greg MacNeil and editor Matthew Church face a daunting challenge: whipping the magazine's finances into shape without beating up on a tradition of editorial excellence

Shortly after 5 p.m. on November 1, 2001, the fax machine at Multi-Vision Publishing Inc. gave that loud, distinctive, final screech and fell silent. It marked more than the end of an outgoing fax. If MVP president and chief executive officer Greg MacNeil is to be believed, it also marked the end of a 53-year tradition in Canadian publishing: chronic deficits for Saturday Night magazine. That fax, you see, transferred ownership of the magazine from CanWest Global Communications Corp. to MVP-and MVP expects its magazines to make money.

“The more I hear people say it can’t work, the more determined I am to make sure that it does,” says MacNeil. The combative stance may be unnecessary: Saturday Night’s new publisher has more support than he seems to think. His plan to scale down the publication’s frequency from a weekly to a bimonthly has brought most industry watchers on side. The thinking seems to be that, if any publishing company can beat the odds, MVP is probably the one. This consensus even extends to the reborn magazine’s editorial goals. Though the April 13 launch is still to come, most of these seasoned observers can’t point to any specific reason why MVP should not be able to carry on Saturday Night’s legacy of skillful storytelling while also burying its legacy of financial woes for good.

This consensus springs from their analysis of MVP’s history to date. Founded in 1995 by MacNeil and two other ex-Telemedia executives, the relatively young organization has already gained a reputation within the industry for lean operations and prudent management. Those operations include custom publishing for Imperial Tobacco, Eatons, and Acura, as well as a stable of magazines: Elm StreetShiftOwl Canadian Family, and now Saturday Night (and, even more recently, Toronto Life and the rest of the Key Media Ltd. group, acquired in mid-February 2002).

It’s a safe bet that MVP won’t be exercising the kind of largesse that marked the magazine’s days as a weekly insert in the National Post. “We’re going to be intelligent spenders,” says the new proprietor. “We’re going to spend responsibly. We’re going to spend so that the magazine can stay in business and deliver a very high quality product while doing that.”

For MacNeil, smart spending seems to be commonsensical, second nature, and precisely what Saturday Night needs to become commercially viable. “It’s simple. Whether you’re in publishing or whether you’re running a country, you can’t spend more than you take in.” He says the problem with the weekly Saturday Night wasn’t revenue-it was cost.

“Advertisers spent $10 million in Saturday Night last year. I think that’s pretty good. That’s more than they spent in this,” he says, holding up Elm Street, a profitable, eight-times-a-year publication. “I don’t need advertisers to spend $10 million. I don’t need them to spend $5 million. Do you see the point? This is easy.”

Reducing frequency from 48 to six times a year and decreasing the print run from 500,000 to a more modest 320,000, will, collectively, generate substantial savings for Saturday Night’s new owner. And even though MacNeil plans to print the bimonthly on better quality, higher-cost paper than that used for the weekly version, MacNeil estimates there will still be “solid” seven-digit cost savings on production.

“In terms of producing a magazine that isn’t losing, that’s able to pay everyone and pay its own way, I think the chances are very good,” says William Shields, editor of Masthead, the magazine industry’s trade title. “Why? Because MacNeil has reduced his printing costs-his primary expense-by almost 90 percent. What he’s done is amputate the old model and then graft it on MVP legs. Now he’s teaching it to take baby steps at six times a year.”

MacNeil has successfully rejuvenated ailing magazines in the past, using similar cost-reduction schemes. In 1988, when he was publisher of Homemaker’s magazine, he reduced the publication’s annual frequency from 10 to eight, combined it with Recipes Only magazine, and in two years, turned a $1.3 million loss into a handsome profit. When Shift’s bankroller Normal Networks Inc. ran out of money in July 2000, MVP bought up the magazine five months later and slimmed its publication schedule from 10 to six issues a year. Once over $5.3 million in debt, Shift is expected to pay its way this year and perhaps even turn a profit.

“I think Greg’s record speaks for itself,” says Paul Jones, publisher of Maclean’s magazine. “He’s a good professional publisher. He knows what he’s getting into and I’m sure he’s got a sound plan.” And while there have been whispers about Elm Street‘s viability, MacNeil keeps on publishing it, and that speaks for itself, too.

MacNeil denies Elm Street is on shaky ground. When discussing the outlook for the new Saturday Night, he is actually rather fond of holding up the 1996 start-up as an MVP paradigm of financial and editorial success. But while Elm Street may be a winner at making money (the magazine grossed $25 million in ad revenue in 32 issues), it seems to have a tougher time winning awards for its editorial. In 1998, when Elm Street was appearing eight times a year, it won only one gold National Magazine Award. That same year, the 10-times-a-year Saturday Night took home four gold and four silver. At the 1999 National Magazine Awards, Elm Streetwas awarded one gold and one silver for editorial and another gold for illustration, whereas Saturday Nightreceived five gold and one silver for its editorial content.

MacNeil says it’s not his intention to use Elm Street as an editorial pattern for Saturday NightElm Street is a different type of magazine, he points out-targeted at women, and 50 percent service. However, the magazine does seem to provide a business pattern for MVP’s latest turnaround project.

When Elm Street was first launched, it had a bimonthly publication schedule and a controlled circulation of 700,000 through various newspapers across the country. Approximately 38,000 readers have been converted to paid subscribers. The circulation of the bimonthly Saturday Night will also be mostly controlled, with distribution through 300,000 Saturday Post newspapers as well as a newsstand presence that may climb as high as 20,000 issues. Saturday Night is expected to increase to an eight-times-a-year publication if advertising strengthens. Elm Street made the jump in 1998, bolstered by the $5 million in net revenue it attracted in its first year as a bimonthly.

Elm Street has only had Print Measurement Bureau studies performed on it since 2000, and with changes to PMB methodology in 2001, it is a bit premature to make any definitive conclusions about its readership. Nevertheless, it most recently scored 1.5 readers per copy (RPC), up from 1.0 in 2000. While its readership numbers are low, they are in line with those for other controlled circulation magazines. Vancouver, for example, had an RPC of 2.1 in 2000, and Western Living-and Saturday Night-both had 1.4.

Even though Saturday Night‘s RPC rose to 2 in 2001, readership is still going to be a challenge, says Al Zikovitz, owner and publisher of Cottage Life and Explore magazines, and chair of the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association. He explains that it is very difficult for magazines that are distributed through newspapers to have a good readership. “I think it’s going to be a problem. It’s going to take time for MacNeil to convince the advertisers that Saturday Night is actually being read, and that’s going to be through readership measurements-through PMB-and that takes several years.”

If MacNeil is worried about attracting advertising, he certainly isn’t letting on. While he acknowledges that revenue is always a challenge, he says MVP has analyzed the ads in the weekly Saturday Night every way they can be analyzed, and found that the magazine seldom carried more than six insertions for any one brand. Toyota Canada Inc., for example, booked 29 pages, but of those, six were for the RX 300 model and four were for the Camry. MacNeil explains: “The key point is that there is not an advertiser need for a frequency of 48 issues a year. A frequency of six is lower than we would like it to be, and once we make it profitable at six, there is a good chance we would increase the frequency.”

Debbie King, executive vice-president, managing director at Optimedia, a media management company in Toronto, says if you took all the ads from when Saturday Night was a 48-times-a-year publication and put them into six issues a year, you’d have a phenomenal number of pages. “I would suggest that even if MacNeil gets only a fraction of those pages, he’s already met his quota.”

Longtime Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford (1968 to 1987) says MVP has a lot of things going for it, including the know-how to sell ads. But, he says, in his day at least, Saturday Night‘s editorial subjects were ones that “did not warm the hearts of the advertising people.” He adds, “No matter how you sized it, even if they loved the magazine-which not many of them did-there was very little money to be made out of putting an ad in Saturday Night.”

But MacNeil-who has a reputation within the industry for understanding the advertiser very well-says that even if attracting advertisers was a problem 20 or 30 years ago, it isn’t one now. Furthermore, he says, returning to his main theme, the real issue is cost, not revenue. He insists that was the trouble from 1990 to 1998, when the magazine was appearing 10 times a year (the lowest monthly frequency to date) and grossing up to $6.4 million in revenue.

Geoffrey Dawe, former executive vice-president of magazines at CanWest, confirms it was the production costs that drove the weekly publication out of print. He says that 2001 data show that Saturday Night was becoming very attractive to advertisers. By September 22, when it was killed, it had scheduled $10.1 million in ad revenue and secured $7.6 million of it-up 100 percent from the previous year. The gains were in fashion, cosmetics, and entertainment-lifestyle advertisers, that hadn’t traditionally chosen Saturday Nightwere spending heavily in the weekly newspaper insert.

As a bimonthly, MacNeil says, the new Saturday Night can be profitable on less than half the amount that advertisers spent in the weekly. He insists the revenue “is already there,” and that it will simply be channeled from 48 occasions to six. Just in case advertisers need incentive, MVP has slightly reduced the one-time advertising rate for the new Saturday Night to $14,385 for a four-colour page- down from the $14,500 charged by the weekly. “We’re going to keep Saturday Night high quality and general interest. We’re going to control the costs and hopefully attract some new advertisers too. And maybe we’ll get lucky and get $8 million of the weekly’s $10 million in ad revenue,” he says.

MacNeil’s cut-and-paste ad-sales strategy hasn’t convinced everyone in the industry. Jennifer McLean, vice-president of marketing and new business at Redwood Custom Communications Inc., a custom publishing shop, says that bringing over advertisers from the weekly Saturday Night and booking them into the new bimonthly may not be as easy as MacNeil has suggested. “The advertiser wants to see editorial quality in the new Saturday Night. They might be a bit skeptical at first and wait to see if MVP will deliver.” She points out that the significant lag between the weekly’s death in September and the bimonthly’s relaunch in April may also pose a momentum problem for advertisers.

However, Shelagh Tarleton, who is vice-president of advertising at MVP (and former vice-president of magazines at the National Post), says she is discovering a very positive appetite in the advertising community for Canada’s oldest brand. Likely responsible for directing advertising dollars to the fashion-and-style-conscious Saturday Night once she left her post as publisher of Toronto Life Fashion magazine, Tarleton is certainly part of the reason MacNeil is so confident about Saturday Night‘s advertising appeal.

Jones says that if MacNeil can retain a large enough proportion of the weekly’s advertising in his bimonthly model, there’s no reason MVP can’t make a go of it. “I think Greg will take a look at where Saturday Night had been successful most recently and determine which audiences were of most interest to those advertisers,” says Jones. He suspects the new Saturday Night will be more oriented toward fashion and style, areas where the weekly was successful in attracting an advertising base.

Saturday Night‘s new editor says style, design, and fashion have a part to play in the book, but not a dominant part. What is dominant in Matthew Church’s mind, scarcely six days into his editorship, are the two components that have historically made Saturday Night what it is: an intelligent read and a Canadian perspective. He says that both are an integral part of making Saturday Night commercially viable. Church feels that the magazine’s long history of not making money doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just that the right business model and editorial vision must be in place. And he adds: “I think I can create a magazine that is engaging, interesting, and exciting within the financial constraints-everybody operates according to a budget.”

And even though MVP “operates leanly,” MacNeil insists that the budgets for MVP’s magazines are not small. “Their budgets are as big as those of any other magazine in this country-on what we pay our freelancers and what we pay our staff.” Not including the editor’s position, salaries range from $50,000 to $80,000 for the newSaturday Night editorial staff. This range is “high” compared to what the weekly was offering, “especially when you consider the new lower frequency,” says one member of the previous Saturday Night editorial team. (Rumour has it that part of the purchase terms with CanWest prevented MacNeil from poaching any of the weekly Saturday Night staff.) And although MVP is offering competitive wages, the new Saturday Nightmasthead has been reduced to roughly one-fifth the size of the weekly’s-representing considerable savings for the new publisher.

Saturday Night‘s leaner staff will be able to handle the workload, says MacNeil. “Whoever comes in here is going to know that you roll up your sleeves and do what you have to do,” he says. Church adds that the lifeblood of any magazine is its freelance contributors. “We’ll be working with them to cover the waterfront,” he says.

Maybe the magazine’s staff aren’t feeling the pinch, but freelance writers are quickly discovering that the newSaturday Night has a much tighter budget than the weekly. Longtime contributors to Saturday Night-accustomed to receiving $1.25 to $1.50 per word-are finding MVP is sticking by the near-decade-old $1-a-word industry standard. MVP is evaluating each writer and story idea on a case-by-case basis, and the writer’s experience and story’s complexity will both be considered when determining the rate of pay. In exchange for a pay cut, a senior writer may be offered a package deal, whereby he or she would be guaranteed publication several times a year.

One experienced writer says if there is a choice between not having Saturday Night at all and being paid less, he’ll choose the lower pay rate. Another-whose features in the weekly Saturday Night sometimes required travelling abroad-proposed a story idea to the new Saturday Night but was turned down because the travel expenses were sizeable. (That same story idea had been accepted by the weekly Saturday Night in September, just before the magazine was killed.)

The editorial success of the new Saturday Night remains to be seen, says Shields. “The only cause, if the magazine does fail, will be that not enough people find it compelling enough to read. There’s a lot of weight on Matthew Church’s shoulders.” Church concedes he is feeling pressure, but says he finds it motivating. “People feel ownership of Saturday Night. They feel strongly about it, entitled to defend and challenge it.” The central obligation he has, he says, is to live up to the Saturday Night legacy, the standards the magazine has maintained for over 100 years. “I take that very, very seriously.” At the same time, the new editor feels he also has to ignore the pressure because he can’t work productively with his colleagues if they are constantly looking over their shoulders. “We just have to do what we can. People will like it or people won’t like it.”

That old, defining Saturday Night spirit, one that breathed life into a certain kind of Canadian story that often can’t be placed anywhere else, will not be lost to the new incarnation. Church promises that longtime readers will be able to peruse the pages and exclaim, “That’s a Saturday Night article!” Not every piece will be Canadian or about Canadian subjects, but all of them will offer a “Saturday Night perspective-and by definition, that’s at least partially a Canadian perspective,” Church says.

His boss concurs, saying he doesn’t see the new bimonthly being any different from the historically good parts of Saturday Night, “other than we may make it better.” MacNeil also promises the magazine “will continue to have the best writers and photographers showcasing their work in the pages of Saturday Night.”

But when those pages only come out six times a year, warns Fulford, Church will be faced with the problem of maintaining reader interest from issue to issue. He says the publication’s title will attract attention, but that’s all it will attract. “After that you have to sell it,” Fulford says. “And if you only get six tries a year, each try has to have a lot of value in it. It has to have a lot of appeal.”

Zikovitz, a publisher of high-quality six-times-a-year paid-circulation magazines, somewhat agrees, saying, “Magazines that put a bunch of fluff in there, they’re the ones that are going to lose readers.” But a bimonthly doesn’t have loyalty issues in and of itself. “If you deliver quality journalism and deliver it in a way that is attractive, you will have the loyalty; it will have its own impetus.” A bimonthly Saturday Night will have to do some things differently, Zikovitz says, but he thinks there’s room for a good quality magazine in the marketplace.

Church, who has had previous experience editing bimonthly magazines, agrees the publication schedule will affect Saturday Night in a lot of ways, but not all of those ways are totally clear to him in these early pre-launch days. Other than managing the occasional freelance project, Church has, for the most part, been on a four-year leave from the magazine business, caring for his two children. He has held mostly editor positions at enRouteCanadian BusinessLondonBrowserActive, and Business Life, as well as the short-lived online venture Colleagues describe him as somewhat of an unknown commodity, and suggest that perhaps Saturday Night watchers don’t know him well enough to be either excited or appalled by his appointment.

The editor of Saturday Night feels he is in a unique situation because, while the magazine has been around for 115 years, on another level he’s starting from scratch. “Essentially what I’m working with right now is a title and a tradition.” Poring over hundreds of back issues of Saturday Night, Church has been drawing inspiration from many incarnations-one of his favourites being B.K. Sandwell’s magazine (1932 to 1951)-but he has neither an editorial model nor a particular era of Saturday Night he wishes to emulate. He says, though, that readers can expect a lot of political coverage and observations from his Saturday Night.

So the question arises: should readers also expect right-of-centre positioning for that political material, since the magazine will be distributed through a right-of-centre newspaper? Shields says the magazine will, to some extent, have to be written for the Post‘s demographic. “It would be a mistake to deliver something left of centre,” he argues. As Michael Posner reported in the February issue of Masthead, CanWest negotiated a 15 percent equity stake in the new Saturday Night when it sold the magazine to MVP.

But Church says the Post‘s politics won’t have any impact on his editorial. “It’s an arm’s-length relationship to my knowledge and that’s how I’m conducting myself,” he says, adding he doesn’t have a particular political philosophy. “I think our job in journalism is to rise above the partisanship-just engage in the politics, and lay bare the politics for our readers,” he says. At the same time, he adds, he doesn’t think one can help but have one’s own politics reflected. Kenneth Whyte said something very similar to Masthead at the start of his editorship in 1994.

Owner and editor agree that some elements of Whyte’s era were really terrific, but it’s MacNeil who is particularly struck by the kinds of features commissioned by the former Saturday Night editor. MacNeil would like to blend the best elements from Whyte’s 10-times-a-year Saturday Night with those from the most recent weekly incarnation. He points out that Saturday Night has always had an interesting front-of-book section and a very strong editorial well with a variety of features. Yet even though MacNeil feels he has a good sense of what Saturday Night should be, he claims that the editorial vision shouldn’t come from “the person who did the deal.” Instead, he says, it should draw on the editor’s knowledge, thinking, and experience.

Zikovitz is concerned MacNeil may interfere with Saturday Night‘s editorial. “Greg is known as a real control freak. He really wants control over the full publication,” says Zikovitz. If the magazine does a regular fashion or travel section, he says, then MacNeil will be able to attract the fashion and travel advertisers. “But the problem with that is it has to be very positive journalism. You can’t write a negative travel article or you’ ll lose all your advertisers.”

Editorial control will be in the hands of the new editor, says MacNeil, but within defined parameters. He’ s willing to bend, he says, provided it doesn’ t compromise the viability of the product. “We give our editorial team amazing rein, probably more than most companies-and maybe even more than we should. But if you hire good, smart, competent people-and we do-and you paint broad parameters, then you let them go play within them.”

Despite the usual skepticism out there, MacNeil and his team start out with the benefit of a great deal of goodwill. No one knows for sure how it will turn out, but one thing is clear we’re all watching.

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