Steve Shaffer
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Uphill Struggle

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The founders of the eyetalian wanted to show their community in all its complexity. But commercial realities meant that they could never push their struggling magazine into the black

To a passerby on Yonge Street, the scene could have been an Italian wedding. The Sunday crowd included not only swanky 20-somethings sporting designer Italian jackets, but also their proud parents, who clutched envelopes stuffed with money. They piled into Grano restaurant in midtown Toronto-neutral ground for Woodbridge suburbanites and College Street urban dwellers alike-to munch on antipasto in a room filled with countryside decor and old Italian posters. Standing apart from the crowd, Nino Ricci, the celebrated author of the Governor General’s Award-winning Lives of the Saints, read an excerpt from his latest novel. Dressed casually in a green shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows, Ricci told the story of the young immigrant Vittorio, who, alienated from his father and his new country, struggles to make connections-religious, sexual, anything at all-that would bring meaning to his life in Canada. For many of the young adults listening to Ricci, the theme of finding one’s identity struck close to home.

On that fallafternoon in 1993, the crowd at Grano celebrated the much anticipated arrival of the eyetalian, a quarterly magazine that focused on the experience of Italians in North America through the eyes of the second generation. From the cover of the premiere issue, a photograph of a pensive Nino Ricci stared up at the party-goers. Grano owner Roberto Martella, whose parents immigrated in 1950, donated his restaurant for the day. Friends and family filled the envelopes-$100 here and there-to help the magazine pay off bills racked up during its first production. During his welcoming speech, eyetalian editor Pino Esposito echoed the mandate that was laid out inside: to “take in the achievements of the community with one eye, while the other is fixed on the many sources of conflict which flow from its cultural baggage.” It was a large promise and a strong journalistic vision, but could Esposito and his cofounders succeed?

Starting a magazine is never easy. Figures from Masthead magazine show that of the publications that died in 1993, only half had managed to reach the coveted five-year mark. And when behemoths like Hearst, Cond? Nast and Time Warner can stumble with new launches, what chance did the eyetalian have? Certainly there was infectious enthusiasm, but was that enough to overcome the lack of a business plan, too few investors, too little publishing experience and a name that would prove to be divisive and controversial?

The founders and supporters of the eyetalian weren’t the only children of immigrants who felt the need to capture the thoughts, dreams and lifestyles of their contemporaries in magazine form. In the months and years that followed the party at Grano, a number of other similar publications materialized. While the parents of these fledgling editors and publishers had been satisfied with less sophisticated news media, their children desired a more reflective, sophisticated product-something that addressed the experience of growing up while influenced by two competing cultures, and something that showcased their accomplishments in Canada. The eyetalian grew out of this craving, as did Mehfil for Indo-Canadians, launched in 1993, Typhoonand RicePaper for Asian-Canadians, founded in 1995 and 1998 respectively, Zdorov! for Ukrainians, which started in 1996, and brownscene for Filipinos, which materialized in 1999.

However, starting up a second-generation magazine in Canada has proven to be a risky venture. Sooner or later, founders have had to come to terms with the cold, hard commercial reality that there just aren’t enough readers and investors to push these publications into the black. As a result, with few exceptions, sudden changes in focus and/or bankruptcies have followed. The eyetalian provides a model case study that shows how these magazines rise-and fall. It also shows why these publications are often not encouraged to embrace credible journalism.


The genesis for the eyetalian can be traced to one day in the summer of 1992, when Pino Esposito bumped into his old high school friend Nick Bianchi on a Toronto streetcar. Minutes into a conversation about former classmates, Bianchi suggested they form a group to meet regularly to talk about old times. It wasn’t the kind of thing that Esposito normally thought about, but he agreed, and both followed up by making a few phone calls. A group got together at Bar Italia on College Street and discovered they had similar feelings and thoughts about their Italian past and their Italian-Canadian present. At the forefront was their disdain for the existing Italian media outlets. “We felt there really wasn’t a sophisticated media presence for Italians,” explains Esposito. “Really the only thing you could point to was CHIN Radio and CHIN TV, and they tended to be a little steeped in hokey, nostalgic, folkloristic stuff.” Esposito’s friend Teresa Tiano, a production editor at Saturday Night, suggested the group put their thoughts in a magazine. Jokingly, Esposito said: “Yeah, we can call it ‘eyetalian,'” a pronunciation used by many WASP Torontonians in the ’50s and ’60s to describe the newcomers among them. In some quarters, it was used as a racial slur, but Tiano thought the name was brilliant. “It had been a derogatory name, but we claimed it for ourselves,” she remembers. “It said what we wanted to say, which was that we had come into our own.”

The concept for the eyetalian was simple: to provide an English-language forum for Italians across Canada who wished to read about and participate in an ongoing discussion about the North American-Italian experience, from its sensibility and culture to its stereotypes and history. And since neither Esposito nor Bianchi had a job at the time, it made practical sense for the pair, aided by Tiano when she could spare time away from Saturday Night, to run the fledgling operation. With little money, they got down to work in the winter of 1992 to pull the concept together and raise the $8,000 to $10,000 they figured they would need to fund a first-issue print run of 4,000 copies.

Right from the start, the trio focused on folklore, history, opinion, language and popular culture-all areas that they figured their young readers would be curious about. The only topic off-limits was contemporary Italian culture in Italy, since the magazine could not afford to station writers overseas.

On the business side, they needed to build a subscriber base. So Esposito approached the Association of Italian Canadian Writers and other cultural organizations for their mailing lists. To get advertisers, they put together mock-ups of possible eyetalian covers, potential story ideas and a rate card. To get seed money, they contacted a land developer in Markham, Ontario, who liked the idea and put up $1,500 in support. The result of their efforts over the next half year? A few hundred subscribers, who each ponied up $14 for a year’s worth of issues, but little interest from advertisers since the trio still lacked a business plan. Undaunted, Esposito, Bianchi and Tiano pushed ahead with their project, and while they weren’t maxing out their credit cards, they started to pay for office supplies and smaller expenses out of their own pockets. To help ease the costs of the eyetalian, they would look to the community for contributions when they launched the premiere issue in the fall.

Two weeks beforethe launch, Esposito, Bianchi and Tiano were in the midst of production. They took a break on the stoop of the eyetalian headquarters near Dufferin and Eglinton in Toronto, eating veal sandwiches and drinking espresso. Beside them sat John Montesano, an eager volunteer from the suburbs who helped with copyediting and layout.

“The Italian thing is really about family, about neighbourhood-the street you live on,” says Montesano today. “It gives you a warm feeling. It gives you a feeling of home.” Both Esposito’s and Montesano’s families arrived in Canada at the height of a mass emigration from Italy that began in the 1940s. By 1971, almost 170,000 Italian immigrants lived in the Toronto area. Another 230,000 lived in other parts of the country. Men often found work in construction or other jobs that involved manual labour. Esposito’s mother and father found work as a cleaner and a barber respectively, while Montesano’s dad was a truck driver and his mom, a seamstress.

“In the 1950s,children going to Canadian schools were being taught the values of Canadian democracy and supposedly modern ways of doing things,” explains Franca Iacovetta, a history professor at the University of Toronto and the author of Such Hardworking People, a chronicle of Italian immigrants in post-war Toronto. “Then they would go home to a different culture that was somewhat afraid of what they were learning.” During those years, thin, utilitarian newspapers like Corriere Canadese were the news media of choice. “The notion was that these people can’t read English,” adds Iacovetta. Many Italian newspapers were run by pre-Second World War Italian-Canadians who knew that later generations would need an Italian press. Difficult times left little room for contemplative content; advice about unemployment insurance and news of the job situation most often ruled the headlines.

But to the quartet with the veal sandwiches, it was long past time to move beyond basic personal survival issues. Their publication was to be modern, more introspective, more literary, which was why they had chosen to put Nino Ricci on the cover. Ricci, whose parents emigrated from Italy in 1954, was a perfect choice. Though accepted by mainstream Canada, he was largely ignored by the Italian community. To theeyetalian staff, he was a symbol of the cultural displacement they felt. In the accompanying story, which was written by Esposito, Ricci suggested that “the greatest service you can do for the community you come out of is to present it in all of its complexity.” Within Ricci’s works, Esposito explained, reconciling a difficult past is always a central theme.

Elsewhere in that first issue, Franca Iacovetta reported on a 1911 murder case. Her article told the story of an Italian man who was killed by his wife because of the savage beatings he gave her. It was a history lesson that eyetalian readers probably never learned in school. In another feature, the painter Vince Mancuso was profiled. The article describes how the artist’s own community, one with a glorious artistic tradition, had disapproved of his choosing an economically unstable and unconventional profession. In one way or another, each of the stories in the eyetalian‘s first issue cast a stone at rigid thinking, echoing the magazine’s promise to challenge the assumptions of the Italian community.

Not surprisingly, the response to the premiere issue was mixed. On the positive side, Esposito received letters from dozens of pleasantly surprised readers. One of them, Maurizio Barbieri, wrote: “You have provided a vehicle of expression for a people just beginning to tap into their inner feelings. Thank you for documenting the trials, tribulations and joys of a very significant community!” As well, a number of readers phoned the magazine wishing to contribute. Others commented on the name. Many thought it was clever. Others hated it. “Some of the older immigrant generation didn’t like it,” says Iacovetta. “They were too close to it.” Most were outraged that the anglicized, derogatory pronunciation of “Italian” had been used to represent the community. “There was one person in a very good position to give us funding who wouldn’t do it strictly on the basis of the name,” says Esposito. “The whole point of the name was to lighten up and have an ironic tone. It just seemed that changing the name to something really serious would go against the very fabric of what we were trying to do.” A number of readers also found the eyetalian to be unnecessarily negative and critical, which may have driven away potential subscribers and investors.

Despite the criticisms, subscriptions began to trickle in, culminating in about 500 by the end of the first year. And a few more ads were sold, though not nearly enough. The launch at Grano, however, did bring in several thousand dollars. In addition, the NDP government came through with a jobsOntario Community Action program grant of $150,000, providing salaries for those heavily involved, and small compensations for writers and photographers. As the months passed, the content of the magazine changed little. It continued to be controversial. Two examples: the spring 1994 issue, which screamed in bright yellow letters on the cover, “Sex, Religion, Politics: What Does a New Generation Believe?”; and the winter 1995 issue, which featured a piece entitled “The Armani Generation” that focused on the rampant materialism replacing concern for education among Italian students in Woodbridge. “The content was so biased,” wrote one reader, “it appears the information was hand-selected. One must wonder what your motives were for such a survey, and what you expected to accomplish by it.” Esposito, for his part, was thrilled. The eyetalian was being noticed. However, since the article angered a large portion of the potential market, Esposito could not afford to assign more of the serious, investigative work that he longed to do. There was also no money for reader research, which could be used to convince advertisers that the eyetalian had an audience that would be receptive to knowing about their product or service. With money tight, Bianchi and Esposito gave up their apartments and moved back home in order to keep producing the magazine they loved.


By the “Armani Generation” issue, the eyetalian had found a new rent-free home inside the Columbus Centre, the west-end Toronto headquarters for such community organizations as the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Toronto and the Canadian-Italian Business and Professional Association. It was a sign that at least some in the Italian-Canadian establishment had accepted the publication as a member of the cultural community, asking only for a free advertisement in return. As part of the arrangement, the centre even supplied the eyetalian with its athletic membership lists of 3,500 names to help show advertisers the magazine’s potential market. John Montesano, originally just a part-timer, had carved out a role for himself as the eyetalian‘s business and circulation manager in 1994. He helped the magazine develop a business plan and continued the quest for private funding-now a necessity more than ever, since the province’s new Conservative government had scrapped the jobsOntario program.

There were also editorial changes. Esposito quit, perhaps realizing that his vision for the eyetalian could never bring commercial success, although he remained a contributing writer. Montesano was chosen as the new editor. His aspirations for the magazine were slightly different. “To me it’s not about the dark and the bright side of the community,” he explains. “It’s more about attaching yourself to people who just do quality work and letting them figure out the dark and bright.” The symbol for his new direction was also Nino Ricci. But instead of writing about him, Montesano wanted Ricci to write a column. He thought the novelist would help boost readership and respect for the magazine. All Montesano asked was that his column contain some link to Italian culture. Through Ricci, who in one column related the tale of losing his virtual virginity when he searched for “Italian Canadian” on the Internet, the magazine attracted other professional writers, such asGlobe and Mail arts reporter Liz Renzetti.

Under Montesano, the eyetalian shifted from being a critical, journalistic eye on the community to being “A Magazine of Things Italian.” Gone were the reports on conflict, such as “The Armani Generation.” In their place were features like “Your Guide to the Best Italian Stuff in the City” and profiles of such prominent businesspeople as winemaker Rossana Magnotta. “The magazine was not doing business profiles in its first couple of years,” says Montesano in hindsight. “I think inevitably the more you commercialize something, the more it’s going to lose its edge.”

By the end of 1996, the eyetalian had hired Joseph Barbieri, who had previously been working in corporate real estate, to handle advertising sales. Broadening appeal led to upwards of 20 ads per issue, although most were only black-and-white and not full page. Perhaps more important, the magazine had gained nearly 1,000 subscribers and a regular readership of 8,000. It had also grabbed the attention of like-minded individuals from the Ukrainian, Greek, Jewish and Spanish communities who were thinking about starting up a similar publication. Often they approached Montesano for advice. “Generally I would try to discourage people,” he says. “If their goals weren’t working like a maniac and struggling with no money to try to reach people, then I would say ‘You’re probably out of touch with what this is going to take.'”

Still, there were a few who ignored Montesano’s advice and leapt in. One was Nestor Gula, founding editor ofZdorov! Like the founders of the eyetalian, Gula wanted to challenge the traditional way that his culture was reported. Targeted at second-generation Ukrainians, Zdorov! ran journalistically credible stories about subjects most of the Ukrainian press shied away from: articles on mixed marriages and profiles of Ukrainians who had chosen unorthodox professions in Canada. But, like the eyetalian, Zdorov! had a tiny budget. As a result, Gula had no money with which to pay himself and only a little for his writers. “You’re only paying me 75 bucks,” says Gula, mimicking a freelancer refusing to do a revise. “Fuck it. First draft, final draft.”


By the summer of 1998, Nick Bianchi and Teresa Tiano had moved on to other careers, while Esposito remained a contributor. In their place, John Montesano and sales director Joseph Barbieri took over the ownership of “A Magazine of Things Italian,” which by then had 12,000 readers. “I wanted to make it a magazine with far greater and broader appeal,” says Barbieri. “The magazine had grown as far as it could grow, at least from an advertising point of view.” By this point an average of 35 lucrative ads graced each issue, many of them full page, four colour. But Barbieri believed the eyetalian had to put an even greater amount of emphasis on lifestyle; he felt Montesano hadn’t gone far enough in his overhaul, that he wasn’t open to new visions.

Like Barbieri, Montesano wanted the magazine to grow and, at some point soon, prosper. But he disagreed with his new partner. “Barbieri felt it wasn’t commercialized fast enough,” he says. “I thought it was pretty commercialized.” As partnership problems mounted and the magazine’s debt grew to more than $50,000, the most realistic option became to sell the eyetalian. But the two co-owners couldn’t even agree on how to do it. And so, just like that, in the early weeks of 1999, the eyetalian was a memory. John Montesano called the founding staff, Ricci and other longtime contributors with the news that the winter 1998 issue of the eyetalianmagazine would be the last. The next day, Montesano walked into Telelatino Network in Toronto, scrapping his original intention to ask for help in salvaging eyetalian magazine. Instead, the company hired him on the spot to help with market development, his new boss assuming he would bring a piece of his magazine experience to the station.

In the summer of 1999, Montesano bade a final farewell to his magazine in Zdorov! In a guest column entitled “Notes on eyetalian’s Demise,” he wrote: “So what happened? Why did the magazine fail? I have as many answers to that question as I do to the question of why did the magazine thrive for so long? Money constraints, internal differences, burnout. Regardless of the factors, six years after my first introduction to the eyetalian I still feel a connection to a piece of work that I felt I could call my own.”

Esposito feels the same connection, but continues to wonder if part of the reason behind the eyetalian‘s demise had to do with an old concept in search of a new audience who didn’t care. “I find that I did do a lot of navel-gazing about my heritage,” he remembers. “I don’t know if the new generation of 20-somethings agonize about it.” Esposito, for one, will remember the eyetalian in its youth, when he and thousands like him found their voice.


Other Climbers




Focus: A forum for second-generation Filipinos in North America and elsewhere featuring hard-hitting, controversial reporting and commentary.

Launched: 1999

Circulation: 15,000

Enraged by the class divisions inherited from previous generations of Filipinos, Len Ryan Cervantes and some friends set out to stop the cycle two years ago. Their vehicle: a magazine that began with the nameBrownSugar, a title that had to be jettisoned when they learned Hustler publisher Larry Flynt owned the rights to it. “Our intention is really to present all points of view,” says Cervantes, “and hopefully the person who wins is the reader because they can read all of them and come to their own conclusions.” An early feature was about interracial dating: “White boy, Filipino girl. Filipino boy, Latin girl,” it began. Another warned of endemic sexual violence in the community. Such stories, as the founders of the eyetalian learned, can scare off potential advertisers and investors. The magazine has had mixed success. It has approached mainstream airlines, clothing and car manufacturers for ads but hasn’t made huge gains. “They’re right,” says Cervantes of the advertisers’ decision not to buy space in brownscene. His readers are young and “don’t have a lot of disposable income. There’s not a lot of research that’s been done on us yet.” Still, he is making inroads-and a profit. However, brownscene now includes more profiles of musicians and reviews of CDs, a reflection of the demands of its young readership. Lately, says Cervantes, finding advertising that doesn’t corrupt the editorial has gotten easier since a number of smaller, younger Filipino companies are realizing that brownscene gives them a direct line to the community. “We’re a support system for [advertisers], and they’re a support system for us,” he adds. “It’s a delicate ecosystem with a lot of these companies. It’s going to be a slow climb.”



Focus: Providing a “slanted point of view” that combats racism and showcases the writing, artwork, musical compositions and theatre of Asian-Canadians.

Launched: 1998

Circulation: 2,000-4,000





Focus: Also known as “The Magazine of Ukrainian Things,” it, like the eyetalian, set out to challenge traditional journalism in its community. It has suspended publication, and has been searching for investors with little success.

Launched: 1996

Circulation: 1,600



Focus: To show second- and third-generation Indo-Canadians what the community was capable of. Focusing on professionals who have made it in Canada, its owners tried to secure an audience both within the community and outside of it.

Launched: 1993

Died: 1999

Peak circulation: 45,000



Focus: A magazine dedicated to East and Southeast Asian Canadians, which quickly folded because of insufficient advertising support.

Launched: 1995

Died: 1996

Peak circulation: 50,000


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