Sarah Patterson

Watered Down

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Staying afloat is no easy task in the tiny publishing world of Atlantic Canada. The surest way to smooth sailing? Don't make waves

Coastlife magazine was conceived in November 1998 around a coffee table laden with a pot of tea, mugs and bowls of hummus and chips. Kyle Shaw, Christine Oreskovich, Catherine Salisbury and Heidi Hallet had gathered at Shaw and Oreskovich’s Halifax home for the fall board meeting of The Coast, at the time a five-year-old weekly alternative newspaper. The four, editor, publisher, president and director of advertising forThe Coast respectively, had thought about expansion for some time. Salisbury had even visited Vancouver earlier in the fall but found the market there was already well served by the Georgia Straight weekly.

They still wanted to expand, but how? Where? “Instead of business we know, weekly papers, in a place we don’t, Vancouver, let’s try a business we don’t know, glossy lifestyle mags, in a place we do,” is how Shaw sums up their decision. “Once the idea came up, we stayed up late going through the stacks and stacks of mags that Christine and I have, looking at the world of magazine publishing with new, fresh eyes,” he remembers nostalgically.

The result was Coastlife, a 54-page full-colour magazine with a print run of 25,000. With strong graphics, historical features about the Black Loyalist Heritage Society and Chester’s 150 years as a haven for prominent international residents, and pieces celebrating life in the Maritimes like “40 Reasons We Love Atlantic Canada” (number 13: The Chickenburger restaurant in Bedford, Nova Scotia), the magazine was an enthusiastic exploration of the region without being too smug. One memorable cover featured Rick Mercer of This Hour Has 22 Minutes fame. Which was about as long as the book lasted: it appeared just six times, before dying in October 2001, joining general-interest East Coast titles Axiom (1974-1978), Atlantic Insight(1979-1989) and Cities (1987-1989).

It is perhaps no coincidence that just months before Coastlife‘s demise, yet another general-interest magazine had been launched in the region. But Saltscapes was no late-night brainwave. It was the result of 18 months and $150,000 of research by Linda Gourlay, who holds an MBA. She and her husband, Jim, spent a further $500,000 on a subscription drive that netted them 11,000 subscribers by the time the first issue appeared in May 2000. Those readers received a full-colour, oversize glossy with a $3.95 cover price and 96 pages featuring stories about Frenchy’s, a chain of popular second-hand clothing stores; Mike Duffy; the P.E.I.-born newscaster, and the eastern cougar.

On the cover was a lovely image of two Adirondack chairs on a deck overlooking the sea, but, though there was some beautiful photography, the inside layouts resembled ads. Much editorial space was devoted to inoffensive items like gardening, birdwatching, and recipes columns, although there was a feature on Newfoundland’s shrinking coastal communities.

Jim Gourlay looks like Santa Claus sans the stocking cap but the resemblance ends there – he’s much more worldly than the jolly old fellow. He is unapologetic about his magazine’s romanticized view of Atlantic Canada. “I come from a hard news background and it’s really frustrating for me not to get into that stuff, issues, controversies, but the market said we want a feel-good magazine and that’s what we’re giving them.”

As a displaced East Coaster who loves Atlantic Canada and magazines, I wonder whether sweet but shallowSaltscapes is the best Atlantic readers can hope for. Some of Canada’s best music comes out of the Maritimes, but it seems the region’s magazines are destined to suffer from a lack of capital and vision. Still, I do cheer the indomitable Maritime spirit that prompts people to keep trying to publish magazines in a historically hostile territory.

The world of east coast magazine publishing is a small one, and most of the people associated with it have ties to Atlantic Insight, the award-winning monthly (it earned 13 writing awards, including three gold and four silvers, from the National Magazine Awards Foundation) that was published from 1979 to 1989. Jim Gourlay helped out briefly as an associate editor and eventually signed on to develop a spinoff publication ofInsight,Eastern Woods & Waters. Neville Gilfoy, who currently publishesProgress magazine, a business title that is arguably one of the most successful magazines in the region, was the circulation manager from 1979 to 1985. Stephen Kimber, now the director of the University of King’s College School of Journalism, was a regular contributor for the first year and the managing editor for most of Atlantic Insight‘s second year of publishing. Shaw’s connection is one step removed: he was a student of Kimber’s at King’s in 1991-92.

The brainchild of Bill Belliveau, an advertising guy from New Brunswick, Atlantic Insight hit a peak circulation of 65,000 but never achieved profitability during its decade-long existence. “The first year and a half was wonderful,” Harry Bruce says wistfully as he reminisces about the beginning of Atlantic Insight. Bruce, the celebrated writer and editor who now writes the “Back Porch” column for Saltscapes, was the inaugural editor, stepping down after 18 months when financial problems arose. He remembers how, when Atlantic Insight was first launched, Charlie Lynch, a New Brunswicker and a political columnist for Southam Press at the time, paid it the back-handed compliment of describing it as “too slick for Maritimers.”

In a January 1983 piece for Canadian Business, Kimber wrote that Belliveau had had a good idea but not enough money. Some bad business decisions, a devastating six-week postal strike in 1981, and a downturn in the economy forced Belliveau, in 1982, to hand over Insight to ad salesman Jack Daley, who in turn peddled it to book publisher James Lorimer in 1985. As the money woes mounted, circulation slipped, and the magazine’s once creative and comprehensive coverage of the Atlantic became a jumble of civic boosterism articles with a few recipes thrown in. Still, Kimber remembers that readers felt almost a proprietary interest in the magazine. “It filled a hole. Frankly, there hasn’t been anything like it since.”

Not that Shaw and his partners didn’t try. “Coastlife was offering something different. It was more literary, visionary, with less rug-hooking,” says Catherine Salisbury. She and her partners even briefly considered using the name Atlantic Insight for their magazine because they wanted to recapture its essence and its readership. As Shaw recalls, “We were romantic, passionate and intuitive, and business-wise we knew the loss we could handle. We were willing to run at a loss.” Shaw’s magazine publishing philosophy definitely is along the lines of print what you believe in and the readers and advertisers will come. “We had a quality magazine with a long-term business strategy, attracting people to quality,” says Shaw.

To Gourlay, though, romantic ideals have no place in publishing “This leap of faith that says, ‘I’m a journalism graduate, therefore I can run a business called magazine publishing’ is bullshit,” he told a King’s journalism school reporter in 2000. To be fair, Shaw had been successfully publishing The Coast for five years before launching Coastlife, but it seems his passion and intuition weren’t enough to keep the magazine from being sunk by Saltscapes.

But Shaw is pretty passionate in expressing his opinion of Saltscapes. “What does Saltscapes mean anyway?” he asks as he agitatedly rolls around on his office stool. “Self-congratulation isn’t interesting.Saltscapes has all the bad traditions, old and not challenging and not interesting, even for their demographic. I guess their demographic doesn’t want to be challenged.” Shaw and the staff at The Coast often derisively refer to Saltscapes as ” S-scapes,” replacing “salt” with numerous words beginning with “s.” Shaw feels that Atlantic Canadians settle for less when it comes to their local magazines. “The market isn’t educated enough to diversify itself. No one knows about magazines here,” says Shaw.

As Neville Gilfoy drives his Lexus out of the underground parking garage of the building whereProgress‘s offices are located in downtown Halifax, he’s alternately peering at his cell phone and the windscreen through his electric blue half-moon glasses. He’s phoning his French teacher to let her know he’ll be late. He started learning French two years ago because he wanted an outside interest. But now that Gilfoy, president of Progresscorp, which produces six magazines, includingLe Journal de Chambre de Commerce d’Atlantique, is looking to start another magazine in the Quebec market, the French lessons are no longer a hobby.

Gilfoy is very pulled together in a dark grey suit, a very light grey dress shirt and a medium grey silk tie. His grey curly hair, parted in the centre, springs off his head, but the rest of him personifies what his publications are all about: wealth creation. But before the Lexus (leased, he confides) and the elegant clothes, Gilfoy spent some hard-scrabble years as co-owner, with Jim Gourlay, of a decidedly more downscale title.Eastern Woods & Waters, launched 18 years ago as an Atlantic Insight spinoff, is what the trade calls a “hook and bullet” book.

Gilfoy and Gourlay started the magazine in 1985, amicably ending their partnership in 1993. Gourlay stayed with Eastern Woods & Waters and Gilfoy left to start upAtlantic Progress (now just Progress).

“TOP 101” is the licence plate on Gilfoy’s black 2002 Lexus ES 300. He throws over a copy ofProgress‘s 2002 Top 101 special issue, which ranks Atlantic Canada’s most successful companies. “That’s the biggest issue of a business magazine in the past four years in Canada,” he says curtly. “Page count, 210, 60 per cent ads.”

Advertising is what keeps most commercial magazines afloat, and it’s particularly critical for controlled-circulation titles. Out east, Saltscapes is the only larger magazine that has a substantial subscriber base: 33,000 of its 40,000 circulation.The 10-times-a-yearProgress, with its 27,000 controlled circulation, is more typical of magazines in the region.To Gourlay, that means a larger investment than other publishers.”With all due respect to my associates in the industry, we’re the only paid circulation company, so we’re doing the hard work,” he says.

Stephen Kimber knows hard work. He produced Cities magazine, aToronto Life for Halifax published 10 times a year, out of his home from 1987 to 1989. As he leans back in his office chair at King’s he’s counting up how much money he lost when the magazine went under. Even though the second to last issue of Citieshad the most advertising ever, he and his remaining investors were in so much debt that the banks came in and said enough. “I think I was personally on the hook for $30,000 for the magazine itself, the printer didn’t get paid in the end, altogether around $70,000 in total. It doesn’t seem as much now, but it was when you had a mortgage and kids,” he says with a hint of pain.

And Kimber is also pained by how magazine publishing on the east coast has been affected by advertising, or the lack thereof. “Atlantic Insight made a lot of sense editorially but commercially it never did,” he says. One of the main problems is that the region’s population is too geographically dispersed. Its 2.2 million residents are spread through four provinces with only three Cities having a population over 100,000.

To survive, regional magazines need both retail and national advertisers, but retail operators don’t want to advertise too far away from home: why pitch your Halifax clothing store to readers in St. John? And national advertisers? “For them this is always a discretionary buy. In good times they will put money into down here to increase the penetration in this region, but as soon as the advertising market contracts, they pull back,” observes Kimber. So is Atlantic Canada’s population just too small to support more than a few magazines? “I think there’s some truth to that,” says Kimber, “although you look at magazines like Saltscapes and it seems to be doing reasonably well right now.”

Gilfoy also acknowledges that Atlantic Canada is a tough place to find advertising. “The regional advertising community here is not mature enough to be at a stage where they are consistently supporting a vibrant and growing magazine publishing sector, and Atlantic Canada is not sufficiently attractive to the national advertiser. The perception is it’s not big enough. It’s frustrating,” says Gilfoy with a resigned shrug. However, he concludes, “We can’t be worried about what people in Toronto or Ottawa think.”

Shrewdly, the Gourlays did worry about the Upper Canadians. “Linda did something very smart,” says Gourlay. “In the work up to Saltscapes she went to Toronto and pleaded naïveté and engaged some of the movers and shakers in the advertising community in Toronto. She asked for their help in putting her marketing plan together and gave them ownership. When we were ready to go, they were there.”

The East Coast diaspora also represents another advertising problem. Kendra Thompson and her husband, Dan, grew up in Rothesay, New Brunswick, just outside of Saint John. They’ve come to the Big Smoke to make some money with the intention of moving home to raise their yet-to-be children. Kendra, a private school teacher, is sitting in her newly painted taupe living room. On the low coffee table in front of her are pieces of Maritime pottery and piles of magazines, including Saltscapes. “Saltscapes is great. It’s a piece of home,” says Thompson, who receives the magazine as a gift from her in-laws.

Gourlay says people regularly buy eight to 10 gift subscriptions of his magazine, many of them for friends and family living away. “It’s an interesting problem to have,” he observes. “We’re having to work quite hard to keep the in-region subscription levels in line. Advertisers are buying Atlantic Canada from us. They don’t want to buy Ontario. There’s a tolerance level but we’re pushing it.” The most recent circulation figures for the magazine indicate that 16 per cent of the readers are out-of-region, a level that may indeed test advertisers’ tolerance.

the highlands links golf course in cape bre-ton has been ranked the best golf course in the country. Or, according to Neville Gilfoy, “The most spectacular on the planet.” He and a friend played there this past September with a man they’d just met from southern Ontario. There were foxes, eagles, and two moose out on the course that day. “Along about the 10th or 11th hole he said, ‘I’m going to tell you guys something,'” relates Gilfoy. “‘You have no idea how good you guys have it here. The people in Upper Canada have no idea what goes on here.’ And I said, ‘John, I’m going to tell you something. We know exactly how good we have it here. We just don’t tell anybody because we don’t want fuckers like you coming here all the time.’ We had a great laugh after he asked me if I was dead serious or not.”

Gilfoy is certainly dead serious about his business. Atlantic Progress became just Progress this past January so that he can begin to expand to other markets, including New England, which is also a region that Gourlay is looking at. Both Gourlay and Gilfoy have long-term business plans for their publications and are willing to wait to branch out at the right time.

This should be good news for Kimber and his students, but he still wishes that Atlantic Canada could produce more magazines with less formulaic content. “We have students atProgress, graduates atWhere, the associate editor at Saltscapes is from here,” he says. “I don’t think they are doing what they are capable of or what would be really interesting.” Kimber shares Shaw’s sentiments about Saltscapes. “You’ll get tourists who buy it, people who are from here and are away who will buy it, but there isn’t much in it to excite anybody.” Still, Catherine Salisbury, one of Coastlife‘s creators, admires the Gourlay’s financial commitment to Atlantic Canada. “You can shit on their content but it’s pretty commendable what they’ve done. We didn’t do it,” says Salisbury. And Shaw admits, “Saltscapes had a business plan, they rented mailing lists, did direct mail. We didn’t go for any of that.”

Though Shaw and his partners tried to raise the bar on Atlantic Canadian magazine publishing they didn’t have the money. Shaw might try again some day, but as he remembers his grief and relief at Coastlife‘s demise, the chances look slim: “I learned everything there is to know about magazines. Reading them is fun. Writing for them is mostly fun. Producing one’s a big pain in the ass.”


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