Sylvia Macdonald
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Wide of the Market

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Upscale readers were the target, but a lot of good writers were hardest hit

When the Print Measurement Bureau released its 1983 study, it contained bad news for Quest, the controlled-circulation magazine published by Comac Communications Inc. According to PMB ’83, Quest had lost 600,000 readers since 1981. Within months ad revenues started to nosedive. In an attempt to save the magazine, its circulation was cut from 710,000 to 480,000, ad rates were dropped, the magazine was redesigned and its business coverage increased. The first issue of the new format appeared in September, 1984, but after only two issues Comac’s operating committee voted to fold Quest.

Ten years ago, 19 percent of the consumer magazines listed in Canadian Advertising Rates & Data were classified as “general editorial” books; today, only 12 percent, or 52 of the 426 magazines listed, fall into this category. However, this statistic gives an overly optimistic view of the situation, since the majority of magazines classified as general editorial are publications such as India Calling, Canadian Churchman and Goodlife.

Quest’s demise was only the latest in a series of deaths of general-interest magazines. Earlier fatalities included the monthly Maclean’s, the newspaper supplements Weekend and The Canadian and their short-lived successor, Today. It is clear that the mass circulation general-interest magazine is virtually dead-Saturday Night is the sole survivor in the field-and with it is dying the genre of magazine writing represented, and mourned, by such skilled practitioners as Roy MacGregor, Harry Bruce and others.

A number of factors hastened the thinning of the ranks. Some of the difficulties facing newspaper supplements were connected to their distribution by independent newspapers. The supplements were unpopular with some newspaper publishers because their content was too bland, or, conversely, too controversial. Other publishers suspected the supplements of stealing advertising from newspaper pages.

But the supplements’ real problem lay in their inability to satisfy advertisers. The supplements served the same wide audience reached by television, but high production costs and their huge circulations (4.5 million at their peak) drove the cost of a four-color, full-page ad up over $40,000. There were also complaints about the quality of color reproduction in the supplements. Correcting this deficiency meant moving up to a better quality of paper stock, which involved increasing production costs yet again. Today ultimately did change its stock and the results were good, but it was already too late. Advertisers had gone elsewhere.

Perhaps the final reason for this exodus was the prevailing view that supplements weren’t being read. “There was a belief that their editorial was too broad and soft, that it wasn’t very interesting,” says Sandy Robertson, vice-president, media, at Vickers and Benson. This view persisted in spite of excellent readership statistics. An interesting parallel is provided by the two surviving national newspaper supplements in the United States, Parade and Family Weekly. Their readership is increasing, but their advertising pages dropped 20 percent between 1983 and ’84.

Unlike the others, Maclean’s did not die but was transformed into a newsmagazine in 1975. A major reason for this was the proposed introduction of Bill C-58, passed in 1976, which eliminated tax concessions for advertisers running ads in the Canadian editions of such U.S.-based magazines as Time and Reader’s Digest. A number of advertisers switched to Maclean’s, making it financially possible to move to the newsmagazine format. But in the process, Maclean’s also decreased its circulation, eliminating readers who did not conform to its target audience-university-educated, senior management types with a household income of$75,000 and up-perhaps an early recognition that times were changing. Quest, the latest casualty, foundered because of decreasing readership. As a controlled-circulation magazine, it derived all its revenue from advertisers, and advertisers want to know their ads are being read. Why did people stop reading? “My personal opinion is that the editorial drifted away from the interests of its readers,” says Robertson.

In spite of their differences, these magazines did have a common enemy: market segmentation.

For many advertisers it’s not a question of how many people they reach but who those people are. “The decline of general-interest magazines stemmed from advertiser concern about waste combined with superior methods for targeting audiences,” says Hugh Dow, senior vice-president, media, at MacLaren Advertising and chairman of the PMB. The majority of Canadians may own television sets but only those in certain income brackets can afford to buy many of the products advertised. But because ad rates are based on the size of the audience, advertisers end up paying to reach nonbuyers and buyers alike. If some advertisers will not accept the waste circulation TV provides, it is obvious they will not tolerate it in magazines either. The resulting targeting has accounted for the rebirth of magazines in Canada, though not the general-interest breed.

The new magazines are city, regional and special-interest books that are directed at specific income and interest groups. “It’s like a shooting range out there,” says Paul Rush, editor and publisher of The Financial Post Magazine, “with everybody targeting very small areas.”

Targeting also lies behind the proliferation of controlled circulation magazines. These magazines are delivered free to houses in neighborhoods selected on the basis of demographics. But simply delivering magazines to these households does not guarantee they will be read. The content has to appeal to the residents or they will never open the book. Advertisers will withdraw their support when readership surveys reveal declining interest, as the case of Quest clearly demonstrated.

Putting out a successful magazine in a market as small as Canada’s, therefore, increasingly depends on providing editorial content that will appeal to Canadians with disposable income. However, there is a danger of presenting a myopic, distorted view of Canadian society if editors decide, for example, that affluent Canadians are not interested in environmental pollution or the poor. Some lifestyle magazines such as Goodlife are predicated on the assumption that readers are, in fact, interested in nothing but themselves.

Evaluation of a magazine’s success now rests largely with the Print Measurement Bureau, established in 1971. Funded jointly by advertisers, advertising agencies and magazine publishers, PMB collects and distributes readership statistics about its member magazines every year. PMB is one case in which being a small market has been an advantage, allowing the use of sophisticated readership monitoring techniques. But that can have its drawbacks. “Look what it’s done to us,” says John Aitken, editor of the University of Toronto’s alumni magazine The Graduate and a former associate editor at Weekend and Maclean’s. “It’s driven Quest out of business.”

Market research has other limitations. “It can tell you where you’ve come from, and it can monitor success, but it can’t tell you what to put on your next cover,” says Aitken. John Gault, a former Toronto Life columnist, is equally suspicious of the trend toward market research. By putting too much emphasis on it, magazines have lost the capacity for “surprising people with new information presented in new ways,” he believes. “I say proudly that I’m a New Journalist,”

Gault continues. “I feel sometimes as if the industry has abandoned an interest in the type of journalism I do.” Others’ assessments of what is being lost vary. Former Canadian writer Roy MacGregor, who is currently Ottawa editor for Maclean’s: “I care about the death of what I call the second-tier story,” profiles of those “whose names do not reside on the tip of the tongue but whom, for whatever reason, you might like to know a little bit more about.”

Freelancer Anne Collins: “I have the queasy feeling that anything that is strongly felt or contentious just isn’t wanted anywhere.” Freelance writer and Maclean’s theatre critic Mark Czarnecki: “What areas are taboo? Anything critical of business, anything to do with the way culture works in Canada, how it’s perceived, how its funded. Anything to do with thought, just thinking about something and writing about it.” Paul Rush: “That serendipitous type of story, a little piece of life, just a well-written story that’s a pleasure to read will have trouble finding a home. I also suspect that issue stories won’t get into magazines. There’s a theory some magazine people have that the world doesn’t want to read those stories.” Jocelyn Laurence, an executive editor at Toronto Life: “What’s missing is the desire to experiment and take chances. Editorially everyone seems to be playing it safe.” Novelist and writer Katherine Govier: “Writing that really seems to be by somebody as opposed to by the magazine. What’s lost is a kind of innocence that existed in Canadian publishing when consumerism wasn’t the driving force.”

The writers for the old general-interest magazines tried to reveal the good and the bad about people and institutions they covered. Rather than contribute to the myths surrounding prominent Canadians, they set out to shatter those myths and to tell their readers what they thought it was important for them to know. Highly individual in their responses, they led, not followed.

Now they describe themselves as dinosaurs. In the foreword to Each Moment as It Flies, a collection of his magazine pieces, Harry Bruce says, “Sometimes I feel like Joshua Slocum, master mariner of The Age of Sail, who lived to see steamships make his one talent useless. Slocum expressed his rage and sorrow by sailing around the world, all by himself. I wish there was something that dramatic that an old-time magazine man could do to protest the dying of his trade.”

Saturday Night’s editor, Robert Fulford, rejects the lament of Bruce and others that their work is no longer wanted by magazine editors. He cites a host of magazines-literary magazines, art and music magazines, special-interest magazines “of every kind at every level of quality “-that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Good writers can and do get published, he believes. MacGregor disagrees, arguing that these magazines have limited money, limited readership and a limited subject area. “You’re getting paid nothing to write something that nobody reads,” he says, “and that hurts no matter how good the piece is.”

Also disturbing to magazine journalists is the fact that many special-interest magazines pander to their advertisers. “The trend to specialization has been largely motivated by the desire of advertisers to reach a specific audience,” says John Macfarlane, publisher of Saturday Night. As a result, publishers and owners have pursued the advertisers more ardently than their readers. Gary Zivot, president of Media Ventures Inc., which publishes Goodlife, prefers to put it this way: “Most of the places we write about don’t have a lot wrong with them. Why would we do an article on what’s wrong with dude ranches instead of not doing it at all?”

This trend toward happy news, not special-interest magazines themselves, is what threatens good magazine journalism says David Olive, a staff writer at The Globe and Mail’s new Report on Business Magazine. “Everybody has a zillion things to be depressed about. There’s a mass of readers who are tired of being shocked. What we have to be prepared to do in journalism is to keep shocking them.” Zivot, who is not a journalist but a marketing specialist, sees it differently. “McLuhan said a magazine bathes people. Nobody wants to bathe in acid rain.”

Aside from readers, the people who are most affected by these changes are the magazine writers. Asked increasingly for noncritical material, many of them have given up and turned to books, televisionand film. “It’s soul destroying for a good journalist to have to do lifestyle shit,” says John Gault who now makes most of his living writing for the television program Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness. Award-winning magazine writer Elaine Dewar works for the same program. Harry Bruce edits the Dalhousie Alumni Magazine. Anne Collins, Carsten Stroud and other freelancers are writing books.

For writers who are starting out, there are fewer places to learn the art of magazine writing. Toronto Life is considered one of the best remaining training grounds. Saturday Night publishes the occasional new writer but tends to assign most pieces to a handful of regular contributors. In contrast, Quest commissioned articles from 100 different writers in 1983. This situation may have long-term consequences. Traditionally, a large number of Canada’s nonfiction authors have come from the ranks of magazine writers. Carsten Stroud, for example, was noticed by publishers mainly because of the work he did in magazines, particularly Toronto Life. Authors Peter Gzowski, Farley Mowat and others honed their craft at magazines. If this kind of magazine journalism disappears, we could lose this pool of nonfiction talent.

Saturday Night is not likely to be able to hold the fort alone against these trends. Some journalists bemoan its preoccupation with the world of politics and finance. Others think it too intellectual, or boring. Still others see a “Saturday Night voice” developing that smothers individuality of style. Ron Graham, an associate editor at the magazine, disputes this. “There’s no colossal editing machine to knock writers into conformity. It’s just a question of recognizing that writing is a craft with certain rules of structure and grammar and voice that have been around for a long time. Breaking those rules is an acceptable form of communication that may work. In my own experience, it works less often.”

Mark Czarnecki sees a more serious problem. Saturday Night, he says, effectively prevents the founding of new general-interest magazines because “publishers are under the impression that it’s the cat’s pajamas. It’s an example of the way funding follows funding in this country. We’re very against letting go of established institutions.” If people stand aside next time Saturday Night is in trouble, he says, it will indicate a fundamental change in thinking about Canadian magazines, “the idea that things that need to be said aren’t being said.”

Most magazine journalists, however, are not optimistic about the return of general-interest magazines. Even if the economy turns around, says sports writer Earl McRae, “you have to have someone bankrolling [that kind of magazine] who can afford to take financial risks and who has the conscience to risk offending the vested interests. You have to have an editor who fights for the integrity of good, honest journalism. Those people are very rare. I can’t see it on the horizon in this country.”

Those who are not prepared to take financial risks will never be convinced of the viability of general-interest magazines. “The thing there’s no market for is mass audiences at premium prices,” says Gary Zivot. “No one’s going to touch TV’s mass audiences for low prices except maybe newspapers.”

While younger writers and editors are also concerned about the state of magazines in Canada, they are more hopeful about their future. “There’s nothing I pick up right now and think, ‘This is exciting, I want to be a part of this,'” says Katherine Govier. “But rather than take a really gloomy view, we have to look at magazines like Equinox and The Financial Post Magazine that aren’t as high profile but are still attracting advertisers. I think new markets can be developed. Readers are out there and you have to find them.”

“I’m much more a believer in cycles,” says Stephen Trumper, an executive editor of Toronto Life. “Obviously we’re at the end of one cycle for general-interest magazines. It doesn’t mean they won’t come back in the future.” Carsten Stroud also predicts their return ”as soon as it looks like a magazine can survive on that basis.” We’ll see a “resurgence of interest in the world around us,” he believes.

Others think special-interest magazines can fill the role previously played by general-interest books. “Where we have the potential for excellence now is if the people writing for special-interest magazines do a better job,” says Olive. In order for this to occur, Laurence says, “writers may have to broaden their spheres of knowledge. Editors, and this makes tpe very sad, may have to narrow theirs.”

Overall, Laurence is somewhat philosophical. “What will have to happen is that we will all have to start rethinking the way we behave toward magazines. If you look at the history of magazines, they’ve gone through immense changes. There’s no reason to believe this is their last gasp.” One possibility she foresees is magazines that are more like books, presenting a variety of points of view on one subject in a single issue.

“Editors have spent a lot of time boohooing the death of things,” Laurence says. “But The Canadian and Weekend will never come back. This is what we’ve got, so let’s try to do something about it.”

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