Tuesday, September 01, 2009
If for nothing else, you gotta love Ken Whyte’s Maclean’s for its covers. Sometimes they’re sensationalistic
, sometimes they’re surprising
, sometimes they’re just plain silly
. And usually—and most importantly—they sell really well. In 2004, the year before Whyte came on, the newsweekly was averaging weekly single copy sales of 8,874 for the July-December period; last year, the average was 13,5531, a figure that’s even more astounding when you consider that the cover price has steadily increased, from an average of $4.99 in 2006 to $6.33 last year.2
Photo illustration by Michael Hewis.
As every smart circulator will tell you, readers do judge magazines by their covers. Once the purchase has been made, though, it’s what’s inside that counts. And though it’s not a perfect magazine
, what Maclean’s does well, it does really well.
Canadian politics, for example. The magazine’s Ottawa bureau might just be the best in the country, offering a splendid mix of politics-as-theatre, politics-as-policy and politics-as-sport. The arts and life coverage in the back pages is superior to what any of the country’s daily newspapers offer. And even if you sometimes (or always) disagree with their point-of-view, the magazine’s columnists do what great columnists are supposed to do: they get people talking.
And when Rogers stopped sending comp copies of the magazine to my office, I actually went out a paid for a subscription.
But beyond specific sections within the book, what Maclean’s offers, more than any large Canadian magazine I can think of, is a strong and distinct voice. Which only makes sense, considering what Ken Whyte said during a speech to the Advertising Club of Toronto in April 2008. I liked the speech so much when I first heard it that I reprinted part of it in my editorial for the May/June edition of Masthead and I still like it, so I’m going to reprint that same part right here:
The fundamental of all fundamentals in the magazine business is the relationship with the reader…The key to that reader relationship, I believe, lies in the voices of the magazine. Voice is a hard thing to describe but all magazines, for better or worse, have a unique, individual voice. You can’t put your finger on it but you know it when its there, and you miss it when it’s gone. At its most basic, it’s how the magazine speaks to you. You take all a magazine’s style and substance, all the articles, the pictures, the layout, the tone, the humour, the opinion, the utility, the credibility—you add all that stuff together and you’ve got a magazine’s voice. The more distinctive and powerful the voice, the more valuable the magazine.
A magazine with a good voice sparks interest, commands attention, inspires loyalty. It creates a bond with its reader. From a business point of view and an editorial point of view, that bond is gold. If there is an iron law in magazines it is this: Voice is value. A magazine with a good voice, you can take that to the bank.”
Rogers recently appointed Whyte as publisher of Canadian Business, a magazine that’s been hit really hard by the recession (run-of-press ad pages were down 45.2% in Q1 and 50% in Q2). His appointment came at the expense of respected longtime publisher Deborah Rosser and he’s since fired seven staff members and “promoted” CB editor Joe Chidley out of the EIC chair.
It’s always unfortunate when people lose their jobs, but here’s hoping that these changes represent the beginning of a brand revival for Canadian Business, rather than a shortsighted salary dump by parent company Rogers Publishing. While Steve Maich, CB’s new editor and a Whyte protégé, hasn’t given much indication about the direction he’s taking the magazine in, we do know that Whyte likes his journalism loud, opinionated and contrarian. In a media environment where the fight for attention is fiercer than ever, those qualities may give CB the voice it needs to be heard by readers and advertisers alike.
Based on Audit Bureau of Circulations Fas-Fax.
Based on the Canadian Newsstand Boxscore.
Monday, August 17, 2009
This isn't about politics. It's about editorial mindset.
On several occasions during my two years as Masthead
editor, I heard a variety of industry folks complain that today’s Canadian magazines don’t take enough chances; that editors—beholden to the bottom line enforcements of their publishers (particularly at larger companies)—play it safe, constantly returning to the same themes, stories, topics, and approaches issue after issue after issue. “They don’t run long features anymore;” “They don’t let writers play with voice, tone or form;” “They’re too white;” “They don’t experiment with radical, art department-driven covers;” etc. What may have been gained in terms of ad revenues and readership has been lost in terms of social impact and cultural influence, the complainers say.
Then again, maybe magazines—at least the ones that survive—have always played it safe. As Don Draper once said, way back in the early (albeit fictional) 1960s, responding to an idea for a new TV show, “It’s derivative with a twist, which is what they’re looking for.”
I’d love to get a discussion on this topic going in the comments section. Do you agree that Canadian magazines have become too conservative when it comes to editorial? If so, why do you think this is the case? Maybe it’s not such a bad thing? What titles are bucking the trend (if it is indeed a trend)?
Monday, August 10, 2009
Foreign magazines sold in this country are allowed to sell up to 18% of their ad space to Canadians. Companies exceeding this amount are in violation of the Foreign Publishers Advertising Services Act
(FPASA), which passed in 1999, ending a heated six-year debate over “split-runs,” where lobbyists successfully argued that foreign magazines were "stealing" potential revenue from Canuck media companies.
So here’s the issue: Split-runs are back. Just not in print.
And here’s the question: Do we care?
A couple of weeks ago, Olive Media
, an online ad sales network based in Toronto, announced
that it will now represent four Time Inc. magazine websites in Canada: People.com, EW.com, CNNMoney.com and SI.com. What this means is that Canadian agencies and advertisers buying through Olive can potentially spend all of their money with Time Inc., or any number of the international sites Olive reps for. Olive Media, it should be noted, isn’t the only company repping American brands in Canada and Time Inc.’s aren’t the only U.S. brands being repped by Canadian networks.
When I contacted the Department of Canadian Heritage, I got an e-mail response recounting of the details of FPASA, followed by this line: “The Department is constantly monitoring developments in the industry, including changes in technology, to ensure that its measures continue to meet the objectives of Canada's periodical policy as effectively as possible.”
Magazines Canada CEO Mark Jamison told me individual publishers could offer the best point-of-view, but so far, no one has returned my calls.
The only person I’ve spoken with at length about the issue so far is Simon Jennings, president of Olive Media. And as you might expect, the guy’s not in favour of re-igniting the split-run wars of the ‘90s.
All publishers, Jennings said, are fighting for all dollars on the Internet. “And what they’re actually competing for are Canadian eyeballs. If I’m selling cars, and I want to reach car buyers in the GTA, I’m going to look for the best site with the best Toront- . If it happens to be Toronto born and bred, great. But users are the ones that dictate where advertisers want to spend. Dollars follow eyeballs.”
In other words, if Canadians are using American, or French, or Indian websites, it would be unjust to stop Canadian advertisers from placing ads in front of those eyeballs.
Further to that, Jennings suggested that if the Canadian government wants to help Canadian companies attract online advertising, it should invest in the creation of quality content and websites, rather than setting up regulations on where advertisers can spend their money. “The geographical borders have been dropped in online media,” he said.
To be honest, I can’t say I disagree with Jennings. Do you? If so, feel free to leave a comment on this posting. Or better yet, give me a call: 905-625-7070 x222.
Friday, August 07, 2009
In our ongoing survey of Masthead readers
, we’re asking, “What issues/themes are of greatest interest to you?” Currently, second only to “launches and closures” sits “Gossip, i.e. hirings, firings.” Well, here’s a good one: Sept. 4 is my last day at Masthead
No, I didn’t get fired. And no, we haven’t hired a replacement yet. (The job will soon be posted.) I’m leaving to go to school to learn how to become a teacher. If you’re near OISE this fall or winter, come say hi.
Thanks to all of you for reading. The Masthead
experience has been exciting, fun, challenging, sometimes scary and sometimes weird. (“Hello, my name is Marco and I work at a magazine about magazines.”) Thanks to publisher Doug Bennet and North Island owner Sandy Donald for taking a chance on a young Ryerson grad, and thanks to all my colleagues here at North Island, especially webmaster par excellence Thomas Wang and associate publisher Gloria Ma.
I’m hoping to keep a hand in journalism during my studies and beyond, so feel free to contact me at marcoursi [at] gmail [dot] com. (Or, better yet, come see my band! Follow us at www.myspace.com/goodingjones
Oh, and be sure to keep visiting MastheadOnline
. I’m sure my successor will continue to push the site in bold and brave new directions.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
To find out what you like, dislike, and would like to see more or less of on Masthead
, we've put together a short reader survey
. It shouldn't take more than 10 minutes to fill out and will go a long way towards improving helping us take this site to the next level—whatever that level is.
Here's the link again.
Monday, July 27, 2009
I had never heard of Urbanology
magazine until last week, when I received an e-mail informing me of a TTC campaign the magazine is running in conjunction with its fifth anniversary. The press release was short, clear and came with an image. I thought the initiative was cool and I needed a story, so I quickly typed something up and posted it
, Media In Canada
and the Canadian Magazines
blog also bit and published their own versions of the story. Now, a lot more people will have heard of Urbanology
Free publicity never hurts, so next time your magazine does something cool, e-mail a press release to media outlets you think might be interested. They won't necessarily publish anything about it, but at least you'll get on their radar.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Three years ago, Jeffrey A. McMurtrie decided to make his own map of Algonquin Park. McMurtie, a third year environmental geography student at the University of Toronto and a frequent Algonquin visitor, realized that the official park map had “serious” cartographical errors. He also didn’t like the fact that the map didn’t mark enough destinations such as springs or historical sites. He spent two years working on the project, gathering information from earlier park maps, books, newspapers, park publications, trip logs and his own observations. When he was done, he put it on the Internet and allowed people to download it for free
Jeffrey A. McMurtrie is currently on a canoe trip in Algonquin and could not be reached for comment.
McMurtrie’s map is much, much better than the official park map, which you can only get in print for a price. It's more accurate, more current and has way more information. (He says it has more than 120 layers of data.) He updates it frequently and is happy to correct errors that users inform him of.
He also sells an 84-page book version of the map for $25, a full-sized, 41.5”x55” version for $35 ($45 on waterproof material), and sectioned versions for $10-$16. “Don’ worry though,” McMurtrie writes, “the print and digital versions are the same. In fact the prices are as low as the printing companies will let me go (I don't want to make a profit.)”
In his New Yorker review
of Chris Anderson’s much-discussed book Free
, Malcolm Gladwell questions the wisdom of the by-now ancient mantra of Web evangelists, “Information wants to be free.”
But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?
Gladwell makes a good point, but the thing is, passionate hobbyists like McMurtrie do want the information they provide to be free. “I don’t want to make a profit.” And, more importantly, passionate hobbyists like McMurtrie often provide information that is better than what’s provided by people and organizations that do want to make a profit.
This is the key point, a point that is absolutely essential for publishers, editors and writers—virtually everyone who works in magazines and media—to understand. People don’t choose McMurtrie’s map over the official map because it’s free; they choose it because it's better than all the other options. And there are thousands, maybe millions of people like McMurtrie out there, providing rich content with no intentions of getting rich (or even making a profit). They do it because they love it. They share it because the Internet allows them to and because it’s fun to share.
It frustrates me to no end when I hear people suggest that content created by professionals is inherently superior to content created by amateurs. I’ll grant you that for certain kinds of things—films and TV shows, classical music and jazz, possibly investigative and literary journalism—money makes a difference. Playing Mozart symphonies on the violin takes years and years of training (not to mention a lot of musical talent), so the orchestras that pay are going to get better players than the orchestras that don’t. On the other hand, things like commentary, essays, service journalism, reviews, photography, even news reporting—the bulk of what goes into most magazines—are often done just as well, if not better, by people like Jeffrey A. McMurtrie.
So hide behind your pay walls if you must. You might even get some people to follow you. And if you’re smart enough and good enough, you might even turn a profit. The majority of people, though, will be out in the real Web, planning fishing and canoe trips on the backs of guys who spend three years worth of time and energy building giant maps that they give away for free. These people don’t care whether or not you’re “monetizing” your content or not. They just want their maps.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Print advertising got a ringing endorsement from the federal government last month when Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq proposed
a bill that will eliminate any and all cigarette advertising from print publications.
Filter Cigarettes has been using Canadian publications to promote its "World Famous American Blend."
Didn’t they ban tobacco ads a long time ago, you ask? Pretty much, but a couple of years ago, a Supreme Court ruling on the 1997 Tobacco Act opened the doors for nicotine-pushers to run commercials in magazines and newspapers, as long as the ads didn’t have any “lifestyle” elements (i.e. no good-looking people holding cigarettes at awesome parties), didn’t specifically appeal to children (i.e. no camels), and were run in publications with more than 85% adult readers.
But the amendment, which has passed through the house and is “awaiting senate approval” (i.e. which is basically already law), will put an end to all that.
I can’t imagine how the ads that have run in publications such as Eye Weekly
, Time Canada
, Toronto Life
and the Georgia Straigh
t over the last couple of years could convince anyone to take up the nasty habit. All of them basically look the same: A pack of cigarettes sitting on a dull grey background with a bunch of warnings about the dangers of smoking. If it wasn’t for the slightly hilarious tag lines like, “Come to where the flavor is,” you’d be forgiven for thinking these are anti-smoking promos.
Targeting tobacco is always an easy way for the feds to score brownie points. And this time, magazines are being forced to pay the ($1.3 million) price in foregone revenues. Never mind that cigarettes remain a legal, saleable product in Canada; never mind that the federal government collected $2.1 billion tax revenues from tobacco sales in 2007-2008; never mind that the back pages of most entertainment weeklies are filled with classifieds for “erotic massages” and “escorts”; never mind that the Ontario government produces a magazine called Food & Drink
that generously promotes the consumption of alcohol.
It’s a shame our government believes we’re so gullible that it needs to censor what kinds of advertisements can and can’t run in our so-called free press. And you have to wonder, if some magazine for some reason decided to run a monthly column about the joys of smoking, would the government try to shut that down, too?
It’s funny, though: since we started covering this story, we’ve put in several calls to publishers of titles that have run the ads; not one of them has been willing to give us any on-the-record comment. Guilty much?
Monday, June 29, 2009
In his famous story, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
,” originally published by Harper’s
magazine in 1996, David Foster Wallace
, the ridiculously gifted writer who committed suicide last fall at the age of 46, detailed his experiences as a passenger on a weeklong Caribbean cruise, combining flurries of facts and keen observations about the ship’s travelers, crew, food, entertainment, etc., with piercing analysis and deep reflection on what it means to be pampered and do “Absolutely Nothing” for seven days. The result is a masterful piece of non-fiction writing, full of humour, dread and deep insights. This morning, as I was reading the essay (originally titled “Shipping Out”), one of those insights struck me as being particularly relevant to magazines, so I thought I’d share it here.
The late David Foster Wallace.
Wallace spends the eighth section of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” deconstructing an “essay” by “famous writer and Iowa Writers Workshop Chairperson Frank Conroy” that appeared in the cruise ship brochure. Wallace objects to the essay on a number of grounds: its “tone of breathless approval,” its “constant and mesmeric references to fantasy and alternate realities and the palliative powers of pro pampering,” the way it tries to micromanage “not only one’s perceptions of a 7NC Luxury Cruise but even one’s own interpretation and articulation of those perceptions.” But mostly, Wallace objects to the “sneaky and duplicitous” way the brochure tries to present this blatant piece of advertising as editorial (or, as Wallace calls it, “art.”)
“Conroy’s ‘essay,’” Wallace writes, “appears as an insert, on skinnier pages and with different margins from the rest of the brochure, creating the impression that it has been excerpted from some large and objective thing Conroy wrote.” Of course, Conroy actually wrote the essay as a paid endorsement, but this isn’t acknowledge anywhere in the brochure.
The Canadian magazine industry has for years tried to fight against the unholy blending of “church and state.” We even have a set guidelines
that magazines are encouraged to follow. But occasionally—and particularly when times are bad—magazines will test the limits; in exchange for a quick buck, they’ll let ads slip onto covers
, or into laundry room spreads
, or onto transparent plastic overlays
And then, when someone questions them on the ethics of it, the publishers and editors and salespeople who’ve crossed the line tend to shrug their shoulders and say something along the lines of, “It’s not a big deal.”
Here is Wallace’s argument for why it is a big deal. Feel free to supplant the word “essay” with “content” where appropriate:
Whether it honors them well or not, an essay’s fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this, and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisement’s primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interest of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally, for the reader’s benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too—that an ad’s appeal is by its very nature calculated—and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.
In the case of Frank Conroy’s ‘essay,’ Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we properly reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art (or that is at least trying to be art). An ad that pretends to be art is—at absolute best—like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.
Friday, June 19, 2009
If you want to charge readers for access to your online content, it better be a hell of a lot better than what they can get for free on The Daily Beast
, The Huffington Post
, SB Nation
, The Sartorialist
, etc. It should also probably be better than every print magazine still being sold on newsstands and more interesting and entertaining than Mad Men
, Radiohead, Malcolm Gladwell and World of Warcraft
Just a guess here: It’s probably not.
People will still pay pretty good money for well-written, well-edited, well-curated, well-targetted and/or great-looking print magazines. The Economist
is just one example
. But a great magazine offers more than content; it offers an experience. The problem with online, at least as far as publishers are concerned, is that the Web itself is the experience. And people already pay a hefty monthly fee for that experience.
The Scott Karp
s and Jeff Jarvis
es of the world explained the downsides of online pay walls a long time ago: Sites behind pay walls lose access to potential audiences on Google, on Facebook, on Twitter, on forums, on blogs. You can’t link to them. The online world ignores them.
In other words, they aren’t part of the Web experience.
But maybe I'm missing something. After all, everyone from Rupert Murdoch
to Ann Moore
to Brian Segal
is talking about monetizing online content by directly charging consumers.