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Based on what they told me last week, I think I will like what John Macfarlane and Brian Morgan have done with The Walrus. While I believe both men are committed to a Walrus that is intellectual and ambitious, it also sounds like they’re aiming to create a magazine that is more immediate and accessible than the one produced by their predecessors.
Let's backtrack. I support the idea of The Walrus. I believe Canada should have a national, mass-distributed magazine of ideas, culture and long-form journalism. And I don’t even mind that such a magazine requires charitable funding to survive. But, thing is, up to now, I haven’t particularly enjoyed reading that magazine.
Despite the fact that I am not rich, well connected or even particularly well educated (my “university degree” is for “journalism”), I think I’m the kind of person The Walrus is trying to reach. I read The New Yorker religiously. I read New York and Maclean’s a lot. I sometimes read The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. I enjoy Maisonneuve and This Magazine. I prefer the features and columns in Toronto Life to the real estate and shopping tips.
I subscribed to The Walrus in the early days. I even applied for an internship there (and didn’t get it). The magazine has dominated the National Magazine Awards over the last five years, so there must be people out there who thought highly of it, but personally, I can only name two memorable pieces from my own reading experience: Bill Cameron's memoir about dying from cancer and Bill Reynolds' piece about cycling, which I only read because Reynolds is my old prof and friend.
To be fair, I haven’t read that many pieces in The Walrus. Yes, I used to subscribe, but most of the time, I never bothered digging in. The magazine, in my opinion, never worked hard enough to earn my attention—it always had the stench of something that was supposed to be “good for you.” The display copy was inconsistent at best, cryptic at worst. (The cover line for the Reynolds article mentioned above was “Love thy bike.” What the hell?) The art was often completely disconnected from to the features (which, from what I’ve heard, was partly due to the ramshackle way stories were assigned and edited). There was too much text. (Those New Yorker cartoons aren’t there just to make you laugh/groan/scratch your head.) And then, when I would finally work up the courage to read something, I’d be bored.
Perhaps I just wasn’t literate enough for the old Walrus. Kat Tancock, who writes the Magazines Online blog, is a fan. “I have half a PhD,” she told me. “I'm pretty immune to the sleepiness factor.”
The Macfarlane/Morgan Walrus will no doubt be a more conventional magazine than the Alexander/De Luca Walrus. There will be profiles. Some of the articles will be shorter than they might have been in the past (though Macfarlane assures us that the magazine is still committed to long-form journalism). When the editors are discussing stories, they’ll have to ask the question “Why now?” The display copy and the art will work together. The stories will have more “moment.”
That’s what I was told, anyway. And it got me excited. I haven’t seen the issue yet, but an advance copy is supposed to be on the way. And when I get it—and read it—I’ll let you know what I think.
We have been getting a lot of comments on MastheadOnline lately. That's great, awesome, super, fantastic, etc. Keep 'em coming.
But here's the thing: It's time to lay down some rules. For a variety of reasons, I haven't been posting some of the comments coming in. And it's only fair that we're explicit about what's acceptable and what's not. So expect to see a policy sometime next week.
In the meantime, check out the comment policies for Television Without Pity. They're hilarious. If you're looking for advice on how to be a valuable commenter, check out Lifehacker's guide. And if you're looking for a comment-related laugh, check out this Webcomic.
There’s an interesting posting up on the Canadian Magazines blog from Jon Spencer of Abacus Circulation, who has asked recent applicants to the Canada Magazine Fund's "Support for Business Development for Magazine Publishers" to fill out a survey about their experience:
I would be interested to hear whether your applications to this program in the current fiscal year (from April 2008 to March 2009) have been handled as they have been in previous years, or if you have encountered any changes to the approval process.
I have also heard some rumblings and grumblings about how the way CMF applications are being handled this year, particularly with regards to response times. Unfortunately, like publishers across the country, I’m pretty much in the dark when it comes to questions like “What’s happening with the Canadian Periodical Fund?” or “What happens when Canada Post pulls its $15 million contribution to the PAP in April?”
It’s not like I haven’t tried to get some answers. I make periodic calls to the Department of Canadian Heritage and once in a while I even get someone on the phone, but every time I ask for information about funding for magazines, I get “no comment.”
I understand that things must be difficult for people working in government right now, what with parliament prorogued until next week, but we really need to hear something from the DCH on this stuff soon. The economy is going to make 2009 a difficult enough year for publishers as it is; the least we can ask from our government is that they communicate to us about what’s going on with funding that many magazines rely on for survival.
A couple of months ago, I interviewed Jim Glionna, president and owner of Newcom Business Media, for a profile that appears in the final print edition of Masthead. Glionna, who's been in this business for 40 years and was preceded in it by his father, Alfredo Orazio Glionna, had strong opinions about every topic I brought up, including the Web:
"I wish the Web had never happened. The Web has been, for 99% of publishers, the worst thing that’s ever come down the pipe. It’s just a goddamn big money pit," he said. "But you gotta be there."
TodaysTrucking.com, the website for Newcom's flagship magazine, Today's Trucking, has won gold or silver for Best Website at the Kenneth R. Wilson Awards every year since the category was introduced. Along with senior editor Marco Beghetto, who devotes about 40% of his time to maintaining and developing the site's content, Glionna also employs a webmaster for TodaysTrucking.com and a company-wide director of Internet operations.
And yet, despite these investments (and others in design, back-end development, etc.), Glionna hasn't seen much payoff. "Are we making any money on the Web? No. Are we spending much money on the Web? Yes."
When I asked him why he bothers with the Web at all, his answer surprised me. "It seems like we have to. Glacier (publisher of TruckNews) has got a good site too...We gotta stay ahead."
In other words, it's about maintaining the credibility and strength of the Today's Trucking brand. Though there may not be a ton of online revenue available in his market at this point, Glionna recognizes that, whether he likes it or not, people will use the Internet to seek out information about trucking. When they do, he wants TodaysTrucking.com to be their number one source. And then, if and when the dollars do become available, he'll be well-positioned to pounce.
No doubt about it: The fact that consumer magazine ad pages in the U.S. dropped 11.7% in 2008 is scary. The story underscores the precariousness of this ad-supported business during recessionary periods. It underscores the very real challenges publishers and ad sales people everywhere will face going into 2009 as companies in almost every sector scale back their spending. And it underscores the fact that there are almost certainly more layoffs, more circulation and frequency cuts and more magazine deaths coming in the weeks and months ahead.
But while it’s important for Canadian magaziners to keeps tabs on what happening south of the border (through publications such Folio:, MediaPost and our own Mag News Around the Web feature), it’s also important to remember the vast size gap between the Canadian and American publishing industries.
Consider automotive consumer magazine advertising in the U.S. Once the leading category for American mags, auto advertising declined by a whopping 20.5% in 2008, after falling 6.3% in 2007, 13.8% in 2006 and 7.1% in 2005 (thanks to Ad Age for doing the math).
So, after all the drops, how much was actually spent by American auto advertisers in 2008? $1.67 billion. What’s the total worth of the Canadian magazine industry, according to the admittedly dated Statistics Canada survey from 2003-2004? $1.5 billion.
Even if that number is probably closer to $2 billion today, the comparison still helps put things into perspective: A single, desperately suffering American ad category is worth nearly as much, if not more, than the entire Canadian magazine industry’s combined revenues.
My point: Be cautious when comparing your own magazine or company with magazines and companies in the U.S. It's a different world down there.