Everyone’s got an opinion about the economic downturn, the future of magazines and the fate of the industry as a whole, and it seems they’re not afraid to share it online, in print or over cocktails. Everywhere you look it seems there’s some old-school “industry expert” waxing poetic about print being doomed or mostly doomed or not doomed at all. News of layoffs and closures are everywhere. We're all scared, pessimistic and pretty miserable most of the time.
But what about the future magazine leaders of tomorrow? What do they think about the fact that the career path they’ve only just embarked on seems destined to fail? Do they take to heart all the jokes that J-schoolers should get out while they can? And how does someone who works for free feel about layoff headlines and belt-tightening?
It occurred to me that maybe I should ask some brilliant, hardworking (unpaid) editorial and publishing interns at The Walrus
about their opinion of the gloomy outlook. What I found is that if we’re looking for a little optimism (and humour), the trenches is where we’ll find it.
is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in various North American and European publications, including GEIST
and The Dalhousie Review
. She is the former assistant editor of Barcelona Metropolitan
magazine and a current Walrus
is currently working on a novel about her time spent in Iqaluit and is an editorial intern at the Walrus
is the publishing intern at The Walrus Foundation, the non-profit organization that publishes The Walrus
magazine. When not helping out at Foundation events, Ms Osmak reads Russian literature and plays point guard on a co-ed basketball team.
graduated from Ryerson University's journalism program. She intends to freelance upon successful completion of her editorial internship at The Walrus
As someone entering the magazine industry, how do you feel about the "soft economy" and its overall effect on magazines?
: Print might just not be a viable way to make money now. In a way, this industry is in better shape than others because there are a lot of revamping options—it doesn't have to die, like the auto industry probably does/will, eventually—and because its staffed by creative people who dig a good brainstorming session.
: Whether I was just entering the magazine industry or had been in it for years I think I would feel the same about what is happening. Nothing is ever guaranteed, as things wax and wane the most you can do is understand your part in making the best of what remains. I think magazines are important and will continue to be so. The economy does not or at least it should not dictate culture, the arts, politics, etc. -- it plays a part in the conversation but we cannot let it monopolize it.
: It's a bit frightening, but I am more intimidated by the uncertainty that comes with freelancing, at any time, even when the economy is at its strongest. In one of my first-year classes at Ryerson, a journalism instructor conducted a poll. She asked how much we were expecting to earn after graduating from j-school. I think, people mostly said they expected to get about $60,000-$80,000. When our instructor saw their responses, she laughed. Since then, I knew I'd have to deal with instability for the rest of my life. So this is not unexpected.
As an unpaid intern, how do you feel about the pervasive layoffs and salary cuts we're seeing in the headlines?
: Jeez, rub it in why don't you. Well, I don't feel good about it. But again, it's happening everywhere. I never saw working in magazines as a way to make (real) money, so the fact that people are making less now isn't that great a shock, though it sucks. I've expected a rocky road; now it's just rockier.
: I feel discouraged, in terms of my prospects of employment in the industry. At the same time, I'm glad that I'm still able to learn about the inner workings of a magazine by seeing it all first hand. As long as I'm working (hard, mind you) for free, my labour is desirable regardless of where the industry stands.
: I didn't come into the industry because I wanted to make money, I came into it wanting to contribute to our collective moment of ideas and to have my name on a byline so I could send it to my Grandma. I'm not sure if I have successfully negotiated either of things yet but I'm working on it.
How long do you think the doom and gloom will last? Do you have a strategy for overcoming it?
: 'Doom and gloom' is funny rhetoric. Not to say that people are not feeling some very real effects but maybe the 'doom and gloom' comes from us talking doom and gloom. Instead, let's talk about new opportunities or approaches.
: I think the current chaos comes as a result of growing pains. On the one hand, online is surpassing print in terms of readership. I'm trying to stay on top of this shift by observing which mags' sites work well as a new medium to display content and also as a means to generate revenue and publicity.
: At least a couple of years. Like I said, I think big changes need to be—and will be—made. As for strategies, I think about going back to school (riding it out) and getting qualified to teach something English-related (education careers are a pretty safe bet). I also cut my own bangs. That's probably pretty obvious.
Does the current recession discourage you from wanting to work in the industry? Do you personally have alternate career plans?
: No, I am sticking with journalism for now. After all, even if I had a shiny Bay Street job, I'd be told to worry right now.
: Absolutely not. As for alternate career paths - becoming an in-house baker for magazine offices all over Toronto, I'll start with zucchini bread and work from there. If you can't join 'em, feed 'em—soon enough Pavlov's law will have me being associated with all things delicious.
Are you optimistic about the future?
: Oddly, yes. There was a poster in a gallery on West Queen West about a month ago that effectively articulated my new mantra: "Good things happen to those who hustle". Amen.
: Yes, very much so. But maybe I am just a young, naive intern, full of romantic misconceptions about the nature of journalism.
: Hells yes! Obama is president, I have somewhere to live and it's almost spring. Everything's gonna be fiiiiine.
: Obviously. The challenge is getting everyone else to be optimistic.
You can find some further internship-inspired optimism by checking out the newly-launched Taddle Creek Protege Internmentship, a unique new educational program that "not only ignores the latest trends in magazine publishing—it does everything it can to buck them." While other mags cut their internships in "recessionary panic,"
Taddle Creek instead offers a comprehensive program for newbies passionate about mags, with diverse instruction from a wide variety of industry experts from both small and big mags (myself included). A love of magazines is weighed more heavily than experience, which might be exactly what we all need right now.
Interested candidates can apply by mail or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I know what you’re thinking: Circulation? Why would you ever want to do that? Editorial is the glamorous gig. Editorial is sexy. You’ve seen enough prominent editors at prestigious parties surrounded by pretty young things to know that the wordsmith is the superstar of the magazine world. Editors get the awards, the praise, and the good dates. It’s their headshots that grace printed pages. It’s their words that are quoted. There has never been a “Letter from the Circulator” addressing magazine readers, or a circulation keynote address delivered to eager J-school students.
And besides, you’ve never even heard of circulation.
I know how it is. I’ve been to happy hours where people were thrilled to find I work at a magazine, hopeful that I can score them a writing gig, only to be disappointed to find that I have zero influence in that arena. Yes, it’s my fault those annoying cards fall out of the mag while you’re reading in the bathtub. Yes, it’s my fault you get so much damn mail from us. And yes, I did decide to put all those exclamation points in your renewal letter. I don’t have to justify my starbursts to you.
I’ll be the first to admit that circ can be a pretty lonely life, especially because a magazine’s “circulation department” usually consists of a lone wolf.
But bear with me for a moment⎯do you really want to be part of the editorial herd? You don’t really need that kind of constant attention and the endless accolades, now do you? Frankly, you’re not that needy. You’re the kind of person who likes to live in the quiet knowledge that you make it all happen, that the magazine world at large couldn’t live without you, even though they may not actually know it. You’re humble. You don’t mind surviving without the praise; knowing that no one would actually receive and read the mag without you is credit enough.
Now, I’ve interviewed quite a few sneaky intern candidates, the kind that smile and nod and say they love circ, when really all they want to do is get in the door and stealthily find their way onto the editorial masthead (fat chance). Hell, many moons ago I was that sneaky intern, thinking that magazine distribution would be my ticket to editorial glory. But you know what? Before I knew it, I was addicted to the strange blend of marketing savvy and supreme geekdom that is circulation.
The wonderful thing about circ is that you get to be surrounded the most interesting, passionate and intelligent people possible, while being completely severed from any qualitative conflict. The shades of grey that come along with editorial vision are far from the right/wrong, black/white cycle of circ. You get the best of magazine culture⎯you watch the beautiful, insane drama that is the creation of print media, while existing on a quiet, safe island of predictable systems.
I realize that it takes a very specific personality to fall in love with circ, to see the poetry in excel databases of names, to be passionate about the post, to obsess about return rates, but circulators I’ve met always love what they do. Who could ask for more than that?
The nice thing is that you don’t need any formal training. People are often baffled about how I became a circulator⎯I studied English Lit and Women’s Studies. I write fiction. I quite literally stumbled into the industry and as a result learned from colleagues and not in a classroom. Circulators just seem to “happen.” Which is why I need you to be my intern. In the face of the recession, the industry is in desperate need of fresh perspectives and new ideas, and while we have our fair share of consultants lighting the way, we seem to consistently fail on the mentoring end. So many magazines have fantastic editorial internship programs, but make no room for a new generation of circulators⎯and yet we wonder why the ideas seem so stale.
Maybe we’ve done a bad job of making circulation seem sexy (or even vaguely interesting for that matter) but I promise you that it is in it’s own geeky way. And now is no better time to court the craft; the bright side of the present economic uncertainty is that the industry is more open to new ideas and approaches.
You may be exactly what we need.
Stacey May Fowles is currently on the hunt for the perfect circulation intern. stacey.may[at]walrusmagazine[dot]com
I’ve been known to joke that a magazine is the most ridiculous business model imaginable. Explaining to someone that a circulator often “pays for subscribers” with a campaign, crosses their fingers and prays for renewals two or three years down the road, is rightfully met with a quizzical look.
Magazines are clearly a game of admirable stupidity driven by rare passion, propped up by nothing more than belief. Even for those of us in circ, the business model is not really the reason we’re pulling late nights to get the book out the door.
But if you can’t get your business going, why should the average Canadian taxpayer be responsible for your personal passion? Your niche interests? Your “little” magazine? Why should say, a literary journal, with less than 500 subscribers, get funding from the Canadian government?
In some ways, I think these questions would be easily answered if the Canadian taxpaying public knew anything about the economics of magazines. Since the new Canada Periodical Fund was announced
, a lot of people—in the magazine community and outside of it—have been voicing their varied opinions on its flaws. What’s struck me about the dialogue is that some members of the public equate a good editorial product with its ability to thrive without grants. "If your magazine is good and people like it," they say, "obviously it will do well, no?" (Tell that to Lola
, Saturday Night
As Marco pointed out
, the comments on the CBC story are very telling: "If the magazines cannot make it on their own, let them go under. Eventually we will have a few less but they will be self supporting.” A few less is a bit of an understatement; currently 1,200 magazines in Canada are supported by the Publications Assistance Program alone. And I think we all have a pretty good idea of what would happen to magazine culture if PAP suddenly disappeared.
If the business model was that good editorial content and a quality product got the bulk of consumer dollars, we probably wouldn’t need to ask the government to float our marketing and circ initiatives, support our editorial content (god forbid we pay writers a decent wage) or give us a break on postal costs. The average reader is so used to getting content for free that there isn’t a natural impulse to pay the price for quality, so we end up practically giving the product away for free and relying on advertising to survive. And the bigger a magazine gets, the more diluted it becomes by the needs of advertising.
Rather than asking why the government should pay for small circ mags to exist, we should ask why the views, ideas, and agendas of the mainstream are the only ones that deserve to thrive? (and by the way, the Canadian government is also paying lots more money to support more mainstream mags, but it seems like it’s easier to pick off the little guys.) If the government didn’t “pay for my hobby,” I’d be forced to read only one idea, paid for by advertising dollars, produced for the masses in the most palatable, bland form imaginable.
The CPF has established a 5,000 annual circ floor, effectively saying that mags smaller that that aren't worth
the small amount of money and time they spend on them.
This may seem reasonable, but when you consider what these magazines actually do with this money, how far they stretch it, and that many of these small mags are put out by unpaid volunteers who believe passionately in producing a quality product not supported by advertising dollars (and needs), the cultural benefit of such a small grants is immeasurable. Killing these magazines off by deciding they’re not worth the money or administrative time will carve a huge wound in our national culture.
If the government is truly interested in “investing in magazines,” the proportionally large return on the small mag investment makes it a very good business decision.