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.
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.

1Based on Audit Bureau of Circulations Fas-Fax.
2Based 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?

Some background:

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.
About Me
Marco Ursi
Marco is the editor of MastheadOnline. His blog offers a mix of commentary, service and ideas related to Canadian magazines.

 E-mail: mursi@masthead.ca.

Twitter: @MarcoUrsi

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