Canadian Magazine Industry News
19 October 2009,     TORONTO
Guest Column: Top 50, but clearly by revenue only
Editor's note: Art director Malcolm Brown originally wrote this piece as a comment to former Masthead editor Marco Ursi’s blog post, “Are Canadian Magazines too conservative?” 

By Malcolm Brown

As a magazine art director out of work (like many), I’m always looking for new projects, but I find exciting opportunities in this country to be very poor and rare. I know at least half a dozen top (award-winning) super-talented Canadian art directors not art directing mags, as this is being written. 

While clearly more interesting magazines from other countries make it to our retail shelves (nine out of 10), Canadian magazines of all types flounder in comparison. Maybe it’s because Canadians look outside for inspiration and content. Maybe it’s because other media in this country only occasionally bolster good-looking, editorially interesting Canadian magazines. Rarely are art directors, photographers or writers mentioned for their accomplishments, even the day after the National Magazine Awards.

Each time I am not working on a magazine, I have intense fear that I’ll never find a good one again. So big kudos to my team at Unlimited who certainly tried to change that. How? At the NMA’s; Gold for Best Art Direction in Canada last year and Best New Writer in Canada this year; and at the Western Magazine Awards, Best New Magazine in Western Canada last year and Best Magazine in Alberta this year... but all of this is still not enough to sustain Unlimited (or me) in Canada.

Of the Top 50 Canadian magazines listed in Masthead’s Special Report, only a handful have ‘all’ the editorial markings of great articles, challenging photography, strong art direction, and constantly provocative ideas; in other words, a magazine I want to buy. And if only 1 out of 10 magazines on the shelf is Canadian, who do we/I blame?

I find most of the top big revenue magazines to be very lack lustre and dull, in contrast to our other inspiring media and arts/music/film scenes. But wouldn’t you think that with total ad revenue of almost half a billion dollars, that the prognosis would be far improved and much more exciting? 

Without alienating half my colleagues, many of the top 25 rags do hit a certain mark, but I don’t feel that they push the creative or editorial edge to any alarming degree. They aim to satisfy the status quo and the advertiser, not inspire a culture of magazine readers, makers and emerging talent.

True, many of our magazines are well written and provocative, but dull in delivery. And, some are designed well, but with content that is very narrow. But the rest? Well these titles are hard to separate from their advertising twin. They don’t get me thinking after it’s out of my hand, they just get me thinking about recycling day.

Ad sales are important for obvious reasons. Numbers do matter. So let’s put some of that half a billion revenue dollars toward magazines that lead not follow. To mags that create not imitate. As the old cliché resounds… If not now, when? And tell me – where did Chatelaine spend the $56 million from last year? Or the $200 million since 2003?

I worked with Moses Znaimer at the beginning of my career for five years, and now here sits a magazine that I think will be in the running soon – and this from a man who said, “the power of television will be it’s victory over print.” LOL. I’m paraphrasing but that was one of his Ten Commandments. (Look it up.)  I’m not saying I think Zoomer has all the right markings, and it’s not for me, but Znaimer with Suzanne Boyd (and their team) are at least being ‘creative’ and taking on the Canadian magazine world in a very fast manner. In only one year,$4 million taken in. 

There is no reason in my mind why Canada could not create a Vanity Fair, a Frieze, a W, a Dazed, a Wallpaper, an Esquire, a Dwell, a Raygun, an Interview, a Nylon or any good-looking, chewy, profitable, highly popular magazine which are countless from other countries. Canada has broken through barriers in all other art forms, so why not magazines? And which publisher in this huge land has the guts to go for it? Launch one/a bunch of really good-looking, really smart, ‘popular’ Canadian magazines sold nationwide, even sold internationally, to compete with our international rivals. Saturday Night has been that many times in Canada, but SN now lies dead. A metaphor?

Personally I think we need to revolutionize the whole of this country’s magazine industry before all that boomer money comes crashing down and vaporizes it in 2021. I blame most of the publishers, editors and advertisers who are not creative enough to reinvent and take on magazines, especially now when our industry is stumbling hard. Sure the top 50 made $452 million dollars in 2008, but it looks and smells like sink water after a meal that was just ‘OK’. They did the job. It provided calories. It didn't ignite wonder.

I am biased. I have been fortunate to work on magazines such as Shift, Outpost, enRoute, Adbusters and Unlimited, that I feel have carried many of the elements I want a magazine to aspire to as a whole, but I don’t think there are enough magazines in this country that put it out there, take chances and want to make a magazine worthy of our international rivals. In plain English, a magazine that ranks on every level. With culture, business and politics churning, youth culture rampant, global economy shifting, and with the internet coming at magazines like a hungry lion - the time is clearly now to make a new model of a great, good-looking, editorially exciting, creatively charged, web-savvy, wisely marketed, boldly sold, large-format, Canadian magazines.

As an endnote; I spent an unemployed hour today thumbing through a large magazine rack. And maybe because I am only an art director, not an editor or publisher, I felt myself blaming them, the big successful ones anyway. Blaming those who I do feel have the power and money. Who could re/invent a new magazine. Create a new format, pull together an edgy team, push photographers, writers, web crews to do what others around the world are not doing. And asking art directors like me, “What do you want to do that hasn’t been done yet? How can you change magazines, and readers?”

To be totally honest, I don’t know. But I do know that I’d love to get a fraction of that ‘Top 10’ $283 million dollars and find out.

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Jaded says:
Wow, Torstar really seems to be on a mission to bankrupt one magazine after another....
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Lorene Shyba says:
Full of terrific information, Thanks!...
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