Canadian Magazine Industry News
12 December 2013, TORONTO
Q&A: Matt Blackett talks 10 years of Spacing
Earlier this week, publisher and creative director Matt Blackett called up Masthead to talk about the magazine's anniversary and his plans for the Spacing brand, including the opening of a retail store in 2014.
Masthead: Tell us about the 10th anniversary issue.
Matt Blackett: We've blown up the architecture of the organization of the magazine, and tried to create a narrative arc from start to finish. We start off with our roots, what got us going in the first place, and why Spacing was inevitable. By the end of the magazine we're looking 10 years into the future.
We identify our inspiration, 10 people that we absolutely love for the work that they've done. We look back at 10 years of city hall. And I did a graphic feature -- I created 10 covers as if Spacing was celebrating its 100th anniversary, looking back at what the covers and the content would be in those magazines.
Is the new organization just for this issue, or is it a redesign?
A bit of both. It was meant for this issue, and then we really liked it and so I think we're going to stick with this format moving forward. It frees us up. We had some news in the magazine, but it seems ridiculous to do anything news related because with the pace of journalism right now, it's impossible with any kind of lead-time to do that. I think the magazine is going to be full of more ideas and less current events.
How did the idea for Spacing coming about?
What we found at the time was that there was a lot of talk about transit, development, the waterfront and these kinds of issues, but it was all news reporting. There was nothing big-picture, no one giving a thoughtful analysis. We found there was this big gap, and that's what we had to fill.
Has the mag's approach changed much over the years?
It's changed, we've all changed. It's matured. I think we have a greater understanding of what's going on within the city. If you look at the first couple of issues, it's full of idealism but also naiveté. We're probably a little more cynical now as we're older, but I think it's still about the love for the city, and trying to uncover the things that we think are really special about living in Toronto and Canadian cities… And you know, at first we were yelling from the sidelines and now we've had enough of an influence that our writers and readers are people that are on the inside and making change happen.
You began selling merchandise in 2005, and you throw quite a few events. Are these significant revenue streams?
Yeah, they are. Certainly the merchandise is, it plays a big part in our identity and our business plan. As you know, the publishing world is a very volatile place. There are other ways you can make money to compensate for loss of subscribers or newsstand sales, so you've got to be creative and do those things. Luckily, that was built into the business ethos of Spacing pretty quickly.
Spacing's branding efforts are successful, but they seem less overt than traditional marketing campaigns. Is that on purpose?
Absolutely. Our biggest-selling merchandise item is our subway buttons, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Spacing. But it has everything to do with the the topics that we cover. I think that's where people can see past crass consumerism. Instead, there's an obvious affection for the city and the topics we cover and what we've done is shown that [affection] in a way that also helps us make money. Where we're playing with people's emotions, like you do in advertising, but we're not manipulating them. We're helping to reinforce what they already feel. You don't find T-shirts with a Spacing logo on them, what you find are things about Toronto. Our brand is the city in many ways.
Are there things you learned from your time as art director at the Hockey News that you've implemented at Spacing?
[Along with the Hockey News], they also had another publication called Preview Sports that put out annuals. It was college football and the NFL, college basketball and the NBA, [etc.] and each one of those would have regional covers. I'd end up designing 15 covers [for each pro sport, and another 15 for each college sport]…I became a newsstand design specialist at my time there. When you look at Spacing, you can see I've done everything differently from what newsstand people tell you to do. Big image, turn the magazine on its side, let the image sell the thing. If you look at our sell-through rate, we're not as high as we used to be but there was a time when we had 100% sell-through. We're down to about 80% now, but that's like double the industry average.
[The landscape dimensions] forced newsstands to put us in the front row without us having to pay for it, because our magazine would have been hidden behind others things. And because it was local it became easy to justify it. We also made an early effort to sell them in a smaller amount of stores. Pages used to sell like 500-600 copies each time it came out, and people would come in and ask for it. That was deliberate in many ways.
Your time at the Hockey News was marked by a rebellious streak. Is that still a part of you?
What's nice is that the Hockey News and myself made up long ago and we get along fine. I had a rebellious streak because I was not the boss. I'm not bucking anyone in the wrong way now--I'm only making myself angry [laughs]. What I really like with Spacing is that I've been able to indulge our independence and not have to go through layers of vice-presidents and marketing directors. I can say we're going to do bike-riding-pinko buttons now, and they're going to go on sale in two hours. Sometimes you've got to just go with your gut instinct and not have to do a big report about whether it's viable.
How did David Miller's mayorship impact Spacing?
He made the space for city building to become a topic people could talk about. That really helped. The other side was the available technology. The first photo blogs and websites, Facebook, Twitter, all of these things have really helped move those discussions forward.
The first time [I met him] was when I made a presentation at a group dinner. I was talking about how there's a new enthusiasm amongst young people for the city, and I used the subway buttons as an example. Then he started wearing them and then the media started asking him about them; we were in all these newspapers and all of a sudden we had sold 30,000 buttons in two months.
Has Rob Ford's tenure as mayor impacted the magazine as well?
It's only made us realize the importance of us talking about these issues. In the last 3-4 years there's been a new wave of people that have taken it upon themselves to write about these things. Some of them don't even like Spacing, but they're writing about the city and city hall in a way that nobody was writing about them before. Partly, we helped pushed that forward, and Rob Ford has made people a lot more aware of why they really need to pay attention. When there's not enough examination, you end up getting people like Ford in office.
How does your revenue model look nowadays?
Advertising has been increasing by almost every issue for the last three years. That being said, our advertising revenue was a lot smaller [at the start of that period]. We hired a full-time ad sales director and that's made a huge difference.
By 'three years,' are you referencing the impact of the recession?
I'm referencing before we started doing a national issue. The recession had something to do with that as well, too. Advertising just flatlined for us during the recession. Subscriptions have also flatlined, but I think that's a challenge for everyone. Newsstand is still relatively strong. The biggest growth has been in advertising, events and merchandise. Luckily, we have a greater national presence because we launched a national issue in 2011, and we have other websites in other cities now.
Edmonton is our biggest growth area, and now Calgary is coming on board in a couple of months. We have a bilingual website in Spacing Montreal, which I don't think many publications have. If there's anything special about Spacing, it's that we've been unique in some of our branding stuff but also in how we've expanded across the country. We've done it slowly and methodically.
Is the website equal to the magazine, in terms of importance?
I think they are, though in all honesty the magazine is where we make the money. Our web advertising has gotten a lot better too though. We were in a bunch of different cities [via the website] before we launched the national issue, but it wasn't until we put out the print edition that people were like, 'Oh, you're for real.' People realized we actually care about these other cities.
What's next for Spacing?
One of two things that are going to happen in 2014 is a digital subscription offer for computers and tablets. Around 25% of our website readership comes from America, Europe or Australia, but we don't ship outside of North America. These other places will then be able to subscribe [digitally] and get the magazine the same day as someone in Toronto. The other thing is we're going open up some sort of retail store in the city, a presence that will be strong and creative and as unique as the magazine.
Down the road, I'd like to have a stronger presence in other Canadian cities, adding in Calgary, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and other places, trying to help propel city and urban issues to a greater level of national importance. If our cities are doing well, then I think our country is doing well.
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