beginner's luck

david jutzi

 

With more than 300 Canadian magazines in circulation and competitors from the United States and elsewhere crowding the market, the magazine trade can be a frightening place for newcomers.

One common piece of advice for those entrepreneurial types looking to start their own publication – don’t expect to make any money, at least not for the first few years.

That’s enough to discourage this neophyte right off the bat.

Not so for two young Toronto urbanites who have learned their lessons early and made great strides in a short time towards success with their publications.

Priya Ramanujam and long-time friend Adrian McKenzie took only six months to put together the first issue of their publication, Urbanology. Ramanujam, an eager Humber College journalism student, didn’t want to wait until graduation to get her start in the industry. She and McKenzie released the first issue under the name Urban Magazine in February 2005.

Although the idea of urban culture is typically associated with black or hip-hop culture, Ramanujam believes there is a lot in her publication for everyone.

“Urban, to me, is cutting edge. It’s exciting, and I am sure there is something about everyone that is like that,” she says. “It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s unique, and everybody is unique in their own way.”

After conceptualizing and planning for over a year, Matt Blackett released his own unique magazine, Spacing, with co-founder Dale Duncan in December 2003. Focusing on a more “tactile” interpretation of urban, Spacing’s articles include the safe walkability of Toronto’s streets, the proliferation of commercialized public space and profiles of people found on the city’s streets, from prostitutes to street preachers. Blackett defines the purpose of his publication very simply.

“To celebrate and critique Toronto. We’re bringing readers the joys, obstacles and politics of Toronto’s public space.”

With both publications at the seedling stage it would be understandable for Blackett or Ramanujam to feel overwhelmed with what they have started. But being a rookie in the publication business doesn’t seem to intimidate Ramanujam at all.

“I have a lot of confidence in it. I have a lot of belief and faith in it,” said Ramanujam. “I know we’re young . . . but we all see the vision and we all know where we are going.”

It is this impressive vision and resolve that seems to steer Urbanology in the right direction and keep it moving.

The first issue featured profiles of performers, artists and a stirring article on Jeffrey Reodica, a 17-year-old who was shot by a Toronto undercover police officer.

Ramanujam says the second issue, released in April, encompassed many more elements.

“We always wanted to have a tech section, but it’s hard to get companies to send you products to review . . . so we had to do this (first issue) to prove to people that we could do it and show them a sample of our work. And now people are starting to come left, right and center,” Ramanujam says.

“We found out a lot of people start magazines, but not a lot of people get anywhere with them. A lot of people say they are going to start a magazine and don’t because it’s a lot of work . . . a lot of work.”

Ramanujam has put in a lot of hours herself, from the conception of the idea to the printing of the product. And of all these jobs, she says, one of the toughest is the task of figuring out how to pay for it all. With a very low budget, Ramanujam has had to get creative when it comes to funding her magazine.

Her largest fundraising effort so far has been a concert featuring the music of hip-hop artist and movie personality Mos Def.

With a budget similar to Ramanujam’s – close to nil – Blackett has also had to use his imagination to find ways to finance publishing.

“We throw launch parties with rock bands and make it an event as opposed to just our magazine coming out,” Blackett says. “People pay 10 bucks, they get a magazine when they come in and we get a bunch of performers to help us.”

Since the magazine’s inception, the parties have been a hit. With as many as 300 people making it out to each one, Spacing’s publication costs have been paid for.

Other money makers include independent film nights and Blackett’s greatest marketing brainchild to date – buttons.

Having been a Torontonian his whole life, Blackett noticed and became fascinated with the tiles of the city’s subway stations. Each station has its own personality and sentimental ties to many of its patrons, so Blackett traded on this to design a button for each of the 62 stops. In just a few months he has been able to sell almost 20,000 of them online.

Even Toronto mayor David Miller has been known to accessorize with a subway button now and again.

But when it comes to finding companies to invest in his publication Blackett insists on putting his integrity before his bankroll when it comes to corporate advertisers or sponsorship.

“Basically the idea is most people don’t like advertising in a magazine, right? So pack something with content. We are critical of the culture that advertising perpetuates so we don’t want to seem hypocritical. We have tried to minimize the commercial impact on our magazine just like we believe there should be little commercial impact on our public space.”

Instead, the few pages in Spacing used for advertising feature ads for organizations such as Green Ontario and the Local Enhancement & Appreciation of Forests.

“We try to make a difference on people’s lives as opposed to making a difference on their wallets.”

Both Spacing and Urbanology depend heavily on volunteers to fill up their pages. But with a magazine that has already been recognized and awarded, Blackett believes the volunteer efforts aren’t for naught. He believes if the magazine does well his volunteer team will be happy to be associated with it. With the positive steps each publication has made both Ramanujam and Blackett expect they will be able to turn their freebie staffs into paid employees before too long.

Photos by David Jutzi