border wars

cynthia reason

 Canadian newsstands often act as veritable playgrounds where wealthy U.S. competition is free to flex its monetary muscle like a childhood bully dominating the monkey bars. Canadian magazines are often left cowering in the shadows, modestly hidden behind the flashy American opposition.

“We’re kind of like an underground movement in our own country,” says Mark Jamison, president and CEO of the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association.

But as a movement, there are certain tactics that Canadian magazines are using to level the playing field. Niche markets and strategic advantages unique to Canada are being exploited. Public interest in Canadian content is being capitalized upon. The inability to gain genuine access to newsstands has fostered a flourishing subscription market.

Rick Boychuk, editor of Canadian Geographic, says he doesn’t like to employ a defensive strategy when going head-to-head with American competition.

“We don’t walk around complaining that we’ll never be able to compete against National Geographic, because with all competition there are niches you can exploit,” he says. “We can turn around pretty much on a dime. If an issue breaks I can get it in within two or three months, (which is) quicker than National Geographic ever will. So it allows us to be more timely and topical.”

One advantage common to all Canadian magazines is that Canadians like to read about themselves.

An industry questionaire conducted by Totum Research found 88 per cent of Canadians feel it is important that editorial content be created specifically for them. Ninety-two per cent think Canadian magazines “play a significant role in informing Canadians about each other.”

Jamison suggests that Canadian magazines are answering public desire for information by devoting the bulk of their editorial content to national subject matter. The average Canadian consumer magazine runs 80 to 90 per cent Canadian content, he says.

“Canadian magazines have only one raison d’être and that’s Canadian content . . . Without it, what would be the point?” says Jamison. “We’re overwhelmed by American culture and we’re responding to that by looking for something that reflects us, tells us about us, explains us to ourselves. We employ Canadians and we promote Canadians.”

Keeping home-grown talent in Canada is another issue. Canadian magazines have to contend with the so-called “brain drain” because of higher rates offered to writers and artists south of the border.

According to Boychuk, the Canada Magazine Fund, which the federal government launched in 2000 to support the magazine industry, assists in addressing this major inequality.

“If you want to keep great talent here in Canada you have to be able to offer them reasonable compensation for their work, so the magazine fund has helped in that regard,” he says.

“It’s been good across the board because our biggest single expense is content . . . Yes, the CMF is only $16 million, but it does two things,” says Jamison. “It provides a level of support, particularly for some of the smaller magazines that are really trying to get in there. And it also sends the signal to foreign competitors that our government is committed to supporting cultural activity in Canada.”

But if readers can’t find Canadian magazines, what good does investment in content accomplish?

Attracting readers to magazines requires an additional investment in newsstand promotions, says Boychuk.

“The fact of the matter is that there is no mystery to why certain magazines get great display on the newsstands: you pay for it . . . It has nothing to do with whether Chapters thinks ‘Boy, this issue of Canadian Geographic is a killer! Let’s go with this!’” he says.

It isn’t always an issue of just shelling-out enough dough to get good positioning on the stands. Canadian magazines often have difficulty even when they have the necessary means.

“What our problem is, is not so much competition as access,” says Jamison. Canadian magazines “only get 10 per cent of the newsstand revenues, primarily because the decisions about what goes on newsstands are decisions driven by the popularity of magazines in the United States. Even when we can afford to buy newsstand space, half the time it’s gone before we get there,” Jamison says.

The remedy for ailing newsstand sales lies in the subscription market. According to Jamison, 70 per cent of all subscription sales in Canada are Canadian magazines.

“We’re the subscription selling champs of the world,” he says. “In most other countries it’s the reverse because the Brits, the Aussies, the Germans, the French and the New Zealanders, they don’t have to worry about massive spill into their countries . . . The Americans really have to spend money to get their products over there,” he says.

Canada’s close proximity to the United States means American magazines don’t have to invest much to infiltrate Canada.

“Americans don’t invest anything in content that necessarily appeals to us,” says Jamison. “It’s not central to their strategy . . . So you produce eight million magazines and you let it run for a couple hundred thousand more, who’s going to notice, right?” Jamison says.

In the jungle-gym mentality of the magazine industry, the rules are simple. Exploit your natural advantages to their fullest extent, capitalize on the desires of your market, if a door closes, use a window and above all stay true to yourself.

“We are going to be and continue to be Canadian in word and deed . . . As Canadian social trends are telling us, (there is a) greater interest in ourselves,” says Jamison. “Less of an “I’m a Canadian because I’m not an American” attitude, and more of an ‘I’m a Canadian and I want to know more about myself’ one – I think that’s where the magazine’s future is and I think it’s a good future,” Jamison says.

Cartoon by Andy Grozelle and Photo by Cynthia Reason