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Where Do We Fit In?

By Kathryn Hudson

“Ah, une Americaine!!!” squealed the tiny French woman from behind the dusty counter in the tobacco shop after hearing my English accent cut through the melody of her French patrons. I smiled, while leafing through the glossy European magazines, wondering if there was any point in correcting her: Wondering if this sturdy little woman, in this lovely French coastal town, would even realise the difference if I clarified – that I am in fact Canadian.

Then my smile grew as my hands brushed the colourful cover of a Canadian Geographic magazine. I pulled it out from behind the weight of the others glossies and held it up proudly to the woman like a child showing off her prized possession at show and tell.
“Madame, je suis Canadienne,” I said, passing her the issue as evidence of my citizenship.

She smiled and patted my cheek. “Encore mieux,” she chuckled. Even better.

This simple encounter stayed with me, striking a chord. So far away from home, on the other side of the ocean, a stranger and I held a piece of Canada, made of paper and ink, and understood each other for a moment.

This is the much-vaunted power of the written word. But more specifically, it is the      
power of a country’s media to capture its essence, expressing it to the world through print. In the global village our world has become, where cultures blend and mingle, Canadian magazines retain a unique composition.

Magazines Canada remains an innovator for the industry. A non-profit group, it is the industry’s leading professional organisation, representing over 300 separate publications, including Canadian Living, Maclean’s and Toronto Life. Dedicated to fostering industry growth, Magazines Canada works with all levels of government and business to ensure that Canadian magazines are supported.

Laurie Alpern, communications manager, is adamant about the importance of Canadian publications, saying they affect Canadians in a unique and meaningful way.

When asked what makes our country’s magazines so singular, Alpern laughed, citing the old chicken and the egg analogy. “Canadian magazines are unique in that they are Canadian,” she said, obviously amused by the simplicity of her statement.

“It’s been proven that if Canadians can find Canadian content, they’ll buy it. Canadian magazines talk to Canadian people and that’s what they want,” she explained. “They want to be able to identify with it, so if it’s Canadian written – for, by and about Canadians – then that grabs people.” Simple enough.

This consumer thirst for nationally-written material explains why Canadian publishers are churning out more magazines than ever before, and making more money at it. In just over a decade, the number of periodicals being produced in our country shot up over 40 per cent, rising from more than 1,500 to nearly 2,500 according to Magazines Canada. The industry is now raking in over $1.2 billion annually.

While these figures are impressive and are signalling a surge in activity, they pale in comparison to our louder neighbours to the South. There are over 7,000 periodical publishers in the United States that were amassing more than $40 billion in 2002, according to the U.S. Federal Statistics.

This publishing juggernaut is one of the major challenges facing the Canadian industry. When being bombarded by such heavy hitters, it can be difficult to hold one’s own, said Alpern.

“There are obviously some big, huge American publishers that put out a ton of top quality magazines, but we have three huge publishers that do the same,” Alpern said. “The biggest challenge, I guess, is newsstand space. We only get seven per cent of what goes on the newsstand. The rest is American and foreign magazines. So it’s hard to get out there. Most of our magazines are sold by subscription.”

Reader’s Digest, one of the heaviest hitters on the magazine scene, has embraced the voice of the Canadian people. Launched just over a year ago, Reader’s Digest’s Our Canada hit the scene as the country’s number one magazine, says its publishers. While other major Canadian consumer magazines devote about 80 per cent of their content to Canadian-authored material, Our Canada is devoted entirely to local content, written by and about Canadians.

Manon Sylvain, of public relations head for Reader’s Digest, explained that a nation is defined by its people – making their magazine a testament to the everyday stories of Canadians.  “What makes these stories uniquely Canadian is that they are told first hand by Canadians. We like to think of this magazine as a fun chat. It’s about people who want to share their vision of their corner of  Canada,” explained Sylvain, saying that she feels the magazine lets the reader feel as though they are having a conversation with every part of the country.

 Sylvain stressed however, that she was blown away by the national response to Our Canada.  The thirst for Canadian driven material was tangible. “What Readers Digest does best as an organization is identify needs. We test and we talk with our readers. . . We felt there was a niche for Canadians stories,” she said, describing the overwhelmingly positive feedback from readers. “In less than 18 months, the circulation shot up from zero to 250,000. We thought that we had found a niche and we were right. We set a record.”
However, the Canadian magazine scene is also distinguished by its support system. Not only do the Canadian people demand home-grown magazines, but the Canadian government has created a safety net for such publications over the years. Many feel that this support system is eroding though, and risks changing the face of the Canadian magazine scene.

“We’ve always received decent contributions from the government and they keep making cuts to that. So, it’s a challenge to be able to afford to put out magazines – to start new ones and to maintain the ones that are already out there,” said Alpern.

In fact, the Canadian government has drastically reduced funding for the magazine industry. In 2003, The Department of Canadian Heritage announced that funding for the Canadian Magazine Fund would be slashed by almost $20 million over the coming years.

Dominique Colin, of Canadian Heritage, disagreed that government cuts will change the landscape of the magazine industry.  She explained that the Magazine Fund was initially created in 2000 to bolster the Canadian industry against an influx of foreign competition.

However, she maintains the magazine industry flourished under pressure and the full budget was not necessary, saying “Canadian magazine publishers face many of the same challenges as other cultural industries in Canada: strong foreign competition and a small and widely dispersed market. . . But we do know that Canadian magazines enjoy a larger market share than any other cultural industry – 41 per cent – and that they are producing more copies of more magazines and making more revenues than ever before.”

Helena Scheffer, a translator for Canadian as well as international magazines, says the defining feature of Canadian press is subtle but meaningful.

“Canadian magazines, the ones that I’ve come across, often feature articles that are thought-provoking in a global sense. They take you out of your everyday life and make you see a larger picture. American magazines, from what I’ve seen, are much more centred on their own culture. They are more preoccupied with navel-gazing rather than exploring larger ideas or concepts,” she said.

So while ideas abound about what makes up the Canadian cultural identity, and how it is expressed in print, a clear impression emerges about what it is not. I bristled when called an American, and the woman in the tobacco shop smiled when corrected. The Canadian identity may be subtle but is ever-present in our work.

Lester B. Pearson, one of our country’s most eloquent Prime Ministers, perhaps summarized it best over 60 years ago, saying: “I accept now with equanimity the question so constantly addressed to
me, ‘Are you an American?’ and merely return the accurate answer, ‘Yes, I am Canadian.’”

 

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