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Fulford in Charge

A glimpse inside the life of Toronto Life's new editor-in-chief, Sarah Fulford

To listen to an interview with Sarah Fulford click here

Story and Photos by Kenneth Brown

Sarah Fulford looks out the window
Fulford is the first female EIC in Toronto Life history

The old brick slice of city block belonging to St. Joseph Media’s downtown offices on Queen Street East doesn’t stand out in the way the atmosphere inside suggests it should – quiet on the outside and bustling on the inside.    A directory lists the offices on the third floor of the East Building, where all open-concept flooring is hardwood.  The long, cushioned benches offer a relaxing place to wait for Toronto Life’s youthful new editor-in-chief, Sarah Fulford.

The 33-year-old Fulford has been editor of Toronto Life since the beginning of 2008, taking over after the 15-year reign of John Macfarlane, an icon in the Canadian magazine industry.  Under the 65-year-old Macfarlane, the magazine won 53 gold and 58 silver National Magazine Awards.  It has grown into a powerhouse with a monthly readership of 765,000 and a paid circulation of 92,000 copies. 

Fulford was hired by Toronto Life in 1999 as an assistant editor and was promoted to senior editor in 2003.  She previously worked for one year at Elm Street, a now-defunct Canadian women’s magazine.  In addition to her employment in the magazine industry, she has written for both The Globe and Mail and the National Post.

Fulford at Toronto Life offices
Fulford has been at the magazine for almost 10 years

The trip to work may be no different, but there have certainly been some changes on the job.  “I have a staff now,” Fulford says.  As a senior editor, she had to come up with ideas, find the best writer for a story, meet with and field ideas from writers, sit down and develop those ideas, see the story through multiple drafts, manage fact checking and copy editing, and sit down with the designer to collaborate on layout. 

“I do much, much less of that, so instead I can put all my energy into the big picture stuff,” she says.

She's excited to be inheriting such a successful magazine with the challenge of entertaining such a loyal readership. 

“The nicest thing about this position is you can think organically about the entire magazine,” says Fulford.  Unlike section editors who live in their eight-page worlds and aren’t particularly aware of other sections, as editor-in-chief Fulford can look at every piece of the puzzle and see how it all fits together. 

Macfarlane, who had a great deal to do with Fulford's appointment, says her greatest quality is her ability to see the magazine as if she’s looking down on it from 30,000 feet above.  Though she's not the youngest to lead Toronto Life - Macfarlane was 30 when he was first appointed editor in 1972 - Fulford is the magazine's first female editor. As such, she says her first concern is the quality of the magazine. Still, “It pleases me when I look out and see other accomplished women performing well because it’s a sign that this is a more equal society than it was 100 years ago,” says the self-described feminist.

Fulford was born and raised in Toronto.  It’s not surprising she wound up choosing journalism as a career.  Writing, enriched conversation, current events, and plenty of first-hand media knowledge were always a huge part of her upbringing.  Her father, Robert Fulford, is a freelance writer of many years, a National Post columnist, a former Saturday Night editor, and an Officer of the Order of Canada.  Her mother, Geraldine Sherman, was a CBC radio producer for several years.

Fulford recalls her parents’ passion toward their work and their shared love of storytelling. Her father exposed her to the arts at an early age.  Numerous trips to art galleries and live theatre productions expanded her confidence along with her horizons.

"It pleases me when I look out and see other accomplished women performing well because it's a sign that this is a more equal society than it was 100 years ago."

It wasn’t until she returned from Israel following her graduation from King’s College in 1996 that the novice writer chose her career path.  While in Israel, Fulford wrote some travel pieces; one was published in The Globe and Mail.  Upon her return she wrote book reviews for an English language publication in Israel called the Jerusalem Report.  Fulford simply contacted them and expressed an interest in the historical topics they covered, and then offered her services.  She encourages people, especially young writers, to get out, see the world, and do the same.

“Travel is always a good thing,” says Fulford while enjoying another sip from her coffee.  “It really, really, really broadens your understanding of the world, and above all else it puts your own reality into perspective.”

Although she was in Israel during a more peaceful time of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict, her world perspective was changed by the realization that at any time a bomb could explode while she was in an outdoor market, or a movie theatre.  Her time in Israel allowed her to grow a new appreciation for Canada.

It was through the literary world that Fulford met her life partner. She’s married to Stephen Marche, an Edmonton-born novelist, with whom she has a two-year-old son, Elijah Robert Marche. 

In 2006, when her husband accepted a position teaching Shakespeare at City College in the Big Apple, Fulford moved with her family to New York, from where she continued working for Toronto Life as a senior editor. A year later, when Fulford was offered the Toronto Life editorship, she didn't want to let the opportunity slip through her fingers, but it forced her to face the competing interests which, she says, two-career relationships often present.

First there were questions of place: Toronto versus New York, Canada versus America. Then there was the question of whether she was ready to be editor-in-chief of a prestigious magazine or continue as one of its lesser editors. And next, though not last, there was the matter of her family: If she were to accept the editorship of Toronto Life and move back to Canada, her son would grow up surrounded by family, a luxury he wasn't afforded in New York, but her husband would have to leave his job teaching at City College. After several lengthy discussions, Fulford and Marche decided she couldn’t pass the job up. Since moving back to Toronto, her husband has released his latest work, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea.

Support from family aside, Fulford seems to have the had to support of her ex-boss as well.

Regardless of whether he was grooming Fulford for the position, Macfarlane makes it quite clear that she won the role in competition against several candidates.  Fulford’s knowledge of the magazine and of the several communities that comprise the city of Toronto, along with understanding the role Toronto Life has to play within the city, were important details in her appointment. 

“If I or the owners of Toronto Life had looked around and seen anyone that we thought was better than Sarah, we wouldn’t have hesitated to hire that person,” says Macfarlane.  “But I had been thinking about this for a couple of years, and I couldn’t see anybody outside the magazine who I thought was superior to Sarah.  When it came time to make the decision, the publisher of the magazine and the president of the company, and ultimately the owner of the company did the same thing, and they came to the same conclusion that I did.”

"I don’t have to just compete with other good Canadian magazines, or other city magazines, or other Toronto publications. We have to compete with YouTube... So we better be really good."

The current chairman of the Key Publishers Company, Michael de Pencier, bought the publication for $1 in 1972, six years after Toronto Life’s inception as a tabloid society paper. Since then, it has grown into a highly respected Canadian magazine.

Macfarlane isn’t concerned about leaving the magazine in the hands of Fulford and her staff. Still, Fulford has some important decisions to make soon. She will be hiring a new art director to replace Carol Moskot, who left to help her husband launch Jewish Living in New York. Fulford says a new art director will naturally add flavour to the magazine. Toronto Life associate editor Gillian Grace takes over Fulford’s old position as senior editor.

Marco Ursi, editor of Masthead magazine, says he was surprised that Angie Gardos, executive editor for Toronto Life, wasn’t named editor. Gardos started at Toronto Life as an intern in 1989, and then became managing editor in the mid-nineties before the title changed and she became executive editor. Why wasn’t she given the job?  Easy – she didn’t want it.

Gardos says she loves handling copy and other aspects of her current position, and simply didn’t want the added stress an editor-in-chief has to deal with. She says the editorial department is very team oriented and changes occur out of necessity, but Fulford ultimately has the greatest responsibility.

“It necessarily changes because it’s not a democracy in the end,” says Gardos. “She gets to make the final decisions and she gets hung-out for decisions because she has to be able to answer for them too. So there’s a responsibility that comes with that I don’t have to deal with. Although I feel responsible for it, I don’t have to answer for it publicly.”

Gardos was actually involved in the decision to hire the new boss. Because she and Macfarlane were so close and he wanted the magazine left in capable hands, he included Gardos in the process because he wanted her to stay. His replacement had to be someone with whom she could work.

Gardos feels that she and Fulford complement each other, and she stresses the importance of that relationship to the magazine.

Macfarlane was the type of leader who hired good people and let them do their jobs, she says, so in that way he wasn’t a “helicopter boss.” Fulford has been more hands-on and involved in all processes of the magazine than Macfarlane was at first, recalls Gardos.

One of the areas where change will emerge first is on the Internet. will undergo some changes in the upcoming months. While Fulford believes the print version of the magazine is in good shape, she says the website could use a makeover. With service journalism being such an integral part of what Toronto Life provides, Fulford says the more up-to-date the website is, the better it will help people navigate the city.

Douglas Knight, president of St. Joseph Media, agrees with the approach. The web is a place where changes can be made almost instantly, so it doesn’t surprise him that she’s heading in that direction.  Senior editor Mark Pupo acknowledges that websites are read differently than magazines, but magazines change every issue, so the website will take on a different look and feel as well.

Fulford knows exactly what she’s up against when it comes to vying for more readers.

“We’re in a very competitive atmosphere for people’s attentions and I don’t have to just compete with other good Canadian magazines, or other city magazines, or other Toronto publications. We have to compete with YouTube,” she says. “We have to compete with people wanting to spend time with their kids, or the hour and a half long commute they have at the end of the day. So we better be really good.”

Lynn Cunningham, Ryerson journalism professor and former managing editor of Toronto Life, says she doesn’t see Fulford making any radical changes to the magazine. “It’s clearly the Cadillac of city mags,” she says.

But when she looks at the magazine, Cunningham says she doesn’t get a complete representation of the Toronto she sees today. She says 40 per cent of the people who live in Toronto weren’t born in Canada, and the magazine doesn’t reflect that aspect of the city very well. But the fact the magazine publishes lengthy, thoughtful pieces of concrete journalism delights Cunningham because fewer and fewer publications are currently doing so.

As far as writers are concerned, Pupo says his new boss is doing everything she can to advocate for more money to pay her writers.

It’s been 15 years since a name other than John Macfarlane has appeared atop the Toronto Life masthead, but Fulford doesn’t want to speculate as to where she sees the magazine in 10 years. She’s simply focused on keeping readers happy now.