The building that once housed James Lawrence’s Harrowsmith and Equinox magazines was a classic three-storey Victorian farmhouse constructed out of traditional red brick; there were wood-panelled walls and floors that creak. In the late 1980s, when Doug Bennet, then editor of Masthead magazine, a trade title covering the magazine business, visited Camden House Publishing, located north of County Road 1 in the hamlet of Camden East, Ontario, he found it empty. Curious, he walked through to the back to find staff clustered around a barbeque grill, drinking beer, and playing volleyball on the lawn.

“What’s the occasion?” Bennet asked, suspecting a birthday or engagement. Someone replied, “This is our normal Friday.”

While most magazines didn’t enjoy backyard barbeques every week, industry veterans remember a time—a golden age—when money flowed, staff was plentiful and budgets were big—or at least biggish. In the decades before the internet and mega-media companies, producing magazines was the main goal. “There was something about the love of creating a beautiful product,” says Dianne Rinehart, whose career has included stints at Flare, Homemakers and Maclean’s. “Magazines are very beautiful.”

If labour-intensive back then. Everyone worked on typewriters, and corrections were made using Wite-Out. To get an accurate word count, stories would be retyped on special copy paper. Art directors would wax the back of galleys and stick them down on paste-up boards, and corrections would be made by piecing words together letter by letter. Writers might call in to dictate their stories while a staffer transcribed them.

More than two decades later, the magazine industry has been radically transformed. Canada’s major magazines are now owned by corporations, whose primary focus is not magazines, often public companies beholden to the bottom line and shareholders. It’s not just about producing “beautiful” magazines anymore, either. The rise of the internet has led to pressure to build robust websites, often maintained by magazine staffers now burdened with extra responsibilities, but without compensation for their heavier workload. Editorial positions are dwindling as roles are consolidated. Management blames the decline in ad revenue, but when the economy recovers, few believe that jobs will return or pay will increase.

Editors, meanwhile, won’t voice their discontent publicly. Out of the 20 staffers contacted for this article, only one agreed to be interviewed. It’s not surprising; they’re probably worried about losing their jobs.

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During the 1990s, convergence was a term popular among media moguls. In 1994, Rogers Communicationspurchased Maclean Hunter Ltd. (including its major magazine brands, such as Maclean’s and Chatelaine) for over $3 billion. For Canadian publishing, this was an important moment: its largest magazine publishing house had just been absorbed by a corporation propelled by its cable services.

Today, in addition to Rogers, four other companies dominate the Canadian magazine industry: Transcontinental Media, St. Joseph Media, Reader’s Digest and TVA Publications, a subsidiary of Quebecor Inc. Together they are known as “The Big Five.” Thirty-six of the 50 biggest-earning magazines in 2008 were published by the five businesses, which together generated an estimated $471 million of the $608 million earned by the top 50.

But even though it publishes numerous high-revenue magazines, Rogers still makes most of its money from its wireless and cable services. According to Masthead Online numbers, it takes less than four days for Rogers Wireless to earn the same amount of money Chatelaine, Canada’s biggest magazine by revenue,makes in a year. A large part of Transcon’s and St. Joseph’s business comes from printing, and the former is also a major newspaper publisher. Quebecor’s main businesses are newspapers and TV.

As the major corporations have consolidated their properties, magazine editors have been asked to consolidate their roles. The true number of jobs lost since the beginning of 2009 is unquantifiable, though in the past year at least 250 magazine workers were laid off, a significant number in a business that’s never been staff-heavy. That’s meant more work for those left behind, but no more money—or time.

Rogers Media was one of the big shedders of jobs: last year Masthead reported that it laid off approximately 100 employees. Ken Whyte, already the editor and publisher of Maclean’s, became publisher of Canadian Business, Profit and MoneySense. Maclean’s art director Christine Dewairy became responsible for all four magazines, where previously each book had a dedicated art director or a shared one.

Transcontinental similarly downsized last year, movingCanadian Home & Country online and selling Outdoor Canadaand Canadian Home Workshop; the toll there was approximately 65 people laid off in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Remaining staff were forced to take one week of unpaid vacation, while senior managers worked two weeks without pay. Caroline Andrews, publisher of TheHockey News and the web-based TV Guide, took over the same role at Canadian Gardening and Style at Home. (Andrews sees this development as survival: “When the page counts aren’t there, you don’t have the luxury of having three publishers.”) And it’s not just publishers who are being escorted out by security. Copy editors, who enhance the quality and credibility of a publication, are being treated as luxuries. “That is a bit of a dangerous trend,” says Bob Sexton, president of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors. “It seems that media workers are expected to do more with less and for less. And I don’t think that’s a fair expectation.” According to a 2008 survey of the industry by the Professional Writers Association of Canada, 29 percent of magazine staff felt conditions have deteriorated since they began working.

Staff numbers aren’t the only thing that’s dropping. St. Joseph and Reader’s Digest, like Transcon, imposed mandatory days off without pay in 2009 (Rogers proposed a 20 percent cut—in the form of a four-day workweek—but only a handful of employees took it). That said, magazines have never been a place for people to make their fortunes. According to the most recent Masthead salary survey, in 2006 the median annual income of a senior editor was $50,000. “To me, it’s an undervalued and underappreciated industry,” says Sexton.

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Chris Powell, former media editor for Marketing magazine, the ad-industry trade, wrote an article forMastheadOnline in April 2009 about his experience being laid off. He wrote: “Sadly, we won’t be the last publishing employees to ponder such things. Not as long as legacy media companies continue tossing journalists overboard in a futile attempt to staunch their losses. The situation is dire.”A flurry of comment followed. “So many companies pay lip service to innovation and then use the same old tired methods to solve problems which often only slow the downward spiral,” wrote one visitor to the site. “Yes, Rogers has saved money in the short term by cutting payroll, but do they have a strategy to generate revenue in this new environment—that would be innovative!” Elsewhere on the site, someone else observed: “Those who say the more experienced staff are the most vulnerable are correct. The days of working until retirement are gone. They no longer want to foot the high salaries, health care, etc. for older workers. Get em cheap and get em cheerful…that is the new rule.”But aside from these types of anonymous comments on websites, most laid-off staffers are keeping mum; many have severance packages that legally silence them.

Is there any way to change things for the better? Some suggest unionization might help. Most newspapers and broadcast organizations are organized, but with a few exceptions, like Maclean’s and NOW magazine, very few mags are. But the editor-in-chief of Metro isn’t convinced. “I’m not sure that unionizing magazine staff is going to create more jobs,” says Charlotte Empey, who has worked in magazines most of her career. “I don’t think it’s going to generate better salaries, I don’t think it’s going to result in higher freelance rates.” And it’s true that newspapers and broadcasters, where unions are the norm, have seen hundreds laid off or offered severance packages in 2009.

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Quarto Communications’ offices are located in a three-storey red brick Victorian in downtown Toronto, rather reminiscent of the old Camden House. This space houses Cottage Life, Outdoor Canada, Canadian Home Workshop and Explore.

Upstairs, it’s cozy. Owner and publisher Al Zikovitz’s second-floor office walls are painted forest green and there’s a fireplace. Glass doors along the back lead out to a patio where the Quarto crew grill burgers in the warmer months. During the summer, staff have every second Friday off, with pay, and there’s an in-office shower for those who bike to work. In good years, Zikovitz doles out bonuses—although that last happened in 2007. In the basement there’s a compartment on the bottom shelf of a fridge labelled “Beer” that’s full to the brim.

Zikovitz’s objective is to make sure his employees want to come to work in the morning. “I have this theory: If you really love your work, you’re going to do a great job,” he says. Consequently, he runs Quarto’s magazines differently from the way his counterparts at the Big Five conduct their business, with their multi-tiered levels of management and codified procedures. As proof of his bona fides as a non-corporate kind of guy, Zikovitz is fond of pointing out that he takes his turn changing light bulbs: “I’m just a part of the team.”

Quarto is, of course, a small haven in a bleak industry, employing only 55 people, compared to about 800 at Rogers Publishing, 480 at Transcon Media and 350 at St. Joseph’s publishing division. Last year Quarto bought Canadian Home Workshop and Outdoor Canada from Transcon. Mid-level editors at Quarto are “comfortable,” but hardly Rolls-Royce rich: they make from $40,000 to $45,000.

Douglas Thomson, editor of Canadian Home Workshop, has been at Quarto since the purchase of his mag last fall. To him, the environment on St. Patrick Street is quaint and family-like. “It’s not heaven here,” he admits, “but it’s a realistic place that does its best.”

Patrick Walsh, editor of Outdoor Canada, is a little more enthusiastic. He had been excited about working at Transcon, but after a couple of years with the printing giant, he felt as if the company didn’t do anything withOutdoor Canada, nor felt any loyalty to its brand. He and his co-workers joked that they’d come to the office one day and their pass keys wouldn’t work. Coming to Quarto inspired obvious renewed passion among the staff, he says.

Clearly, for a magazine editor, 14-hour days and unimpressive salaries are not deal-breakers. “This business isn’t about a 40-hour work week. There’s no such thing as nine to five,” says Andrews, the Transcon publisher. What troubles the magazine industry is not the long hours or bottom-of-the-barrel wages, but the constant feeling of uncertainty—the feeling that you can never make a mistake or stand up for yourself. The problem is that magazine publishing companies can use those feelings to their advantage to keep wages low and hours long. Fear is a powerful motivator.