Last June, people working at Transcontinental Media were given disconcerting news. They learned that their jobs were no longer secure and that a new editor and publishers were on the way. Upper management at the Toronto-based company, they found out, had been busy making a series of senior staff changes at Canadian Living and Homemakers magazines.

Meanwhile, Canadian Living publisher Debbie Gibson, Homemakers publisher Carol Shea and Homemakers editor Dianne Rinehart were told that their positions had been eliminated.

Strangely, it turns out both stories were true. A new editor for Homemakers and new publishers for Homemakers and Canadian Living were on the way – in the form of one person, Charlotte Empey. The Canadian Living editor was appointed editor of Homemakers as well as group publisher. Effectively, she took on four jobs.

Since 1966, Homemakers’ staff, content, distribution and look have evolved. But in the run-up to last June, there was a major overhaul and relaunch in April 2003. The little pocket-sized magazine on the cashier’s rack became “super digest”-sized. And what was once a book that successfully combined international social issues with recipes and service articles, now focuses on food, fashion, health, beauty and d?cor. Stories about the plight of women in Afghanistan and girls struggling in war-torn countries – the real heart of Homemakers – get lost between stories on finding therapists and displaying photos.

Social issues weren’t the only things to disappear from the magazine; the line between church and state also vanished. Accepting the roles of publisher and editor at two magazines, Empey potentially changed the way consumer magazines are run. The elimination of the healthy friction between editor and publisher has caused a stir. Bill Shields, editor of Masthead, calls Empey’s role a “new business model” where one person dictates from the top down. He claims that Transcontinental, relatively new to magazine publishing and known for its strict bottom line, is cutting costs and trying to generate as much profit as possible to appease its shareholders. Empey doesn’t agree. “There was a sense that we could do business differently and by doing business differently, we could create strong and independent brands that will share some things, such as staff,” she says. While she acknowledges it’s a unique way to run two magazines and does lend itself to certain efficiencies, Empey says her new role is not to save money. Backed by what she calls one of the best management teams in Canada, Empey is thrilled about her jobs. “I’m really blessed to be in a place where I get to do so much strategic thinking,” she says. “I get to think, which is the really exciting thing.”

In her office, the 53-year-old sits comfortably in an armchair. She has trinkets on her television and her grandson’s painting on the wall. A dog-eared copy of Rolling Stone with Keith Richards on the cover rests on her coffee table. His pictures also grace her bulletin board. In this industry, Empey is known as a hard-working woman who can multitask like no other. In 25-plus years, she’s played many roles at magazines and worked in communications, advertising and education. Even critics who question the wisdom of wearing so many hats have only nice things to say – and no one is surprised.

Empey’s first task was to differentiate Homemakers and Canadian Living from each other. Even though both share a crossover readership, she knew women came to each for different reasons. Traditionally, Canadian Living has been about the woman and her family. “That has always been the focus of Canadian Living and we do it better than anybody in this country, as far as I’m concerned,” she says. Homemakers, on the other hand, has historically been about the relationship the reader has with herself.

Second, Empey continued with what the Homemakers’ relaunch set out to do – please readers. In 2003, the magazine’s Print Measurement Bureau (PMB) numbers fell to 1.98 million readers from 2.27 million in 2001. The relaunch freshened the look and shifted the editorial toward what readers wanted. Transcontinental performed its own research and found that women wanted more food, fashion, beauty, d?cor and wellness articles, a contrast from the issue stories favoured by past editors Sally Armstrong (1988-1999) and Jane Gale Hughes (1974-1986). Even though Empey must please her bosses, she acknowledges the importance of social issues.

Back in the 1970s, Hughes’ Homemakers had a national focus. Armstrong travelled around the world, covering stories of suffering, war, triumph and empowerment. “Homemakers has always had a more global reach and elastic borders,” she says. These borders are starting to flex once again, but slowly. In the November 2003 issue, the magazine ran a story on African women working to overcome male-dominance through education and small-business ventures. Twenty years ago, this story would have made the cover, but now the magazine makes beefsteak and mushroom pie the star, and hides the plight of these women in the middle of the book.

Not only were the magazine’s PMB numbers slipping, but Homemakers’ Leading National Advertisers (LNA) stats pre-relaunch were also dismal. Its run-of-press ad pages were down 32.9 per cent compared to the same period in spring 2002. Empey claims LNA was not a leading factor in the magazine’s relaunch. But Sunni Boot, president and CEO of media management company ZenithOptimedia and someone who has worked with Homemakers since it started, claims the magazine had to address the advertising stats. “The LNA is critical because it’s a tool that allows the magazine to monitor how it is performing versus its competitors,” Boot says. “I don’t see how Homemakers could manage its business without it.” She sees Homemakers’ relaunch as a success so far. “It is certainly holding its own. It re-formatted in April and since then has increased subscriptions by 35 per cent and has increased its readership, circulation and advertising.” Since the relaunch, Homemakers has picked up 12 new advertisers.

However, the question remains: is the new editorial formula working? “It’s been an absolute success,” says Empey. The reader response has been positive and subscriptions are up; meanwhile, advertisers are happy and Homemakers was over its revenue projections for the December/January and February issues. But the success of the relaunch won’t show up in the numbers until PMB 2005.

* * *

To remain a competitive player in the magazine industry, Homemakers had to “keep up with the Joneses.” In March of 1999, Homemakers’ neighbour on the newsstand, Chatelaine, relaunched. Publisher Donna Clark, editor Rona Maynard and the marketing team made the decision because the magazine was missing its target audience of women aged 25 to 49. What was once the No. 1 women’s magazine in Canada was on the decline. Penetration of its prime market went from 31.6 per cent per issue in 1988 to a mere 17.7 per cent in 1999. The average age of the Chatelaine reader was 50 years old.

The magazine had to improve its product and cater to its readers. First, the magazine had to find out who the readers were (via focus groups) and how to reposition itself within its original target audience. Second, it had to improve its product by having a more contemporary look and more savvy covers. In their research, Clark and Maynard realized it was critical to provide more relaxation and humour for the readers; the days when women needed to be told that they were confident and strong are long gone. The Chatelaine reader was overworked and in need of being entertained, not bombarded with social issues that already filled mainstream news.

Chatelaine addressed this shift in content by providing more useful service articles in the areas of food, fashion, beauty, health and d?cor. It soon regained its No. 1 status. In 2002, newsstand sales were up 89 per cent from 1999, and the magazine had attracted 3.2 million English readers. Clark maintains Chatelaine has doubled its profits. But this took time. “Our newsstand sales didn’t start to show a pattern of improvement for 15 months,” says Maynard.

With the new Homemakers now approaching the 15-month mark, it appears the revamp has been a success: revenue and subscriptions are both up. But with Homemakers’ recent shift away from social issues to focus on food, fashion, health and beauty, will it be able to retain its socially conscious readership? The debate is not new – the dumbing down of content in women’s magazines versus the evolution of content to suit the needs of its readership is an old battle.

The controversy concerns the accusation that women’s magazines are withdrawing from their social responsibility. Mary McIver, former managing editor at Homemakers from 1989 to 2000, has noticed the shift to softer content. She mainly attributes this change to Transcontinental putting pressure on then-editor Rinehart to move content away from international stories and hard-hitting domestic issues and toward a more personal-growth focus. McIver admits that calling it a dumbing down is a sweeping statement, but she does think Homemakers lacks coverage of social issues. A magazine that once featured influential women such as comedian Sandra Shamas or women in the military on its cover, now features beef roulade. “Women can do the lipstick and lasagna thing, but we are also concerned about raising women’s consciousness with issues worldwide and on the home front,” says McIver. She feels alienated from most women’s magazines. “I don’t want to hone my life to perfection,” she says matter-of-factly. “Life is too interesting to set the perfect dinner table or to try to attract a man.”

On the flip side, Empey has spent her career working at magazines where lipstick and lasagna were part of the editorial mix. “If anything is interesting to women, it is valuable,” she says. “You can read any number of women’s magazines and get different layers of information. But, at the same time, reading magazines is not like going to night school. This is entertainment and it needs to engage women emotionally,” says Empey. She considers Homemakers to be like a conversation with a girlfriend and challenges critics, especially women, to think about what they and their girlfriends discuss. “Do you talk about the plight of women in Bosnia?” asks Empey. “My best guess is no, you don’t. You complain about your partner, or your lack of a partner. You celebrate your kids, you complain about your kids, and how you want to lose 10 pounds before you go on vacation.”

Former editor Armstrong agrees. “The dumbing down comment is as old as I am – which is pretty old!” she jokes on the phone from her home office. She is a day away from heading to Afghanistan to write consciousness-raising stories for Chatelaine and Maclean’s, just like she did for Homemakers. “It’s absurd to suggest that a woman who wants to know what’s new in fashion or a quick family dinner is not interested in meaty stories,” she says. In the past three decades, the former editor thinks women have come a long way and achieved success in all areas of their lives. But she also thinks women need to learn how to relax and magazines need to acknowledge this by not taking themselves so seriously.

She’ll get no argument from Chatelaine’s Maynard. “Women don’t need a magazine to remind them that they are smart, informed and engaged in the world. They are confronted everyday with clear evidence that this is the case,” she says. “They are change-makers – they see it in their own over-crowded daytimers, they see it in the media.”

To say that there is a withdrawal from social responsibility in the women’s magazine sector isn’t quite incorrect. But it is certain that readers are asking for useful content they can apply to their lives. As Chatelaine publisher Clark says, women want to be rewarded and stress-free. Being a successful magazine is about knowing what readers want and catering to that.

* * *

Empey walks so quickly through the offices of Homemakers and Canadian Living it’s difficult to keep up with her as she goes from a meeting to a food-testing and back to another meeting. Her dual roles keep her busy – so busy she doesn’t have time to stop and listen to criticisms from her peers. It will be interesting to see how she fares with her new four-jobs-in-one position at Transcontinental, now that the line between editor and publisher has blurred.

Slowly, social-issue stories are emerging and creeping into the pages of Homemakers and Empey assures us that there will be many more to come. The magazine promises to continue to feature old-time favourites such as lipstick and lasagna, but Empey sees absolutely no harm in that. Rather, she is excited by the fact that she gets to share “yummy” things with her readers, whether it is a bumblebee birthday cake or a story about women supporting other women around the world.