Family Planning

The Success of Today's Parent has delivered a baby boomlet of new competitiors. Cute kids and Q-Tips around, but where's the adult journalism?

Mimi Szeto
Summer, 2008 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

It’s a windy Saturday afternoon and hundreds of families are sweeping in and out of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for the annual Today’s Parent Baby and Toddler Show. They cruise along the aisles, checking out booths advertising the latest toys, baby food, diapers, camcorders and even designer baby slings. Some parents take a break, releasing their kids at the craft station to make paper snowflakes or to bounce with other tots inside an inflatable castle. Others are not as lucky. Between Baby Land and Snugabug Portrait Studio, a stroller traffic jam builds. More parents arrive, more babies, more congestion.

Just as crowded are the racks of parenting magazines across Canada. In the last three years, two new Canadian titles have popped up on newsstands, pitting themselves against the market leader, Today’s Parent (TP). First came Canadian Family (CF), previously named Tree HouseCanadian Family, which St. Joseph Media relaunched in Spring 2006. It targets hip Canadian moms, who, in addition to parenting, have a soft spot for shopping, fashion, beauty, travel, home décor and food. A year later, Family Communications, publishers of Today’s Bride and eight pre- and post-natal magazines, launched ParentsCanada (PC). To stand out in a me-too category, the oversized quarterly magazine nabbed well-known medical commentator Dr. Marla Shapiro as editor and often features profiles of celebrity moms and dads.

Given that Today’s Parent has grown into a hugely profitable brand over its 23 years, it’s no surprise that other publishers want to stir things up in this market. Owned by Rogers Publishing Ltd., TP also organizes the KidSummer daycamp program, runs TV and radio spots and prints a string of sister publications. From 2006 to 2007, ad pages, not including the inserts, went up 17 per cent according to Leading National Advertisers Canada. “Today’s Parent has done a nice job bridging the gap from just exclusively attracting typical baby advertising,” says Donald Swinburne, president of Family Communications. “It now has crossed over into advertisements that are directed specifically to women and not just women who have children. So having been able to crack that barrier, it opens the category for more of us.”

While the boom has created an active playground for scooping up ad dollars, for Today’s Parent, three’s a crowd. It used to be Canadian Living and U.S.-based Parents and Parenting that got in the way, but now Canadian Family and ParentsCanada are luring advertisers and tapping into a new pool of readers. These magazines might be experts at delivering advice on how to play nice, but sharing is anything but easy.

On a warm October morning, I meet Today’s Parent editor-in-chief Caroline Connell at TP’s headquarters. She’s wearing a sleeveless grey turtleneck, and her brown thick-rimmed glasses accentuate her short blonde hair. Two blown-up Today’s Parent covers hang on the wall inside her office. The sliding glass door leaves no privacy, but allows a view of cubicles where staff is quietly working away. Her bookshelf holds past issues of Today’s Parent, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, her previous employer.

Connell joined TP in 2002 as senior editor and took over in September 2006 after long-time editor, Linda Lewis, left to launch More magazine that summer. “I worked with Linda for four years and I think I really shared the same vision, which is largely about providing parents with authoritative information you can trust, but giving them a choice,” she says. By choice, she means presenting expert advice as well as anecdotes from other parents, leaving readers to decide what’s best for their children.

The magazine regularly features in-depth articles on health, nutrition, education and behaviour; the child development section on kids ages zero to 14, called Steps & Stages, is an essential component. But every year the magazine must cover the same topics. “That’s our challenge—to always look for the new angle on toilet training, birthday parties, sleep stories,” says Connell, adding that the magazine can’t ignore issues such as the HPV vaccine for girls or the child obesity crisis. “We need to respond to those through the parenting lens, too, so that keeps us relevant for readers who stay for the long haul.”

Not all readers are satisfied with what Today’s Parent brings to the table. “It’s patronizing,” says Laura Lind, a mother and writer who stopped reading the magazine, in part because she was frustrated by the way it spoon-feeds Canadian mothers and by the advertising that suggests people without money can’t be good parents. She’d prefer TP be similar to Mothering, a grassroots American title with more challenging articles. “I’d like to see a little bit of a spine,” she adds, with a heavy sigh.

Instead, the magazine has undergone a redesign and there’s now more beauty, fashion and home décor featured. The lifestyle content emphasizes practicality, rather than high style, and it doesn’t appear in every issue. “I think we want to keep it in proportion. We don’t suddenly want to become Cookie magazine,” Connell says, referring to Condé Nast’s upscale parenting title. TP publisher Ildiko Marshall stresses that the additions were what readers had been asking for. “Our changes are totally guided by research,” says Marshall. “So if you are suggesting that we’re going after lifestyle because that’s where the revenue is, that’s not the reason.”

In 1983, long before Today’s Parent had revenue, Beverly Topping purchased Great Expectations, a publication for pregnant women, and used the mailing list to launch Canada’s first national parenting magazine. The December 1984 premiere issue was a 48-page, saddle-stitched book. Initially, the magazine was distributed mainly through doctors’ offices six times a year. In those days, parenting material was scarce and readers responded positively, but the editorial tone wasn’t quite right until Fran Fearnley took over in 1987. Fearnley, TP’s second editor, felt the parenting magazines coming from the States didn’t reflect the Canadian perspective. “Part of what was interesting for me in taking over editorial helm for Today’s Parent was the philosophy that this was going to be more child-centred and less parent-centred.”

Today’s Parent Group (TPG), the magazine’s owner, struggled to survive in the late 1980s, but by the early 1990s, advertisers realized it owned a database, multiple magazines, had access to educators and hospitals, and a good relationship with companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Fisher Price. “We invented convergence,” says Topping. “We really did.”

In 1992, TPG traded shares for four competing parenting magazines owned by Maclean Hunter Publishing. As the company grew, the office moved from a basement to a Victorian house. The laid-back environment meant employees could bring their kids to work, make trips to the nearby candy store, take in a movie at the neighbouring theatre and enjoy wine and cheese at staff meetings.

Rogers first acquired a chunk of TPG as part of its takeover of Maclean Hunter in 1994, and bought the rest in 1999. About four years later, the staff left the old Victorian digs. “It was a little traumatic for the whole company. There was certainly some culture shock,” says special editions editor Holly Bennett, who’s been with TPG since 1986. “Everybody moved in and thought, ‘The grey cubicles. It’s terrible.’ Then we all settled in and it was fine.” Under the Rogers umbrella, TP had more resources, experts to polish the covers and an opportunity to gain a newsstand presence.

After Linda Lewis became editor in 1997, TP continued to evolve, adopting more humour writing and personal essays. In 2003, it beat its American counterparts to win Folio’s Best Parenting Magazine award.

“I think that people were pleasantly surprised by the quality,” says Lewis, who believes parents turned to TP for information and then realized it was enjoyable to read. “It’s not a superficial magazine and I think that that’s what kept them there.”

Recent numbers tell another story. Between June 2005 and June 2007, paid circulation declined from about 198,000 to 134,800 and readership fell from 1,897,000 in 2006 to 1,740,000 in 2007. Marshall attributes the circulation drop to a change in distribution channels. For three years, the magazine had a deal with Sears to send copies to its Family First club members, but ended the arrangement in 2005. “Doctors’ offices and newsstands are much more important to us,” she says, noting that the partnership didn’t increase the number of readers per copy as well as medical offices do. Newsstand sales, meanwhile, have tripled since 2004, reaching 9,300 in December 2007.

Today’s Parent might not be worried about the circulation dip, but it can’t ignore its competitors. Connell keeps a close eye on them. “We have to stay ahead of them for readers and for advertisers,” she says with a look of concern. “They’re out there trying to poach what we built and they all have strengths.”

Everyone says hi to Canadian Family editor Jennifer Reynolds as we head to the second floor inside St. Joseph Media’s loft-style offices. The soft-spoken 35-year-old is wearing a pair of jeans with a green corduroy blazer and a white scarf. Her blonde hair is tied back and her long bangs are swept to the side. In her cubicle there’s a stuffed bookshelf, art supplies and a wooden toy stove. She pushes aside photo proofs and leather baby bibs to make room for my books on her extra worktable.

St. Joseph hired Reynolds following the abrupt departure of relaunch editor Lisa Murphy, who stayed for just five issues. In 2007, frequency increased from six to eight issues a years, and ad pages jumped by a whopping 45 per cent. Reynolds, who crossed over from Redwood Custom Communications where she was an editor of several lifestyle publications, says her job was to add a more lifestyle feel to Canadian Family. “We don’t tell mommies what you have to do or what you don’t have to do,” she explains. “We give you the options and say all the things available out there.”

Before the relaunch, Canadian Family had been around for nearly 15 years, going out to the parents of subscribers to children’s magazines OWL, Chirp and chickaDEE. When St. Joseph Media acquired it from Multi-Vision Publishing, then-publisher Lilia Lozinski recognized an opportunity for a magazine different in voice and in tone from Today’s Parent and with a broader readership than the old CF.

Focus groups suggested an overwhelming number of mothers didn’t just want information about parenting. Also, many new moms and dads were reading these publications to be a “good parent.” For some, it felt like a duty. “The bottom line was that Canadian parenting magazines at that time hadn't captured the stylish mom zeitgeist,” writes Lisa Murphy in an email. “Today’s Parent is the most trusted magazine in Canada with good reason, but in October 2006 it was still exceptionally child-centric. Parents often felt guilty reading it if they didn’t feel they met the perfect-parent ideal.”

Murphy and her team transformed the magazine in three months, widening its coverage to kids aged zero to 16. To enhance its credibility, they asked doctors from The Hospital for Sick Children to vet the health articles; to bring in parents’ voices, they created a “family-tested” concept. The relaunch was a race against the clock and consulting art director Emily Vezer even worked on Christmas Day. “We really needed 48-hour days,” says Murphy. “It was exceptionally exciting and exceptionally stressful.”

Publisher Carina D’Brass Cassidy now believes the relaunch was too rushed. “Unfortunately I would say that Canadian Family probably wasn’t relaunched the way it should have been,” says Cassidy. “We didn’t have the time.” While she commends the editorial team for doing a good job of putting together a new package, she emphasizes how much it has evolved since then. One change has been the restructuring of the editorial department so that staffers from its sister magazine, Wish, cover the style, fashion, beauty, food and décor pages. Former executive editor Yuki Hayashi is impressed by CF’s progress. “The new magazine is setting itself well ahead of the curve now,” she believes. “It’s geared at educated, conscious parents, and not dumbed down as much as it used to be ... as so many mainstream Canadian women’s magazines are.”

But really, what makes Canadian Family stories unique? “Umm… I’d say... ” Reynolds curls her mouth and squints, thinking for moment. “I’d say the voice. We’re not preachy.” The stories may be similar to those in Today’s Parent, but CF takes a different approach to the visuals. “You could read it in both places and feel like you’re reading something different.”

That formula just might be working. CF’s readership increased from 948,000 in 2006 to 988,000 in 2007, and according to the Print Measurement Bureau, 31 per cent of CF readers are male, compared to TP’s 22 per cent. But Cassidy says her goal is to increase the profile of the magazine, not to worry about the competition. “I think it doesn’t matter how big you are,” she says. “People want a choice.”

Dr. Marla Shapiro calls me one afternoon in October. Besides serving as the editor of ParentsCanada, she’s also a family physician, a medical consultant for CTV, an occasional columnist for The Globe and Mail, an editor with Health Essentials magazine, an author, a public speaker and a mother of three. “I’m a very good multi-tasker,” she says in her powerful voice. I don’t doubt it. When Family Communications president Donald Swinburne and vice-president of marketing David Baker compiled a list of potential editors, Shapiro was at the top because they thought she could add credibility to the magazine.

Cautious about what she puts her name on, Shapiro joined ParentsCanada because she was confident Swinburne and Baker weren’t looking for a “rubber-stamp editor” and they all shared a vision for an informative magazine that would recognize that family models were changing, would be more open to subjects such as same-sex parenting or gender identity and wouldn’t inflict guilt on readers. Why, then, profile celebrities? “It’s fun. People are always curious about celebrity moms,” she says. “It just reinforces that the issues that anybody has, regardless of if you’re a so-called ‘celebrity,’ are the same for all of us.”

Shapiro is involved with story generation and design, answers questions in her Ask Marla column and writes the editor’s message, but managing editor Susan Pennell-Sebekos and associate editor Amy Bielby handle the day-to-day editorial duties. Regular contributors include psychologist Dr. Michael Weiss, athlete Silken Laumann, social worker Joe Rich and actress Andrea Martin.

ParentsCanada’s initial circulation is 120,000 copies: 1,000 to paid subscribers, 39,000 copies for doctors’ offices and 75,000 distributed to OWL, Chirp and chickaDEE households, as the old Canadian Family was. The remaining 5,000 hit the newsstands. Baker and Swinburne struck a deal to feature each new issue near the checkout counters at Chapters, Indigo and Coles stores. (In exchange, all the newsstand profits go towards the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation and unsold copies are packaged with children’s books.) The pair expected a first-year loss of a half-million dollars before breaking even, but it never happened. They also anticipated the competition to be a greater challenge, but so far the magazine is getting the advertising it needs, according to Baker. Because most mature markets have two or three successful players, he believes there’s room for all three magazines. “If your competitors are doing well, it’s because there’s support in market for the kind of product you’re doing,” he explains. “You’re not looking for them to fail. You’re looking for them to succeed.”

There’s a circle of mothers and fathers lying on their backs on the floor at the Orange Dot Fitness & Yoga booth inside the Convention Centre. Their legs are folded up so their babies can rest on top of them. “Swimming, swimming in the swimming pool,” sings the yoga instructor. The participants wiggle their babies’ arms. “Shhhhhh,” they say together as an imaginary tidal wave passes by.

Although Today’s Parent still patrols the deep end of the parenting pool, its competitors are staying afloat. Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All book series and someone who has written for all three magazines, praises TP for its “heavy-duty research” and hopes Shapiro will bring more of her television personality to ParentsCanada—“Just as a reader, I keep waiting for Marla to step forward a bit more.” She likes that CF is fresh and unpredictable. “If I were to go away for a 24-hour sabbatical by myself, I would take Canadian Family for more of a fun read.”

 But Mitch Dent, former TP publisher and now executive vice-president of sales at Rogers Media Television, is skeptical about the chances of TP’s competitors, because companies willing to spend a lot of money increasingly dominate the magazine business. “If Transcontinental decided to launch a parenting magazine, that would be something to watch, although to some degree they’d be eating their own lunch because of Canadian Living. Or if St. Joseph decided to put a lot of money into Canadian Family,” he says, “then that would be a different story.”

Masthead publisher Doug Bennet is more optimistic. The parenting category may be a niche, but it’s a pretty big niche. “To have a third major publisher enter the field with a serious contender is a great thing for the industry,” he says. “One of the things that we’ve seen very often in the magazine industry is that the pie does grow.” Just as cottage and shelter magazines have many advertising prospects, this market has huge potential. Even if the competitors start small, it’s worth paying close attention to them. “Look at GM and Toyota,” Bennet says with a chuckle.

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