In 2001, the international publishing world welcomed a new competitor. Canada’s Print Measurement Bureau switched from its old method of gauging magazine readership of “through-the-book” to the worldwide standard of “recent reading.” This change in methodology altered the landscape of Canada’s publishing industry and how its magazines are perceived in the international playing field.

The old method of through-the-book, where respondents were given a slimmed down version of a magazine and asked if they’d read the particular issue in question, was outdated. Canada was in desperate need of a more efficient way to measure magazine readership. In this widely accepted process, recent reading field operatives flash magazine logos or name plates at survey respondents (about 18,000 of them) asking if they’ve read the magazine in question within a particular timeframe. The results from recent reading yield higher readership numbers because the new method examines a different variable: logo recognition and the last time the respondent read the magazine.

But why change a methodology that had been in use for 50 years? According to Steve Ferley, president of PMB, the system was unable to cope with the influx of new magazines. Fifty years ago, there were only a handful of titles for PMB to measure and through-the-book was a useful tool to examine the readership. By the new millennium, the magazine industry was drastically different. “In 2000, we were measuring about 80 magazines with through-the-book,” says Ferley. “The system was beginning to creak.” Also, Canada was the only country still using the older method – over the years, Germany, France and the United States switched to recent reading.

The results of PMB’s recent reading were no surprise to publishers and advertisers – they were aware that the numbers in other countries using the new method were much higher and that, on average, recent reading jacks up the numbers to higher levels than through-the-book. In fact, magazine readership levels have increased over 100 per cent across the board. Thus, international advertisers and agencies are now taking Canada seriously as a viable environment to invest their dollars in. Additionally, the new methodology is efficient enough that it allows for more magazines to be measured. Field representatives no longer schlep stacks of mini magazines from door-to-door. Since 2000, PMB has added 40 per cent more titles – that’s 115 magazines in total.

According to Ferley, the switch to recent reading was well received in the industry – 98 per cent in favour, to be exact – for numerous reasons. First, advertisers and agencies wanted more magazines to be measured because they wanted comprehensive information on Canada’s progress in the international publishing arena. Secondly, publishers liked recent reading’s higher, which allowed their magazines to compete on an even playing field with other mediums, such as specialty television, which always generates higher numbers than magazines.

But open any newspaper lately and Greg MacNeil, group president of St. Joseph Media, is singing a different tune. With the recent slaughter of Elm Street magazine, MacNeil is the first to point his finger at PMB and its switch to recent reading for the cause of his magazine’s death. Prior to the change, Elm Street was pulling in $12.4 million in ad revenue. Two years later, the glossy, eight-times-a-year women’s general interest title took in a mere $7.4 million because of lower readership numbers than its competition. “The fact is, the switch to recent reading damaged Elm Street in a way that is very difficult to deal with,” says MacNeil. With the magazine’s controlled circulation in The Globe and Mail, logo recognition may not have been enough to jog the memories of respondents, as opposed to seeing a slimmed down version of Elm Street with through-the-book. In the new system, if a field rep flashes a logo card and the respondent doesn’t recognize it, he or she moves onto the next card. Elm Street didn’t stand a chance – it was a massacre.

Other St. Joseph titles, such as Toronto Life and Fashion, are fairing quite well under the new system and MacNeil is the first to point that out. However, Toronto Life has over 100,000 paid subscriptions and a strong newsstand presence, while Fashion is tossed in as a freebie with every Toronto Life subscription. It’s no wonder why both the popular magazines are doing very well in PMB.

Other magazines are thriving under the new system. Reader’s Digest, Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Maclean’s and Time Canada are all boasting higher readership numbers, which translates into elevated ad revenues. Also, despite the switchover, all titles maintained constant standing throughout the change, which is sound evidence that the new methodology is accurate, fair and efficient. “It’s a very sophisticated methodology which is used all over the world – period,” says Ferley.