Case study. Subject: Report on Business magazine, The Globe and Mail‘s almost monthly business insert (published 11 times a year). Business challenge: competing for readers against a host of other sources of financial information. Question: can a magazine stay comfy with Bay Street while reporting – in an entertaining yet critical way – on its world, leaders, and conduct?

It’s a legitimate question, but Laas Turnbull, the editor of ROB, is going to hate this story. He’d sooner wage war against rival National Post Business (NPB) or biweekly Canadian Business (CB) on the ad sales street than be in the pages of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. He’d rather shun the limelight altogether (he once refused a “Lunch With” interview with Jan Wong, telling her, “I don’t want to look like some paranoid little freak”). And he’ll really detest this story because of the way it’s packaged: it’s not, after all, a gripping narrative with a character at its centre, as he would expect of a story in ROB.

Instead, it’s a case study (see Turnbull stifling a yawn), the kind of thing people read in business school, or in NPB every month. And the last thing Turnbull wants is for anyone to mention the two magazines in the same breath. He’s set on “positioning” (one of his favourite words) ROB in a league of its own. As he told readers in a March 2003 editorial: “I’m no writer. If anything, I’m a marketer, and the magazine is, in many ways, a product like any other. It requires strategic planning, a clearly defined target audience, long-term vision and slick, focused promotion. More than anything, it must stand above its competition.”

According to its advertising kit, ROB is “written by experts… for the people in power at Canada’s top corporations. It’s pro-business, pro-Canada, pro-reader.” Turnbull claims his book has “an absolute lock on bigwigs in the business” (although it’s not clear if he’s talking about readers, story subjects, or both). Meanwhile, NPB promises to “[delve] into the most important news, trends, ideas, and ways of doing things that are constantly changing our lives.” Bill Shields, the editor of Masthead, which covers the magazine industry, calls the ROB-NPB fight “one of the great rivalries in Canadian publishing.”

But some readers, at least, can’t tell the difference between the two books. “I get them mixed up,” admits Françoise Lyon, former editor of a business publication and now the president of the Montreal chapter of the Quebec Business Women’s Network Association. That makes her Laas Turnbull’s worst nightmare.

The Problem

Complicated product, tired marketing: “Power failure: how did things go so wrong for Ron Osborne at OPG?” “What the strong dollar means for you.” “Victor Victorious? If Victor Li closes on Air Canada, he can emerge from the shadow….” Headlines like these (selected from 2004 issues of NPBCB, and ROB respectively) mark the dull and predictable content often associated with business press. It’s also indicative of the category’s tone – Turnbull’s predecessor, Douglas Goold, proudly says he produced a “serious” magazine.

ROB traces its roots to the “Top 1000,” a chart-heavy ranking of the largest publicly traded companies in Canada by profit, which debuted as a stand-alone in 1984, a year before the magazine was born. It’s still “our bread and butter,” says Turnbull. When I asked art director Domenic Macri how he’d freshen up this staple for its 20th anniversary, he laughed. “I don’t know. The ones and the zeros have been done to death.” (ROBeventually settled for a white cover with “one thousand” in plain black type.)

If reporting complex financial details with pizzazz isn’t easy, neither is the underlying job of covering biotechnology one month and mining the next. “You have to know the right questions to ask,” says Dawn Chafe, editor of Atlantic Business Magazine. “And too many of us don’t.”

Small market, limited access: Eric Reguly, an ROB columnist, says Bay Street is like a little club, making it tough to cover. “There are 10 guys who run the business community in Toronto,” he says. “It’s such a small community that everyone’s afraid of being critical of the guy down the street, ’cause who knows? Next week you might have to buy that guy down the street, or sell to him, or do a deal with him.” Even if a reporter gains access to executives, businesses still try to exert control. “You have investor-relations and PR people tagging along every single minute you’re with somebody,” says Joe Chidley, editor of CB. That magazine actually sells 83,500 copies per issue, rather than giving them away. It also opted out of the monthly magazine war in 1997 by publishing biweekly, setting its sights on breaking news, and launching editorial projects based on number crunching.

ROB contributor Konrad Yakabuski says CEOs are especially wary of reporters. “I think they would take the point of view that ‘they’re all a bunch of raging communists in the business press who … are out to get us,'” he says. BMO Nesbitt Burns chief economist Sherry Cooper has been quoted in the magazine itself as calling a ROB cover photo “the kiss of death” in business.

Busy readers, stiff competition: by definition, a business magazine’s target audience has little time to read. “The pace of business information has picked up a lot,” says Christopher Waddell, Carty Chair in Business and Financial Journalism at Carleton University, who generally passes up monthly magazines for more immediate sources: newswires, websites, and the daily paper.

I got a small taste of this time-is-money world when I accosted business types at the Schulich Executive Education Centre and at a meeting of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives,seeking comments on their magazine preferences. I heard “Sorry, I’m busy” a lot, and got one partial quote from a CEO who muttered that ROB could be “less sensational” before his cellphone rang and he vanished. Judy Smiley, president of the Canadian Association of Women Executives and Entrepreneurs, told me that juggling a career and motherhood leaves her with a two-foot-high reading stack that she breaks into when she can.

The latest ROB is somewhere in that stack, but its editor surely wants to do better than that.

The Boss

The latest occupant of ROB‘s editor’s chair often talks about old white guys in suits, and has vowed to change all that. In two years’ worth of covers, three issues featured women and one showed Michael Lee-Chin, a self-made billionaire from Jamaica.At 38, Turnbull himself shows boyish freckles and an athletic frame. He won a soccer scholarship to Simon Fraser University before he moved back to Toronto in 1990, and dropped out of Ryerson University’s journalism program. He says he was perceived early on as a “young punk,” and that in 1993, he was asked to leave a job at Canadian Airlines’ in-flight magazine for defending a writer who made fun of the city of Sudbury. Ross Laver, who worked with Turnbull at Maclean’s in the early 1990s, remembers the then copy editor aspiring to be editor-in-chief: “He was more ambitious than most, and more importantly, he wasn’t afraid to say it.” (Turnbull now admits setting his sights on a publisher’s job.)

After a stint at Toronto Life, Turnbull joined ROB, where he helped create a brash 1998 redesign that earned harsh reviews for former editor Patricia Best. He became editor-in-chief of Shift later that year and carried the digital-culture book ambitiously – but unsuccessfully – into the U.S. market. Turnbull worked briefly at thePost‘s magazine and at CBbefore his appointment as ROB editor in September 2002.The publication had scrapped its old logo, “R.O.B.,” by the time Turnbull was on the masthead and introduced his blueprint for success, namely, taking “the visual and editorial idiom of a general interest magazine and imposing it on a business title.”

The Strategy

Play up the personalities: “We’ve gotta own the big business profile,” Turnbull tells his staff at ROB. He counts on his readers, like any other audience, to be captivated by epic tales of brave attempts, grand successes, heartbreaking failures, and glimpses of hidden worlds. A rare profile of the Bank of Canada’s governor took them to David Dodge’s farm and revealed that he drove a Chevy Lumina for years and used less than $100 of his generous annual expense account at a previous job. A 6,000-word Yakabuski piece about former Bombardier CEO Paul Tellier captured the tension between him and chairman Laurent Beaudoin, three months before Tellier quit. And when Roland Keiper, a former proprietary trader who sued RBC Dominion for wrongful dismissal, refused to be interviewed, Turnbull sent senior writer John Daly slogging through divorce records to get details of the spending habits of “The Smartest Guy on Bay Street.” Meanwhile, a photographer staked out Keiper’s home, paparazzi style. “It was a great story,” chuckles Turnbull.

The competition, NPB, is not immune to featuring the stars of business and entertainment (witness “Inside Avril’s Pants,” a story on Parasuco’s attempt to woo Avril Lavigne into their clothing), but is just as apt to feature a Hells Angel on the cover (for a story on the bikers’ lock-hold on Canadian ports) or a bright red lipstick (for Shoppers Drug Mart’s “facelift” to an upscale beauty boutique).The Post‘s target magazine reader seems to skew middle-class, judging by the regular offerings on family finance and the “101” feature, which translates economic jargon into plain English. (Brian Banks, NPB‘s editor since 2004, declined to tell me anything specific, on the record, about his own editorial vision.) But Turnbull seems as unapologetic for his elite focus as for an editorial approach that’s a lot closer to People and Vanity Fair than the Harvard Business Review. “These guys are our celebrities,” he says of his cover subjects. “They’re the equivalent of Jennifer Lopez or Britney Spears.”

Embrace the unexpected: “Readers don’t just want to read rah-rah blow-job stuff on the business community,” says Reguly. Last April, after CIBC’s disastrous U.S. expansion venture crumbled, Reguly’s column asked why the bank’s CEO, John Hunkin, hadn’t been fired. Turnbull ran the column under a shock-jock headline: “Hit the Road, Hunkin.” But other ROB surprises have come in more benign forms: a December 2002 profile of fallen tycoon Garth Drabinsky portrayed the former Livent boss as a philanthropic showman, and the cover line read, “Garth Vader: If that’s how you see him, you’ll hate this story.” Last year saw the advent of “Off the Clock,” a regular column that features those “bigwigs” living life outside of the office – fly-fishing or Harley-tripping.

One of Turnbull’s favourite articles travelled far from corporate headquarters: writer Susan Bourette took a job at Maple Leaf Foods’ hog-processing plant in Brandon, Manitoba, and wrote a gut-churning account of the bloody ordeal. It earned ROB a National Magazine Award for investigative journalism.

Package everything: Turnbull’s anti-staleness recipe – his promise of “a good time” for readers, as Yakabuski put it – comes down to a word that people in Canada’s magazine business automatically associate with Turnbull: packaging. In part, it’s about assigning timely, sharply angled stories on themes with a bit of sizzle: the money dramas of divorce law; the romance between Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau and his partner, Julie Snyder. It’s also about coming up with unique visual effects: paper airplanes “flying” through the pages of the Bombardier story, or a mock tombstone for a piece about a troubled Canadian funeral-home consolidator.

Another bold move was March 2004’s Corporate Social Responsibility survey, which scored major companies by their charity donations, environmental policies, employee relations, and more. (Alcan topped the mining category for using a high ratio of consumer-recycled aluminum.) But most obvious of all, Turnbull’s ROB is “packaged” inside grabby, sometimes zany, covers. A special issue on ruthless bosses featured nine stern men in black suits on a gatefold cover with the title, “The Toughest SOBs in Business.” For a History of Business special edition: a wax-museum display called the “Hall of Fame (and Shame).” A nude, retired banker smoked a cigar as he kicked up his feet at a boardroom table for August 2003’s “Get a Life” issue, which spotlighted vacation spots, best barbecues, and summer fashions.And Justice James Farley, who saved Air Canada from financial collapse, got this cover line: “When it comes to tough talk, he’s the Judge Judy of Bay Street.”

And why not? Chidley, of CB, says presentation is “half of the battle” in his business: “Don’t be cute and don’t be coy, tell people what they’re getting, shove it in their face.” But Turnbull knows he’s pushing the envelope with his readers. “You’re only on the earth once,” he says. “You have to be willing to fail…. The question is, how far can you go in terms of format and the packaging and even the storytelling, keeping people on their toes but not putting them off?” So far, the answer’s far from clear.

The Results

For some ROB readers, Turnbull’s packaging has threatened the magazine’s credibility. Take that “Toughest SOB” issue: a bold move, but Shields questions the substance behind the sell. “I can remember reading at least one, maybe two of those guys; there was nothing son-of-bitchy about them. Why let a couple of nice guys ruin a nice coverline, right?” Along the same lines of journalistic under-delivery, readers have taken issue with the Drabinsky story (a “little piece of fluff,” said one letter to the editor) and the Corporate Social Responsibility survey (“marshmallowy” and a “marketing gimmick,” sniffs Susan Reisler, a former business journalist with CBC Television, who believes surveys of this kind make corporations feel undeservedly good).

Apparently, the juries at last year’s National Magazine Awards took a more positive view. Turnbull’s writers and editors swept the business category and collected 17 nominations in all – much more than CB and NPBcombined.

But the numbers that matter are readership measures and their fruits – ad sales. There, Turnbull’s success is harder to gauge, because of the peculiarities of a business that gives away its product for free. Print Measurement Bureau figures show a 52 per cent rise in ROB readership, which is gaining on NPB‘s lead. As the former editor of the Post mag, Tony Keller, told me: “I don’t think anybody in the entire industry ever believes readership surveys are 100 per cent accurate.” But advertisers do pay attention, and ROB‘s ad sales – the magazine’s lifeblood- have been draining away steadily (from 844 pages sold in 2000 to 568 pages in 2004), while NPB has seen a slow rise (from 501 to 575). Such comparisons leave ROB publisher Phillip Crawley red-faced with exasperation: unlike the Globe, he told me, the Post sells its ads for deep discounts, “chasing cheap business which really doesn’t pay for itself.” By revenue, ROB is making gains, Crawley insists: he flashed a clear plastic folder and said the chart within proved his point, but he wouldn’t disclose the numbers. And my repeated calls to the Post‘s advertising department were not returned.

So, for all his marketing glitz, how is Turnbull really doing? If he ran a public company, you’d assess his performance by share price. If readers paid for his magazine, you’d look to sales. As things are, circulation means little, because the business inserts’ fight is a tiny piece of their parent papers’ war. As Shields says, “It would be interesting to see these two free magazines do battle in a new theatre – the newsstand.” Now that, he says, “would really utilize Laas’s packaging skills.”