The light turned red 10 seconds ago. Evan Solomon adjusts his longshoreman’s toque and continues across the intersection through oncoming snow flurries and mercifully few cars. Shift‘s editor-in-chief and VP of Behaviour Publishing Inc. has two sweaters beneath his coat as he wends his way to the new Shift offices, still under renovation, darting neatly around the slush and ice that make Toronto winters so sloppy. The old offices occupy three small rooms on the fourth floor of a converted sweatshop farther up Spadina Avenue, about where the Queen West Village surrenders to Chinatown. The people down the hall are garment workers. The new offices will fill a 4,300 square-foot “L” on the second floor of the recently restored art deco Balfour Building. The people down the hall are tailors specializing in men’s businesswear.
Same medium, different message. But many things are transitory at a publication that has appeared in as many incarnations since its July 1992 debut as Maclean‘s managed in decades. No more than a hobby-sized literary when it launched, Shift still boldly announced that a new generation had arrived on the scene. But the scene kept changing, and with it Shift. Over five years, its founders have repeatedly attempted to translate its evolving concept into a viable market, garnering plenty of media attention and industry help in the process. Now, with last October’s purchase of the magazine by Montreal’s BHVR for a rumoured $1 million, Shift has exchanged the relative safety of the back shelves of the newsstand for the front lines of mainstream publishing. “More than just their friends know of them,” magazine consultant Dave Scott observes. “There’s also the downside of no longer being the wunderkind. Allowances are made for the start-up. The big guys aren’t threatened by you. But when you’ve been around for five years, people wonder, ‘What have you done for us lately?’ Advertisers ask, ‘Who’s the market?'”
From Shift‘s beginnings in the pubs on Montreal’s Rue St. Laurent, its growth has stemmed from the sheer adaptability of its founders. Evan Solomon, now 28, and Shift publisher Andrew Heintzman, 29, met when they were students at McGill. Evan was the first student ever to graduate from that university with an MA combining English and religious studies; Andrew wrote his master’s thesis on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. “Evan and I were finished our degrees and we wanted to do something different,” Andrew recalled early last year. “There were a couple of nights where we were brainstorming, and out of one night came the idea of a publication. We saw this absence. There weren’t any publications speaking to young people. We hadn’t recognized it in a business way, as a market, but just that it was an opportunity.” If they had been more pragmatic, Shift might have been snuffed right there. But new desktop-publishing technology and dim employment prospects for graduates in 1992 cast the chances of a literary magazine for twentysomethings in the best available light. Mark Hyland, a friend of Andrew’s from high school, had the computer skills and worked as a media consultant; he would serve as president of Shift Magazine Inc.
“Our greatest asset was how silly we were,” Evan explained last March. In his phrase, he and Andrew were “academentiatized,” caught up in the cant of Derrida and aghast that everyone else wasn’t aware that deconstructionism was a big deal. “We thought we could start a fiction magazine that could have a major impact on culture, that would support our life and that would make lots of money. That’s the arrogance of”-he tugs at his hair-‘kids.”
Shift announced itself to the Toronto media with a brazen promise to “Kick in the teeth of the literary establishment.” Rather than being shown the door or ignored, the Shift guys got the red carpet. “It was summer, the height of the silly season,” Evan beams. “The next thing we knew we were on Morningside.” A good start for a strictly local publication with a press run of 800 copies. “We made the cover of the Globe‘s Arts section.” Mark Hyland’s intern stint at the Globe before joining Shift and his media consultant work for the CBC throughout the magazine’s early phases probably helped them some. So did renting out Lee’s Palace, a large club in midtown Toronto, for their launch party. Three hundred people turned out for the festivities, which mixed readings by contributors with the tunes of Fried-Up Fred and GROWL. Shift‘s founders played in the bands. Daniel Richler worked the party, having served as the subject of the magazine’s first celebrity interview. Despite the bravura surrounding their launch, they had doubts regarding Shift‘s reception. “We expected to find magazines lying around afterward,” Andrew recalls, “which would have been devastating.” They’d handed out copies at the door with the $8 admission. As it worked out, there were no leftovers. The costs of their first run were covered, and the next one as well. “We made a couplathousandbucks,” Evan says, with the smooth edge of many passes.
Despite this immediate success, like other publishers of small-scale magazines, Shift‘s founders discovered that everyone wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about their concept as they were. “People under 35, for the most part, can’t write,” Dave Scott says. “They haven’t learned it yet.” A review of the premiere issue by Kate Fillion, then the Globe‘s magazine columnist, noted that the best story was also the shortest, which she observed was “not entirely coincidental.”
The lifetime of any given version of Shift was also short. The handful of subscribers in Shift‘s earliest days got a black and white, sparsely illustrated quarterly featuring Q & As with such young and celebrated Canadian authors as Douglas Coupland and Catherine Bush along with original fiction by the young and previously unpublished. In the spring of 1993, the third issue proclaimed Shift “the voice of an unsettled generation.” A smirking Atom Egoyan marked the arrival of cover photos as the fourth dabbled in the Gen-X artistic scene. Along with another redesign and spot colour, issue five brought expanded coverage of cultural, political and technology issues. Social critic Neil Postman and author John Irving made appearances, breaking Shift‘s initial ban on those over 35. By the sixth, which sported the tagline “New Media and Culture,” Shift was becoming less a magazine about its target demographic and more of one for them. Couplandesque references and the happy-go-lucky manic-depressive motif of Generation X receded with Shift‘s second anniversary as the magazine explored the bright electronic frontier. Books made room for CD-ROMs, essays for Internet ephemera; the young literati of early issues bounced further to the margins with each new editorial stamp. In 1995 they were deleted entirely in Shift‘s drive toward the new digerati.
“Everything has changed,” Solomon acknowledges. “The layout, the jobs we do, our sense of responsibility. The only thing that is the same is the name.” Shift‘s early amateur status leaned toward untried and often earnest content for the consumption of a small circle. Its independence was possible largely because there were no major investments at stake-the magazine was incorporated with a capitalization of $7,000-and no in-house number-crunchers making sure the end product was an easy hit for some advertiser’s next PMB run. But Shift‘s founders aimed for a wider audience than most indie magazines, having never seen commercial appeal as something to be avoided. “I think that was a pretty crucial distinction,” Mark Hyland says. “There was a point during the second year when we realized we had to go for broke or go home. It was just going to keep costing us tons of money. Either we had to work and get serious about making it a viable business, or else we could do it as a hobby and get together once a quarter and have it exist on a low level.”
As the magazine metamorphosed from a homespun literary into the media and entertainment bimonthly it is today, door-to-door canvassing for ads from head shops and bookstores gave way to more ambitious approaches. At the Shift booth at the 1994 Mac Expo in Toronto, Andrew and other staffers handed out photocopies of a Marketing Magazine article that extolled how Shift had become more “advertising friendly” by dropping unsavory articles on body piercing and the like from the editorial mix. There would be no homocentric manifestos by gay playwright Brad Fraser in the new magazine, as had run in the spring number of that year. Beginning in early 1994, Shift had turned to marketing firms and industry insiders for help. “I went to a bunch of ad agencies,” says Andrew, reciting a list including Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, and Initiative Media, the media arm of MacLaren McCann. “I told them, ‘This is our market, this is our plan.’ We still hadn’t tested the magazine’s capability to sell advertising. I was trying to talk about our positioning with them, what kind of clients we would talk to, the kind of circulation we would need to attract various clients.” That August, Young and Rubicam agreed to conduct after-hours focus groups for Shift, with staffers watching twentysomethings’ responses to potential advertising through one-way glass. Another activity had test subjects fill in speech balloons pasted over the covers of various publications, describing what the magazines were “saying to them.” Shift wasn’t charged for the sessions, Andrew says, because the agency “was as interested in the data as we were.”
Others were becoming interested in what Shift was doing. Kerry Mitchell, then VP of Where Publications at Toronto’s Key Publishers, now associate publisher and VP of Canadian Living, helped Andrew prepare the business plan Shift would take to Maclean Hunter in October 1994 in an effort to get major backing for its new direction. Mitchell knew Mark Hyland from his consultancy work for Key, and would purchase a few bits of Shift. “You get tired, especially when you’re plugging along at the 3,000 copy level,” Mitchell says. “You begin to wonder if there’s a market there.” Shift‘s founders decided that there was, and print runs went from 3,500 to 12,000 to 16,000 for the spring through fall issues respectively. Funding for the printing costs came from ad revenues that Andrew says increased from less than $1,500 to around $15,000 per issue over the period, and through the sale of shares in the company to friends and associates. A National Magazine Award and a grant from the Ontario Publishing Centre for a subscription drive helped Shift outlast rumours of its imminent demise. “We almost gave up on Shift,” says Evan.
“They’ve done a very good job of cultivating friendships in the media world,” former Masthead editor Doug Bennet says, “by asking for advice, by going to Michael de Pencier and John Tory [the chairman of Toronto Life Publishing and president of Maclean Hunter respectively]. One of the most interesting things in Shift is the ‘special thanks’ column on the masthead, to see how that’s changed.” Bennet runs his finger down the list-once limited to acknowledging the support of the Ontario Arts Council and family members-to Michael Levine’s mention. “Levine is the Michael Ovitz of Canada, the biggest entertainment lawyer in the country. Maybe they bought him lunch one day and asked him two questions, but he gets on the masthead. It’s the company you keep, and they keep pretty establishment company. The fact that they’re young, attractive, well-educated and they come from establishment families helps open the door for them, to approach these people and not be rebuffed.” Dave Scott says simply: “They’re immensely charming people-Evan especially.”
In return for the mentoring, Shift serves as a conduit to what’s new, Bennet argues, with the big companies buying ad space mainly “for the sex appeal” and for fear of being seen as out of touch. That desire to buy into some street savvy was behind Maclean Hunter Publishing’s September 1995 purchase of 10 percent of Shift in a deal valued at about $100,000 in cash and services. Not even the magazine’s biggest boosters have bought into its circulation numbers. While the magazine claims a subscriber base of about 10,000-and this after a sizable circulation drive conducted by MHP last year-insiders peg it at under 5,000. The true number remains a subject of speculation; Shift is only now applying to the Canadian Circulation Audit Bureau.
On the surface, these figures don’t seem to justify large investments by a publisher in the hope that Shift will find its readers, but the major houses have been known to sink millions into titles launched from scratch. Considering the magazine had already established some recognition, even producing the Shift Media Minutes segments for CBC Newsworld by then, Maclean Hunter’s investment in Shift represented little more than a testing of the waters. “If you see it in the context of how desperately these guys are casting around for anything that will carry them into the 21st century,” says Globe publishing reporter Val Ross, “…where do you go? I’d love to know the combined budgets of Maclean Hunter and Telemedia on this. They’re dropping money to try to figure out where to go.”
Shift, perhaps more than any other new magazine in Canada, has suffered the tension between being the renegade and supporting itself. Arguably, the bigger Shift lost some of the spunk that once set it apart. In 1994, in the wake of the Sports Illustrated split-run debate, it came out with its own “swimsuit edition” featuring comedian Scott Thompson in a pair of Depends, with critic Michael Coren and a bevy of Canadian writers and artists in beachwear. When a 1995 Shift interview with Camille Paglia went sour, the magazine organized a panel of Canadian journalists to share their experiences of Paglia’s wrath and to discuss the limits of “book-tour journalism.” Director David Cronenberg interviewed Salman Rushdie in a London safe house, while Laurie Brown questioned the unspoken motivations behind MuchMusic’s hiring of VJ Sook-Yin Lee in an attempt to rekindle the network’s dimming spark. These were pieces that gave Shift claim to the high ground of media criticism; few of these would have been seen elsewhere.
Recent issues, however, have been largely devoted to American TV shows and entertainers: The X-Files, Ice T the entrepreneur, Oliver Stone yet again. Given its frequency and limited resources, Shift could hardly serve up these subjects while they were still fresh, which raises the question as to why the magazine should wish to shadow Entertainment Weekly. The February 1996 number of Shift took the celebrity angle and new-media tie-in to the wall with a cover featuring Jennifer Aniston of Friends on the basis of one sentence on page 28 concerning people discussing their “Rachel” haircuts over online chat services.
To be fair, the Aniston cover was Shift‘s first and, so far, only such offense. In a more common gambit, Shift‘s sell lines draw in readers with promises of pictures from the trenches of the Info Age that somehow resolve into tabletop photography inside. When Shift swears that the Mondex smart card is going to “hijack the banks,” it’s disappointing to learn that rather than curtailing the bankers’ reach, the digital cash system (and service fees) will be managed in Canada by the Royal Bank and CIBC. Still, we’re told that’s the screech of derailing paradigm we’re hearing: the smart card “isn’t just necessary, it’s inevitable-it’s not just a product, it’s a revolution.” If Mondex could have said it any better, it didn’t have to. As Wired is, Doug Bennet argues, Shift is seen to be iconoclastic when it’s more often a promoter of consumer electronics. Indeed, it has much in common with ad-driven books such as Car and Driver, the main difference being its tone, both clubby and vaguely menacing.
Shift is about people “inventing their future,” Evan says, yet much of the magazine reads like some latter-day preparedness campaign when it settles down to the business of our relation to technology. Filmmaker Peter Greenaway advises aspiring filmmakers to give up the cinema for the new technologies, “Because that’s the way it’s all going to be.” Asked if his Omnimax CD-ROMs will be interactive, Greenaway sniffs, “Yes. Interactive with me.” Shift hasn’t been immune to flippancy in its pursuit of material. “Wiring Africa,” in the April 1996 number, has Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and other “third-world celebs” meeting in Johannesburg to discuss the online needs of a continent that lacks even enough telephones. When the techno angle fails to develop, Shift‘s correspondent fills space with contemplating her laptop computer and boorish fellow travellers. “They have to cultivate a little prescience,” Bennet says, so that the magazine might lead rather than follow current trends.
By the late fall of 1996, the magazine paused long enough to reward even a casual glance with more than the blurred contours of The Next Big Thing. The August number would be the last appearance of the ostensive bimonthly for the next four months. Canada’s oldest ad-supported website (dating from antediluvian 1994) would lapse, becoming the site of some of the oldest content online. Shift‘s dalliance with Maclean Hunter had ended, having lasted only a year, although it has maintained professional ties with some of its people, including John Tory Jr. “Personally, John Tory was very supportive of us and what we wanted to do,” Evan says at the suggestion that MHP was perhaps an inappropriate partner for Shift. “Maclean Hunter is an older, established company, and we wanted to grow Shift faster than it wanted to grow Shift.”
With Behaviour Inc., perhaps Shift has found a backer up to its speed. Montreal-based BHVR is built around film, television, digital effects and animation productions. The BHVR deal dwarfs the 1995 arrangement with Maclean Hunter and gives the magazine the financial muscle and cross-promotion opportunities seldom seen in Canadian publishing.
Rather than simply putting additional capital into the existing Shift organization, BHVR has assembled a highly skilled team under Behaviour Publishing Inc. president Wendy Muller, with Shift founders Evan and Andrew also serving as VPs in the new company. The magazine’s staff of 15, up from eight last year, has several new faces, including Barnaby Marshall, a seasoned website and CD-ROM designer lured back from New York to head Shift‘s new online initiative. Clive Thompson, until this February the editor of This Magazine (see page 14), is now doing editing work for Shift.
The extra hands have helped. With the December issue, the first under BHVR, Shift returned to examining our heavily mediated culture rather than emphasizing the celebrity angle. The dismissive phillipics directed at Luddites real and imagined, the gushing hyperbole for everything that beeps, is also less apparent in the round-up. Short items on director Michael Moore and Channel Zero’s Stephen Marshall and features on Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel days and computer-simulated organisms stress interpretation over invective and acknowledge that media is not singular.
Relaunched in an off-sized format in late March, its 90,000-copy print run three times what it reached with MHP, Shift and its new bent-arrow icon will be seen by more people than saw the first dozen issues combined. “Ten thousand will go to subscribers,” Andrew says, “10,000 to the newsstand, 55,000 will go out as a controlled sample issue,” with the remainder reserved for trade shows and your dentist’s office.
“If Shift hit a five-run homer, what would it look like?” ponders Doug Checkeris, a group VP at Media Buying Services who discussed ad placements with the magazine in January. “They would come to stand for that group of people. They could have television programs, radio, online. That’s how you win this. You take ownership of the place that has leading-edge people aged 18 to 34 with interests in technology and the world. That’s the big hope.”
Once there were kudos for just publishing a little magazine for Gen X in the first place. Shift‘s original mission included finding the viewpoint of its generation. Instead it has often found itself the scene. “I’m so resistant to the idea that the bar is raised and everyone expects more,” Evan responds. “I hope people expected it before. People who said Shift was terrible before, that Shift was lightweight, they were right in some ways. We can only do what we do. Are we going to be better? I hope so, I think we’re going to have the most exciting magazine.”
In an empty suite roughly five times the size of Shift‘s previous space, Evan points to where the T1 server will go, to the conference room equipped with a garage door, to where the receptionist will sit. It’s a long way from Andrew’s basement, to the days when their parents had to co-sign the leases on basic office equipment. On the return up Spadina, Evan stops at the light. “You think the Shift story,” he muses aloud, “could inspire others to take a chance despite what other people are telling them?” A big truck passes-some barriers aren’t completely arbitrary-and he’s moving again, leaving others to wait for the green.