Illustration by: Hyein Lee

Illustration by: Hyein Lee

Matt Blackett is sweating. Dressed in a sports jacket, dress pants and running shoes, he examines a speaker to plug in his iPhone. Time is running out. Soon people will arrive at the reception showcasing thinkTORONTOSpacingmagazine’s urban design ideas competition. Tonight, most of the posterboards on the exposed brick walls of the gallery space are blow-ups of 23 pages from the Fall ’08-Winter ’09 issue that featured the best of the contest’s more than 100 proposals for improving the city’s streetscape.

The issue also celebrated Spacing‘s fifth anniversary and Blackett is confident the magazine will be around for many more. He has good reason to be optimistic. While many others are scaling back or folding, Spacingis expanding. This March, it launched Spacing Radio, a bi-weekly podcast exploring urban issues. And, motivated by the success of its Toronto and Montreal blogs—which attract up to 7,000 and 2,500 unique visitors per day, respectively—the magazine expects to roll out Maritime and Vancouver versions this year.

Spacing and a handful of other small publications, including Broken Pencil and Geez, stand out in the current economic situation. They are accustomed to pinching pennies, so hard economic times are nothing new. Since they are often non-profit, operate with small staffs, boast circulations under 10,000 and rely on grant money, they’ve developed innovative ways to survive.

To attract readers, they cater to specific audiences ignored by larger publications. “In the last 50 years, niche publishing has been the area where magazines have their greatest strength,” says magazine consultant D.B. Scott, who commends these three publications for their tight focus. Spacing covers city issues, architecture, and geography; three-year-old quarterly Geez, which has an activist vibe not typical of religious publications, largely caters to the faithful who are disenchanted with organized Christianity; Broken Pencil is for and by members of the indie arts and culture community.

Being so specific can generate loyal readers, crucial because most small publications receive little or no money from advertisers. Broken Pencil‘s ad revenue for 2008 was about $5,000, for example, and Geezdoesn’t even have advertisers. But no advertising revenue means no advertiser influence.

Readers are more committed to these magazines because they feel part of a community. Broken Pencilbrings together readers at Canzine, an annual Toronto zine and indie arts fair, where existing devotees interact and the publication pulls in new ones. Last year, Canzine had 150 vendors, including Spacing, which sold its popular Toronto subway station buttons (in just over four years, the magazine has sold over 100,000). Geez holds an annual sermon-writing contest, soliciting non-preachy thoughts from readers’ personal pulpits. Last year it received 101 submissions under the theme “30 Sermons You’d Never Hear in Church.”

The web also helps generate publicity and connect readers. As circulation manager at The Walrus and publisher of Shameless, Stacey May Fowles has experience with big and small publications and says that while larger ones rely on direct mail and other traditional methods of promotion, small ones tend to take advantage of online resources because it’s all they can afford. Spacing uses Facebook for event listings, contest notices and other call-outs. “We used to get about 200 to 250 people to an event,” Blackett says. Now it gets about twice that. And instead of relying solely on professional photographers, the magazine uses the photo-sharing website Flickr, allowing readers to upload images that might make it into print.

Although Geez has a blog, it isn’t integral to the magazine the way Spacing‘s is. Instead, co-editor and co-publisher Will Braun says his magazine sells more copies based on quality editorial and physical features—100 pages printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, perfect bound, and square-like. Geez also focuses on provocative photography and illustration. Images in the recent Winter 2008 issue included photos of a banner proclaiming “We are all Iraq,” shopping carts dumped in a river in an otherwise beautiful nature painting and a double-page spread of a log cabin with caribou antlers piled atop its roof. Similarly, Spacing managing editor Todd Harrison says his magazine’s newsstand sales are “astronomically high”—about 90 percent of its paid circulation of 6,000—in part because its landscape shape often means better newsstand placement: retailers tend to place it in the front rack because they don’t know where else to put it.

Although some small magazines are holding up in the current economic circumstances, the pressures are great. Last year, Maisonneuve won an honourable mention for Magazine of the Year at the National Magazine Awards, but suffered a close call when it tried to expand. After a strong start in 2002, it moved to a large downtown Montreal office two and a half years later; hosted three shows featuring art exhibits, rock concerts and mini massage parlours; and in 2006 was in contact with a publisher about launching a city magazine. The deal fell through. But then, for unrelated reasons, Maisonneuve had to let staff go, printed fewer copies with fewer pages, and eventually moved to a room in the editor’s apartment in west-end Montreal, reducing its costs by 60 percent.

The rapid expansion “really was not good for the magazine because it started losing a lot of money, and the magazine itself started to suffer because it wasn’t getting due attention,” says Marco Ursi, editor of MastheadOnline, who estimated Maisonneuve‘s circulation was around 10,000. Now it’s more often closer to 5,000. Founding editor Derek Webster admits the magazine grew too quickly and the layoffs were disappointing, but “the results have paid off.”

Being small is no guarantee of success, though: Ascent closed in early 2009, Mixx stopped producing without any announcement and Frank folded last year. But not all publications that go under are victims of the recession and some may slowly die for several years, says Claire Pfeiffer, ex-project manager at the former Small Magazines office at Magazines Canada. “The loss of one advertiser could be the nail in the coffin.”

Scott notes that closures are usually due to underfunding, rather than too few readers or poor editorial. Fortunately for small magazines, he also believes, “People are much less likely to give up their fascinations or their passions in bad times. And they normally have more time to work on a magazine when they don’t have a job.”