On June 6, 1999, in the cavernous basement ballroom of Toronto’s downtown Sheraton Centre, 800 magazine people were assembled for the industry event of the year: the National Magazine Awards. After a rubber-chicken dinner, the house lights dimmed and booming music heralded the main event. But about halfway through the awards, Brian Banks, executive editor of Canadian Business, realized something was wrong. He’d been duped. Some publications were winning – and they weren’t even real magazines. “My immediate reaction when PC Magazine was read out for the gold award in still-life photography was to boo,” recalls Banks. “I thought, How did that sneak in there?” Banks didn’t clue in that PC Magazine, and other winners enRoute, Images and Confidante, were magalogues until well into the awards. But when he did, he decided it didn’t feel right. “It just didn’t pass the smell test.”

Banks isn’t the only one in the magazine industry who smells something fishy. Journalists traditionally have looked down on magalogues as a marketing tool with nothing vaguely journalistic about them. But today’s magalogues are redefined by high production values and the fact that they’re winning awards at the magazine industry’s highest level. Aside from PC Magazine’s gold and enRoute’s silver, Canadian, Images, Food & Drink and Confidante all won honourable mentions at the 1999 awards. Are the NMAs the place for magalogues? The industry is in a state of indecision, exemplified by the battle brewing at the National Magazine Awards Foundation – the independent group that oversees the awards – over whether magalogues should be in or out of the program. Some say magalogues can have editorial integrity while others argue they can’t possibly and their existence cheapens the medium. This question of legitimacy is forcing the magazine industry, led by the NMAF, to decide what a magazine is, and to declare what’s at stake – namely, the continued trust of readers.

There are a lot of similarities between magazines and magalogues, also called customer magazines. Magalogues carry ads, for their own company as well as others, just like real magazines. They all have a table of contents, departments, columns and letters from readers. You’ll find some of the same writers and photographers in real magazines that you see in magalogues. You can also find some corporate magazines for sale in company stores and bookstores.

So if they look and act like magazines, the thinking goes, they must be magazines. But they’re not. “Even the best executed magalogues reflect a corporate vision of a product,” says Chatelaine editor and veteran magazine writer Rona Maynard. She concedes that some magalogues have more style and consistency than others, but doesn’t consider any of them real magazines. Though many magalogues publish articles that could easily appear in real magazines, there are ulterior motives. The September 1999 issue of enRoute, for example, featured articles on lifestyle, homes, travel and photography. A feature article about the island of St. Lucia and private vacation villas gave a real sense of island culture. But it was followed by the line, “Air Canada flies to.” Would enRoute have written about St. Lucia if Air Canada didn’t fly there?

In one way or another, magalogues are under the control of the sponsor company’s marketing department. At harry, for instance, former editor Michael Totzke says he started with the intention of having a real editorial product. “It never happens, though. The marketing department can’t keep their hands off it,” he says. Harry’s Autumn 1999 issue features articles on how to buy a trenchcoat, how to buy and care for leather, and a question-and-answer section with Harry Rosen, the founder of the men’s clothing store by the same name. Every product mentioned in the articles is an advertiser’s product; advertiser Zegna is also the subject of a feature article.

Indeed, product mentions are the name of the game. IKEA’s glossy Space mentions IKEA products in 13 of 17 items listed in the table of contents. And though a B.C. court justice ruled in May 1999 that Holt Renfrew’s Point of View was a legitimate magazine and therefore didn’t have to pay provincial sales tax (unlike ad material), a reading of the Autumn 1999 issue reveals there are no actual articles. Spread after spread of clothing, shoes, cosmetics and accessories mainly feature the Holt Renfrew line of products.

Granted, other magalogues are less in-your-face. PC Magazine has only one department where it explicitly plugs President’s Choice products: Off the Shelf. It’s a two-page spread in each issue that features photos and descriptions of four PC products. And Joe, Starbucks’ publication, doesn’t mention coffee once. It features some great writing about everything but coffee. Still, it’s a marketing tool created to be mused over while sipping designer coffee.

Many magalogue editors and publishers defend their publications, and say they subscribe to time-honoured editorial practices. Just before her publication folded because of the Air Canada/Canadian airline merger, Canadian editor Penny Williams called her book a hybrid. She said the editorial process is no different from any magazine. “We worry about mix, focus, tone, language and our audience,” says Williams. “It’s naive and dangerous to think editorial integrity is only in question at magalogues. There are always sponsoring interests whether the magazine is published by Rogers or Quebecor.” At PC Magazine, publisher Jack McIver says he provides a good market for Canadian writers, photographers and illustrators. “We use the most talented,” he says. “None of them have qualms about having their name attached to a credit line because they believe it’s a real magazine.” PC editor Patricia Holtz says the book is meant to function as a service magazine with a major, but not exclusive, emphasis on food and cooking – not as a corporate mouthpiece or glorified catalogue. “The PC presence is limited to a two-page spread in each issue,” Holtz explains. “Clearly, ‘Off the Shelf’ is a promotional feature from Loblaws which is something I presume most of our readers can figure out whether the word advertorial is there in six-point type or not.” Of course, where the PC presence is really felt is in the magazine’s name and logo.

EnRoute publisher Raymond Girard says there are no corporate veto rights over editorial, though the corporate side may see a copy before publication. McIver says his company, Zaxis PCM Inc., sends an editorial line-up to Loblaws a couple of months in advance, but doesn’t show the grocer the manuscripts or photos before they’re published (although he admits Loblaws could ask to see them if it wanted to exercise approval rights). Says Girard, “There are some [magalogues] that talk about the great Armani suit next to the great Armani ad. EnRoute has a healthy distance between church and state.”

The magazine v. magalogue debate is further muddied by practices at some “legitimate” magazines. “Is Vogue a magalogue?” asks Vancouver freelance writer John Masters, a 20-year veteran. “As I understand it, fashion magazines are forever making deals with their advertisers. And what about Vanity Fair? A Hollywood agent will let you put his Big Star on the cover if you promise to do a nice feature on his Rising Young Star. Does that make it a magalogue? If you define a consumer publication as an independent editorial voice that serves its public without fear or favour, the list these days might start and end with The New York Times.”

The issue has landed squarely in the lap of the NMAF, because inclusion in the awards could be seen as an endorsement of the editorial integrity of magalogues. The awards foundation began struggling with the issue in the spring of 1999 when a letter from an art director at a national lifestyle magazine arrived suggesting magalogues should not be allowed in the competition. Perhaps they should be given their own category, she suggested, or even their own awards program. At the time, the existing rule banning advertorial was slightly rewritten but remained essentially the same.

It didn’t help: Confusion reigned at the 1999 National Magazine Awards. Judges voted to award Air Canada’s enRoute an honourable mention in the coveted Magazine of the Year category. But prior to the ceremony, enRoute was disqualified by NMAF officials because, according to the NMAF, it has a corporate purpose, evidenced by the letter from the CEO, the airline promotional material and the company logo on the cover. The NMAF decided corporate magazines could win in categories that award individuals, like Best Art Direction or Best Photography, but not in categories that honour the magazine as a whole. EnRoute publisher Girard hadn’t questioned his magazine’s eligibility because it had won other awards in individual categories in previous years. Similarly, citing corporate ties, the NMAF deemed PC Magazine ineligible for the Best New Magazine and Magazine of the Year categories, but awarded it a gold in photography. Things were made worse when Girard read about the disqualification in Dan Brown’s National Post column before letters were sent by the NMAF.

The NMAF took its first step toward clarity by rewriting the rule for the 2000 awards that clearly states the status quo: corporate magazines are allowed to win in categories that honour an individual’s work but not categories that award the overall magazine. The second step was to launch a review of eligibility and judging processes by magazine consultant D.B. Scott. Scott will survey the magazine community to determine how it feels about the judging process and specifically, customer magazines. One consideration is precedent: publications such as enRoute have been participants in the awards for as long as anyone can recall. Less importantly, there’s a financial component to any decision. Each publication pays a $50 fee per entry to the foundation. A ban against magalogues could hurt the foundation’s finances. And where would the line be drawn? Magazines like Seasons (the magazine of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists) and CA (Institute of Chartered Accountants) are not traditional magazines, either. Would they be given the boot, too? Scott’s report will be back in time for changes to be made – if there are any – by the 2001 awards.

In the meantime, some journalists are speaking out. “Do you let a cat into a dog show?” asks Toronto Life editor John Macfarlane, who also sits on the NMAF’s board of directors. “How would you feel about a pseudo film made by Pepsi being nominated for an Academy Award?” Macfarlane believes magalogues aren’t real magazines and shouldn’t be allowed at the NMAs.

Rick Salutin, a Globe and Mail columnist and former Chair of Ethics at Ryerson, doesn’t have anything good to say about corporate magazines. “The bottom line is that magalogues are not serving the greater good” he says. “I think it’s good for the people working at these magalogues to get a slap in the face by excluding them from awards.”

Six years ago, when Paul Jones, now publisher of Maclean’s magazine, led an extensive review of NMAF procedures, the issue of magalogues didn’t come up. Today, his personal view is that corporate publications should not be allowed to compete at the NMAs. Says Jones, “I find the grey areas most troubling: what’s left out or not reported on.” But Jones enters a grey area himself: “With the Loblaws magazine, my gut-feel answer is no, they shouldn’t be allowed to compete, but I disagree with the disqualification of enRoute. To me, inflights are bona fide because they are not there first and foremost to promote the airline. They’re meant to provide a reader experience. This is closer to the true vision of what a magazine should be.” Both Jones and Vince Carlin, current Chair of Ethics at Ryerson, suggest establishing a new award for best commercial material, or have a separate awards organization altogether.

The magazine industry in the U.S. is not struggling with these issues in the same way. The American magazine awards are run by the American Society of Magazine Editors. To compete, magazines must meet strict editorial guidelines which render magalogues ineligible. This solution doesn’t seem viable in Canada: the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors and the NMAF are two separate groups and as a volunteer organization, the NMAF can’t possibly screen all magazines to ensure they follow CSME’s advertorial guidelines. Meanwhile, the Magazine Publishers of America is a step ahead in recognizing custom publishing as unique. At the end of 1999 it instituted a separate division called the Custom Publishing Council. One of its aims is to “promote custom publishing as an increasingly important and relevant marketing and communications discipline.” By contrast, the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association has shut out magalogues completely from its membership and has strict rules regarding promotional material and trade publications. The existing NMAF rule is a classic Canadian compromise, and it has its supporters. Cottage Life publisher and NMA judge and board member Al Zikovitz is happy with the way the rule stands now. Award-winning journalist Robert Fulford agrees magalogues should stay. He says excluding company magazines from the NMAs would impose a false and purely imaginary purity on magazine journalism. Fulford himself enjoys reading and writing for Imperial Oil Review, which has won NMAs in the past. “Should my articles published there not be considered journalism because they live under a non-journalistic corporate roof? I think they’re as valuable, or not, as the articles I publish elsewhere.” As for the awards, he thinks it’s up to the judges to sort out the issues: “They may surprise us all by discovering in a magalogue something absolutely brilliant.”

Brian Banks won’t get any surprises from PC Magazine at this year’s awards. Jack McIver decided in January to boycott them; he felt it would have been hypocritical to enter. “When the time came around to enter this year, the foundation basically said to us, ‘You can enter but we don’t consider you a magazine’,” said McIver. In a testy protest letter written to the NMAF he explained: “What I’m most bothered with is the fact that I have to continually defend PC Magazine as if it were some sort of substandard mutant windshield flyer.” If anything, McIver’s boycott puts even greater pressure on the volunteer board of the NMAF to make up its mind. The current compromise clearly is not satisfactory. To journalists like John Macfarlane, the answer seems obvious. But why stop there? Perhaps it’s time, as others suggest, for the National Magazine Awards Foundation to launch its own new brand. Custom Publishing Awards, anyone?