The mourning after1

An email went around the Saturday Night magazine offices on Tuesday, October 18, announcing that a meeting had been scheduled for Thursday. The email listed a time, but no agenda.

There was a mood of suspicion in the windowless boardroom on the morning of the 20th, as a dozen editorial and art staff mulled over the possibilities. Some had previously experienced the folding of a magazine – some with this very publication.

The agenda wasn’t long in coming. Senior executives at St. Joseph Media, which owns the magazine, were about to make public that Saturday Night was suspending publication and officially going into hiatus. Senior editor Cynthia Brouse – whose first job in the industry 25 years ago was at the magazine, as then editor Robert Fulford’s assistant – says the room was predictably glum, even as outgoing editor Gary Stephen Ross was warm and gracious as he went around the table. “But I burst into tears,” Brouse says. “I was sad for Gary and for the magazine.”

The announcement has reanimated the debate as to whether or not Canada can support a national general interest magazine. Industry insiders say the problem is economics, not an intellectual deficiency in the Canadian populace. Brouse puts it bluntly: “We can’t have a general interest magazine with ideas unless someone is willing to donate and lose the money.”

The Vancouver-based Geist magazine’s editor-in-chief Stephen Osborne concurs, saying, “The word ‘profit’ should be eliminated” from the conversation. “No quality magazine with limited circulation can survive without subsidies,” he says, “and it’s always been that way. Whether it’s borrowing money from family or operating out of a basement, you need subsidies over and above advertising.”

The first version of Saturday Night came about as a result of an 1887 libel suit and ensuing judgment against Toronto News editor Edmund E. Sheppard. He was fined $500 (which, adjusted for inflation, amounts to more than $10,000 today), but managed to elude another clause, the one that forbade him from gaining editorial control of any other Canadian daily newspapers, by starting up a weekly magazine.

Originally titled Toronto Saturday Night, Sheppard’s magazine began as a broadsheet that kept its readers up to date on current events, Toronto’s upper crust and what books to read.

But nothing survives nearly 120 years without some fine-tuning along the way. The publication changed hands a number of times, and its frequency has fluctuated from weekly to monthly to bimonthly. Throughout its history, it came to be seen as a prestige read. It boasted of having tapped the inkwells of, among others, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies.

Suzanne Bowness, whose thesis covered the first 20 years of the publication, wrote that after the Second World War, under the editorial leadership of Arnold Edinborough and then Fulford, Saturday Night began “moving towards the magazine we know today, with a reputation for intriguing in-depth stories that continue to dig where the nightly news and daily papers leave off.”

Saturday Night has never been consistently profitable and this stoppage, the fourth in its history, wasn’t entirely unexpected. Still, through all the financial woes its venerable status remained more or less intact, so it was disconcerting news. “Whenever a magazine that old folds,” says Masthead editor Bill Shields, “it’s a bit jarring.”

“Technology conspires against magazines,” says Matthew Church, Ross’s predecessor at the helm of the magazine. Blogs and online news have created a significant ripple in the magazine, newspaper and publishing industries, just as television did two generations ago. To combat this, newspapers have been offering more features and less hard news, encroaching on the magazine’s traditional journalistic territory.

The move to a 24-hour news cycle has fragmented the magazine industry, which has become a cauldron of specialty niches. Identifiable demographics, not generalities, are what attract advertising dollars now. Even with a circulation of 197,000, a general interest magazine like Saturday Night can’t offer an advertiser the same density of potential customers as a specialty magazine with one-tenth the distribution. “The way we use media is different,” Church says. “Print is no longer a primary source, so advertisers are not interested in a thoughtful general interest magazine of national scope.”

Advertising departments and agencies spend between five to seven per cent of their budgets on magazine ads now, estimates The Walrus‘s publisher and editorial director, Ken Alexander. (It was announced on November 22 that his publication was awarded charitable tax status by the Canada Revenue Agency. It will now be run by the Walrus Foundation.) Saturday Night‘s big mistake, according to Alexander, was to move to a controlled circulation model. Most of its print run was distributed inside copies of the National Post, which made it difficult to gauge the mood of readers. “You’re diminishing its value,” he says, “making it impossible to create demand and an active readership.”

Relying on controlled circulation also means relying exclusively on advertising for revenue. In the October 20 press release, St. Joseph Media president Donna Clark says, “Advertising support, although favourable, has not reached projected levels.” Data from Leading National Advertisers (Canada) reveal a 32 per cent increase in ad sales for the first three quarters of 2005 over the same period the previous year, but the magazine was still losing money. Brouse says St. Joseph was unwilling to lose more.

Compounding the problem is that government grants, once a steady source of revenue for many magazines, are not as reliable as they once were. “The government has been turning off the spigot for the last five years,” says Shields. According to Statistics Canada, in 2003-04, federal funding for book and periodical publishers declined 11.6 per cent to $162.1 million. And, with less than 50 per cent paid circulation, Saturday Night was ineligible for government handouts.

In other words, Saturday Night was cut off from every revenue stream but advertising and its owner’s deep pockets. The company says that its investment since acquiring the publication in 2001 has been “comparable to a new magazine launch” – roughly $1 million a year for a publication of that size, Shields estimates. Derek Webster, editor and publisher of the Montreal general interest magazine Maisonneuve, says Saturday Night‘s reputation for an intellectual bent was at odds with the credo of the mass market, thereby pitting the journalism against its need to sell ads. “Until we have a magazine with tons of U.S. readers, there won’t be a level playing field,” he says, regarding economies of scale. “Toronto has been emulating the model laid out by New York. It will become more celebrity-oriented because it makes more money.”

Bowness sifted through documents in the old Saturday Night‘s office back in 2001 – after its third death and before St. Joseph revived it yet again – for transfer to official archives at McMaster University. She calls the magazine “a rare glimpse into the challenges we’ve encountered over the decades… a collective memory, perhaps,” and echoes the sentiment that something must change in the Canadian magazine industry for a publication like Saturday Night to survive.

Despite Alexander’s successful push to secure charitable status – and hence a more realistic chance for secure funding – the debate is far from over. Church, for example, doesn’t think anybody in an industry dominated by profit-motivated corporations should qualify for charitable subsidies. Rather, breaks on expenses like postage or tariffs should be doled out. But Osborne, who’s been pushing for Geist’s charitable status for years, says, “The sensible approach to subsidies should consider advertising a subsidy.”

Shields says the Saturday Night brand will definitely attract interest, but it will require repositioning, paid circulation and a more defined demographic for another resurrection to be successful. As for the other players, Webster and Osborne, after the Walrus decision, will redouble their efforts on behalf of Maisonneuve and Geist to secure charitable status. “We’re going to dust off our applications and send them to Revenue Canada as soon as we can,” says Osborne.