The tortoise and the tortoise
Shop clerk Dawn Golding snatches a copy of Edmonton Life from the display in front of her till at the Front Page, a newsstand on downtown Edmonton’s main drag. She leafs through its pages and gushes about the glossy new magazine in her hands. “I’m just glad they’re doing a magazine on Edmonton,” she says. “Everyone says we’re such a boring city, but we’re not.” As Golding speaks, she zips past an article suggesting “10 Great Dates in the City,” then a shopping spread, then a profile of Mayor Stephen Mandel. I ask her if there’s a story she found memorable, but she doesn’t answer, as her attention doesn’t rest on any one piece or page. After a few moments, Golding drops the magazine and flits around the shop, her brassy blonde pixie-cut visible behind the racks. Ostensibly she’s tracking down other made-in-Alberta magazines to brandish proudly, but really she’s just dodging my question: were there any stories in Edmonton Life that she liked? Or, for that matter, were there any in Avenue, Edmonton’s other city magazine? She comes back to the till and shuffles through her copy of Edmonton Life one more time. Then she confesses: no, she can’t recall a single story that captured her imagination.

It’s a shame — and a bit of a surprise. Edmonton is among the most appealing cities in Canada for any publisher looking to launch a new city magazine. The Alberta capital is flush with bucks from a booming oil economy, a growing population and a GDP growth rate that compares favourably to China’s — the fastest growth rate among the world’s large economies. Money is only part of the equation. There’s also attitude, and Edmonton has plenty of it. This is a city that likes to crow about its achievements, that unashamedly proclaims itself the “City of Champions,” and one that inherently believes it has stories to tell. The conditions for launching a glossy city magazine have been so favourable over the past year that two start-ups now cover local personalities, lifestyle and culture. Edmonton Life arrived first, debuting in May 2006, followed three months later by Avenue.

The tortoise and the tortoise1 Under normal circumstances, this would be a story of a classic magazine war. Both target the same demographic: well-heeled locals aged 30 to 55, with household incomes over $80,000 and a willingness to spend it on luxuries such as tickets to Oilers hockey games and ensembles from Holt’s. Both reach out to readers by delivering freebies in select well-to-do neighbourhoods and displaying on newsstands throughout the city. And they share prominent contributors from Edmonton’s freelance community. But in this case, the story hasn’t played itself out according to the classic version. Edmonton Life has made a point of publishing numerous congratulatory letters to the editor to show how welcome it is, but both Avenue and Edmonton Life have landed with a relative thud. In the past year, the Edmonton Journal, the city’s largest newspaper, published one brief story covering what, in another town, might be a bare-knuckle fight for readership. Masthead, a trade magazine for the Canadian publishing industry, has weighed in with a piece as well. Beyond that, all’s been quiet on Canadian magazine publishing’s new western front.

“Edmonton has such an identity problem,” says Leslie Vermeer, chair of the professional writing program at Grant MacEwan College, who admits she’s never read more than the debut issues of the two magazines. “We live in the shadow of Calgary nationally, so some of the allure of these magazines is, ‘Oh. They noticed us!’ I like the voices of the magazines, but there’s nothing that makes me want to read further.”

And that may be the biggest challenge Edmonton Life and Avenue face. Their’s is not a battle against each other for readers, but developing a readership that truly cares.

Just a few years ago, Edmonton’s southern limits effectively ended in the neighbourhood where Edmonton Life keeps its offices. Today, the area isn’t a boundary, it’s home to sprawling mega-malls with SUV-packed parking lots and new subdivisions with marketing gimmicks like lighthouses on every cul-de-sac. Some citizens are surprised to see the city grow this quickly, but that’s been good news for Captive Multi Media Group Inc., the company that publishes Edmonton Life. When Captive set up shop here in 2005, it focused on publishing listings magazines with names like Satellite Orbit and Satellite Direct for satellite television owners. This once-lucrative business now faces extinction as the Internet makes listings magazines obsolete. In need of new revenue, Captive made its first foray into consumer publishing, having determined that Edmonton’s booming economy created a niche advertising opportunity for a magazine that caters to high-end retailers and the shoppers they serve.

The story behind Avenue, launched by local marketing and design firm Odvod Media, is much the same. Like Captive, it detected an upswing in the number of businesses looking for places to advertise. But since its specialty was made-to-order corporate communications, it had no way to access what appeared to be a growing business opportunity. The solution was starting a consumer magazine.

Unlike Captive, Odvod didn’t start from scratch. Creative director and Avenue publisher Orville Chubb instead contacted Calgary-based RedPoint Media Group, the largest independent magazine publisher in Alberta. RedPoint became a partner with Chubb in order to develop an Edmonton version of its 12-year-old Calgary city lifestyle magazine, also called Avenue.

Though Edmonton Life and Avenue are new titles, neither breaks new ground. Both follow instantly recognizable formulas, with regular departments — covering shopping, dining, reviews and listings — found in any city magazine from Vancouver to Toronto Life. In the feature well, both tread on middle ground. There are subtle differences. Edmonton Life emphasizes service features — how-to’s and best-of guides — although it does offer profiles of “genius” or “feisty” locals. Avenue tends to favour personality pieces about local politicians, visionaries, artists and athletes, although not at the expense of service. Neither magazine is critical, and any controversial details are shielded with civic pom-poms. One front-of-book profile in the premiere issue of Edmonton Life dealt with a city counsellor crusading to build a “hip, new Edmonton.” In one paragraph the story managed to salute all of the city’s modest but frequently trumpeted virtues: “affordable real estate,” “amazing river valley” and “enviable festivals.” There was even a traditional dig against Calgary thrown in.

Avenue is no less rah-rah. When the magazine profiled former federal environment minister Rona Ambrose in its September 2006 issue, the focus was on her “downright funky” fashion choices and winning personality, rather than on the issues that ultimately cost her the environment portfolio. The magazine tries to distinguish itself from the competition by including a journalistically driven piece in every issue, but the stories offer little in the way of a fresh perspective on well-known topics such as the record exodus of women from the workplace or the emergence of Edmonton as a megacity. And now it has company in this area. The top story in the March issue of Edmonton Life was a feature on the hysteria surrounding Edmonton’s notoriety as Canada’s murder capital.

The tortoise and the tortoise2 Still, cheerleading remains the prevailing mood of both magazines, which helps to explain their trouble in building engaged, loyal readerships. Edmonton Life, in its short time on newsstands, has seen its share of shake-ups. Not long after its launch last May, its founding editor left. By the end of December the vice-president in charge of circulation and advertising was gone. Most significantly, frequency has been scaled back from monthly to quarterly, a move the company attributes to mistaken assumptions in its initial advertising strategy.

Avenue, by contrast, shows no sign of trouble. Editor Tara Blasco Raj even boasts of plans to increase frequency to 10 issues a year from six by this fall. But Chubb acknowledges that building readership can be difficult. “Edmontonians have looked at themselves as the ugly sisters of Alberta, and I don’t see the reason for that,” he says. “I’m proud to be from Edmonton. My sister moved to Calgary five years ago. Up until recently she’s said, ‘Why would you live in Edmonton?’ Now I want a magazine to tell them, ‘This is why I live in this city.’”

Edmonton Life editor Gene Kosowan, who has been managing editor of both of the city’s alt-weeklies, SEE Magazine and Vue Weekly, offers a similar view. “Edmontonians will read anything not in their own city,” he says, mentioning friends who are only regular readers of international or national publications such as The Guardian and The Globe and Mail. “Their mindset is elsewhere.”

Kosowan says his magazine needs to get beyond its current penchant for “exuberant optimism.” “We’re trying to de-fluff,” he says. “I love this city but at the same time let’s not ignore the fact that it has growing pains. It’s a nice city, beautiful, but I don’t think it’s a great city yet. There’s a lot you can learn from what’s wrong.”

At Avenue, there isn’t the same level of self-examination about editorial direction, but its staff hasn’t had to deal with the financial and staffing headaches that have dogged Edmonton Life in its early months. Yet the magazine is still sorting out how to reach its target audience. “I want the magazine to be hip and sophisticated,” Chubb says. “You don’t have to have a Rolls Royce in the driveway to feel that this is about you. If you do, fine, but if you have a Chev in your driveway you can read it too. Because, actually, that’s me.” When Chubb is asked about Avenue’s mission statement he can’t help but laugh. “That’s a good question because I never formulized a mission statement,” he says. “I should have.”

For now, Chubb and his staff are content to use the formula handed down to them from their sister publication in Calgary, which could limit their options. But then, RedPoint has sustained Avenue in Calgary for more than a decade, and business models, says Chubb, “are one side of the magazine business where plagiarism is really quite a good idea.”

If the launches of Edmonton Life and Avenue have been muted on their home turf, so has the criticism, which has been more like faint praise. Reaction outside the city, such as it is, has been more pointed. In the November/ December 2006 issue of Masthead, former Maclean’s publisher Paul Jones gave Edmonton Lifean overall rating of four out of 10 stars in his “Scorecard” column. One of his strongest remarks: “The magazine lacks an identity.” Edmonton Life, he criticized, didn’t fit into any genre. On some pages, it came off like a visitor’s guide. On others it seemed to have more in common with a women’s service magazine than a city book. And some stories bore little or no relation to Edmonton. One, called “5 Fast Canadian Getaways,” featured four destinations in Eastern Canada.

Don Obe, former editor-in-chief of Toronto Life and Canadian, says he’s generally wary of city magazines created mainly because of perceived advertising opportunities. “They’re basically pretty pamphlets, or better still, flyers.” If Edmonton’s new city magazines are to improve — at least in the eyes of critics — their editors and publishers may have to ask themselves what exactly makes great city magazines great.

To answer that question they could do worse than refer back to New York Magazine, the title that launched the genre. New York began as a Sunday supplement to the New York World-Journal-Tribune. When the daily folded in 1967, editor Clay Felker re-launched the supplement as a magazine, creating a lucrative and much-copied genre in the process.

Felker was passionate about his city, warts and all. “You get hooked on this city. You want to revel in it and rail at it,” he wrote in a letter to advertisers as he prepared to launch New York. “You want to participate in this city because it is alive… We want to be the weekly magazine that communicates the spirit and character of contemporary New York.”

But he was also smart about his editorial stance, which Marc Weingarten, in his book The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, describes as a “judicious balance” between “edgy service features… opinionated local political coverage and insightful pop sociological reportage.” The mix was a hit with readers and resonated with contributors, helping to establish the reputations of Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem and others.

By 1976, New York had more than 70 imitators in cities across North America. One of them was Toronto Life. Obe, editor between 1977 and 1981, says Felker’s New York established the main ingredients that go into a great city magazine, warning, “You ignore them at your peril.”

But there was one truly crucial ingredient that Felker understood better than anyone: usefulness. “Unlike traditional magazines, being informative and entertaining wasn’t enough,” Obe says. “You also had to be useful. And you had to be perceived as useful by your readership.”

Usefulness isn’t measured by a magazine’s ability to be a reader’s personal shopper. It’s not simply a matter of where to buy the best scotch or the latest fashions. A city magazine should be a survival guide. “If you say it’s a survival guide to the city,” says Obe, “it means you’ve got to know it.”

City magazines need to tell the reader what’s going on at city hall, with the local sporting teams, at the major art galleries and all the other local institutions. Service pieces should be balanced with stories that tackle local issues and delve into the lives of the people, both famous and obscure, that make a city interesting.

Flipping through the pages of Edmonton Life and Avenue, it’s easy to see how they both, knowingly or not, come from the genre Felker defined. Their retail spreads — “I Want That” and “Cool Hunter,” respectively — both have origins in New York’s “Best Bets.” The featured Chanel eye shadow might be from West Edmonton Mall instead of Bergdorf’s, but the same principle applies. Beyond the restaurant guides and service pieces on themes such as how to stock a perfect bar, though, it’s questionable how useful these magazines are in their current states.

Don Kung is an employee at Hub Cigar and Newstand. The store opened its doors in 1910; it’s the oldest magazine stand in Western Canada and an Edmonton landmark. “The lifestyles they cover are very mainstream,” Kung says of the two new city titles. “There are a lot of aspects of Edmonton nobody sees because nobody covers it in magazines.”

Kung belongs to a custom car club called the Road Demons. He’s got news clippings about the club — with headlines like “Greaser Craze” — framed on the wall behind the cash register at Hub. Kung’s featured in one newspaper photograph standing next to a hotrod. But Kung doubts these new city magazines would run a story about the Road Demons. A cursory glance at the cover of November’s issue of Avenue — an entrepreneur in an expensive Italian suit poses in front of his luxury car — suggests he may be right. No grease on that cover boy, just faux-hawk-sculpting hair wax.

And if Edmonton Life and Avenue haven’t resonated with Kung, they won’t be a hit with customers either, he says. He hasn’t seen anyone with Avenue’s fall issue, copies of which have been sitting in freebie racks below the store’s picture window since its August street date. As for Edmonton Life, whose free distribution targets affluent neighbourhoods, Kung says “curiosity” is the best word to describe it. “The customers look at it as a guide,” he says, “but paying $4.95 for a magazine?” he shrugs, trailing off before ringing in a customer’s purchase.

This isn’t the first time Edmonton has experienced an increase in city magazines. In the ’80s a rush to publish corresponded to the last big boom in Alberta’s oil field. “There were some interesting magazines and weeklies before everything tanked,” Grant MacEwan College’s Vermeer says. She cautions that the same thing might happen to the province’s money and the fate of Edmonton’s new magazines. “I’d be very hesitant to say that it’s sustainable,” she says. “It’s a volatile province. The economy isn’t very well diversified. Publications are really vulnerable. I’m optimistic, but leery.”

But capture the reader, Vermeer says, and these city magazines might outlast any economic downturn. One factor they have in their favour is time, as Edmonton Life and Avenue might easily get through the critical start-up phase, buoyed by an Alberta oil boom that shows no sign of slowing. Beyond that, they’ll have to make their magazines more useful and memorable for readers to care about them.