Peter Coish

Peter Coish, publisher of xxyz.ca, one of the newer online men’s magazines
(Photo by: William Stodalka)

In 2006, the advertising team for watch manufacturer Swiss Army met with the representatives of Toro and suggested that the Toronto-based men’s magazine publish an article showcasing the brand. Swiss Army was an occasional advertiser, but when editor Derek Finkle found out about the idea, he shot it down. That’s not what Toro was about. It was devoted to award-winning stories, professional photography and keeping ads separate from its content. “As an editor I didn’t really want to be told that I had to write a four-page thing on the history of Swiss Army.” Finkle said later, “Frankly, I didn’t think my readers would give a shit.”

For most magazines, advertising is usually the largest source of revenue, but it’s not always easy to maintain editorial freedom and pay the bills. Although men’s magazines are plentiful in the United States and Europe, they can’t seem to stay in business in Canada. Staging advertisements as editorial may be one way to keep a magazine running, but it won’t win awards or attract long-term readers. The solution for publishers may be to move to online, though that may not produce much excellent journalism either.

A few months after Toro’s April 2003 launch, Finkle met Brian Segal, vice-president of publishing at Rogers, who told him flat out that the magazine wouldn’t last. Rogers had researched the market and concluded there was not enough advertising to sustain a good quality men’s magazine. “We’ve crunched all the numbers on the men’s side and it’ll never fly,” Segal said. “You’ll never make any money.”

Sure enough, Toro closed in February 2007. And the few Canadian men’s magazines that are still alive don’t mind publishing advertorials. Last year, during a presentation for a Ryerson University journalism class, Finkle opened an issue of Driven magazine and pointed out a “story” on the history of Swiss Army — the same advertorial he’d turned down. After Toro declined to run it, the magazine no longer received ad revenue from Swiss Army. “You can see the blatant prostitution,” Finkle said. But he wasn’t surprised — Driven’sfashion shoots often feature expensive watches on their models’ wrists. “We used to call it ‘watch porn, ’” he said. “The sad part is that it works. Advertisers, for whatever reason, see that as value added.”

Since young men are tricky to reach, advertisers often want publishers to give them more for their money, according to Dennis Dinga, vice-president and director of broadcast investment at M2 Universal Toronto. “A lot of our clients,” he says, “are requesting or demanding that we incorporate the added value components into the campaign.” Finkle describes it as a tactic that attracts advertisers in the short term, but in the long term, advertorials don’t stimulate readers and will drive them away. He points to Driven’s exclusion from the annual Print Measurement Bureau surveys. If it did participate, believes Finkle, its numbers wouldn’t look good.

But Michael La Fave, until recently editor-in-chief of Driven, was apparently unabashed about the watch porn in his magazine. “The failure of our primary competitor does not lend credence to the theory that men won’t read about products,” he said in a press release just after Toro’s death. “Only that despite offering a quality publication, Toro failed to assess exactly what men are interested in.”

Given a choice between a short decorated life and a longer, less distinguished one, some publishers and editors are looking at a third option: moving online. Websites such as Askmen.com and xyyz.ca are trying to provide editorial for men that isn’t all about girls, sex, beer — or pushing advertisers’ products. Men’s magazines, particularly Canadian ones, tend to play on two stereotypes: that guys are slobs breaking wind while eating chips on a couch all day, or that they’re jet-setting millionaires who can afford luxury goods, says Peter Coish, a former advertising executive and the founder and publisher of Toronto-based xyyz.ca. He says the magazine attempts to find middle ground with useful information. Topics such as women and sex are approached in a fun but straight-forward way, rather than with frat boy humour. Askmen.com attracts over eight million visitors per month, and editor-in-chief James Bassil says he has the freedom to write for men without having to worry about paying to print a glossy magazine. Ads do pay for the cost of running the site — including writers’ fees — but the line between advertising and editorial is not blurred.

“People get bored of products, especially men,” says Russell Smith, a former Toro contributor and Coish’s partner at xyyz.ca. “They’re not as interested in shopping. So we wanted to stay away from just product reviews.” Instead, they send subscribers daily emails that include information about products, services and events. But Coish says they are never sponsored ads, and criticism of products is not off limits.

So far, there’s little to suggest that any of these websites will offer the award-winning features and photography that Toro did. And a new magazine with ambitions of producing excellent journalism is even less likely. “I don’t think you’re going to see another magazine like Toro any time soon, because our country’s population and market are frankly too small to sustain it,” says Finkle. “You have to have what Toro had: an owner with a lot of money who is willing to potentially throw it away to take that risk.”