When the world’s oldest person dies, the joker’s natural response is, “Again?!”
The punchlines are somewhat more difficult to come by when an institution passes. News came out this week that horseracing trade magazine The Canadian Sportsman, all of 143 years old, will not celebrate a 144th birthday. Three years younger than the country, it claims to be the oldest magazine in the land. It is, as editor Dave Briggs wrote in 2010, even older than the Kentucky Derby.
There may not be any larger lessons to draw from the death of Sportsman. While it faced the same pressures that have squeezed printed media for the past 15 years or so, the final blow came last year, when the Ontario government cancelled the Slots for Racetracks Program. President Gary Foerster said that this so affected breeders that revenue from ads and subscriptions has “plummeted.” In that sense, the death of Sportsman is not like others.
Its life, though, reveals to us something about ourselves, like all good journalism. In 1887, Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory gave it an “H 1” in circulation—between 3,000 and 5,000 copies per issue (not bad, in a country of 4.6 million); the previous year, a classified ad in The Globe indicated that Sportsman’s offices were located at 102 King Street West, in the middle of what is now the Financial District. This made sense for the time: horseracing was massively popular in Upper Canada, including Toronto.
It didn’t last. In 2008, the magazine had a paid circulation of 4,200 (it’s surely lower now)—about where it had been 120 years prior, though the country is now eight times the size it was. Its headquarters moved from King West to Straffordville, a hamlet 200km away, on Lake Erie. Its raison d’être—horseracing—is nowhere near as popular as it once was, though it’s by no means dead (see:the OTB above Brunswick House).
Canada does not want for magazines about horseracing: there is Canadian Thoroughbred, The Harness Edge, Trot Magazine, Racing Quarterly, plus whatever flows across the border. Still, Sportsman’s age gave it a certain authority; in 1985—when the magazine was a spry 115 years old—Globe columnist Trent Frayne wrote, “When The Canadian Sportsman speaks, people listen.” Who will they listen to now?