With stage fog drifting through the air, acrobats swinging from the ceiling and bass-driven music throbbing through the building, the pace of the party at first seemed oddly out of sync with its purpose. The green, orange and purple overhead spots cast an outlandish light on a milling crowd of journalists, Globe and Mailstaffers and assorted well-wishers who had assembled at the Toronto School for Circus Arts. But with a spotlight sweeping the letters “R.O.B.” around the concrete floor, the venue seemed increasingly right for the relaunch of one of Canada’s three mainstream national business magazines. Those redesigned magazine covers spinning round at every table added just the right touch to a party that seemed to symbolize the churning pace of change at all three magazines.

The Globe‘s magazine relaunch was one of many efforts in the last year and a half as the three magazines-R.O.B., Canadian Business, and National Post Business-have tried to reposition themselves and shed their tired and dowdy uniformity. The prize, of course, is higher readership and a bigger share of the $30-million-plus in annual advertising revenues that fuel the national business magazine sector. In the process, though, all three magazines have lost their editors, as well as many other editorial staffers, and all three have implemented wholesale redesigns in search of the perfect positioning. The only one that seems to have cruised through this major shakeup with most of its readership, credibility and editorial intact is also the only one readers have to pay for-CB, where Joe Chidley is now at the editorial helm. The other two come free with a newspaper subscription, which makes them part of the ammunition in the circulation war between theGlobe and the National Post. The Globe‘s R.O.B., relaunched under the editorial direction of Douglas Goold, is duking it out with National Post Business, the domain of editor Tony Keller. With CB at least confident of what it wants to do, Goold and Keller face the job of figuring out their vision and their mandate. As things are going, you could conclude that the competition between the three magazines has turned into something like a three-ring circus.

At 10:30 on a cold November morning, Douglas Goold, the R.O.B.‘s recently appointed editor, is trying to run a story meeting in his office overlooking the roof of the Globe building in Toronto. Most of his staff have wheeled chairs in from their desks in boardrooms A and B, the magazine’s makeshift office, but they’re spending more time talking about production than future editorial plans. The third redesigned issue has just gone to press after many problems. Goold’s editors and production staff-many of them new to the magazine-seem to be going through the glitches experienced by a start-up rather than an established product. With one leg crossed over the other, the 55-year-old editor faces the crew and tries to deal with nagging details. Senior editor John Daly is having trouble with writers who don’t meet deadlines. “Why don’t you say, ‘We’re giving you one more chance. Here’s the deadline and if you don’t meet it, you’re out’?” Goold suggests in his Joe Clark-like voice. Deputy editor Maryam Sanati wants editors to stop telling writers what heads and decks have been written for their stories. “That’s totally nuts,” agrees Goold.

Part of Goold’s problem is that he has to stabilize an editorial department that’s gone through more staff turmoil than its competitors. Just a few months after the Globe organization brought Nigel Horne over from Britain as editorial director of magazines in February 2000, editor Patricia Best quit. Within months of her departure, most of the advertising sales, writing, production and editing staff resigned, leaving only the art department and two senior editors. The magazine Best left behind was respected for its timely, well-written stories (recognized in several National Magazine Award nominations), but readership was slipping. The problem, according to many observers, was the 1998 redesign undertaken by Robert Priest, which, depending on whom you talk to, was either brave or stupid but certainly not appropriate for the magazine’s older audience. The redesign’s poor reception was only partly alleviated by changes made to the look month after month to soften the bold colour palette and graphics. “What they ended up with was just wrong on so many levels,” says one critic. “It didn’t look good and it was hard to read.”

Horne, along with R.O.B. publisher Phillip Crawley, eventually tapped Goold as Best’s successor, even though he had very little magazine experience. With a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge, he started his career as a university professor before taking a job on the editorial board of The Edmonton Journal almost 20 years ago. After working for the Financial Post, he moved finally to the Globe , where he was editor of the newspaper’s Report on Business section before taking on the magazine. He’s nonchalant about his lack of magazine experience, seeing his move as just one more of the abrupt changes that have characterized his career. “I’ve survived all of it,” he says. “I didn’t find the transition to the magazine difficult. It’s not brain surgery.”

Goold quickly signaled his intention to bring change to the magazine, telling the community newspaper for Toronto’s upscale Forest Hill area that “we need to do a few things differently.” By the October 2000 relaunch issue, after several months of planning, Goold and Horne had completely gutted the magazine. There were 19 new sections, including four regular columnists (three of them technology-oriented) and a fat Globetrotter section spanning at least 10 pages and containing travel information on various regions of the world. Heavy on photography, the more conservative design was developed in-house by Horne and associate art director Domenic Macri. The title was simplified to just R.O.B. Magazine and featured a new logo, created by an outside company, with top-trimmed, Vogue-like type used for the three initials. The tone of cover and feature stories had changed, too. Where Best had favored current business issues, Goold offered cover stories like “Who Has the World’s Best Logo?” and “Our Experts Rate the New Eatons Ad Campaign.” The magazine was deliberately pitched to broaden its traditional middle-aged male readership. “Most business magazines don’t look like fun magazines like Vogue or Vanity Fair , they don’t have a spark,” Horne said at the time of the relaunch. “Why shouldn’t a business magazine have a buzz like that?”

On another miserable November day in Toronto, in a coffee shop with stiff lounge chairs and a view of busy Bloor Street, National Post Business editor Tony Keller settles in to talk about the magazine produced in editorial offices upstairs. At this point, Keller has produced 15 issues of the title, relaunched in September 1999-its predecessor was The Financial Post Magazine-and now distributed with the Post .

The 33-year-old Keller is tall, casual in appearance and manner, and constantly moves his hands and face to amplify his soft, deep speaking voice. Appearances aside, he actually has much in common with Goold, hisR.O.B. counterpart. Keller also started his journalism career on an editorial board, in his case at the Globe, where he worked for the better part of seven years, leaving as an assistant editor on the board. Like Goold, he had little magazine experience when he was hired to revamp the old Financial Post Magazine . There’s a lot of similarity, too, between Goold’s and Keller’s visions for their titles, at least to the extent that they both want a wider audience. It’s just that Keller takes a much broader view. He says his target audience is between 20 and 100 (“I don’t want to exclude anybody”), and that he wants a long-term editorial focus. “Fundamentally, at its core, this is a magazine to help you understand the world and the world of business,” he says, his hands in motion to underline the breathless spin. “[Our readers] want us to help them understand some bigger-picture things. Let’s pull the lens way back and say, ‘Stop thinking about today and let’s think about where this is going in the future, not what you should be doing next week, but where will the world be in a year, two years, five years, where is all this heading?’ ”

Keller’s big sell is indeed a very broad and general package. The magazine’s large front and back components are stuffed with smaller pieces on everything from workplace facts and statistics to the history of the bicycle and insight into union boss Buzz Hargrove’s bargaining tactics. Regular columns cover issues from the disadvantages of low-fee mutual funds to why the Bank of Canada should be closed. There are only a handful of feature stories in an average issue, many of them business profiles or book excerpts. The overall design, produced by creative consultant Karen Simpson, emphasizes white space and pale colours, illustrations and black-and-white photography. Like the U.S.-based magazines Fast Company and Business 2.0, NPB frequently uses plain text or illustrations on its covers-no matter, it seems, how unflattering the portraits of people might be.

To realize his plans, Keller beefed up the masthead, although not without the churn that seems to be plaguing all the business magazines lately. Before he even arrived at NPB, four people left, including editor Wayne Gooding. Although Keller has since doubled the staff complement, he has also had to replace a senior editor and the art director. Staffing issues apart, the success of the business titles, like all magazines, depends on their acceptance by readers and advertisers. It’s still too early to tell whether the redesigns undertaken by Goold and Keller have struck the right chords with readers, though recent statistics show both magazines have a job to do to get their editorial positioning right. Readership trends for business magazines over the last decade look as ugly as the economic cycles they sometimes report on. According to Print Measurement Bureau reports, readership of all the business magazines dropped with the severe recession of the early 1990s, but began to grow again along with the economy, peaking in 1994 and 1995. But since then, both magazine inserts have taken big hits. Last year’s PMB numbers suggest that R.O.B.had lost 250,000-or 40 per cent-of its readers since 1996, dropping to an all-time low of 397,000. The decline was attributed by some to that controversial redesign introduced by Patricia Best. After PMB released its 2000 numbers, NPB was able to claim it was “Canada’s #1 Business Magazine,” but that was more becauseNPB didn’t lose as many readers as its Globe competitor: it only lost four per cent from the 1999 survey, dropping to 436,000 readers, compared to R.O.B.‘s loss of over 22 per cent. Of the three major national business magazines, only Canadian Business seems to have found its footing in terms of readership. Although CB has a smaller total readership because it’s a paid-circulation book, its reader per-copy figure is a healthy 3.6. Since its relaunch as a biweekly in 1997, readership has in fact remained steady at just over 320,000.

On yet another dismal November day, editorial staffers gather for a story meeting in a cramped old conference room at the Canadian Business office on the fifth floor of the Rogers Media building in Toronto. Three latecomers sit on boxes or bookcases around the room since there are not enough chairs. After some chitchat about an expensive deli downstairs and boisterous laughter all around, editor Joe Chidley gets the meeting going. “Kevin, story ideas?” he shoots, turning to staff writer Kevin Libin, who is sitting on a box in the corner of the room. Libin proposes covering the opening of the ice hotel in Quebec, which prompts Chidley to start asking the hard questions in between the lighthearted banter. “Do you want to go there, or what? When are they pouring the foundation?” Chidley decides to mull the idea. “What else you got?” he asks, scrawling in his yellow notepad. Libin puts forward another idea. “Is there a Canadian Tire story out there?” Chidley asks, ignoring his staff writer’s suggestion. “Besides the one about how you can’t find a rake in the fucking place.” More laughter, next idea.

Although the meeting seems to have the air of a freewheeling discussion in a college dorm lounge, it becomes evident that the group has a firm fix on the magazine’s editorial positioning. Despite the jeans-or-khakis preferences of its editorial staff (including Chidley), the magazine has a reputation for sometimes hard-hitting business journalism that’s consistent enough to keep subscribers paying for every issue. Last August, CB was one of the first business publications to warn its readers about Nortel’s bloated stock price, two months before the company’s shares first plummeted. (R.O.B sounded a more subtle warning in its October issue, while NPB named Nortel’s John Roth CEO of the Year in its November issue.) More than its competitors, CB publishes tough stories about specific companies or products, such as its scathing critiques of mutual-fund giant Investor’s Group and the Investment Dealers Association of Canada last year.

But like its competitors, Canadian Business, has gone through big changes, most recently among its editorial staff. Under former publisher Paul Jones and long-time editor Art Johnson, it embarked on a redesign, in part to distinguish itself more clearly from its competitors. Jones and Johnson a more news-oriented format to attract subscribers and advertisers, and changed frequency from 12 to 21 issues a year in 1997 (along with a cosmetic redesign frequency increased to 24 issues last year.) But Jones left in 1999 to take the publishers job at Maclean’s, and last spring Johnson moved on to edit the Financial Post section of the Post. The 37-year-old Chidley was Johnson’s recommendation as his replacement. He was already working on the magazine as a senior writer and technology editor before his promotion and had joined CB after working as a senior writer at Maclean’s . When he took over as editor, he inherited a magazine with a sure idea of what it wanted to be editorially. “What we have to continue to do is look ahead and provide context for developments,” he says, promoting his magazine’s number-one goal. He hesitates to have many articles exploring old news (“We give our readers credit for knowing what’s going on”) and prefers forward-looking stories. “We’re in a great position to continue to do what we’re doing, which I would argue we’re doing better than even the papers or competing business magazines.”

The steady PMB readership numbers seem to bear out his opinion of his magazine’s strengths, as does the record on advertising. Despite having the smallest readership, CB nonetheless seems the most attractive option to advertisers. Last year, CB carried 1,110 pages of advertising, including inserts, compared toR.O.B.‘s 843 and NPB‘s 501. “Canadian Business has very, very timely articles and I think it is extremely highly regarded by those of us placing advertising in it,” says Sunni Boot, president of the media management firm Optimedia Canada. “I think between National Post Business and R.O.B., R.O.B. still probably has an edge over NPB right now.”

Editors are notoriously stingy in their assessments of competitors or former competitors, but CB has won praise even in that quarter for its clear sense of purpose. “It seems that the reincarnations of the two magazines [R.O.B. and NPB] are business light,” says former R.O.B. editor Patricia Best, spelling out the last word as l-i-t-e. “It really leaves the field open for Canadian Business , which is the only serious business magazine. They don’t have to do this frantic, ‘What should we do now in order to look like we seem fresh?’ They just are fresh because they stay on top of what we want to read about.”

The reaction from some of the readers the business magazines are supposed to address seems to be the same. Adam Zimmerman, former CEO of Noranda, and a sometime writer himself, has his own definite ranking. “I have always had a bias for Canadian Business,” he says. “It seems to go for more of the non-mainstream things, so it’s kind of interesting.” Beyond that, Zimmerman reads R.O.B., and occasionally looks at NPB. These last preferences, though, may be more the result of fallout from the newspaper wars. He cancelled his National Post subscription to reduce the amount of paper crossing his desk.

As a reader, Zimmerman has noticed what he calls the new “cast of characters” on the mastheads of the business magazines and mentions that he misses the kind of stories that Best focused on when she was editor of R.O.B. “I think Pat Best was injecting a thoughtful content that I don’t think exists right now,” he says. “Maybe people don’t want to think about big things anymore.”

The fog has disappeared and the exotic soundtrack has been turned off as R.O.B. publisher Phillip Crawley steps forward to say a few words to the modest crowd at the magazine’s relaunch. He is standing in front of a hugely enlarged copy of the magazine’s front cover, which features a basketball player posing behind his business manager. When he speaks, he’s full of praise for the new look of the magazine and its new editorial thrust, not saying much about its hand-picked editor Douglas Goold or its (subsequently departed) editorial director of magazines Nigel Horne. “I’ve seen a lot of relaunches and redesigns, some of them memorable for all of the wrong reasons,” he announces, without specifying whether he is talking about his own magazine’s facelift in 1998 or the changes at his competitors’ titles. He seems confident, however, thatR.O.B. has got it right this time. “I knew it was a winner.”

That said, the music comes back on, the acrobats go back to work and the circus continues.