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So what the fuck do you do with a cultural studies degree anyway? Get into social work? Bartend? Start another degree? Design or advertise?
Firing up a magazine isn’t normally at the top of any broke grad’s list of options, but in the spring of 1999 it’s what McGill University students Malcolm Levy and Jarrett Martineau decided to do. Why not? Magazines weren’t the pricey venture they had once been, especially online.

Levy and Martineau were cultural studies majors, DJs and poets. They wanted to found a publication that would reflect multiculturalism from a Canadian perspective; something that would recognize the global culture that shapes today’s 19-to 34-year-olds. The result was Capital magazine. It first saw the light of cyberspace in October 2000 under parent company Capital Media, which has since grown into a media production and publishing company.

Though Capital magazine is geared towards film, online media, technology, music, animation, reviews and art, a political edge winds through its photo essays and fashion spreads. Originally, Capital’s headquarters were located in Vancouver’s Gastown, with smaller home offices in Toronto and Montreal. However, as staff spread across the globe and interested readers joined their community of culture watchers, Capital’s editorial base grew. It now has offices and distribution in Tokyo, Warsaw, New York and London. Internet chat rooms and video conferencing make online editorial meetings possible. Travel expenses and international conferences aren’t exactly part of the budget yet.
Mainly because there is no real budget at this point. The magazine made the leap from online mess to printed mag without much funding. Ads have been its main source of revenue since 2002, and launch parties, arts events and a limited subscription base make for a little extra cash, but most of Capital’s revenue is eaten up by the next issue’s production.

So don’t even ask about profit. It’s hard to make any when you’re not charging. Levy says it’s important to generate readership through a free magazine in the beginning. Controlling circulation means editors hand-deliver copies to the cafés and record stores its readers frequent. The downside of this approach is that it equals “zero” in terms of contributors’ wages. Right now, staff pitch help as much as their day jobs allow. Capital’s 25 hardcore volunteers from around the world bring material together to print 10,000 copies every four months.

Birthing a free, ad-dependent magazine in Canada’s harsh magazine marketplace seems risky, considering dozens of publications fight for the same dollars, but Capital has a little advantage. Its creators are also its target market – they know which campaigns they’d buy into, so they’ve got a pretty good idea which ones their readers will buy into as well. And the readers crave indie like ravers crave candy. For example, Capital fans don’t go for Nike ads. They want Habit and Pharsyde fashion, institutions like the Canadian Film Centre and record labels like Active Pass. Capital focuses on ad agencies that need to come off as authentic in trying to appeal to a crowd of skeptical, urban hipsters. Advertisers trust the editorial that hawks their ads and editorial trusts the advertisers that finance it. It’s a game that comes down to mutual trust between hustler and buyer.

Graham Withers hustles a good game. As Capital’s Toronto-based publisher, Withers is the advertising department. At 26, his scratch of charm, glitch of optimism, beat of enthusiasm, and genuine looking – if occasionally misspelled – advertising package are enough to convince advertisers that Capital is the market they want. Of course, full-page spreads selling for the low price of $1,600 each don’t exactly sour the deal. Companies know Capital readers can see bona fide versus bogus, and they know Capital fans trust the ads. And since a run of 10,000 copies (95 per cent of which are circulated in Canada) costs around $11,000, advertisers take the chance.
It could be a stupid game to play. It’d be easy for a company like Puma- one of the magazine’s few big advertisers – to suggest a “you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours” deal. And there have been occasions where record labels have advertised with Capital simply because writers have reviewed their releases. Right now, the ad/editorial relationship is reliable, but if Capital starts hurting for cash, Withers might agree to review an event in exchange for an ad. You can bet your Pumas, though, if the event was crap Capital fans would read about it.

Or write about it. Capital has a for-the-people, by-the-people edict. Artists, DJs, writers, film buffs, directors and random readers from Capital cities write the magazine’s reviews and articles. Since most aren’t writers by trade, ideas sometimes come out awkwardly, but observing the conventions of grammar isn’t the point.

The point is to build a community around seeing the world through new lenses. First-year tics aside, the magazine delivers reality and relevance to a pretty big crowd. In three printed issues, Capital has gone from 32 to 48 pages, and its Web site gets 400 hits a day.

So much for social work, bartending, going to school (again), designing or advertising, why not just start your own culture? That’s what the fuck you do with a cultural studies degree.

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About the author

Amy Kenny was the Visuals Editor for the Spring 2004 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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