It’s a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon in late September 2004. At Queen’s Park in downtown Toronto, Word on the Street is in high gear. Every year, on the last Sunday of September, Canadian publishers gather at various locations across the country. These simultaneous, one-day literary festivals promote their books, magazines, and journals.
On the east side of the park, Maisonneuve staff stand under a tent. They’re mostly attractive, in their late 20s or early 30s, and they’re giving away free copies of the magazine to people who agree to sign up for a free half-year subscription. It’s an easy sell for staff that doesn’t stop smiling.
Maisonneuve is a relatively young magazine, publishing in only its third year, but 2004 saw a series of small, but significant victories for the Montreal-based magazine. It garnered eight National Magazine Award (NMA) nominations, and in June, won one gold for spot illustration and one silver for an article written in the Society category.
Equally important, Maisonneuve grew in quantity as well as quality. Circulation jumped to 14,000 copies from 10,000 the previous year, attributing the growth mainly to website improvements. Last spring, it added web exclusive content, incorporating columns such as “NerdWorld” and “Absolutely Starving,” a food column written by intern Mona Awad under the pseudonym Veronica Tartley. Blogs like “In House,” a group effort written by staff, were started, as well as “In Earnest,” the personal diary of New York writer Jarret McNeil.
One of the new features on the magazine’s website is MediaScout. Maisonneuve boasts that it is “the only way to get the straight goods on the day’s top news.” MediaScout is a daily email briefing of the top Canadian media’s news coverage, and seems like a fresh idea. But since most of the emails are sent late in the morning, the relevance of its commentary has usually waned by then. Still, this and other web features have helped the magazine increase web traffic by almost 20 per cent in two years, with over 50,000 visitors (over 2.6 million hits) a month and rising.
Despite its successful year, morale at Maisonneuve‘s office hasn’t always been positive. In fact, 2004 started off poorly. Publisher and editor-in-chief Derek Webster remembers the winter months as long and cold, with no end in sight. Even in June, staff became impatient after their NMA wins didn’t translate into subscriptions or increased interest. “When you don’t see the results,” Webster says, “you don’t embrace the magazine and the people who are doing it. It creates infighting, and that’s not much fun.”
But staff has learned to be patient. It takes time to improve content, and it takes time for readers to notice. The maturity of the latest issue is obvious when compared to the first, which arrived in September 2002. Two and half years ago, the magazine read more like a literary journal than a “New Yorker for the younger generation,” as it now fancies itself. The stories were long and serious, and almost all dealt with literature. The design was unchallenging, and the 78-page book was advertisement free.
Now Maisonneuve looks younger and hipper. It features a colourful design, with bleeding photographs, original illustrations, funky fonts, and other risky approaches to layout. Editorial content is more diverse – a recent issue includes Awad’s account of a drunken weekend (or as she calls it, a “guide to summer wines”), a piece that argues Jon Stewart would make the best Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, and Washington-based writer Thomas Hayden writes about how the Montreal Expos aren’t necessarily going to be welcome in their new home.
Although the content of the magazine has changed drastically, Maisonneuve‘s roots in literature remain intact. Poems and short works of fiction are scattered throughout its pages, but now are a complement to the eclectic non-fiction.
Even a year ago, the editorial tone was less accessible and, at times, pretentious. These days, it’s a more enjoyable general interest magazine. “Mordecai Richer used to talk about his books,” Webster says. “He said that they were always fillers, not the perfect book – that’s why he kept writing. I keep hoping for the perfect issue.”
For the editor, the recipe for that issue includes one part Spectator, one part Vanity Fair, one part New Yorker, one part Vice, and one part Tamarack Review.
If one thing threatens the magazine – and it’s the same thing all independent start-up media must face – it’s the shortage of revenue through a lack of advertising. In an age of increasingly targeted media products, the magazine’s self-description as a “true general interest magazine” is an advertiser’s turn-off.
Stephan Hardy, Maisonneuve‘s business director and online manager, says, “Ads that do well are for people who are well-read, like to travel, and live in downtown areas or large cities. They’re trendsetters.” But, he adds, most Canadian decision-makers are based in Toronto, and the magazine’s Montreal home deters advertisers. It’s not on their radar as a venue to reach “aspirational,” intelligent, urban 25- to 40-year-olds.
Despite these very real monetary difficulties, Maisonneuve has never lost sight of its Montreal identity or influence. “One thing to love about Maisonneuve is that they’ve avoided the culture of grievance,” saysToronto Life magazine’s media critic, Robert Fulford. Canadian magazines, he says, tend to have a dispiriting attitude – the idea that we’re doomed before we’ve started. “They’ve cut themselves from that, and that’s refreshing.”
Maybe, as Maisonneuve grows up, this defiance will fade away, taking naïveté with it. Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with being defiant – maybe it’s just the magazine’s Québécois roots and joi de vivre seeping through its pages.