When I first meet Peter Armstrong, he’s sitting at his desk eating chocolate-chip cookies. “I’ve got about 10 extra pounds of chocolate on me,” he says, laughing. “Do you want one?” As a recovering alcoholic, Armstrong is all too familiar with how one addiction can replace another.
In fact, this idea is central to the philosophy of the magazine he launched last September; Pathways; The Guide to Health Through Balanced Living explores more than just people’s dependencies on drugs and alcohol. Its goals are to show how people can find balance or moderate a whole range of obsessions -alcohol, food, gambling, drugs or sex. Armstrong has won his battle with alcohol; but the question is, can he win a battle to produce a viable magazine in the midst of a recession?
His own story reads much like an article in the magazine: twenty-five years spent pouring booze down his throat, getting drunk every day, using all his energy to conceal his addiction. When he finally bottomed out, “there were a lot of people to help,” he says.
Now he wants to help others. “This magazine will be a life-and-death source of information for some people. We’re playing with people’s lives, their emotional lives, and their sanity,” he says.
But are good intentions enough to sustain the magazine? Armstrong’s personal struggles bear a strong resemblance to the underlying pain the magazine confronts. “It’s a service magazine of emotions,” says start-up editor Joann Webb. “Most emotions explored in magazine writing are about love and male/female relationships. There is very little done in this country about other types of emotions,” like pain, she says. But current editor Keitha McLean disagrees. “The magazine deals with joy,” its flip side, says McLean. ‘We’re not interested in the horror stories
They’re the starting point. It’s what the reader can learn from them.”
Their differing philosophies are reflected in the editorial content of the first two issues of the magazine. While the premier issue often confronted the painful struggle of living with an addiction, the second issue, produced by McLean, combined stories of recovery with articles on individuals successfully pursuing their own “paths,” and who have not necessarily undergone a personal struggle with addiction themselves.
Just over a year ago, Armstrong envisioned the magazine as a recovery digest focusing on alcohol and drug dependencies. He had become disillusioned with The Toronto Star, where he’d worked as an editor and writer since 1982. “I realized I didn’t give a shit about current events about keeping track, day in and day out, of world events, entertainment, and corporate world changes,” he says. He describes the Star as no longer the spiritual place his great grandfather created.
It was then that he picked up the phone, knowing only one person in the consumer magazine industry. “I sought out and accepted a lot of advice,” says Armstrong. A month later, he began organizing an editorial advisory board of health professionals working in the area of alcohol and drugs. A telephone survey done by Thompson Lightstone & Co. Ltd. made it clear that the magazine needed to broaden its base to include other types of dependencies. In a survey of 2,000 adult Canadians across the country, half recognized excessive behaviors as a problem in people’s lives. And one third said they’d subscribe to a magazine that dealt with prevention and recovery in these areas.
Thus Pathways was born. It was February, seven months before the first issue was to appear on the newsstands, when Joann Webb got a call. Webb was the first person to be involved with Pathways who had any real consumer magazine experience. And as editor of several national magazines, including Canadian Business, Harrowsmith and Vista, she was all too familiar with the riskiness of the business.
The launching of Pathways was anything but typical. Most magazines begin with a prototype, or a onetime issue that goes on the newsstands to gauge people’s response. But Armstrong just wanted to dive right in, without trying to build circulation first, says Webb. “Peter was so close to the project at a personal level that his hope was that this publication would break every rule about publishing that there is in the middle of a recession, that’s hoping for a miracle.”
Even the corporate structure for the magazine is unusual. Half a million dollars seed capital for the magazine’s launch was provided by Armstrong’s mother, Joyce Armstrong, a Hindmarsh, one of the shareholding families of Torstar. It has been put into a non-profit trust, called the Armstrong Trust for Recovery Enterprises, which wholly owns Recovery Publications, the company that publishes Pathways. Webb’s frustration over limited funds and “business priorities, generally,” were the major reasons for her leaving the magazine. And as it has turned out, Armstrong says he has “pretty well abandoned plans for investors for this year,” which could have resulted in a major boost in revenue.
But despite the effects the economic slump has had on the magazine industry in general, some magazine experts believe there’s still a market for Pathways. Doug Bennet, editor of Masthead, The Magazine about Magazines, is optimistic that the magazine fills an important niche. There is no other specialty publication in Canada on recovery, and only one in the United States that comes close to Pathways. If the venture is successful in making bulk sales to corporations, it may have a chance, says Bennet.
So assuming that Pathways does have a readership, will advertisers buy in? The second issue, published last month, had 17 pages of ads representing more than $30,000 in revenue. This was supplemented by 2,000 individual subscriptions, plus the sale of about 1,500 sponsored copies to hospitals and unions and to companies with employee assistance programs.
Advertisers are hesitant to buy. Wendy Muller of Magazine Network, the company that represented the first issue of Pathways to advertisers, says “I might have built it up in the trade first,” restricting its circulation to places like treatment centres and doctors’ offices, and then turning the magazine into a consumer product later.
Part of the marketing strategy was to have a five-month lag between publication of the first and second issues, then go to bimonthly frequency beginning February 1992, and increase publication to 10 issues a year by 1993.
But will it be around in 1993? Keitha McLean brings a lot of expertise to the magazine. She was the founding editor of Flare back in 1979, and has more than 20 years’ experience in the business. She also has a personal understanding of the magazine’s issues. “I’ve been in recovery for nearly 16 years,” she says, “from life, and alcohol primarily.”
But the question remains. Is the magazine, produced in such a short time, another kind of “instant gratification” for Armstrong? He himself admits that “giving birth” to a magazine brings with it an “entrepreneurial high. It’s just another buzz. I’ve had lots of buzzes in my life.”
When I last see Armstrong, it’s 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and he’s ensconced in discussion with another recovering alcoholic at the fluorescent lit Pita Stop on Toronto’s King Street East. Armstrong offers encouraging words to his friend, who is concerned because the company he works for is going under. In recovery language, this kind of a session is called a reality check.
For the moment, Armstrong is helping one person. But with the magazine, he wants to reach 50,000. And if it doesn’t work? “I could do anything I wanted. The idea of folding doesn’t devastate me.”
For now, it’s just one day at a time.