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JOHN FRASER WALKS IN SHORT, staccato steps, shuffling his feet as he moves around the offices of Saturday Night magazine, Canada’s most venerable periodical. In many ways, Fraser’s small steps symbolize the change in the magazine since he took over as editor from Robert Fulford in 1987-slight 3 movements away from the liberal leaning magazine his predecessor 6; had created. Fraser has tried to make the magazine more accessible, less g stuffy and ponderous. As a result, he 5 has seen newsstand sales nearly double and, until recently, advertising revenue increase. But Fraser could not cure Saturday Night’s woeful economic problems. The magazine has not made money in more than 40 years. He’s still grappling with this legacy, and the little he has done has not changed it.
But come September, the magazine will undergo further, perhaps more drastic, change. Saturday Night is going mainstream in a big way. A deal was finalized in February between the magazine and The Southam Newspaper Group, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, calling for Saturday Night to be distributed between the pages of five Southam newspapers-the Montrea Gazette, The Ottawa Citizen, thc Calgary Herald, The Edmonton journal and The Vancouver Sun – l1 times a year. The magazine will go only to newspaper subscribers. It will not be sold with newsstand newspaper box copies. (Nor will it be sold by itself on the newsstands in those five cities, due to Audit Bureau of Circulation regulations.) This will increase the magazine’s circulation five times, to 650,000 from 130,000. This “piggyback” arrangement, writes Fraser in the January-February issue of Saturday Night, will get “the magazine to many readers who have simply never heard of us.”
Yet, it is not only those readers Fraser must win. In his battle to turn around the financial fortunes of Saturday Night, he must also placate the most discriminating groups: regular readers and advertisers. Fraser’s task, an arduous one for even the most seasoned of magazine editors (which Fraser is not), is to produce a magazine that will be readily acceptable to the new audience, while at the same time honoring its historical identity and holding its readers, among the most loyal in Canada. “If you think that’s going to be easy,” says Fraser with a chuckle, “you’re crazy.”
In an effort to satisfy all, Fraser is restructuring the magazine. His plan is to make Saturday Night graphically more exciting and approachable. The major change will be “frontloading” the magazine-putting essays and shorter pieces pertaining to Canadian society on subjects such as politics, sports and culture at the front, while the longer, investigative pieces, which Saturday Night is known for, will go toward the back. The book will start with impact and end with thoughtfulness. It’s the inverted pyramid applied to a magazine’s structure. There will also be turn pages to increase the new graphic display at the front.
Fraser, who speaks willingly and enthusiastically about the new deal, does not see Saturday Night selling out its loyal audience. They will still have essays, Charlotte Gray in Ottawa and offbeat pieces on sports and other aspects of Canadian society, he says. “It will still be a major magazine doing investigative stuff and broad political analysis. It won’t be a newsmagazine.”
Yet, selling the idea to the traditional Saturday Night reader may prove more difficult than Fraser anticipates. For one thing, Saturday Night’s larger circulation will mean a broader audience. To reflect this, many speculate the magazine’s content will have to become much broader also. After all, says Gordon rape, former publisher of Today magazine, a newspaper supplement that died in the early eighties, “they may have the most loyal readers in Canada, but there aren’t many of them.” Soon, there will be 500,000 more. “The management of the magazine has to ask itself whether it wants to continue to put out a publication that meets the desires of its loyal readers, or whether it would like to talk to a larger audience. In doing so, it may be required to make some changes.” Much remains uncertain, however, until Fraser reveals his product in September.
Fraser doesn’t think he’ll need to change the magazine very much because the papers he has chosen have similar demographic readerships to that of Saturday Night. That was essential to the deal. It’s one reason why The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Magazine, which Fraser helped to launch in 1985, has been so successful. RoB Magazine is a natural extension of the paper, a perfect fit. Fraser thinks he’s found another perfect match.
However, skepticism about the deal abounds, generated most notably by the Toronto media. This is natural-Saturday Night’s largest subscription base is in Toronto, a base that Fraser hopes to keep around 100,000. In August, Globe editor-in-chief William Thorsell wrote a scathing column criticizing the plan. Robert Fulford, while saying that he hopes it works, also has trepidations. “Selling it to advertisers will be really hard.” Advertisers, after all, have a history of disliking Saturday Night, a history that Fulford knows all too well. It plagued him for the 19 years he was editor. He also says the comparison with the Globe’s RoB Magazine is misleading. “The RoB Magazine is not a supplement as much as it is part of the personality of the Globe.”
But Fraser remains optimistic. He hopes that his restructuring will attract a very sluggish advertising market. “We would not be where we are with the distribution plan if we had not had a more than adequate response from the advertising community.”
But not everybody is as confident as Fraser. Says Ann Boden of McKim Advertising: “From an advertising perspective, we don’t see it as a great move.” Advertisers have never been too keen, even on Fraser’s Saturday Night. A new Saturday Night, reaching a much wider audience, may not change that, either. “To turn something like that around is like turning around the Queen Mary,” adds Boden, “so it’s difficult to do.”
The magazine has set its ad rate at $20,500 for a full-page color ad, to compete with the other high profile and high circulation magazines in Canada which charge between $18,000 and $24,000. But it’s not the hyped rate cards that everyone is balking at.
“You can’t take a narrowly niched magazine that’s been dying for years and suddenly blow it out to a larger circulation,” says Patrick Walshe, vice-president of account management at Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell Inc.-who buy ad space for advertisers-and an employee at Saturday Night during the Fulford days. He sees a Saturday Night that will be less serious. He believes advertisers will wait a year or so to see how it’s doing before buying space. “I’m hard put to understand why Southam is talking about the distribution deal in the first place,” says Walshe.
The deal, says Russ Mills, president of the newspaper group at Southam, “means $600 to $700 thousand a year for Southam.” The distribution is not a joint effort. Saturday Night is paying to be put in the newspapers; the onus is on it to make it work. Southam must give one year’s notice if it no longer wishes to carry the magazine. Saturday Night can pullout anytime it wants. And Fraser will pullout, he says, if the ad director can only “sell about five pages of ads.”
But Fraser doesn’t foresee that happening. He believes, rather enthusiastically, that it’s going to succeed. But he does have a backup plan if it doesn’t. He will downscale the magazine, creating a book that is smaller and geared to a small segment of the population. It will drop dramatically in circulation to keep the losses to a minimum. Fraser is committed to keeping the magazine alive, promising not to be its last editor or to hand over a piece of trash to his successor. “Saturday Night has a certain image and a lot of people care about it very deeply,” he says candidly. “But nobody cares about it more than me. I’m the guy who has to ensure its survival and preserve my own self-respect.”
Reality-the magazine’s sorry economic state-has thrust this move on him. “I’m prepared to sacrifice some of the old mystique in the struggle to find a new mystique. It’s a great challenge and I’ve got my honor involved in it.”
For now, Fraser will continue with his short, quick pace around the office. But as the time for the unveiling of the new Saturday Night approaches, a hitch may develop in his confident stride. And if he is to continue to imitate his magazine’s evolution through his walk, he may have to look into a larger office to accommodate his leaps and bounds.

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About the author

John Shoesmith was a Senior Editor for the Spring 1991 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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