Elm Street founding editor Stevie Cameron snaps, “Oh, for Christ’s sake! That’s the kind of jealous sniping I don’t accept. What’s the matter with food and fashion? Vanity Fair has fashion!”
Cameron is reacting to post-mortem comments on the reasons for Elm Street’s demise in January 2004. She’s not buying the prevalent suspicion that the seven-year-old magazine’s mix of serious journalism, recipes, fashion spreads and cheeky tidbits contributed to an identity crisis.
A journalism instructor once explained the concept of magazines and personality with this analogy: “If Cosmo came to dinner, it would be a sex-and-relationship crazed flibbertigibbet. If Elm Street came to dinner, I’d probably expect an earnest person who meant well and tried hard but whose personality was a little on the bland, boring and unfocused side.”
Lack of personality aside, there’s at least one other reason why Elm Street’s run ended after 48 issues: the dramatic change in the way the Print Measurement Bureau gathers data for its readership numbers – the numbers that determine advertising rates.
Multi-Vision Publishing Inc. wanted to create a traditional women’s magazine – one that would instantly attract lucrative advertisers like fashion designers, makeup companies and food manufacturers – but Cameron always saw this model as patronizing. “We banned all of the ‘ummy’ words – yummy, tummy. And we never put anything like ‘Hot! Hot! Hot!’ on the cover – that was the one I hated most!” Cameron says. She also threw out all the “good gal” stories. “No trailblazers,” she says. “We’re beyond that. Bring me stories of rich and dysfunctional people – that’s interesting!”
When Cameron was invited to helm the new title in 1996, she was reluctant. “I’ve never hidden my dislike for women’s magazines,” she says. But the promise of editorial freedom and a chance to assemble her team was too good to pass up. Some memorable stories were: Daniel Woods’ groundbreaking piece on the missing women of Vancouver’s east side; Bonnie Buxtons’s “Society’s Child,” a deeply personal account of Buxton’s hardships raising a child who suffered from Fetal Alcohol Effects; and “My Battle with Depression” by broadcaster Rafe Mair. “That was an incredibly honest piece – he even wrote about how it affected his sex life and his kids,” Cameron recalls. “And Bonnie now runs an international organization that sprung from her piece.”
But you can’t please everyone. The March 1998 issue featured a dishy cover story on Michael and Marlen Cowpland, Ottawa’s premier rich and dysfunctional couple, laced with glitzy photos. Annoyed readers balked at pages being devoted to a couple they saw as frivolous. In another case of a strange reader response, the November/December 1997 issue was filled with letters from readers outraged that Canadian heartthrob Paul Gross was pictured smoking.
Media critics are mixed on the personality verdict. “I don’t think it ever found its niche – it never really knew what it wanted to be,” says Toronto Star media critic Antonia Zerbisias. Masthead magazine editor Bill Shields disagrees: “Elm Street certainly had a unique personality. Just because you’re eclectic doesn’t mean you don’t have a personality,” he says.
Elm Street was never on newsstands. It was distributed to affluent postal codes through many papers over the years, including The Toronto Star and the National Post. Most recently, 400,000 Globe and Mail subscribers were the chosen recipients. “When you’re falling out of a newspaper, you’re landing in homes with males in it,” Shields continues. “Elm Street was a general interest magazine targeting a gender. I’m not going to be interested in a story on how to dress a turkey, but I knew each issue might contain content on the so-called serious side of journalism.”
Some point to the magazine’s layout as a potential culprit for sparking claims of personality drought. Elm Street didn’t follow the traditional set-up of a feature well sandwiched by gossip and fashion. For many years, fashion spreads were given the prime real estate. But Shields is convinced the change in PMB methodology is the guilty party. (For more information on the PMB changes, see article by Michelle Gaulin.) Shields says Elm Street was hurt by its abnormal publication schedule of eight issues a year. “The field reps would ask if people had seen the magazine in the last seven weeks or so,” says Shields. “The mind skips when you ask seven weeks – it’s a harder time frame to wrap your head around than a week or month.” The new methodology also hurts magazines not available on newsstands. “People are shown a logo,” says Shields, “and they say, “Oh, I saw that on the newsstand.”
The PMB shift in methodology was financially devastating for Elm Street. “The women’s category showed a 3.5 per cent increase in ad pages from 2001 to 2002,” he says, referring to run-of-press ad pages, not inserts. “Elm Street, including The Look, was down 7.4 per cent. Not including The Look, they were down 30.7 per cent.”
Elm Street The Look, a fashion spin-off of the main title launched in Spring 2002, continues to publish. Its frequency has even been bumped up from twice to four times a year to compete with Fashion Quarterly. Most Elm Street staffers have been moved to The Look, contrary to a Globe report saying most had been moved to Saturday Night.
“We gave it a wonderful go, we won lots of awards,” says Cameron. “I would have liked to have seen it on newsstands, where everybody could pick it up – not just rich people.”