Stephen Osborne can be an intimidating guy. Even some long-time members of his own staff think so. Maybe it’s the beard. With his greying whiskers, a steely, confrontational stare and a manic twinkle behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, the founding editor and publisher of Vancouver’s Geist magazine conjures a cross between the ghosts of Rasputin and Allen Ginsberg.
Sitting in the boardroom of the cramped, paper-strewn Geist offices, tucked in the middle of the trendy art galleries, upscale glassware shops and condo developments of Homer Street, Osborne shifts uncomfortably in his chair. He’s in no mood to talk. He declines to have his voice committed to audiotape during our interview, and won’t even allow the door to be closed due to his claustrophobia. “There are no secrets here,” he says, a trace of paranoia in his voice.
Despite his tics, Osborne is something of a local celebrity, a charismatic bon vivant in the B.C. literary community, inspiring awe and devotion in what could (and have been) described as “groupies.” The 55-year-old Osborne is also a computer genius, a devoted grandfather and a man whose shyness led him to begin publishing his photography in the pages of Geist under the enigmatic pseudonym Mandelbrot (after the inventor of chaos theory).
Adamant that Geist is unparalleled among Canadian magazines, Osborne clearly loves to talk about his baby. “I think we have the highest editorial control in the country,” he boasts, his voice veritably purring. “We edit word by word. We fact check the fiction.” Not exactly the kind of casual congeniality you’d expect from a magazine with a steaming mug of coffee for a logo. Osborne has been called business-savvy, ambitious, philanthropic, irreverent and an opinionated idea man. Above all, he is viewed in the insular world of Canadian magazine publishing as having what former Saturday Night editor Paul Tough calls an “outsider personality.” And being an outsider suits Osborne just fine. After all, it usually takes one to lead a revolution, cultural or otherwise.
Okay, it may be a tad hyperbolic to equate a literary magazine with a revolution, but if any Canadian magazine out there is working to shake up a stagnant publishing industry, it’s Geist. People who know Osborne are quick to point out that father and brainchild are indistinguishable, one and the same in tone and worldview. While the quarterly Geist is currently the largest literary magazine in Canada, its circulation still hovers around 7,000 an issue, and it operates on a shoestring $180,000 annual budget. Compare that with the two biggest moneymakers in Canadian magazine publishing, the Rogers-owned Chatelaine and Maclean’s, with a combined total revenue for 2002 of over $80 million.
According to a 2000 study Osborne completed for the Canada Council, the average total circulation for a Canadian English-language literary, visual arts or performing arts magazine is a mere 1,817. Most pin their financial prospects on government money, but since Canada Council grants only account for an average of 23 per cent of total revenue, and provincial grants 13 per cent, these magazines rely heavily on advertising and subscribers to make up the difference. With a dusty back-shelf presence and less than one-tenth of the marketing budget of a magazine with a circulation of 100,000, it can be almost impossible for a small-circulation magazine to find an audience. What’s a self-respecting independent publisher to do? Fill the void.
While most Canadian cultural magazines are (or are perceived as) stuffy, eggheaded publications content to stay on those back shelves and blend in with magazines that read like university dissertations and have the visual panache to match, a handful have come up with fresh approaches to documenting Canadian cultural life. Magazines like HighGrader, a northern Ontario public affairs magazine, and Lola, a Toronto-based arts journal, are doing their parts to subvert readers’ negative expectations. On top of this list of innovators isGeist. Osborne not only wants to “document the Canadian imagination,” his goal for Geist is to become the definitive Canadian magazine. If its burgeoning reputation in the national literary community is any indication, he just might get his wish.
“Politics is open and discussed in Canada. Unlike in the U.S., there are alternative venues of thought,” Osborne says. “What’s hidden in Canada is culture.” For over a decade, he had seriously entertained the idea of creating a magazine modelled after the venerable U.S. publication Harper’s?and to a lesser extent The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly?and adapting it to suit a Canadian audience. With $7,500 and encouragement from his long-time life partner and senior editor Mary Schendlinger, Osborne created the first issue in his living room in the fall of 1990.
Today, Geist (German for “ghost” or “spirit”) is published by the Geist Foundation, a nonprofit board with Osborne acting as sovereign lord and master. The magazine shares office space with Vancouver Desktop Publishing (founded by Osborne in the 1980s and currently run by his sister Patty), Arsenal Pulp Press (an alternative book publishing firm Osborne started in the 1970s) and an arts management agency (he had nothing to do with this one).
Over the last 12 years, Osborne has managed to transform Geist from a roughly designed magazine?published on what looked like that pulp paper fourth-grade teachers hand out with the fat pencils?to an elegant publication full of luxurious white space, thick-stocked, silky pages, clean lines and stunning black-and-white photography.
But the spirit of the content has changed little. Each issue is devoted to intensely personal, nostalgic and evocative nonfiction and fiction. The front section of the magazine, Notes and Dispatches, always includes a brief essay by Osborne. (In last fall’s “The Lost Art of Waving,” he wondered, “Who today is willing to be diagnosed as nostalgic? Who confesses to that once noble affliction, now reduced to a mere attribute of sentimentalism, a component of kitsch?”) Schendlinger contributes regular cartoons under the pseudonym Eve Corbel. (“Hi, I’m Eve Corbel?and I am Intermittently Unnoticeable. No, really.”) Recently, Geist has received national media attention for its campaign to induct folk legend Stan Rogers into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The magazine is often funny and irreverent, but are its ideology and outlook a little too, well, West Coast (read “flaky”) to appeal to a national audience?
“They say ideology is like halitosis, everyone else has it, right?” jokes Melissa Edwards, Geist‘s assistant editor. Her responsibilities include editing the magazine’s back page, “Caught Mapping.” (Each issue features a different theme map of Canada, like summer 2000’s “Menstrual Map,” which included the real locations Bloody River, Gush Cove and Bitch Lake.) She also does the day-to-day “monkey work” of the operation. “You don’t see your own ideology,” she says. “To me Geist is not a western magazine.” Edwards comparesGeist‘s situation to The Globe and Mail. “People from Toronto say that it’s not a Toronto newspaper, it’s national. I read it and it’s like, ‘It’s a Toronto newspaper.’ You can’t help be focused on where you’re from.”
“Please cancel all future editions of Geist magazine. I dislike the writings printed?Mad to me, and they have a ridiculous, non-sensible, no-talent style. I’ve reread the magazine (or tried to), attempted to understand the prose, poetry (no rhyme), and articles that fill up (with small print) this unique, non-talent (so it seems to me), rambling in the clouds, magazine.”
Like this anonymous former subscriber (sounds as if he or she needs new reading glasses), many readers in the West don’t have any love for a “rambling in the clouds” literary journal either. “A lot of people find it really boring,” says Edwards, who was so enraptured by Geist she started out as a volunteer. A project manager with the B.C. Association of Magazine Publishers, Edwards started marketing campaigns in little British Columbia towns, only to discover that many of those remote outlets not stocking Geist were downright confused by it.
“A lot of them said, ‘This is a magazine? It doesn’t look like a magazine,'” she recalls. Apparently, light and glossy plays as well in Dawson Creek as it does in Stoney Creek. While Edwards thinks a Toronto-based magazine will eventually come along to try to take the place the faltering Saturday Night used to occupy in the cultural lexicon, she still thinks Geist is on “the cusp of being something really big.” Osborne certainly has no plans to relocate, especially since he considers Toronto such an “intellectual wasteland.” He says his obligation is to the Canadian Small Town?whether or not it’s receptive to him?and mourns its loss as an idea both in the Canadian media and in the collective Canadian imagination.
“If you hit a neutron bomb south of Bloor Street, you’d take out 95 per cent of Canada’s media,” HighGradereditor Charlie Angus says, echoing Osborne’s refrain. “They all come from the same gene pool, and they all end up basically telling the same views.” Like Geist, Angus’s magazine seeks to document the small-town Canadian imagination, but in a more self-consciously regional sense. Since 1995, HighGrader has provided a cultural voice for northern Canadians, written from a northern perspective. “Rural Canada is an internal Third World,” Angus says. “People’s stories are just written off, or they’re from an urban perspective, which diminishes the northern voice.”
Published bimonthly from the small mining town of Cobalt, Ontario, HighGrader bills itself as “a magazine with dirt on its fingernails.” Neither Angus nor his wife, publisher Brit Griffin, has any formal journalistic training, but both share a deep commitment to fighting social injustice, and their magazine generally reflects their pro-labour and anti-Tory views.
HighGrader straddles the line between serious political reportage and a folksy voice that articulates the culture of the north. The Fall 2002 issue, for instance, includes pieces on diverse topics like “The Kam Kotia Mine Disaster” (“Ontario’s most notorious mine waste problem”), to Jim Moodie’s nostalgic pilgrimage to Bob Dylan’s boyhood hometown, Hibbing, Minnesota, which would be right at home in the pages of Geist.HighGrader‘s scope is not limited entirely by geography, either. “We try to put an international perspective on rural hinterland issues,” Angus insists. He says his magazine doesn’t reflect a particular party line; Angus himself is almost as suspicious of urban warriors like Earthroots as he is of the Tory government.
“Our magazine is being kept alive by old people,” Angus says with a chuckle. Some faithful subscribers are even in their 90s. While the magazine’s circulation is only about 2,000, a recent reader profile estimated its actual readership as high as 12,000. Angus claims the real boon is HighGrader‘s unusually high subscription renewal rates (although he has no firm numbers). With an almost nonexistent newsstand profile and frustrating experiences with past distributors?including one that never paid and refused to reveal where the magazine was stocked?HighGrader relies on its subscribers to keep it alive, a unique situation, considering subscription sales account for only 17 per cent of the average small-circulation magazine’s revenue.
Still, it’s not an unusual phenomenon for a small Canadian title to have such a rabidly loyal following. According to John Degen of the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association, Canadian magazines have become world leaders in per-capita subscription sales. “Canadian consumers are wily,” Degen says. “When they don’t see themselves reflected at the supermarket checkouts or newsstands, they make sure their perspective gets delivered to their door instead.”
Like Osborne and Schendlinger, Angus and Griffin pride themselves on their high level of editorial control. Unlike Geist, however, HighGrader has stayed away from grant funding. About two-thirds of Geist‘s budget comes from public funding, mainly from the Canada Council and the Canada Magazine Fund, which was launched in 2000 by Canadian Heritage.
For the 2000-02 funding period, the Geist Foundation received $40,000 from CMF for a direct mail campaign. But the CMF is by no means exclusively funding struggling independents. The program also gave the French and English versions of Chatelaine, the richest title in the country, over $500,000 combined for 2001-02. Sibling Maclean’s received over $1 million.
While the HighGrader team has discussed starting a foundation in the past, generally when money is tight, they make a plea to their readers. HighGrader subscribers have saved the magazine with their donations many times. For the past two years, Angus hasn’t had to make that plea, although subscription rates are going up at the request of many readers. “They think it’s way too low,” Angus says. “Twenty bucks a year, you just can’t make it.” He recently had to take a full-time job with the Algonquin Nation to support the magazine and his family (Angus has three daughters, aged 14, 12 and 5. The two eldest are already writers and activists).
Since HighGrader is such an eccentric magazine, Angus has basically given up on advertising revenue as a major source of income. “I can’t stand having to phone people time and time again for chintzy little ads,” he grumbles. Clearly, Angus is happier muckraking than marketing. But some fledgling cultural magazines are toying with the potential of big publicity, bigger circulation and (just maybe) big-time profits.
“Who the fuck is Sharon Salson?” the press release demands. Salson sits cross-legged in a space-age desk chair in a downtown Toronto office building with a rather tony King Street address, wearing a casual uniform of jeans and a black cardigan, her blond-streaked hair stylishly tousled. Tucked in a small, bright corner of the cavernous, loft-style offices of Inside Entertainment publishers Kontent?an industrial space laden with wood blonder than she is and an assortment of candy-coloured iMacs and fuzzy-topped pens?Salson (who became Salson-Gregg after marrying pollster and former Conservative Party strategist Allan Gregg last August) is beaming with an air of enthusiasm that only someone with a marketing background can possess. She is, in fact, none other than the brand spanking new publisher of the country’s cheekiest, scrappiest and most irreverent art magazine, Lola, and she couldn’t be happier about it.
In February 2002, when Lola announced via brassy press release that it had acquired its first-ever publisher, the magazine was already a comparatively big success on the Toronto indie scene. But Salson-Gregg knew when she took the position it might be a struggle to transform Lola from underground darling to heavyweight commercial success. “It was an entrepreneurial challenge, a creative challenge,” she says. “It was a magazine that I had been following. I do believe strongly that it’s got tremendous potential in this market to really break through.”
Salson-Gregg came to Lola after marketing stints at Toronto Life and Telemedia and as marketing director at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (She still runs her own consulting business on the side.) After joining Lola last winter (and throwing a high-profile party in honour of her new gig), Salson-Gregg set out to build a growth strategy for the magazine. She is looking to expand Lola’s readership beyond its current niche of art insiders to readers who are interested in learning more about the art world but might be too intimidated to pick up a conventional art journal.
Founded in 1997 by editor and arts writer Catherine Osborne (no relation to Geist‘s Stephen), artist Sally McKay and curator John Massier, Lola quickly separated itself from the milky quagmire of stuffy academic journals like so much creamy goodness. From an initial print-run of 1,300 freebies distributed to art galleries and bookstores in downtown Toronto, Lola has grown to a circulation of 10,000.
The ladies of Lola were frustrated with the lack of freshness and innovation in the world of arts and culture coverage. “We were tired of reading the same bylines,” says Osborne, an impossibly petite brunette sporting groovy cat’s-eye glasses. “We were tired of the same artists getting coverage.” Osborne was also bored with the sterilized approach most art magazines took to rough and ready exhibits, robbing them of their vitality and “street cred.” Equally frustrated that she couldn’t score much freelance work in a stagnant Toronto arts journalism scene, Osborne met with McKay and mutual friend Massier, and decided to start a magazine (Massier left after two issues because of work obligations).
“When we started it was very much with that kind of do-it-yourself, “we’re-just-gonna-make-this-thing’ attitude,” says McKay, sitting in the front room of her tiny second-floor apartment in west end Toronto. “It quickly became clear that there was a place for a serious endeavour.” With a background in fine art, McKay is entirely self-taught when it comes to magazine layout, her principal job as Lola’s art director. (Despite the separation of tasks, McKay and Osborne share editorial control.)
Lola’s success on the Toronto arts scene has as much to do with its style as its substance. A cross between the cut-and-paste homemade quality of zines and the glossiness of consumer magazines, Lola treats visual arts with the appropriate attention to the visual. Although until recently most of the magazine’s distribution base has been art galleries, Lola shows no signs of the elitist sensibility that might imply. The magazine includes ongoing columns like Ask Lola’s Lawyer, featuring legal advice for artists from attorney Adam Bobker. (Last winter’s issue featured a letter from the “co-editors of a Toronto art magazine” about copyright infringement suspiciously signed “C.O. and S.M.”) There’s also a gossip column, sex column and the most popular department, the “shotgun review” section, featuring a slew of art exhibit mini-reviews. Contributors are cheekily identified at the back in “Who the Fuck Is Lola?” (Sample: “R.M. Vaughan is easily swayed by his emotions.”)
This is culture for the populace, albeit a progressive populace, and Lola has never been afraid to offend. So, were McKay and Osborne worried that “taking it to the next level” would jeopardize their obvious nose-thumbing tendencies?
For Osborne, bringing Salson-Gregg into the fold was a matter of practicality. “In the morning I’d be calling galleries to advertise and then in the afternoon call them to ask editorial questions. You can’t do that,” she says, laughing. Unlike Geist and HighGrader, Lola has relied heavily on advertising from the very beginning. Osborne and McKay were also able to secure a $50,000 line of low-interest credit after putting together an initial business plan. Lola only started receiving grant funding from the Canada Council this year, but the $20,000 it got didn’t go very far. (It also received an $80,000 multiyear grant from the CMF for its “growth spurt.”) Even though the magazine is still barely breaking even?it costs as much as $25,000 to print each issue?it’s clear the potential pool of advertisers eager to court Lola’s tragically hip readership is enormous.
Salson-Gregg has been busying herself landing advertising accounts like Absolut Vodka based on the statistics from Lola’s most recent readers’ survey. “We know our readers spend money going out,” she says. “They’re not stay-at-home types. So it’s about buying CDs, books, clothes, feeding into a lifestyle that’s about socializing and accessing the culture and entertainment that’s available.”
Last November, Lola finally went completely “newsstand,” ceasing to be a free publication in Toronto. While it had always cost $5 for magazines distributed outside the GTA, Lola’s price is now $3.95 almost everywhere. “It’s not unusual for a free magazine to go newsstand,” assures Osborne. “That’s a good thing.”
And even more radical changes are in the works. “We have to be more inclusive around what defines art and culture,” says Salson-Gregg, who this past winter became a Lola co-owner along with McKay and Osborne. “Moving beyond visual art into other forms, but staying true to the magazine, being smart without being turgid, funny without being silly, accessible without kowtowing to the lowest common denominator.” She would also like to see the magazine grow from a quarterly to a bimonthly. Still furiously brainstorming redesign ideas, the ladies are aiming for an early fall rebirth of Lola.
“My personal goal is that it survive,” McKay says when asked if she would like to see her magazine become as successful as the granddaddy of Toronto publications, Toronto Life. But she’s wary about courting the same affluent audience at the expense of Lola’s current activist core. “I’m interested in a more alternative readership. To me, Toronto Life is the most boring magazine in the world. As far as making that much money? Sure. Whether it’s possible? I don’t know.”
The successful rearing of a small-market magazine takes as much careful nurturing as it does steely tenacity, and tends to consume every facet of a struggling publisher’s life. Geist senior editor Mary Schendlinger insists it’s the nature of the business. “People talk about Stephen and me retiring and we just kind of look at them,” she says. “We know we’ll be doing this forever. We don’t strive to separate those things.”
Schendlinger, Geist‘s kind-hearted “ambassador,” worked on the magazine without pay for 10 years; Osborne has yet to take a salary. (Both teach at Simon Fraser University and work on outside writing and editing projects.) “Mary keeps on an even keel and tends to temper things when they need tempering,” says managing editor Barbara Zatyko, Geist‘s lone full-time, paid employee.
Zatyko and Edwards both say the day-to-day operations of Geist have received a welcome streamlining as the magazine has grown. “Steve always had the business savvy,” Zatyko says, “but there was no time to incorporate it because printers were calling and screaming at us for not paying bills and we were always on the brink of going under. We now have more time to devote to strategic planning.” Adds Edwards, “We can actually put our efforts toward boosting circulation, selling the ads, getting involved in the community. Branding, if you want to use that word.”
When launching the first direct marketing campaign, Geist‘s natural audience was immediately evident to Osborne. Before publishing an issue, he spent U.S. $1,000 to buy Harper’s list of Canadian subscribers, mailing the first issue to half the list, the second issue to the other half. He got a five per cent response on both mailings?an unusually high return from a direct marketing campaign. According to current CMPA director Judith Parker, a former This Magazine publisher, the average subscription rate for a campaign is between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent. Unfortunately, reaching readers through “DM” campaigns can be a costly gamble for small magazines. Osborne estimates it currently costs $20 to court one potential Geist subscriber directly. As a rule, magazines that aren’t driven by advertising should spend no more than twice their annual subscription rate on direct marketing. “That way, you will make the money back in three or four years?if your cash flow lets you live that long!” Parker says.
Through its own readers’ surveys, Osborne found that Geist‘s readers are 52 per cent female, have one or more university degrees per household, and make between $40,000 to $80,000 a year. Most are white collar “cultural workers” who listen to a lot of CBC Radio. (“We didn’t even ask about TV.”) They also read seven times as many Canadian books as typical Canadian university graduates. Geist (which has a newsstand price of $4.95) recently started distributing on the B.C. ferry system, where it has been outselling many large consumer titles, although a minor outcry from more conservative ferry passengers erupted over the cover photo of the fall 2002 issue, a group shot of pink-bummed nudists frolicking by the ocean.
While Charlie Angus is relying mainly on loyal subscribers to keep HighGrader afloat (“I guess we’re not as efficient as we should be,” he says), Geist, like Lola, is aggressively looking to expand its readership. Osborne is itching to crack into the untapped market of Canadians living in the U.S. “The readers I show it to down here are always enthusiastic,” says Geist contributor and New York Times Magazine story editor Paul Tough. “More than other Canadian magazines, Geist has a confidence, a sense of place in the world.”
“These magazines will always struggle to increase audience share above a certain number, and I don’t think this is a particularly Canadian phenomenon,” says the CMPA’s John Degen. He points to the relatively low circulation of Harper’s magazine (a little over 200,000?modest for an American publication). That’s not to say he thinks it’s fair. “I personally love Geist. I read every issue cover to cover.”
Is it probable that one of the big three magazine publishing entities?Transcontinental, Rogers Publishing or St. Joseph Media, which published the recently folded Shift under its Multi-Vision arm?will ever champion a general-interest cultural publication like Geist? Don Sedgwick, the co-ordinator of Centennial College’s Book and Magazine Publishing program in Toronto and a 25-year publishing veteran, believes it’s probably wishful thinking. “It would be hard to justify to any corporate board or publicly traded operation,” he says. “They’re not in the business of philanthropy. It would have to be someone with very deep pockets and enormous concerns for those kinds of issues.”
Osborne has no interest in relinquishing autonomy to the corporate world anyway, yet his editorial goals remain ambitious. Thanks to a recent $120,000 grant from the privately operated Tula Foundation, Osborne plans to expand the spring 2003 issue to 80 pages and, as part of his goal of becoming the “definitive Canadian magazine,” to resurrect the long-form essay that Saturday Night has all but dropped, and the photo essay that used to be the hallmark of Life magazine. Osborne and Schendlinger might share studio space on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, but the Grand Poobah of the West Coast literary world is realistic aboutGeist‘s overall commercial reach.
“We are not a consumer magazine, and we never will be,” he says.
After being grilled in his boardroom for over an hour, Osborne grows noticeably antsy. As I flip through my notes to ensure I haven’t missed anything, those steely eyes of his bore into mine once again. “You’ve got enough,” King Geist decrees as I quake in my red wedge-heeled boots. He’s probably right. I get the feeling that Stephen Osborne is seldom wrong, and that he knows it. He hands me mounds of back issues (there’s that Osborne generosity) and is off in a flash. Maybe he has an important meeting, or he has to prepare for his master of ceremonies gig at the annual Writers Fest’s poetry night. Or maybe he just wants to grab a bite at the local greasy spoon, where he will work on a chapter in the nonfiction novel about Vancouver he is writing, or sneak a few snapshots of the diners. (Robert Fulford once wrote “the perfect Geist story would take place in a donut shop,” but he’s probably never seen the Homer Caf?.) Whatever he’s up to, he’ll most likely be thinking about his magazine while he is doing it.
“He’s the one who lies awake at night with his fists clenched if there’s any struggle,” says Schendlinger. “It’s his magazine.” Still, it’s nice of him to share it with the rest of us.