The editors sit back in their swivel chairs, gaze out their big picture windows onto the crowds at street level and talk to me with quiet dignity about editorial integrity, the busy pace of an editor’s life and the chronic shortage of good writers. I nod back. It’s true-running a successful magazine is a business where $250,000 in annual profits can easily slide into a $250,000 deficit the next year. And readers are fickle creatures, as the subscribers’ lists will record. Then there’s the challenge of producing a magazine lively and original enough to stand out on a rack that’s filled with 541 other competitors.
It’s true that I’m nodding and smiling in agreement, but back home my answering machine is filling up with phone calls and messages from friends and journalists working in the alternative media. Why, they ask, in a rapidly browning country,are so many editors of Canada’s most widely read magazines white? Where are the minority editors and writers? Why does Toronto Life largely ignore one third of the GTA’s population while purporting to tell readers about the city?
I grew up in a small, calm prairie city that someone once described as the Alabama of the North. The mostly white people who live there are mostly very nice, but some are also cruel in their ways of talking about and labelling anyone who doesn’t look like them. This is the perspective from which I say that race matters and racial equity is important to raise in debate because the power, the money and the influence rest with the white people who are disproportionately represented in mainstream media and disproportionately hired into positions of authority.
Leah Piepzna-Samarasinha is a woman who doesn’t fit neatly into categories, whose background is Tamil Sri Lankan and Ukrainian, formerly of New York but now in Toronto running an activist newspaper called Bulldozer, a community news service for and about inmates in Canada’s prisons. She cautions, “It’s not like there’s a conspiracy of men in suits making decisions about what and who to include or exclude.” No, the problem is more nuanced than that. And looking for answers from the editors of five major-circulation magazines, or at least an acknowledgement of an editorial blind spot, is like the peeling away of an onion’s layers. In the end, the core is empty. No racism, no malice. But no significant minority representation of Canadians either.
I HAVE BEEN TOLD THAT THE WOMEN’S books-Chatelaine,Canadian Living and Homemaker’s-are representing diverse Canadian women. I’ve been told this by the editors of those magazines, by women readers and by Randy Craig, the advertising and marketing director at Cottage Life. These three magazines each attract at leastone and ahalf million readers per issue. All make the trade magazine Masthead’s list of the country’s top 25 revenue-earners. So did Toronto Life, with its 475,000 readers, and Saturday Night,with its 660,000 readers. All but Saturday Night were profitable last year. Obviously, these magazines are doing something right.
When you flip through the magazines, the faces are there: journalist Jan Wong, Olympic runner Charmaine Crooks and actors Tom Jackson and Clark Johnsonin Chatelaine; visible minority modelsin beauty and fashion shoots and editorial photo illustrations in Canadian Living; Afghani women, a South Asian activist, a First Nations woman in Homemaker’s. The stories are there too: out of 200features that Chatelaineran between January 1996 and December 1997, 62 either profile or mention Canadians from diverse backgrounds. Inthe same two-year period, 29 of 95 features and columns in Homemaker’scontain some kind of reference to women or men of colour. Canadian Living‘s tally is 70 out of a total 330. The subject matter covered by Toronto Life tends to skew white and middle-class. But of the 221 features and columns that ran in Toronto Life in 1996 and 1997, 66 include some mention of visible minorities or First Nations peoples. In Saturday Nightthe number is 66 out of 241 features andcolumns. Considering that the 1996 census recorded Canada’s visible minority and aboriginal population at 15 percent, these numbers seem encouraging.
So why can’t I shake my overall impression that the magazines are not committed to doing stories about First Nations and minority people that are meaningful or that challenge their own safely middle-of-the-road politics? It’s partly that the same faces appear and reappear as though no talent exists elsewhere: sprinter Donovan Bailey, actor Tom Jackson, Olympic runner Charmaine Crooks. Partly that the stories themselves are often about people of colour whose lives are tainted by crime or misery, or who are stereotypes: the successful athlete, the failed athlete, the jailed athlete, the athlete who should have made it but didn’t. When I walk away from the piles of magazines, I feel grouchy, irritable, depressed by what I’ve seen and what I hoped to see but didn’t find.
Toronto Life editor John Macfarlane is rather irritable himself. He acknowledges the browning of Canada and knows his readership is changing from the letters he gets and simply by scrolling through the names on the list of subscribers. That doesn’t mean, though, he feels an obligation to include stories in every issue that make specific reference to different ethnic communities. “You don’t increase circulation of a magazine by going out and saying, ‘We’re going to write about the Chinese community so the Chinese community will read it.’ Because the magazine is for everyone, not for the Chinese community. It’s for everyone who wants it, whatever their colour, whatever their ethnic background.” Macfarlane also says Toronto Lifedoesn’t need to attract Asian readers or any other ethnic group, because the magazine is doing fine as it is. “A newspaper starts from the premise that it can appeal to nearly everyone. And it does that by catering to ‘minority,’ let us say, interests. Newspapers carry stamp collector columns for people who collect stamps and bird-watching columns for people who like watching birds. Magazines don’t have that kind of space.”
I don’t think Macfarlane means to imply that a bird-watching column is the same kind of story as, for example, a piece on the significance of African liberation month to Toronto’s African, Caribbean and other communities. However, in his opinion, a successful magazine starts from the premise that it is not going to appeal to everyone; instead, it aims to give a particular group of people a particular take on a subject. “If we started running an Italian column, whether or not we thought all of our other readers were interested, we’d soon be publishing a magazine that most of our readers wouldn’t want to read anymore. It would be like a neighbourhood flyer.”
By contrast, Bonnie Baker Cowan, Canadian Living’s editor, believes her magazine should be inclusive. “Because we’re called Canadian Living, we have to try harder than most magazines to represent all of the regions and aspects of Canada,” she says. Still, she admits, “You can’t do everything. You just have to hope that when someone picks up the magazine she feels there’s something in there for her-whether she lives in Vancouver and she’s Oriental, or she lives in Nova Scotia and she’s black, or she lives in Ontario and she’s 75 years old.”
Rashmi Goel, now an assistant professor of law at the University of New Brunswick, has a master’s in law with a specialization in critical race theory from Stanford University. She says that magazines should represent minorities and aboriginal people in their stories and photographs because it is inaccurate to give the impression that such groups do not exist in Canada: “Just as journalists have an obligation to be factual in the information they present, they also have an obligation to be factual in the manner in which they present it.” This means reflecting the racially diverse nature of Canada in a magazine’s pages. She points out that magazines like the three women’s books deal with subjects that affect all women: “Balancing career and family, dealing with death and dying, dealing with sexual abuse-these are issues that all women face day to day. The idea that we’re looking for a news story should not detract from the ability of editors to find women of colour who are victims of sexual abuse or are breast cancer survivors.” Goel partly blames the lack of representation on writers. “Perhaps some journalists are lazy. They’re looking for the answers they already know and somebody who can spit those answers back at them. Those aren’t necessarily the kind of answers they would get from women who aren’t exactly like them.”
Rona Maynard, editor of Chatelaine, takes a proactive approach, scanning her community papers and the back page of The Globe and Mail and going through the slush pile in the hopes of finding newvoices. John Macfarlane, however, doesn’t believe it’s up to editors to find diverse writers. He admits there are stories his magazine will miss simply because he doesn’t have the contacts in nonwhite communities that nonwhite writers would provide. But realistically, he says, he can’t cover all the stories as it is. And he’s skeptical there are many goodnonwhite writers he doesn’t know about already. “I defy you to show me a whole bunch of Chinese writers who are not being published somewhere in Toronto.” Even if he and other editors had the time to proactively go after diversity-and in his opinion they don’t-he believes it’s up to the writers to approach the magazine. “[Toronto Life] is not deliberately or consciously notusing or not hiring people from minority groups. When people come along and apply for jobs, who are good and I’m certain that will happen-we’ll hire them. But we will notgo out, while I’m editor, and say, ‘I’m going to hire a black person because we must have a black person here.'”
Phil Vassell, editor and publisher of Word, an urban and black culture arts and entertainment magazine in Toronto, is quick to criticize arguments like this. “Nobody has ever advocated that someone be hired on the strength of their race. I can’t imagine anybody who’s of a particular race or sex wanting to be hired when what they’ve done before is worked in a factory making widgets. But we’re saying that those who are trained to do the job be given the opportunity to do what they can do.” At CanadianLiving, Bonnie Baker Cowan says that writers from ethnic communities simply aren’t applying for jobs-she hopes this will change, but for now, no one’s knocking at the door. Asked why, Baker Cowan pauses, then says she doesn’t know. “Why do Oriental people like numbers? They’re all accountants. Why are all dentists Jewish?” She qualifies, “Well, they’re not all Jewish.”
Samson Okalow, a former editor of Word, now lives in New York and has written for an online magazine aimed at young black and Latino readers. He believes just bringing in more nonwhite writers will change things over time: “Whatever the whites who are there are saying, they can keep on saying it, as long as they get some other people in there, not necessarily to balance it, but even to give another point of view.”
Still, Okey Chigbo, until recently an editor at the upscale new-age magazine Why (the fate of which was uncertain at press time), questions whether black writers are persistent enough in selling story ideas. Chigbo, who’s black himself, can count on one hand the number of black writers who have approached him in the roughly four years he spent as an editor at Metropolitan Toronto Business Journal and Equinox. “I don’t want to make a big generalization, but among the black people in Toronto I’ve met, freelancing is looked upon as the sort of thing that layabouts do. People seem reluctant to go out there and sweat and work for peanuts in order to get somewhere.” He is, he says, reluctant to sound like an Uncle Tom defending the statusquo, but at the same time, “I’m not going to help you if you’re black. I’m going to help you if you can do the job.”
Ali Sharrif, who covers the immigration beat at Toronto’s alternative weekly Now, counters by pointing out the emotional and psychological strain of working as a freelancer. “It’s like a 24-hour job: thinking, looking, digging for things. You wake up in the morning, you have no idea what you’re going to do. If you’re in the mainstream, there’s an editor who would give you ideas, tell you where to go.” If there’s such a dearth of minority freelancers, which he doubts, the lack of networking with the white circles of power is to blame. “There are only a few from the ethnic media who make it to the mainstream. Many of those who do are guided by stronger hands of people who are in the mainstream themselves, or who know people in the mainstream media.”
If Sharrif suspects minority writers suffer because of a lack of encouragement, Clifton Joseph, sometime freelancer and dub poet, isn’t so sure. “You can’t presuppose that they’re going to take your stuff and put it in the trash box. Then you’re already going in waving the white flag before any shots start getting fired. However, the shit still works on that kind of who-knows-who.”
And who editors know is mostly people like themselves. Chatelainehas two full-time women who are nonwhite on an editorial staff of 20. Toronto Life has one full-time minority woman on the 15-person editorial staff. At Saturday Night (10 staff) and Canadian Living (28), there are no minority editors. (Homemaker’s wouldn’t provide information about its staff.) Angela Lawrence, founding president of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and senior editor at the decor magazine Style at Home, says she rarely sees other visible minorities at the monthly luncheons of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors. “It’s important to represent the reality of a diverse society, because we learn a lot through our relationships with other people,” she says. “It would make for a better product, and one that’s more well rounded in terms of input from sources. Diversity is not being reflected in the media, or in the pages of magazines at the moment.”
David Spencer, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Western Ontario, thinks this might change as more minority journalists rise through the ranks. In the last three to four years, the proportion of minority students at Western has been roughly 12 percent. At Ryerson, which has 480 students compared to Western’s 40 to 50, the proportion of visible minority and aboriginal students roughly matched the numbers in the general population the last time an informal survey was done. The University of Regina’s j-school reports that currently 20 percent of its 50 students are visible minority or First Nations students.
But maybe the answer lies elsewhere, in the lack of paid entry-level jobs. If there is little chance of getting into journalism except through unpaid internships, which seems to be the trend, then class becomes an issue in terms of who can afford to work for nothing simply to get experience. And if the Establishment was until 10 years ago largely white, it may be even more reluctant to open the floodgates to outsiders if they not only look different but, worse, think differently. Even the alternative media, which presumably encourages diverse viewpoints, seems to want to keep control of whatever power there is among the same familiar class of people. David Caplan is a journalism student in his final year at Ryerson who has interned at the alt weeklies Nowand the New York-based Village Voice, as well as at TheToronto Sun and Time magazine’s L.A. bureau, all unpaid positions. “It’s easy to go pointing fingers at the mainstream media for erecting barriers, whether intentionally or not, against marginalized people, but the fact is that many of the entry-level opportunities in the alternative media are unpaid internships. This effectively limits the field to those middle-class people, usually white, who can afford to work two months for free.”
But I hate to think that it’s class that is largely responsible for the low numbers of First Nations and minority editors on staff at the five magazines. And I’m uneasy with David Spencer’s explanation that newly arrived families want to see their kids not in journalism, but in comfortable, secure jobs. I think there’s more to the lack of access that Ali Sharrif agonizes over. It’s not a matter of skin colour, it’s not a matter of speaking differently. It’s people who are onside ideologically, never mind money or what they look like, as long as they fit with the unspoken but narrowly defined elitism of the magazines.
One more onion layer: the political and social climate in Ontario is such that making an issue of race produces bad feeling when I approach those editors in decision-making and hiring positions. It’s not considered polite to point out that the system isn’t working for some people and that certain people are not represented in mainstream jobs, jobs where they could hire friends who might be black like them, or First Nations, or whatever. As Phil Vassell says, raising the issue “is like bad manners at the dinner table.”
Not everyone cares about being invited to the meal. Gary Farmer, for instance, editor at Aboriginal Voices, a four-year-old magazine about native arts and media, feels strongly that the aboriginal community should be developing its own media. Each year, Aboriginal Voices employs a total of about 30 writers, with a view to training them to become journalists; it also takes on four or five unpaid interns annually. Farmer views his magazine as being in direct competition with magazines like Saturday Night and doesn’t want it to be a training-ground for the white mainstream. “I don’t understand the fascination with the white man’s echelons of journalism. It would be hell for the writers who go there,” says Farmer. “We have a very specific mandate that we want met here, so I need all the good writers I can get.”
But keeping young freelancers such as Anne Bains, who was born in India and grew up in Canada, is a challenge for many small-circulation magazines. Most young writers, including Bains, want to reach as big an audience as possible. Whether it’s possible to be in the mainstream and still swim against the current is another question. Bains, past managing editor of the socially conscious This Magazine, has written for Thisabout racial tension at Auburn Drive High School in Nova Scotia and for Toronto Lifeabout immigrant workers in local sweatshops and “wiggers”, white people who adopt the fashions and speech of people who are black. She worries about getting pigeonholed as a writer who handles caught-between-two-cultures stories and nothing else: “It is limiting. I don’t want to be the journalist who only gets called when there’s a story about black culture.” Although she says she wouldn’t approach Saturday Nightbecause it’s ideologically too conservative, she realizes that given the limited number of magazines in Canada that can pay freelancers well, she can’t be too selective. Passing up Saturday Nighthas economic consequences. As music and black culture writer Norman (Otis) Richmond observes, “If you don’t play the game, you will definitely be living in a room with a hot plate, writing for Outreach.”
What the game is, exactly, is harder to pin down. Perhaps it’s a mainstream, WASP-centred perspective that shapes the stories. As David Spencer notes: “Let’s get down to the question of what is a cultural standard. Because the people setting the standards are setting the standard by the cultural values that theypossess.” For example, Saturday Nightpublisher Maureen Cavan suggests that Saturday Nightwill not do a piece on the Assembly of First Nations without being sure that a story is there. But Saturday Nighthas taken chances before. After all, it ran David Layton’s musings on the burden of being the son of Irving Layton, Canada’s enfant terrible of poetry, as a cover story in 1996. Why not run an article on theAFNleader burdened by an overbearing father-figure federal government and warring fraternal nations pulling in different directions?
Or there are Homemaker’s international pieces, where women or children of colour may dominate in the story, but only because they are victims of oppression or land mines. It’s rare to find the strong, talented, successful Canadian women of colour Rashmi Goel wants to see included in magazines. John Stackhouse wrote about such women in the March 1997 issue of Homemaker’s, but the story, although it contained two references to women in Canada, was about activists in the developing world, not minority women here.
Rashmi Goel wonders if some editors operate under a misconception about what their readership will respond to. “It’s not necessarily that readers want to read about white people,’ but readers don’t want to read about black people or people of colour,'” she says. “The media have defined who we are allowed to identify with by saying, you are a white, middle-class female, therefore you would like to read about white, middle-class females,’ instead of saying, you have suffered breast cancer and therefore you would like to like read about other women who have suffered breast cancer.'”
Goel realizes that editors have to balance editorial decisions with business considerations and guesses it’s the business side of their organizations that is misleading them: “This is about marketing to the right demographic, and the right demographic is defined by colour, age, class and gender. Those are the four things they look at.”
The editors are looking at race, they say-I heard a lot of agreement from them that Canada is visibly less white and increasingly more mixed. But Word’s Phil Vassell doesn’t feel any urgency from people in decision-making positions. “I don’t know if it’s blindness,” he says. “I think it’s just that it doesn’t affect me, therefore I can go home and sleep at night.’ For a lot of people, unless you’re directly affected if you’re a victim of it, you’re going to feel it a lot more urgently and a lot more viscerally.”
He believes the bottom line is money. “What it comes down to is strictly a dollar-and-cents thing. People will change when they start to lose market share, when they lose readership. That’s when someone comes in and says, ‘Hey, guys, unless we change this, we’re not going to be speaking to the new Canada anymore.” Mae Maracle, an access equity consultant with the city of Toronto, is a good example of this principle. “I know for myself there are a lot of things I don’t buy because I’m not there as an aboriginal person,” she says. How many other people would respond in that manner, I don’t know.”
I’M WALKING THROUGH A DARKENING CITY at dusk, wondering what the editors might see if we were walking along the same streets together. I wonder whether they go home and settle in to watch the news, read the paper, talk with friends. I imagine that they feel good to be at home, private in their private lives, and nobody would ever argue that they don’t have a right to draw a line between work and home. Where nobody would call them up to ask about the people they passed by but didn’t see. Where nobody would ever say, “But what about us?”