When Canadian Living published its 150th issue in 1989, Norma Taylor of Summit Lake, British Columbia crocheted a blanket and sent it to the staff to mark the occasion. Taylor isn’t a former Canadian Living staff member and she’s not the editor’s mother. She’s just one of thousands of loyal readers across the country who feel their favourite magazine is part of the family.
While many Canadian magazines are cutting staff or folding, leaving a hole in the industry like a run in cheap pantyhose, Canadian Living just had its two best years ever. Last year, in the darkest days of the recession, while other publishers were choking on GST and disappearing postal subsidies, it even raised the price and increased circulation. And, after almost 20 years of quietly winning over readers at supermarket checkouts, Canadian Living is now aiming to dethrone the once undisputed queen of the Canadian magazine industry.
Founded in 1928, Chatelaine was the only one of many Canadian women’s magazines to survive the 1950s, when United States giants Time and Readers Digest took home more than 50 cents of every Canadian advertising dollar. In the 1960s, it became the largest paidcirculation magazine in the country. Today, ~ Reader’s Digest is the § leader but Chatelaine is number two, with a paid circulation of more than 900,000.
When Canadian Living hit the supermarket racks in 1975, it was no match for the sleek, glossy glamour of Chatelaine. The first issue featured stories like “Leave me alone-I’m stuffing the turkey,” in which former gym teacher Sally Armstrong explained why she doesn’t have time for fitness, and “The fastest gun…” an illustrated two-page spread on staple guns. Next to Canadian Living, Chatelaine looked like a million bucks, professionally turned out by top designers and the best photographers. Writers that year included Margaret Atwood, Marian Engel, Germaine Greer, Joyce Carol Oates and Morley Callaghan.
Canadian Living, however, fueled by the same can-do enthusiasm that characterizes the magazine’s editorial, made the best of its resources and became the Cinderella story of the 1980s, transforming herself from a local rag to a magazine with a national readership of almost two million by 1985. In the past four years, Canadian Living has grown up and, with the sophisticated marketing muscle of Telemedia behind it, is now challenging Chatelaine for readers’ loyalties and advertisers’ affections.
According to statistics published by the Print Measurement Bureau, Canadian Livings paid circulation has risen about three per cent over the past two years, while Chatelaine’s has gone down slightly. And although Chatelaine sells almost twice as many magazines, more people read each copy of Canadian Living. This closes the gap in terms of total readership, with Canadian Living at 2,178,000 and Chatelaine at 2,695,000.
For Canadian Living readers, their monthly subscription is like an extended letter from home complete with photos, treasured family recipes and advice on how to raise the kids. “Basically, we feel the readers own the magazine,” says editor-in-chief Bonnie Baker Cowan. “We just run it for them and, if we do something they do not approve of, they let us know. I think they feel they have a personal relationship with us.”
One woman wrote to say she had to think long and hard about renewing her subscription, but then she realized she couldn’t afford to be without Canadian Living. “I need it to help me get through bad times.”
Some letters go directly to other names on the masthead. Food director Elizabeth Baird often receives letters with photos enclosed from people who’ve enjoyed Canadian Living recipes as part of family occasions. Readers also phone the test kitchen for advice in mid-cake. “Can you substitute cocoa for baking chocolate in this recipe?” Or: “I just put my cake in the oven and I have to go out in 20 minutes-what should I do?”
The Canadian Living test kitchen is the heart of the magazine. Beyond the door, the cluttered maze of office space looks like any other successful, yet unpretentious, enterprise. Inside, however, it’s just like home. The test kitchen is designed to duplicate the conditions under which most readers are probably working-its only commercial equipment (a recent addition) is a single high-speed dishwasher that can turn around a load in just three minutes. It’s just like home, only at nine on a Wednesday morning, probably a hell of a lot tidier.
Most days, the kitchen is cooking four to six months in advance-Christmas is in July, and while the rest of us are baking shortbread, Canadian Living cooks are firing up their hibachis. Today, however, it’s October and the staff is preparing almost-seasonal treats-a brandied mincemeat ring and shortbread for Baird to take to the Ottawa Food and Wine Show, where she’ll be promoting the latest Canadian Living cookbook, Desserts, the eighth in a hugely successful series.
Over the whir of mixers and clatter of stirring, Jan Main, a freelance food writer, caterer, cooking school proprietor and mother of two, offers her explanation for the success of Canadian Living. “Everybody works together,” she says. “Everybody’s opinion is valued. And they really care about the readers. There’s no arrogance or patronizing.” Main offers her opinion ”as an outsider,” but people inside the magazine, writers past and present and even former employees all agree: Canadian Living is as warm and friendly as its editorial voice. Many of the staff have been there 10 years or more and there’s little turnover.
Writers like Susan Pedwell and Marcia Kaye edited at Canadian Living, then quit to raise families and now freelance for the magazine. Kaye says the people there are a pleasure to work with. “The editors have such a clear idea of what they want, it’s really rare to need a rewrite.” Lindalee Tracey says her stories are usually finished in a couple of drafts. Editing at Canadian Living “is not nail-biting, fussy stuff.”
Judy Stoffman, former assistant managing editor, credits the uniquely cooperative environment to the fact that Canadian Living began as an all female enterprise. Former editor Judy Brandow, who took control when Telemedia bought the fledgling magazine in 1977, had a peculiar management style that set the tone for the whole magazine. It was intuitive, feminine and, to outsiders, may have seemed amateurish and seat-of-the-pants. But it worked.
Since 1988, under Bonnie Cowan’s leadership, Canadian Living has started tackling serious social issues-domestic violence, child abuse, poverty and hunger. She’s taken the successful, happy, how-to formula and applied it to unhappy topics without significantly altering the magazine’s character. “Bonnie had the vision to see that times were changing and had the guts to go with it,” says senior editor Gilda Swartz.
In the past, editors sometimes waffled over running ground-breaking pieces. Nine years ago, Marcia Kaye wrote a story on talking to your kids about nuclear war. The magazine didn’t want to run it; it was too much of a downer. After similar stories ran in Quest and Chatelaine, though, the editors changed their minds. “By the time Canadian Living got around
to publishing it, it was old news,” says Kaye. These days, Canadian Living covers controversial topics while they’re still hot-the December, 1992 issue, for example, featured a story on the uproar over women baring their breasts in public.
Women’s magazines have long been viewed as publications of easy virtue, shamelessly in bed with their advertisers. One former editor at Canadian Living says she found the relationship with the advertisers “too close for comfort.” She recalls a story in the “Spend it Better” column at the back of the book comparing cloth diapers to disposables. Cloth was the clear winner. “We heard from the makers of disposable diapers,” she says. “They were not pleased and that carried considerable weight with the publisher.”
Still, the story ran as it was written and the editor qualifies her comments by adding that, with the recession, even newspapers are lowering their standards and bending to advertisers’ pressure. “The women’s magazines no longer seem so lacking in backbone.”
In fact, Canadian Livinghas demonstrated remarkable courage since Cowan took over. In 1989, it even braved the wrath of food advertisers with a feature on food contaminants. The story discussed dangerous chemicals in fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products and eggs, as well as coffee filters, cardboard milk containers and disposable diapers. In a magazine largely dedicated to the pleasures of eating, the story informed readers “an astonishing 86 per cent of our exposure to these toxic chemicals comes from the food we eat.” The story ran just as the Alar scare was hitting the media-headlined ‘~ is for Alar” to play up its timeliness. Predictably, food marketing boards were furious. Cowan says the magazine received between 50 and 100 angry letters.
Whether discussing fungicide-tainted grapefruit, the painful effects of divorce on children or the secrets of successful pastry, Canadian Living offers advice for coping. Under Cowan, however, the magazine’s perky tone has been refined. Today it’s less the voice of a well-meaning but not too bright friend and more like that of a realistic, well-informed peer. “There used to be a philosophy that you wrote to a grade six level,” says Cowan. “By recognizing that our reader is a welleducated, intelligent person, we added a different tone to our magazine.”
Still, former senior editor Anna Prodanou describes Canadian Living as a “good news” magazine, one reason she left after three years. “People wait for it to arrive on their doorstep and cheer them up. I find that a bit cloying.”
Nevertheless, she attributes the success of the magazine to the new bite of the features section. “It’s not because it has better recipes or a nicer Christmas angel this year than last, but what it says-and what it says is in the features section.
For writers, Canadian Living carries their voices farther than most other magazines, raising awareness and offering solutions to social issues they care about. “I think it empowers people and maybe that’s how the world gets changed-by women, hundreds and hundreds of women,” says Susan Pedwell.
Last fall, Cowan and her St2 launched the Canadian Living Foundation for Families, a charitable groups created to “sponsor programs designed to assist and promote the well-being Canadian families.” Their first project is to lend their expertise in nutrition and cooking to school and community breakfast and lunch programs across the country.
Former colleagues say one of Judy Brandow strongest skills was knowing her readers. Brandow didn’t care what other people in the publishing business thought of the magazine only what the readers felt. Lindalee Tracey says that holds true today, and it’s on of the challenges of writing for Canadian Living. “The point is not impressing buddies at the bar in Toronto. It’s got to impress the folks out in Red Deer.”
For many of these folks, Canadian Living is the only magazine they read They don’t read Chatelaine, they say because it’s too urban, too upscale ” Canadian Living is a more hands-or magazine, very Canadian,” says one senior media buyer. “Editorially,
think they’re more on the mark for the ’90s than Chatelaine.”
Besides sharpening the editorial Cowan says another major change she made was starting to run the magazine like a business. “We can’t put up a barrier between editorial and advertising anymore,” she says. “A good editor has to be a business person. That’s the difference between 1980 and 1990.” Running Canadian Living as a business means three-year plans, $125,000 a year in market research and constant attention to marketing.
Despite the magazine’s new boldness, advertising revenues are higher than ever. In 1990, Canadian Living attracted more pages of advertising than Chatelaine for the first time, a lead it has maintained since. The number of ad pages has risen 32 per cent from 1988 to 1992, while Chatelaine’s has declined by 6 per cent over the same period. Nevertheless, as Chatelaine publisher Lee Simpson is quick to point out, her book is still the leader in total advertising revenue.
For advertisers, one of Canadian Living’s many charms is Telemedia’s innovative packaging strategy. Big money advertisers can cut a better deal if they buy space in more than one of Telemedia’s family of magazines, which includes Homemakers and Select Homes and Food-ideal matches for Canadian Living advertisers. Both Chatelaine and Canadian Living purport to be aimed at the same audience: women ages 25 to 54. Despite Canadian Living’s slogan-“The Family Magazine”-and the editorial policy of carrying stories of interest to all family members, women in the age group of 25 to 54 comprise 67 per cent of their readers. And women are the ones buying the magazine and bringing it home.
Maclean Hunter’s efforts to promote their own Telemedia-style packaging have met with mixed results, in part because many Chatelaine advertisers just aren’t interested in reaching the readers of Flare or Macleans. The solution may be Modern Woman, launched at the end of January after almost two years of research and planning. Simpson says, “If Chatelaine is mass with class, MW is mass with sass.” Modern Woman is aimed at working women with jobs rather than careers, who bowl or go to the movies rather than attending the theatre or opera.
In the premiere issue, editor Charotte Empey described Modern Woman as “bright and breezy.” Cheap and cheerful, too, at 99 cents in certain markets, or free in others if you pick it up with the Sun newspaper, which carries the magazine as a monthly insert in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa. Empey promises a magazine for real women “in all our shapes, sizes and colours.” Stories are more personal-“my problem and how I solved it”-and sex is a popular topic.
If Modern Woman is this season’s sexy new debutante, City and Country Home is a down-and-out heiress with expensive tastes, sent to the typing pool to earn her keep. Last fall, Maclean Hunter announced that City and Country Home would be moving
back to the company’s 777 Bay Street headquarters and become a bi-monthly “gift” for a select group of Chatelaine subscribers.
At the same time, the magazine will readjust its Architectural Digest North image to include more practical stories on renovating, redecorating and adding on. The magazine has boosted its circulation from 60,000 to 100,000 almost overnight, and thanks to the miracle of modern database marketing, added the demographic cream of Chatelaine’s mailing list to its ultra upscale subscription base.
Simpson denies these moves are aimed at putting a hole in Canadian Living’s dance card, but admits the creation of Modern Woman will considerably boost Maclean Hunter’s efforts to package advertising. Patrick Walshe, vice-president of Harrison, Young, Pesonen and Newell, says the changes at Maclean Hunter mark a major escalation of the magazines’ long-standing rivalry. Walshe’s company is one of the largest buyers of media in Canada, with major clients including Unilever, one of the packaged goods manufacturers that are the bread-and-butter advertisers of women’s magazines. He describes Chatelaine and Canadian Living as “two battleships surrounded by destroyers lobbing artillery at each other.” As the economy heats up, the competition will intensify. “The magazine revenue base is not expanding,” explains Walshe. “It’s getting tougher and tougher to close the sale.”
For this same reason, Simpson denies she’s concerned about losing top spot to Canadian Living. “We can’t afford to scrap over a diminishing number of dollars,” she says. New books like Modern Woman will broaden the demographic scope of magazines, reaching a new audience instead of fighting over existing readers. Anyway, she adds, “We take the lion’s share of most [advertising] budgets, so Chatelaine is not threatened in that
sense. It also has a much larger circulation, so we have supremacy in terms of the things that would matter from a profit point of view.”
Robert Murray, former publisher of Canadian Living and now a Telemedia vice-president, also dismisses the idea that there’s a war on. While he describes Chatelaine as “very fine competition,” he says “we happen to think there are larger fish to fry.” Fish like television, radio and outdoor advertising. Telemedia’s newest frontier is magnetic media-specially-marked boxes of KAO brand computer disks now include a free sample of popular Canadian Living recipes conveniently stored on disk.
War or no war, the characters of the two magazines are strikingly different. If they were people, they probably wouldn’t be friends. Both can help you whip up a tasty, nutritious meal in five minutes flat, but in the features and profiles you’ll sometimes find a provocative, even antagonistic streak, in Chatelaine. Newsmaker of the year 1990 was Chantale Daigle, a woman who fought for her legal right to have an abortion, and had one even before the case was decided. Obviously, Chatelaine isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers in Red Deer. (Cowan, on the other hand, says Canadian Living won’t touch the topic of abortion even today because “we’d have to take a stand.” Alienating readers is anathema to Canadian Living.) Two years ago, Chatelaine riled readers with a story by Danielle Crittenden proclaiming “the war is over-let’s junk the feminist slogans.” Editor Mildred Istona says the story was intended to be provocative. “We try to get a debate going, so we present people like Danielle Crittenden, whose biases are well known,” she says.
Canadian Living is less glamorous and more sympathetic than Chatelaine,
more down to earth and less in-your-face. In fact, the magazine’s market research has discovered that readers really do see it as a member of the family. Robert Murray says in one exercise, people are asked to select magazines they would describe as their mother, or their aunt or their sister. “Time after time after time we come out as the aunt or the mother, or that wonderful person who has taken some time to do something with them but not enough, so Canadian Living has stepped in to take their place.”
Thelma McCormack, acting director of the York University Centre for Feminist Research, says that’s what women’s magazines are all about. “There is the feeling that these magazines are there to help you. They’re yours, not like Maclean’s or Time.”
They’re successful, she says, because they take women seriously. Still, the journalism community looks down its nose at books like Chatelaine and Canadian Living, even though they earn money in hard times, while Saturday Night, the epitome of Canadian journalistic respectability, looks back on more than 40 years of red ink, through boom and bust.
“It’s true in Toronto, it’s true in New York,” says Istona. “If you’re a women’s magazine, you don’t count for much.” When Rona Maynard went from Flare to Macleans, one executive said “Now you’re going to work for a real magazine.” Editors and writers who work on women’s magazines often come from or go to more “respectable” publications. Lee Simpson says she believes some of the best journalism in the country right now is happening in women’s magazines. She notes that Chatelaine bylines include National Magazine Award winners. “I doubt very much that they say ‘Gee, I’m writing for Chatelaine-I’d better lower my standards…'”
Maynard, a long-time Chatelaine writer, defended women’s magazines in the September, 1992 issue of Masthead magazine. She charged mainstream journalists, male and female, with sexism and double standards. “[Women’s magazines] were the first to blow the whistle on unnecessary mastectomies, first to publicize date rape and wife assault, first to explore the tangled politics of abortion-first to report on the so-called ‘women’s issues’ that get short shrift in the male-controlled media.
“Readers look to their magazines to learn how women like themselves are coping with everyday challenges,” wrote Maynard. “If you’ve lost a breast, will you feel awkward with a new lover? If your teenage daughter i turning tricks on Yonge Street, what will it take to bring her home Through women’s magazines, women share stories that are told nowhere else This vast country becomes as intimate as my kitchen table.” Writer Lindale, Tracey echoes Maynard when she call, Canadian Living “one of the onl) magazines all Canadians are reading.’ She agrees the magazine isn’t taken seriously by many journalists, “but] think their time is coming.”
Bonnie Cowan isn’t holding her breath. Instead, she follows the philosophy Judy Brandow set down at Canadian Living 15 years ago, gauging her success by the readers’ response and not by the opinions of magazine people. “Will we ever win magazine awards? Probably not. Is that important? Probably not. It’s more important for us to have loyal readers.”
(Canadian Living did win a National Magazine Award one year for its food coverage, but the category has since been eliminated.)
And giving the readers what they want is the secret to Canadian Living’s success. While some journalists snidely dismiss it as “a food book,” Canadian Living continues to serve up serious journalism in addition to service pieces on food, fashion and crafts. Readers know you can’t judge a book by its cover alone, and while Canadian Living has added inset photos to its covers to show off other features, at least for now, it will remain “the one with the food on the front.” Last year, market research proved that nothing attracts readers like food. Not even Wayne Gretzky.
Researchers also tested the age-old wisdom that the words “free” and “win” on the cover help sell magazines. Surprisingly, they discovered that’s no longer true. Readers were jaded; they’d seen the same gimmicks a thousand times on covers of American magazines. “All the same,” recalls Cowan, “Somebody said, ‘If Canadian Living said ‘free’ or ‘win’ or ‘save $1,200 in this issue,’ we’d believe it.”