In the spring of 1996, in a tower of blue glass in what was then the city of North York, Ontario, the small staff of Equinox gathered around the fax machine for what had become a yearly ritual: reading the list of National Magazine Awards nominees. The staff’s excitement grew as the pages spilled out. For a moment, the struggling publication’s rough times were forgotten. But in the background, a dolly rolled by, pulled by the magazine’s publisher, Kerry Mitchell, and piled with the contents of her office. She was leaving Equinox, moving on to bigger and-by some standards-better things at Canadian Living.
It wasn’t a personal abandonment. The move was a directive from the brass at Telemedia Inc., the company that had been publishing Equinox for almost a decade. Telemedia saw potential in Mitchell, and was getting the smart young publisher off the sinking ship. Equinox was no place for an up-and-comer.
By the end of the year, Telemedia had sold Equinox to the small, Montreal-based Malcolm Publishing. The new owners had reduced the staff to a single editor, Alan Morantz, and the remarkable magazine was well on its way to a decidedly unremarkable end. But during its nearly 19 years of publication, Equinox constructed what may prove to be a lasting legacy. For many that read it, Equinox was a cultural expression. On the first pages of its first issue, Equinox proclaimed its desire to “capture the imaginations of its readers” with an exploration of the land and people, the flora, fauna and folkways of a country it felt was underestimated, even by Canadians. And through successes and failures, and several incarnations, the one feature Equinoxmaintained was an extraordinary literary and visual ambition. The magazine achieved critical kudos and respect throughout the publishing industry. It functioned as a showcase for writers, editors and photographers of the highest calibre. But it never had much success as a business. And with its passing,Equinox illustrates the Darwinian nature of the Canadian magazine publishing world. Equinox failed under the smallest of publishers, it failed under the biggest of publishers and finally, it failed somewhere in between. At times just bad business and at times a victim of more complicated circumstances, Equinox was the product of a faulty equation from the start: it was built in response to a personal vision, and for a time it was allowed to ignore the realities of business to fulfill that vision. But business realities have a way of making themselves heard.
A half-hour drive northwest of Kingston, at the edge of the tiny town of Camden East, a tall, square house of dark red brick with shuttered windows overlooks farmers’ fields and the Napanee River. Home to a small magazine and book publishing company, this is the place where Equinox began. It was born in December 1981, a crucial progression in the young life of Camden House Publishing, and part of the grand scheme envisioned by the publisher and would-be visionary James Lawrence. His earlier creation, Harrowsmith, which focused on the joys of country living, was already a few years old and successfully gathering an audience. For Equinox , Lawrence expanded his ambitions to create a broad, bimonthly exploration of Canada and the world. His objective, he explained in its pages, was to create “the most beautiful magazine in Canada.”
Equinox‘s launch was one of the biggest successes in the magazine’s short life. A direct-mail campaign helped create enough anticipation to secure a paid circulation of 116,000 for its first issue. A year after its creation, it was selected magazine of the year by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Partly inspired by the success of National Geographic in Canada, Equinox was perfect-bound and glossy-paged, and featured jaw-dropping nature photography. Its articles were sprawling explorations of nature, often running close to 5,000 words. For Alan Morantz, a long-time staff member and eventual editor, encountering the magazine was a revelation. “I had never seen any publication, and I never have since, that set the bar so high in terms of the narrative and visual storytelling. It was a magazine meant to be read and a magazine meant to be looked at.”
With Lawrence at the helm as publisher and editor, Equinox filled a curious void in the Canadian magazine industry, and in the lives of its readers. It delivered Canada to Canadians through a passion for the wild. However, Equinox was a magazine publishing beyond its means, beautiful but hopeless. After a promising first year, its growth levelled off and revenues began to decline. By 1985, advertising income was falling fast, and Lawrence stepped down as editor to work exclusively as publisher. He handed the reins to Barry Estabrook, a capable editor who understood Lawrence’s vision of the magazine, but Equinox continued its slide. In 1986, it ran fewer than half as many advertisements as in the previous year.
While the business slowly suffered and declined, the small staff continued to put out a big-budget magazine with only the means of a tiny publisher. Still working out of the brick house, sharing resources and editorial staff, the people working on the two Camden House publications enjoyed an unusually idyllic working environment. There were barbecues and the occasional volleyball game, offices set up in what once were bedrooms, with windows overlooking pastures of grazing cattle-certainly an unconventional backdrop for magazine publishing. But the work environment lived up to the country lifestyle that Lawrence embraced. Everywhere, from the family atmosphere in the house to the rural surroundings, were the physical reminders of the cooperative spirit that began with Harrowsmith and carried on through Equinox .
While the atmosphere may have been idyllic, all was not well with Equinox. The magazine continued to be a creative showcase. And though it carried on commissioning epic adventure articles, spending top dollar on writing and photography, its revenues were disappearing. With each issue, Lawrence’s continued publishing of the magazine became at best an act of philanthropy, at worst stubborn pride. In the spring of 1987, Lawrence sold Equinox and Harrowsmith to the Toronto-based publishing branch of Telemedia. In Equinox, the big publisher was acquiring an acclaimed prestige product. At the magazine there was a sense thatEquinox would finally have the backing to make it a success-that Telemedia would flex its publishing muscle to put Equinox on shelves and into more homes.
There were changes under Telemedia, most noticeably a new editor. Another capable editor and Equinoxpurist, Bart Robinson would continue to steer the magazine in its well-established direction. Jeff Shearer, a Telemedia executive at the time, remembers trying to evolve the magazine to take advantage of the very large geographic market. “Because in many ways,” says Shearer, “Equinox had a lot of the editorial properties of a really good geographic magazine. But I don’t think we were picking up their subscribers because the name and positioning didn’t say ‘geographic’ to people who didn’t know the magazine.” Telemedia had plans to broaden Equinox ‘s audience, but for a few years, the company’s hands-off approach to editorial allowed the staff to carry on almost as if the sale had never taken place. Sequestered in small-town Ontario, they kept putting out the magazine the way they always had. But their time in Camden was limited.
Eventually, things at Telemedia proved different than at Camden House. While Equinox‘s staff continued to turn out quality content, the standard by which Telemedia judged its new magazine was a reality check. Unlike the old publisher, Telemedia was big business. “The moment it became a part of a major company,” says Shearer, “of course it would have to be accountable. You know, it may not have had to be sold to us if it had been accountable from the beginning.” But just being part of the big company was not a cure-all. Telemedia had acquired a losing proposition in Equinox, and turning it around proved to be impossible, especially given the financial climate of the early ’90s, “a dramatically difficult time for magazines,” according to Shearer. In 1992, after a few good years of rising circulation and improved ad sales, Equinoxresumed its old pattern of slipping numbers. But Telemedia wasn’t publishing magazines for the spiritual fulfillment, and it wasn’t interested in taking a financial loss. After almost five years of near-autonomy,Equinox was reined in. Telemedia resolved to make Equinox a little more like its other publications-a little more profitable.
Telemedia hired Jim Cormier in 1993, an excellent editor, but for the first time one who hadn’t been brought up in the Equinox tradition. His vision for the magazine was different from the one established by Lawrence, and different from the one carried on under Estabrook and Robinson. Cormier’s Equinox had a new feel. But the differences seemed small compared to what was coming. In 1994 Telemedia moved the two magazines from Camden East to its offices in North York.
When Equinox stepped into the city, everything changed. The days of gazing at cattle were gone. The magazine was set up in an office tower at the corner of Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue, a shiny blue spike in a dirty sea of construction, crowned with the word “Nestl?.” Equinox was a peculiarity, asked to settle quietly into a setting as distant from Lawrence’s vision as from its old home several hundred kilometres away.
In Camden East, the staff ate together in the dining room of the old house. “There was nowhere else to have lunch,” remembers Morantz, “so for a period, they had somebody come in and make lunch for everybody. At about 10 in the morning, you would smell muffins being baked, or pasta, and it would create this ambience of a family, you know, working together on a purpose.” In Toronto, the only place to eat was across the street at the Sheppard Centre, in a food court with orange plastic chairs and a KFC.
Cormier’s specialty lay in packaging stories in arresting ways. Under him, the magazine became hipper and edgier and carried more mass appeal, but it was a far cry from the Equinox readers were accustomed to. The magazine was approaching a new audience, but it wasn’t a bigger one. Paid circulation continued its decline, and many charter subscribers sent letters announcing their disapproval of the new Equinox .
The biggest indication of the editorial changes under way was the redesign that came just before the move to Toronto. The conservative black border on the cover, one of Equinox‘s most recognizable features, was shed in favour of a new full-bleed cover. The magazine began to run more single-page items, and reduced the length of its features. Along with these changes came the occasional nod to the urban reader, someoneEquinox had seemingly avoided in the past.
In the space of a year or two, Equinox had become a totally different magazine. Even with the same title on the cover, it hardly looked like its older incarnation. And it was a different read. There were fewer animal and adventure stories, and more about science and culture. Liberally interpreting its role as “Canada’s Magazine of Discovery,” it ran pieces on the culture of harness racing in the Maritimes and the science of hockey. Still, the magazine industry held the new Equinox ‘s content in high regard. The redesigned book won more awards than ever.
Despite the editorial kudos, the atmosphere at Telemedia was less cooperative than at Camden House. Instead of working side-by-side with the publishers, and sharing a vision, the magazine’s editors worked on a different floor from the people in charge, with only a vague idea of what Telemedia expected of them. AndEquinox‘s editors didn’t always get along with its owners. Moira Farr, a senior editor during that time, recalls heated battles between Cormier and the publishers upstairs. “I remember a day when Jim was given some of the marketing material that had been sent out for Equinox , and it had grammatical errors in it. And he had not even been consulted about this letter that was going out to potential subscribers. He hit the roof and called marketing. He felt this was misrepresenting the magazine.” There was an example, too, of a glaring mistake made by the publishers. In the March/April 1996 issue, they ran an Export “A” cigarette advertisement-a ridiculous depiction of a huge cigarette hovering like a spaceship over a clearing in the woods. The ad clashed violently with the spirit of the magazine. Readers reacted with angry letters-so the next issue contained a formal apology and a vow never to print another cigarette ad.
Though it would be poetic to portray Telemedia as a misguided captain, steering the ship astray, the company can hardly be held responsible for the death of the magazine. Telemedia was trying to breathe new life into a failing business at a time when magazine publishing was becoming more difficult. Even the big companies were tightening their belts, and changes in management affected the way the company approached its titles. “There was a different management style in the ’90s,” says Shearer, who left Telemedia in 1990, “and it was not an expansion of properties.” Telemedia’s role in Equinox‘s story is probably closer to providing a terminal patient with a decade of life support. Telemedia is a big company. And, as big companies do, it answered ultimately to the bottom line. In almost 10 years at Telemedia,Equinox rarely, if ever, turned a profit. And a good business can’t hold on to a losing proposition forever.
In 1996 came the day the award nominations came streaming in by fax, and the day Telemedia moved Kerry Mitchell from Equinox to Canadian Living. The publisher’s exit was a message the editors understood clearly. “Time’s up,” it said. It was soon common knowledge that Telemedia was looking for a buyer for the magazine. For a few months after Mitchell’s departure, as Telemedia shopped Equinox around to less-than-excited potential buyers, heartening rumours circulated among the Equinox staff. The names of wealthy philanthropists were murmured in the hope that some guardian angel would rescue Equinox .
Telemedia sold the magazine in 1996, but the buyer, the tiny Montreal-based Malcolm Publishing, was hardly an angel. Dan Bortolotti, then an editorial assistant at Equinox , remembers when Telemedia finally broke the news. “I have two memories of it,” says Bortolotti. “The first is of us being asked to gather around in our office, and [Telemedia vice-president] Graham Morris coming up and saying the magazine had been sold. After that, we had another meeting in the boardroom, and they explained that everybody there would be laid off.”
The events of the next three years were essentially denouement. Everybody was let go but Alan Morantz, who became the magazine’s editor. Cormier stayed on as an adviser for a few months before he left, too. The budget was cut by 25 per cent, and the page count was slashed. But Morantz was eager to take on the new job. While most saw the sale as the end of Equinox, Morantz saw an opportunity to take the magazine back to its traditional format-the magazine he had wanted it to be, and not the mass-market model of the Telemedia years. Morantz had been with Equinox since Camden East, since the country house, and he had a strong sense of the magazine’s roots. “And that’s why they kept me,” he says, “because of continuity.” Malcolm Publishing wanted Morantz to bring the magazine back to what it had been 10 years before, and to reestablish the relationship with some of the older readers. “And that’s what I wanted to do, regardless,” he says. “So that’s what we set out to do, with a little bit of success, or a lot of success, or no success. I’m happy to leave that to others to judge.”
Morantz brought back the black border that had disappeared in 1993. And he returned somewhat to the heavy adventure and wildlife stories of the old days. It was recognizably Equinox , but with the funding cut, the pages grew fewer and fewer. “In the end,” says Morantz, “it did prove to be something they were just not able to execute.” Many who had read or worked on the magazine stopped buying it, preferring to pull the plug than watch an old friend waste away. Malcolm Publishing had a hard time paying contributors. Morantz found himself on the phone with writers he had worked with for years, pledging he would get them their cheques. He would call Montreal, and the publishers would make promises they didn’t keep. “For a couple of years,” he says, “people were willing to trust me and the relationship I had with them over many years. But that began to suffer.”
Finally, in 1999, frustrated, he stopped communicating with Malcolm altogether and quietly packed his bags. Longtime contributors like Wayne Grady and Martin Silverstone filled in near the end, but there was no long-term replacement.
Equinox died in August 2000-swallowed up by rival Canadian Geographic . Sold for parts, so to speak, it amounted in the end to a subscriber list of 100,000 or so names, a handful of unpublished stories and a collection of memories.
And while it would be easy to blame the magazine’s failure on the lack of a market, or to describe its long, slow demise as a measure of a decline in the vogue of environmental matters, Equinox‘s failure was not a function of its content, but of its approach to business. Similar magazines have been able to succeed. WhenEquinox began publishing, National Geographic had a paid circulation of more than 850,000 in Canada-part of the inspiration for Equinox‘s launch. And by the end of Equinox‘s 19-year run, Canadian Geographic had a paid circulation of close to 250,000. While both Canadian Geographic and National Geographic have subscriberships based on membership in an organization, they are also clear indications of an audience forEquinox‘s material. Canadian Geographic may have been less acclaimed, but anyone attempting to pass judgement is left with the fact that when Equinox ran aground, Canadian Geographic was doing well enough to buy what was left.
The house still stands in Camden East. The cows still graze in the fields, and the river runs by just the same as ever. And while the small town remains a reminder of a vision, there is no visible trace of the magazine at all. And precisely because of this-because Equinox arrived so dazzlingly, and went so dejectedly-the sights of the little town of Camden East tell the last verse of the magazine’s story well enough. Ambition, while undoubtedly Equinox magazine’s greatest virtue, was probably the reason for its failure. Its vision forced it to operate beyond its means. Equinox was special because it was not a business. It was a labour of love, and an expression of James Lawrence’s ideals. And the magazine’s story illustrates an obvious truth: kudos can’t pay the bills.