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Head above water

How the Canadian magazine industry remains afloat in the digital age

The feeling of the paper between your fingers. The glint of shine on the photos. The smell of the ink wafting from the pages. Does it even compare to reading on your phone?

“I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times because I absolutely love reading it on paper,” says David Hayes, a respected Toronto freelance journalist who has contributed to Chatelaine, The Globe and Mail and Toronto Life. “I don’t want to spend most of my life look at screens.”

Digital devices reign supreme when it comes to how we ingest media. There were 31.7 million mobile users in Canada in 2017, up more than 3 per cent from the previous year—but it wasn’t always this way.

Before apps like Instagram, if you wanted the latest style trend you might have turned to Flare magazine. Before television shows like Doomsday Preppers, if you wanted to know how to flood-proof your home, you might pick up a copy of Cottage Life magazine. But now some industry professionals are wondering if there’s life after print, or if digital is the future.

“We are now in an age when even your 75-year-old grandma has the internet, so no one cares if it’s in the print edition,” says Jonathan Kay, previous editor of the Walrus and current editor at Quillette magazine.

Not everyone in the magazine industry, however, holds that belief.

“I feel like younger people, especially ones that are in school, are beginning to realize that it (digital media) is a false god, and they’re better off reading the paper,” John R. MacArthur, publisher and president of Harper’s magazine, said in an interview.

How it all started

The magazine industry in Canada has a 23-decade long legacy; today there are more than 1,300 periodicals. The industry started in Nova Scotia, which between 1775 and 1800 was the most populated province in Canada. The Nova Scotian Magazine and Comprehensive Review of Literature was published from 1789 until 1792 by a group of transplanted New Englanders with the help of John Howe, father of Canadian journalist Joseph Howe.

During the 1800s the Canadian magazine industry was somewhat stagnant, producing few magazines. Saturday Night, a general interest magazine appearing in 1887, was an exception. This stagnation was due to production and circulation methods. Paper was made by hand until the 1830s and of course there were no mail trucks in the 1800s.

Despite not exactly starting with a bang—maybe a slow clap at best—the Canadian magazine industry trucked onward into the 20th century. Then the industry exploded with a huge variety of magazines. Some would become iconic, such as Maclean’s, which appeared in 1905. Chatelaine appeared in 1928 and Canadian Living in 1975.

After the internet erupted onto the scene during the ’90s print as a medium began its downward slope. The internet hit a billion users in 2005. “Going digital” ensnared both the newspaper and magazine industries.

“It’s not anyone’s fault. We all fell for that,” says Jessica Johnson, editor of the Walrus. “Once the internet was created, we all thought we had to be online. Publications and journalists put all their work for free online.”

Although the emergence of the web had publishers clamoring to get work online, digital monetary gains have yet to make up for print losses. Statistics Canada reveals that the Canadian magazine industry generated $585.5 million in ad revenue during 2017, but only 17.7 per cent of that was from digital.

The internet made room for niche magazines with no established brand presence to get themselves out there. There is Shameless, a magazine geared towards trans youth, launched in 2013. There’s Muskrat Magazine, geared towards Indigenous youth culture, launched in 2010. There’s also BASHY, which focuses on Jamaican millennials, founded in 2017.

New content and content makers mean new and innovative businesses. But new business models don’t mean in with the new and out with the old—it’s more like in with the new, and let’s improve the old.

Follow the money

Publishers in Canada started a relationship with print advertising way back in 1752, when the first ad in Canada appeared in the Halifax Gazette. It was for butter.

But making money from ads has become difficult for Canadian magazines. “Most of the online revenue that’s available is going to big tech platforms that aren’t technically publishers,” says Johnson.

News Media Alliance, an organization with nearly 2,000 member news outlets, based in Arlington Virginia, revealed in its 2019 report that Google made $4.7 billion U.S. in ad revenue from publishers in 2018––more than the Canadian magazine industry’s total revenue, $1.3 billion.

“That is a real societal argument that needs to be determined,” says Johnson. “What’s the role of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in our industry?”

Steering away from ads, crowdfunding has proven to be an alternative way to fund some businesses. Jesse Brown, who has worked for Maclean’s and Gladfly magazine, used Patreon to start Canadaland, a provocative podcast and news website launched in 2013. Sprawl Calgary focuses on independent Calgary journalism and was launched via Patreon in 2017. Another one is Cabin Radio, which produces online news articles and podcasts about the happenings in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. It launched in 2018.

In spring 2019 a Vividata poll of 45,000 Canadians revealed print remains the dominant way that magazines reach people, with 66 per cent of people polled consuming magazines via print and only 27 per cent via digital. Subscriptions remain a viable source of income for major consumer magazines, generating more than $300 million in 2017.

Publications such as Reader’s Digest, Canadian Living and Chatelaine have the benefit of being long-established, trusted brands. They enjoy subscription numbers in the millions (online and paper combined). New independent magazines have less history and brand presence, and so fewer subscribers.

Some smaller publishers are bypassing the subscription model and using services such as Patreon, a crowdfunding membership platform based in California.

Although Patreon has proven useful to the magazine industry, there are also risks to using this model: what if Patreon runs into financial trouble, or has technical difficulties? “It’s not a good feeling to know this private Silicon Valley company holds your economic future,” says Jonathan Kay, senior editor at Quillette.

$1.5 million grants

The only funding available to commercial Canadian magazines is provided by the federal government through the Canadian Heritage Fund. It offers grants of up to $1.5 million to published consumer magazines that have either a print or digital subscription, provided they meet eligibility standards.

Aside from government funding, old-fashioned donations never go out of style. In 2018 the Walrus made more than 35 per cent of its total revenue in donations alone, nearly $2.5 million. This Magazine, a 53-year-old Toronto political magazine that prides itself on being fiercely independent and proudly subversive, allows you to donate directly to the magazine online.

Using philanthropy to generate income extends beyond just donations. Some publications such as Cottage Life and the Walrus regularly hold sponsored shows or forums. These encourage readers and guests to purchase tickets ranging from $10-$20 and come to a venue to participate in lectures surrounding relevant social issues. People can also buy merchandise like T-shirts and books.

 

Where from here?

In 2016, PricewaterhouseCoopers, a multinational accounting firm, projected that print will remain a sizeable business. Digital revenue is expected to grow steadily in North America as well.

So, what is the secret to staying afloat in a sea of digital media?

There isn’t one answer. It’s all trial and error.

“Readers got used to reading for free online,” says Jessica Johnson, editor of the Walrus. She advises anyone starting a magazine not to expect to immediately have a huge amount of donations or paying subscriptions. “It will take a massive shift in society in terms of how we value the work the media does, in order to reintroduce the pay model.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers says the difficulty of monetising digital magazines will continue to be a challenge. Digital revenue will make up 30 per cent of total consumer magazine revenue in 2020, up from 16 per cent in 2015. That’s almost double in five years, but more money is needed.

Johnson at the Walrus says innovation is key. “Figure out a specialization and really be true to that.”

Long story short: Don’t jump ship just yet.

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