Special Report: The Positioning of Magazines: Toronto Life runs monthly focus group

In this report, the editors of a half-dozen consumer magazines - Clin D'Oeil, Cottage Life, Saturday Night, Shift, Toronto Life and TV Guide - explain what they are doing to better understand their readers and how they are positioning their product...

In this report, the editors of a half-dozen consumer magazines – Clin D’Oeil, Cottage Life, Saturday Night, Shift, Toronto Life and TV Guide – explain what they are doing to better understand their readers and how they are positioning their product against other media.

As well, reporter David Chilton looks at the effect on the Canadian magazine industry of proposed decreases in postal rate subsidies.

John Macfarlane

Toronto Life

Q. What methods do you use to identify and understand your readership so that you can tailor articles and editorial content to their needs?

A. We do two things.

We study the research that exists within the industry; pmb [Print Measurement Bureau] and now mri [Mediamark Research Inc.], and, in some cases, any readership studies that we undertake ourselves.

We look at whatever research is available about our audience, about demographics, about consumer habits.

In addition, we also conduct a monthly focus group with readers who are selected at random by our circulation people from our subscriber list.

Once a month, six to 10 readers come in and have lunch with me, and we talk about what they like, what they don’t like, what they’d like to see more of, and how they’re responding to changes.

Finally, we do what all magazine editors do, which is monitor phone calls and letters to the editors, although they tend to come from people who are unhappy rather than happy, so you have to keep that in mind.

Q. How do you stay in touch with changes in your readership?

A. If you’re studying the data and research about your audience, and if you’re talking to readers the way we do, I think that keeps you in tune with whatever changes are taking place within your readership.

Any good editor monitors the universes in which they operate.

For instance, the ’80s was a very particular decade. It was a decade of affluence and vigorous consumer consumption, and the magazine that was produced by the editorial team that was here then reflected that.

The ’90s is a very different decade, particularly in Toronto, which experienced what I would argue was not a recession, but a depression, in the early part of the decade.

The magazine we are producing, I would hope, expresses that changed reality.

It is not a magazine that is to nearly the same extent about consumption as the magazine that was produced here in the ’80s was.

I think if you’re focused on whatever your mission is, and if you’re working as hard as you should be at monitoring events in the universe you serve, I think you change incrementally and almost invisibly.

It doesn’t require a dramatic change. I think a magazine should be changing every issue.

Q. How do you remain relevant, given increasing fragmentation and the predicted decline of print?

A. I would challenge [the decline of print.]

Just as newspaper didn’t kill the book, and radio didn’t kill newspapers, and television didn’t kill radio, neither do I think the much-vaunted, much-discussed electronic highway and new media are going to kill off the media that already exist.

Which is not to say [the new media] are not going to be popular or pervasive, but, last year, for example, I think I would be correct in saying more books were sold in this country than in any year previous in North America.

And I suspect more magazines were read.

And yet the electronic media continue to grow.

So I think that the predicted decline of print is probably unfounded.

Q. What characteristics must an effective editor possess to ensure relevant editorial content today, as opposed to the editor of five years ago?

A. I can’t honestly say that I think there’s any difference in the characteristics required of an editor today and an editor of five years ago.

I don’t really think there is a difference in what was required then and what is required now.

I think intelligence, curiosity, an open mind, the ability to think rigorously; those are the qualities that make good editors.

They were the qualities then, and they are the qualities now. They were the qualities 25 years ago and 50 years ago. And they will be the qualities 25 years from now, 50 years from now.

Q. What manner of input or guidance do you get from publishers and salespeople in determining the editorial direction of your magazine?

A. We welcome input here – response and input and advice and counsel from everyone who works at the magazine and from all departments of the magazine.

We listen to the input – but the determination is still made by the editors.

The editor and the publisher I would say have a special role where this is concerned.

It’s the publisher’s job to hire and fire the editor, but also to guide the editor and to be involved with the editor.

I think the publisher has a role to play in terms of establishing long-term direction.

If the editor has chosen a direction, and it’s not what is producing a sufficient number of readers to sustain the magazine commercially, then I think it’s the publisher’s right to say to the editor, ‘Listen, we need to think about whether we’re doing the right thing here, we need more readers.’

In that sense, the publisher has a role to play, but at the end of the day I think it’s still an editor’s job to make the day-to-day editorial calls.