Sat. Night post mortem: ‘general’ interest extinct

CanWest Global Communications not only scaled back five sections of the National Post on Sept. 17, it also scrapped the oldest continually published magazine in Canada: Saturday Night.

CanWest Global Communications not only scaled back five sections of the National Post on Sept. 17, it also scrapped the oldest continually published magazine in Canada: Saturday Night. The company is facing an estimated $200 million in losses accumulated since the daily’s birth three years ago, thanks to a fierce newspaper war that saw four dailies, plus a couple of transit freebies, duke it out in the country’s largest market, Toronto.

Ironically, Post publisher Gordon Fisher reports, Saturday Night was on the road to profitability, selling more ads and growing revenues in recent months. ‘[But] over the long haul, in this economy, it was just going to take longer than we could sustain to turn the corner, frankly.’

Financial specifics aside, the book’s fate is reminiscent of that of a similar American publication and icon: Life magazine. The failure of Life, which Time Inc. pulled in May 2000, was partially blamed on the fact that, like Saturday Night, it was a general interest magazine.

Was this also why the award-winning, 114-year-old Saturday Night fell short as an advertising vehicle? According to Fisher, it was a factor. ‘It is harder to sell a general interest magazine, and Canada is a small magazine pie to take from,’ he explains. ‘We did have some of our best success with verticals [such as a fashion issue]. . . . The problem is there aren’t enough of them throughout the year to keep it going.’

In fact, CanWest will consider developing new magazine products along more ‘category-specific’ lines in the future, according to Fisher, who points out it still holds the title to Saturday Night. ‘[This situation] doesn’t mean that Saturday Night can’t come back in some form, at some time.’

Below, four media buyers share their thoughts on the failure of what was arguably Canada’s only general interest magazine.

Scott Neslund,

managing direct

Starcom Worldwide:

In the Canadian marketplace, it’s becoming a tougher medium to guarantee profitability, because of the dominance of some U.S. publications, and that obviously hits general interest magazines first.

Unfortunately it’s survival of the fittest, and fittest means not only winning awards, but also having a good sales force, a good story, a good product to offer advertisers. There are just too many choices for advertisers who want to consider print in that format. Unless you’re out there with innovative ideas and a unique story that’s different from your competition, when the size of the pie decreases, somebody’s got to lose.

The rise we’ve seen in clients using print are with those that have a specific area they want to target – because print has that ability. The pressure to compete in a niche audience continues to grow.

[Similarly] broad-based television has to think about what [it is] for the future, because as fragmentation continues, there’s a potential that the same thing could happen in television.

Rob Young

VP planning and research,

Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell:

It doesn’t matter what the editorial focus of a publication is, what matters is the nature of the readers. Most advertisers search out reader profiles, and Saturday Night would have had a reader profile similar to the Post, and that’s very respectable – it’s upscale and well-educated. It did have disappointing absolute readership numbers according to the Print Measurement Bureau (PMB) 2001 report. It had a relatively low reader-per-copy (two) compared to other magazines, [but it] was capturing almost 800,000 readers, which is a good size.

There were probably five or six things CanWest could have cut without doing permanent damage to the core product. Shutting down Saturday Night was probably high on its list.

I think the company just ran out of time with Saturday Night. The general rule-of-thumb is that you need three or four years to break even. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t on the right trajectory. It was contemporary and well art-directed. The old monthly Saturday Night had run its course. This new product [revamped in early 2000] made a lot of sense. It was more fun to read, and much less introspective than the old version.

Bruce Claassen,

president and CEO,

Genesis Media:

With magazines, advertisers are trying to find either specific target groups or specific subject matter that lends itself more to the products they’re selling. There’s a limited supply of advertisers looking for broad-based, mass-oriented publications with which to advertise. There just wasn’t a sufficient number to support the cost of operating Saturday Night.

Debbie King, executive VP,

managing director, Optimedia:

There’s no multimedia efficiency with Saturday Night. It’s not like the Post and Global News where you could share editorial. I think there’s always room for mass, particularly if magazines are your primary media: you usually start with mass if you’re a mass product and [then you] look for niche. There aren’t many magazines that are equally distributed between male and female readers. Saturday Night was a good vehicle for that.

I think the PMB results didn’t help them much. They lost in their ranking quite substantially. To be perfectly honest, they were struggling as a monthly magazine and

I personally never understood

why they went weekly. I think because of a softening in ad budgets, magazines are going to lose out, [because they are often] secondary to television.