By Lindsay Gibb
Last issue we talked a lot about the economy.
Our take was on how these economic times are effecting creators, makers of crafts and other handmade goods that they sell either on the side or to make a living.
I was recently at a documentary film festival and conference in the States (for the day job) and in one of the panel discussions filmmakers were lamenting these tough times and how that affects their ability to fund documentary films. When talking about the tough state of the industry, one of the filmmakers on the panel took comfort in the fact that at least they aren’t suffering as much as the print media.
Since I spend most of my time thinking about the arts but working in magazines, what’s been happening to print publications, small and large, has been at the front of my mind. Clearly one of the factors damaging the magazine industry has been the significant fall in ad sales. However, for small magazines ad sales are generally not the main source of funding. Small mags, in Canada at least, rely on government arts, culture and/or publishing grants and magazine sales. So, while the economy is a part of the problem right now for mags, one of the contributing factors to the hardships is us, as magazine readers, and our changing habits.
Increasingly we’re getting used to reading information online, and as magazines and newspapers meet the pressures of increasing their online presence to stay relevant, they are also, in essence, competing with themselves for audiences, and money. When readers can get everything from the magazine plus additional exclusive online content for free, why should they pay $6 or more for a magazine?
I was discussing this with someone at the National Magazine Awards this June. His argument was bold: if small magazines are not self-sustaining and can’t afford to pay their writers a living wage, they shouldn’t exist. I wasn’t part of the conversation when he started in with his theory, but my ears perked up as soon as I heard this argument. Working at magazines such as Broken Pencil and Spacing and believing in many other independently run mags (many of which have disappeared over the years), my automatic response was “you’re kidding?!” These are important magazines whether we can convince advertisers, the government or a mass audience of this or not.
But I guess he has a point. While we’re generally willing to pay whatever it costs to buy a book, and even the “struggling” music business has many dedicated music fans who would rather own the physical releases of their favourite artists than live on downloads alone, the amount of dedicated magazine buyers and collectors is much smaller. The question of how we convince readers to continually pay more for our magazines, while printing costs go up, is a tough one when people expect to get most of their information for free online. And making money on online platforms is still the question for the ages.
And while ad sales drop, printing costs go up and readers expect information for less money, the government has a trick of its own up its sleeve. Earlier this year Heritage Minister James Moore announced the planned merger of the Canadian Magazine Fund (CMF) and the Publishing Assistance Program (PAP) to create The Canada Periodical Fund, a fund which may be only available to magazines with a circulation of 5,000 or more. While this proposed change hasn’t taken effect yet (the anticipated change wouldn’t take effect until April 2010), the thought of all magazines with a small circulation losing their main opportunities for funding is making a lot of small magazines across the country fearful.
Because small mags are disappearing at an alarming rate, in the last issue, and again in this one (pg. 34), Assistant Editor Nathaniel G. Moore addresses indie magazines that have gone out of business in his column which is normally devoted to seeking out zines that have disappeared. I guess it all comes back to the issues anyone working in the arts has to face. While the filmmakers I speak to for my day job are constantly scrambling and begging for funds to make their filmic concepts a reality, so too is the small (and large) magazine industry. In the end, when we can’t rely on advertisers, suppliers or the government to keep us in business, we just hope that our readers care enough about us, and other small mags, to keep us publishing.