by Mandy Savoie.
Neville Gilfoy sits in a leather chair in his penthouse office overlooking Halifax harbour. Behind him, Sir. John A. MacDonald’s biography and Stephen King’s On Writing sit on a bookshelf alongside books about baseball, the environment, spirituality and business.
It’s the latter topic Gilfoy probably knows best, both because of his own business success and the glossy controlled-circulation magazine he has published since 1994, Progress.
Progress focuses on the successes of Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurs and stays away from less positive stories. This has earned it criticism from those who say magazines of its type avoid controversial reporting in order to keep advertisers happy. But there is no question he has found a formula for success, both for his publication, and his own career.
Gilfoy is a native Nova Scotian who still lives one door down from the Dartmouth house where he was born. He got his university training here as well. His studies introduced him to ideas that are still with him, including the use of propaganda.
“We publish magazines that are about the Atlantic Canada experience economically and politically, and we use our publications and our events to help form opinion, so my studies in Atlantic Canada history, and political science and propaganda all seem to have found a home,” he said.
At what point does the truth stop?
Progress is distributed eight times a year to more than 25,000 readers in Atlantic Canada and Maine. The glossy magazine focuses on profiles of entrepreneurs, business people and their companies who have â€œprogressedâ€ themselves and the community.
Most of the magazine’s 100-odd pages consist of feature stories and columns such as the creativity column. Past articles have featured the creators of Fuzzy Duck wine coolers and New Brunswick premier Shawn Graham.
Gilfoy said the positive spin in the magazine is what makes it different from daily newspapers and other business magazines in the region.
“I think they tend to be a little enamoured with bad news. And what Progress does is follow our name. We work to tell the stories that are helping the region move forward. We’ve done stories on people who have failed and have picked themselves up and continued to make progress,” Gilfoy said.
“So the Halifax Herald does a story on a company that fails but they don’t follow up to see how that person has picked themselves up and continues to go. Do you want to follow a person like that or do you want to just be mean-spirited and dislike somebody who’s failed which is what the daily press does. So how much truth do you actually uncover? At what point does the truth stop?”
Jamie Nicoll, a vice-president of PricewaterhouseCoopers, agrees with Gilfoy. Nicoll describes a time when Atlantic Canada was considered “a welfare, have-not, nothing-good-ever-happens-here region” and said Progress’s coverage of success has changed that attitude.
“It never was the reality. But if you tell somebody something for long enough they’ll start to believe that it’s true. That’s where Progress came in. They write about what’s really happening, about what’s really going on,” said Nicoll.
Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College, looks at it in a different light. He said in a region this small with a diverse population, magazines are dependent on advertisers and often publish positive stories so as to not upset them.
“You won’t see magazines that take on challenging stories. If you take city magazines like Toronto Life or publications like that they have a history of also doing what I would consider serious journalism,” said Kimber.
“If they think that the city has screwed up in some way or another they’re not afraid to write about that too. And I think that’s what is missing from most of the magazine journalism that’s produced here. We have all of the easy stuff. We don’t have much of the hard stuff.
“But they do the easy stuff really well.”
Kimber isn’t the only critic.
Brent Spencer, the managing partner for KPMG’s New Brunswick offices, describes himself as a “magazine junkie.” That’s why he did not renew the complimentary Progress subscription that was sent to his office. He said that while the magazine is “fairly high quality” he doesn’t consider it a high priority because there is little new information he doesn’t get from his other local and international subscriptions.
“Not a lot of people read it,” he said of his office.
A lot of freaks were on the boards
Gilfoy’s first job in the magazine industry was as the circulation manager at the Fourth Estate, a weekly, alternative magazine. He worked at the Globe and Mail as the circulation manager for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland before settling in at the same position at Atlantic Insight in 1979. Created by New Brunswick business man Bill Belliveau, Atlantic Insight was a lifestyle monthly that housed several of the region’s future publishers including Kimber, and Jim Gourlay, who would later found Eastern Woods and Waters with Gilfoy.
Gilfoy credits Atlantic Insight and its creator with founding a serious magazine industry in the region. He said that the industry in Canada was only able to compete with American publications when the Canadian government revoked the legislation that made advertising in American magazines tax-deductable.
“Being in the game at that particular moment was quite exciting. For somebody who is born in the last 20 years the Canadian magazine industry would seem like it’s always been there but it wasn’t always there,” Gilfoy said.
“When I started with the magazine industry it was raw and edgy. A lot of freaks were on the boards.”
Kimber, who was the managing editor for Atlantic Insight during its second year, credits a great deal of the magazine’s initial success to Gilfoy who helped circulation rise from 12,000 to 60,000 in just a year. Kimber, who once published his own magazine called Cities, said Gilfoy’s business smarts are what made him a success.
“Neville is a very good, astute business person in the publishing business. Now most of us come at it from the journalistic, creative side and we want to create these wonderful magazines to tell particular kinds of stories. I don’t think Neville was romantic in that way, or ever has been. He wanted to create a business, a publishing business,” Kimber said.
“You really need people like that if you can have successful magazines. The other side of it is those of us with sort of editorial vision and editorial interest, often don’t understand the business. He had passion for the magazine business. But it was a business passion more than an editorial passion.”
Gilfoy’s business passion also led him to create Progress Media Group which also publishes Progrès (a French version of Progress), and Progress R+D, a research and discovery magazine. The company also hosts events such as Face to Face, a business retreat that has panel discussions, networking and expert presentations.
Trading pennies for pseudo-news?
One of the reasons for Progress Magazine’s success is its circulation method. Rather than selling the magazine on newsstands, it is sent out to subscribers for free. The benefit of this, said Kimber, is that the magazine knows who its readers are and it doesn’t have to have special promotions to keep subscribers as newsstand magazines need to do.
There is a downside though. They are completely dependent on advertisers for revenue. The Atlantic region has small pockets of people spread out over great distances so finding advertisers can be difficult.
That is why Kimber said sometimes magazines will do anything to get and keep advertisers.
“There is a history that permeates the local newspapers of trading ads for pseudo-news. There’s an expectation that advertisers have of that kind of treatment.”
“Magazines get created around the needs of advertisers as opposed to readers. I think it’s very hard in that kind of magazine to tell stories that people may not want to hear,” said Kimber. “There are probably stories you wouldn’t do in Atlantic Progress because it would upset advertisers.”
But Gilfoy says that is not the way he operates becaues it would be disrespectful to readers. He said they have an advantage most magazines don’t.
“We get (readers) to subscribe but we don’t ask them for a cheque. We ask them for information. Basically it’s paid circulation; the difference is the currency. Instead of getting a name, address, and a postal code and a cheque for 40 bucks or 25 bucks we have a wide array of information.”
Reader demographics are compiled so advertisers can see a breakdown of the readers’ occupations, purchasing power and locations. This information gives advertisers an idea of who is reading the magazine and whether their products are appropriate for the magazine. And that’s something newspapers and even other magazines can’t supply, Gilfoy said.
The magazine also does not employ many full-time writers. Instead, it uses freelance writers and researchers who are less likely to be pressured by an advertiser.
September 2008’s cover story was the annual “The Top 101 Companies.” The list is compiled from surveys sent out to business leaders by the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University. Its dean, David Wicks, said he knows nothing about the magazine’s advertisers.
“I’ve certainly never felt any pressure to include a certain type of organization because they’re an advertiser. They’re looking to our contribution as sort of this external researching arm of their publication so I think they kind of expect us to be arm’s length.”
Wicks adds they must be doing something right because he believes Progress is the “better known and respected” business publication in the region.
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones…and Neville Gilfoy
Gilfoy is looking at a framed picture of himself surrounded by children that hangs on the wall of his office. It is a picture from his trip to Burkina Faso in West Africa two years ago. In the picture’s background there is a schoolhouse so decrepit he was not allowed to go in.
With the help of a Halifax mining company, the schoolhouse was replaced. Now all the children in the surrounding villages go to school in new buildings. They also built a maternity ward and a health clinic. Gilfoy is planning to go back in January to do more for the community.
In 2007 Gilfoy became the only person outside Ontario and Quebec to be given the National Magazine Awards Foundation’s Outstanding Achievement Award. Gilfoy called the past winners “the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of the publishing industry.”
The award is given to someone who has made career-long contributions to the industry through mentorship and volunteer work. Gilfoy was nominated and judged by his peers in the industry.
“Neville’s nominators were effusive in their evaluation of Neville’s contributions in all of those areas. People spoke specifically about Neville’s efforts in helping to build a stronger, healthier Maritime-based magazine industry,” said Kim Pittaway, the past-president of the NMAF, which aims to acknowledge excellence in the Canadian magazine industry.
Gilfoy said the magazine industry in the region will only continue to get stronger because magazines such as Gourlay’s lifestyle magazine, Saltscapes, have something different to offer.
“I think it has an important role to play in reminding all of us of the beauty and the wonder of living in Atlantic Canada. The daily newspapers will never deliver that to you. The CBC can’t deliver that to you.”