Small magazines feeling big pain

Changes to government funding are hurting some small magazines.

By Charlotte Harrison

Click on the graphic to discover 2012-13 Canadian Periodical Fund support by magazine genre.


Changes to government funding are hurting some small magazines.

By Charlotte Harrison

John Shelling looks out his seventh floor office window at the Delta Bessborough in Saskatoon. It’s here that he produced BlackFlash magazine, an arts and new media publication, by himself for three years.

In 2010, Shelling was forced to let his only employee go, after losing funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The magazine now receives funding from the Canada Council and the Saskatchewan Arts Council, but that isn’t enough to make up for the $19,000 it lost from Canadian Heritage.

To get funding from Canadian Heritage, Shelling’s magazine needed to have a staff and a marketing plan. It didn’t.

“We lost the money we were using for promotion and staff,” Shelling said. “The new rules reward mainstream media and discourage counterculture and ideas outside of the norm.”

The Canadian Magazines Fund began in 2000. With a budget of $45 million a year, it’s available to any magazine with at least 80 per cent Canadian content. Canadian Heritage ran the fund and promised to finance magazines where “Canadians express and share their diverse cultural experiences with each other and the world.”

The Publications Assistance Program, a postal subsidy through Canadian Heritage, offers reductions on magazine mailing costs.

But in 2009 the government replaced both this and the Canadian Magazines Fund with a new program: the Canadian Periodical Fund. Small magazines are now excluded from funding.


Running a magazine in Canada has always been difficult.

John Dougall, founder of the New Dominion Monthly, promised to encourage new writers when he began the publication in 1867. But he couldn’t offer payment until its circulation reached 6,000. By 1869, he was able to pay writers. In the early 1870s, the magazine’s circulation reached 8,000.

Some aspects of the business have improved since Dougall’s day – publishers no longer have to go door-to-door to attract advertisers. Now, Canadian magazines are facing other challenges. These include low revenue, competition from American counterparts and, most recently, the predicted death of print journalism.

The Canadian Magazine Fund and the Publications Assistance Program were beacons of light for many magazines. The replacement of programs in 2009 was two-fold. Canada Post, a major supporter of the postal subsidy, no longer wanted to contribute $15 million, and the Harper government wanted a “streamlined” program.

The overall budget of the programs has stayed the same: $75.5 million. But the change in policy means publications with an annual circulation of less than 5,000 are no longer included. The new limitations also cut funding to minority, LGBT and native magazines.

The same limitations also capped funding to individual magazines at $1.5 million per publication. This meant a cut in the money funding Canada’s Big Five – Maclean’s, Canadian Living, Reader’s Digest, the English version of Chatelaine and Canadian House and Home – by $3.6 million, or 33 per cent.

Heritage Minister James Moore announced the fund would be an improvement for magazines, marketing it as flexible; it would no longer solely help editorial or mailing costs. But the change was what many small magazines had feared.

Cultural magazines protested the Canadian Periodical Fund on Facebook. Industry blogs such as Masthead and Canadian Magazines criticized the government for singling out literary magazines, and for favouring farming publications, which were exempt from the $1.5 million cap.   



Grant Young’s office is covered in symbols of Newfoundland culture: a painting of a whale, several framed Newfoundland bills, a brilliantly-coloured picture of Downhome magazine’s logo drawn by his daughter, and a picture of his family.

 “Magazines give you access to obscure stories,” says Young, 47, who has worked with Downhome since his father launched it in 1988. “It’s like a playground for like-minded people. You pick up a magazine and suddenly you’re reading about something you might not otherwise hear about, like boat building and how people are still making boats by hand.”

Young, who is now publisher, says magazines present stories that may not make the mainstream news. “Magazines get to explore them in deeper, more thoughtful ways.”

With an annual circulation of 35,688, Downhome is considered a mid-sized publication. It has received funding from Canadian Heritage since 2000. In 2012, it received almost $232,000.

Young understands the important role government plays in small and medium-sized magazines because the Canadian Periodical Fund is a significant part of his budget planning. “If the money didn’t come through one year, it would really shake our timbers!”

But Young says government funding for small magazines is a “slippery slope.” The Canadian Periodical Fund provides new magazines a much-needed boost, but it can also drain money away from more established magazines.

“It’s a problem for the government to be giving funds to magazines that won’t see the light of day,” he said. “There has to be a cut-off point.”


In 2010, 30 cultural and literary magazines reached that point.

The Canadian Magazines Fund feature a separate $1 million division called Support for Arts and Literary Magazines, which funded 60 publications in 2009. After the policy change, half of these no longer qualified for the main portion of the grant, Aid to Publishers.

And not all of the magazines that get funding are new publications. The New Quarterly, a magazine for “Canadian Writers and Writing,” has been publishing fiction, poetry and non-fiction pieces out of Waterloo, Ontario for 30 years. The magazine has an annual circulation of about 3,000, and was launched by Farley Mowat. It has featured iconic Canadian writers as Alexander MacLeod, Michael Crummey, and Zsuzsi Gartner.

The New Quarterly’s managing editor Melissa Krone is opposed to the minimum circulation requirement, and wrote about it on the magazine’s blog.

“It’s more than just the fact that the Canadian Periodical Fund’s 5,000 cutoff is arbitrary and senseless that bothers me,” wrote Krone. “My problem is that it is contrary to the stated priorities of the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canadian Periodical Fund proposal itself. How can anyone think that’s a good idea?”

Some small magazines still qualify for the smaller Business Innovation category of the Canadian Periodical Fund, but this money is for special projects rather than regular operating costs.

Without the funding, the New Quarterly saw their postage cost increase by 67 per cent. In 2012, the magazine received close to $70,000 in grants from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. Krone says the magazine tries to be economical: they use scrap paper in the office, hand wrap copies in brown paper to save on packaging and they heavily rely on 28 volunteers, which includes most of their editors.  

The New Quarterly isn’t the only publication having financial troubles. The 2012 national magazine conference (MagNet) in Toronto featured a Cultural Magazines Town Hall – a chance for small magazine publishers and editors to discuss the results of a study on increasing circulation. The message that magazine consultant D.B. Scott shared with the crowd wasn’t positive.

Scott, president of magazine consulting firm Impressa Communications and the man behind the industry blog Canadian Magazines, explained that small magazines are unattractive to national advertisers because readers of magazines like the New Quarterly are probably also reading the Walrus or Maclean’s. Prospects for attracting new subscribers aren’t bright, either; direct mail campaigns are too pricey, and most small magazines have a weak web presence.

Jim Everson, executive director of public affairs for Magazines Canada, says it’s still too early to say whether the Canadian Periodical Fund is meeting the needs of Canadian magazines, but he admits that many would be in trouble without it.

“Companies rely quite heavily on this funding to compete,” he said.

Magazines Canada also receives funding from the Canadian Periodical Fund to help “increase the overall sustainability” of the Canadian magazine industry. This money – about $500,000 in 2011 – helps fund promotions like the Buy 2 Get 1 Free campaign, which gives Canadian subscribers a third magazine subscription free. But Scott says this campaign isn’t effective for small magazines; they only draw 16 per cent of the program’s subscribers.

Cultural and literary magazines have the most publications (30 to 64 magazines) excluded from funding, but they aren’t the only ones. Atlantic Business, the oldest business magazine in the Atlantic region, produces articles out of St. John’s and Halifax. It received funding from 2000 to 2002, between $39,000 and $45,000 a year. It hasn’t received anything from the government since.

Edwina Hutton has owned the magazine since it launched 25 years ago. She says the system is ridiculous.

“When I look at who’s receiving funds, it’s always the big magazines – the ones that need it the least.”

Hutton says meeting the requirement of a circulation of 5,000 is nearly impossible. Her magazine has a circulation of 3,200.

Hutton says she would be able to hire a full-time investigative reporter with an extra $50,000 in funding. She was able to do this in 2011 with a grant from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

“We would have given our right arm to keep him,” Hutton says. The reporter, Rob Antle, now works for the CBC in St. John’s.

“It was a big loss for us,” she says. “We would love to hire another, but we’re fighting a losing battle unless they change their rules.”

Jim Gourlay, owner of Saltscapes, says there is an “elephant next door.”

Gourlay’s magazine, a Bedford, Nova Scotia lifestyle magazine, received almost $140,000 from the Department of Canadian Heritage in 2012.

“Huge American publishers essentially dump their product into Canada,” he says. “And it does constitute dumping because the more units you print, the lower the per-unit cost.”

Gourlay says the cost of a huge publisher with half a million copies circulating 50,000 copies into Canada is next to nothing. One issue of Saltscapes costs more than a dollar to print.

American content already dominates television, movies and music, and Gourlay takes this threat seriously. He says Canadian magazines can’t increase subscription costs because they’re competing with American magazines for readers. “The magazine fund is intended to compensate for that reality and to keep Canadian content in front of Canadians in Canadian magazines.”

Magazines that are no longer eligible for government funding have no way to keep up; they’re stuck on a stationary bike.


The magazine industry is in limbo, both in Canada and the United States.

Print is competing with shiny new media like online journalism, and is coming up short. A 2011 federal government study found that spending by Canadians on Canadian magazines decreased 22 per cent between 2001 and 2008 – from $801 million to $623 million.

There was also a decrease in the percentage of households subscribing to at least one Canadian magazine, from 54 per cent in 2001 to 46 in 2008.

Mike Dwyer, editor of Newfoundland Herald magazine, sees parallels with the movie industry. 

“When my wife and I started dating, we would faithfully rent movies every week,” he says. “Now we would never drive to a video rental store; we just get them on Netflix or online. Magazines seem to be heading in that direction, too.”

Dwyer, whose magazine received about $230,000 from the Canadian Periodical Fund this year, says magazines are “caught in purgatory… It seems like folks really believe in online, but they don’t believe in paying for it.”

For Dwyer and many others, government funding like the Canadian Periodical Fund is more important than ever.

“It’s a real struggle, between online stories, blogs and Twitter. Even 20 years ago, you picked up a newspaper or a magazine when you wanted to know what was going on … We count on that money.”

With only 257 paid subscribers in Canada, and only 176 outside of Saskatchewan, BlackFlash doesn’t have much hope of qualifying for the Canadian Periodical Fund anytime soon.

But editor John Shelling says he finally feels like the magazine is getting back on its feet. He’s just hired a new project coordinator, and together they will work on attracting new readers to what they believe is culturally significant content.

“We’re the only arts magazine in Saskatchewan,” says Shelling. “Our voice is important for giving Canadians a sense of what’s going on here.”