Winter has drifted its sheet of sleep over Canada. The first day of winter, they say, is Dec. 21. That is also my wedding anniversary day. It saves on memory stress.
Winter is a time for story-telling, and I have one in mind as a departure from some of our more contemporary topic areas. So here we go….
Long ago, in a far-away land, I was stretching my wings and deciding what to do. I had vague ideas that pointed me to writing and journalism, but, unlike many of my peers, I avoided the party schools and the easy classes, always opting for the hard way. I went to some of the best schools in the field, and defeated some of the best professors. I even took graduate classes in law school so I would know the facts if it ever came to dueling over such important matters as copyright, plagiarism, circulation fraud, defamation and trademark.
I knew the dueling aspect would be important, as my coming-of-age in publishing ran concurrently with the consumption of small, medium or large publishing endeavours by corporate, committee-driven, bloodless giants. And, as I feared at the time, once commercial speech got a foothold in North American media, it drove virtually all the independents out of business. We can see this in our own sector, where the bloodletting of the mid-2000s killed or caused restructuring in virtually all our publications. And no, Sarah, it really wasn’t the internet. No value = no value, irrespective of whether your format is tabloid, journal, digital or skywriting. The same die-offs occurred in television, the broader trade press, consumer magazines and dozens of born-to-die, so-called social media.
Human beings must have information. In fact, throughout history we have been willing to kill for it.
A great treatise on providing information is in The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In his section on spying, he speaks at length about providing people with false information on purpose. In one example, he explains how to give spies bad information, but not tell them. Then, when the spy reports back, they are discovered one way or another to have given unreliable information, and they are killed.
So we set out many years ago to find an audience that needed reliable information. My peers at school tried to get me to go into PR, but, as I have said before, I saw the career paths for PR people, while it started off paying better, flamed out early. Also, most of the agencies were, like publishers, satellites of committee-run mega-corps with no visible independence. Basically, they were stenographers for the higher-echelon advertisers.
I soon found the same circumstance in publishing. Most of the titles had been bought and consolidated to the state we find today where anything that moves and is shiny is owned by AOL/Time Warner, Amazon, Netflix, etc.
I discovered that my search for an independent publisher was right in front of my eyes. The need for an independent press lies with independent businessmen that survive in pockets as manufacturers, landscapers, farmers and others whose formerly independent sources of information had also largely been bought up and swallowed by the arbitragers.
However, several quick career successes in newspapers, consumer and trade magazines verified my skill set, and I was off to the races, although I also quickly verified that the corporate publishing market was not ready to turn over its reins to a single authority without retaining control. My friends at the time encouraged me to move to larger markets in Northeast United States, but the problem there was the same. Corporations were targeting corporations, committees were in control and almost nobody was paying attention to the actual men and women that were putting their own money at risk to produce goods and services in their own communities.
Finally, in 2005, I started my own magazine, Wood Industry, in Canada, with one partner, who I bought out in 2008. Concurrently, in 2007, I bought Coverings magazine – a Canadian floor-covering magazine that was suffering from commercial suppression and available for sale, assuming one had a change of plan in mind.
Predictably, the strongest commercial interests on both magazines started turning the big guns for the attack. Coverings took early fire when a primary advertiser, and I’ll be fair, here, and say it was Shnier, called to tell me what the editorial content would be for the next issue. I tried to explain a new way of customer services and got called in for a dressing-down with the president.
My approximate parting words were these: “If I were in your position, I would do what you are doing, because I have been to the big schools, too. However, I would also know that if I was successful in seizing control of editorial, the magazine would die. But I don’t want to die, so we will do it my way with Coverings. That is why they call it, ‘mine.’”
That same scene was repeated across both markets with predictable results. We lost some big advertisers because we refused to turn over editorial control. But there was another predictable result, also well illustrated by Shnier.
A few months after Shnier quit advertising, I got a call from one of Shnier’s competitors. He said he was under the impression that Coverings was owned, all or in part, by Shnier, so his ads, he felt, didn’t have a chance. Discovering that no suppliers controlled editorial content in our publications, he felt he’d be treated fairly, and became an advertiser.
The point is, we did it. This has been a milestone year for me, personally, as I hit 65. Having done so, I can say I had a vision of independent business information for independent business men and women. I have shown that predatory commercial voices, almost always fighting with somebody else’s money, will do what they can to kill independent voices in industry, even in the face of evidence that the best they can do with any new acquisition is to suck it dry and throw it out the window. Little warlords working for little Sun Tzus on little plans of world domination.
Most of all, we have built a model for other up-and-comers with a vision that you can build on a supply base that wants fair access, not total control.
It is Christmas time in the frozen north. A time of hope and good cheer. The U.S. economic engine seems to be whistling away like a teapot on a wood stove, and Canadian numbers are not far behind. The serial beheaders that caused so much fear and got so many headlines a year ago are dissolving and disappearing like jackals in the night.
We are not trying to brag or swagger. We may have lost more sales than we made. However, we have built a community built on actual values for real businesses risking real capital for families across Canada. It was a necessary experiment, and one of which we are proud.
Even if we don’t have a 24th-floor Suite on Bay Street we have a home and a business on a trout river along the Niagara Escarpment, possibly the best magazine professionals left on earth and the good will of a lot of advertisers that would have no place to go, otherwise.
Mainly, though, we have friends and associates across to great economic sectors in Canada, and people that care about our families and fortunes, no matter how large or small.
Merry Christmas to everybody for 2017, and best wishes for a Happy New Year. In fact, this has been so great that I have an idea…. Let’s all gather here again in the new year and do it all over again.