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Can Ken Whyte save Chatelaine? Add to ...

When Kenneth Whyte was named publisher of Chatelaine last October, a shiver of unease, bewilderment and anticipation went through its castle-like headquarters in downtown Toronto - and the Canadian magazine industry in general.

Wherever there's Whyte, a change is gonna come.

But wasn't change the last thing Chatelaine needed? In the previous five years, the magazine had no fewer than four editors-in-chief, a bewildering array of interim editors and dozens of staff layoffs and resignations. It became the most gossiped-about magazine in the business as stories circulated of unprecedented publisher interference in editorial direction, tears shed by staff, shouting matches among managers, unpredictable decisions, bruised egos, disrupted production schedules and erratic behaviour - even, in the case of one editor, furniture tossing.

With Whyte's ascension last fall, what one ex-Rogers employee calls the "paranoia and climate of fear" among Chatelaine staff only worsened, even as the magazine's editor-in-chief, Maryam Sanati, who'd only returned from maternity leave four months earlier, tried to reassure employees that things were going to be okay, okay?

This was not to be. Earlier this week, Chatelaine unveiled its second redesign in just over two years, overseen not by Sanati but by a new editor-in-chief, its fifth since 2004, 43-year-old Jane Francisco.

Whyte gave Francisco the job last Nov. 30 - a Monday, just 72 hours after he'd strolled into Sanati's eighth-floor office at 1 Mount Pleasant Rd. to tell her the job she'd assumed 21 months earlier was gone. Speaking to Chatelaine staff later that day, Whyte said he had a "different vision" for the magazine "that required a different type of leadership." In the upcoming weeks and months, an observer recalls Whyte saying, he hoped they could all work together to find a new editor.

At 49, Whyte has only been an executive at Rogers Publishing, Chatelaine's parent company, a little over five years. But in this short time he's amassed tremendous power, first as the editor and publisher of Rogers's other flagship periodical, Maclean's. Last June, as part of a larger restructuring, the soft-spoken Winnipeg-born, Alberta-raised Whyte was also named publisher of Canadian Business, Profit and MoneySense magazines, plus given posts as executive publisher of Chatelaine and vice-president of Rogers Publishing.

Certainly, Whyte has shown little hesitation about wielding power - and quickly. Even, as one Rogers insider said, laughing, if it "may sometimes feel like change for the sake of change." As Whyte himself said of his Chatelaine appointment in an interview last week: "Part of me has always wanted to play in the women's magazine field because I don't know much about it!"

But is he (wo)man enough for Chatelaine - as much cultural phenomenon as magazine for much of its 82 years? Back in the early 1970s, then-editor-in-chief Doris Anderson turned Chatelaine into a highly successful hybrid of Good Housekeeping and Ms., running the obligatory recipes and fashion tips, but also championing articles on abortion law and equal pay. In the mid-1980s, the magazine could claim a paid circulation of more than 1.1-million and a readership likely four or five times that - this in a country where the total population of women 15 and up was then 7.5 million. Can Whyte and Francisco concoct the right chemistry to excite a new generation of Chatelaine readers? Is there even a place for a general-interest publication like Chatelaine in an era distinguished by the rise of the Internet, the niche publication and the cult of celebrity?

From some perspectives, Chatelaine seems an unlikely candidate to be painted Whyte. The magazine remains profitable, persisting not only as Rogers's most popular title and its biggest source of gross revenue, but often as the country's top earner. Just two years ago, as the recession tightened, the magazine's estimated gross revenue was a chart-topping $56.5-million. As industry watchdog Masthead.com reported last year, Chatelaine's revenue from advertising alone totalled $50.4-million in 2008. This was $15-million more than its nearest rival, Transcontinental's Canadian Living, and $30-million more than Reader's Digest, which is still the country's circulation leader. Chatelaine made more from advertising "than all top 50 Canadian magazines combined collected from newsstand sales [$40.6-million]" Masthead reported.

Still, there are some worrying developments. In its spring, 2010, report, the Print Measurement Bureau determined Chatelaine had lost close to 850,000 readers since its spring, 2004, report, a 19-per-cent decline. Similarly, newsstand sales - often an indicator of a magazine's immediate cachet - were slipping. Rogers's own figures showed that for the six-month period ending Dec. 31, 2009, single-copy sales had dropped almost 18.5 per cent, to 51,762, from the same period the year before.

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