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.
Whyte says he "wasn't looking for other things to do" last year when Chatelaine came up. Through the summer and fall he was relaunching Canadian Business magazine, which, like Chatelaine, had started in 1928.
Nevertheless, Brian Segal, president of Rogers Publishing, "wanted to think about different directions or options for Chatelaine and he wanted me to be involved." In short order, Whyte became convinced of the need to "enhance the voice of Chatelaine and its personality, and I started to talk to different people - editors, non-editors - about it." However, he insists "we had made no decision as to whether to have a new editor or not."
This is not entirely believed in the industry generally, or among Rogers staff in particular. At the moment, though, it appears the change in editors might be more about Whyte's well-known penchant for having his own people around him, not a desire for a 180 in the magazine's direction.
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Certainly a quick flip through the 268-page "refreshed" Chatelaine that went on sale this week doesn't reveal the radical overhaul that many predicted Whyte would execute.
If anything, the makeover may not be radical enough. As one former senior executive with Rogers argues, it appears Chatelaine is mistakenly continuing to follow "the classic broadcast model in an increasingly narrowcast universe" - in other words, it's continuing to be a general-interest magazine in an increasingly fragmented marketplace - "Chatelaine doesn't need Ken Whyte" to pull that off, "it needs the Oprah of Canada," he said.
To date, Whyte's record as a change agent has been mixed. He knows how to create buzz, as he did 12 years ago when, without a jot of daily newspaper experience, he launched Conrad Black's National Post. Four years before, Black had promoted the 33-year-old university drop-out from national editor to editor-in-chief of Saturday Night, a magazine which, since its creation in Toronto in the late 1880s, had been at once an Upper Canada institution and a perennial money-loser.
Whyte's tenure at both publications was a time of high excitement. Today, though, Saturday Night is no more. And seven years ago this month, when the Post had suffered losses of more than $230-million since its founding, Whyte was removed as editor of the Post by new owners CanWest.
Financially, the results at Maclean's appear inconclusive. By some measures, it's performing better than before Whyte took over. At that time, Masthead.com reported Maclean's single-copy sales were averaging less than 8,000 a week, while subscribers had dropped almost 21 per cent from mid-2004, to 393,000. Estimated revenue in 2004 totalled about $35.4-million and about $36-million the next year. (Chatelaine's, by comparison, was $46.4-million and $50.4-million.) In 2009, Maclean's revenue was down to about $33.5-million. But its weekly newsstands sales averaged close to 22,000.
Editorially, the bump in newsstand sales may have been helped by Whyte's tabloid tactics - he's always openly admired publications such as In Touch, National Enquirer and Us Weekly, and last year published a biography of William Randolph Hearst, often credited as the inventor of so-called "yellow journalism." Recent covers of Maclean's have featured sell lines touting "The Return of Hitler" and "Why The Badass BlackBerry Billionaire Went Ballistic." Back in his Saturday Night days, Whyte also ran an icon-busting take on Farley Mowat - including a cover image in which Mowat's nose is Photoshopped to Pinocchio lengths.
Critics of Maclean's say that, while the magazine is punchy, much of the content is long on sensationalism and "spin," short on substance. So what will Whyte do to Chatelaine? Of course, one redesigned issue of a magazine does not a new direction indicate. As Suneel Khanna, director of communications for Rogers Publishing, notes, the Whyte-Francisco Chatelaine "is being rolled out as a work in progress." Nevertheless, this isn't going to stop some readers from poring over the June issue for intimations of what Bill Reynolds, a journalism professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, jokingly suggested it might become - "a magazine all about shopping from a right-wing point of view."
"I don't believe I'm alone in wondering how far the transformation of venerable magazine Chatelaine will go," wrote magazine consultant D.B. Scott recently about the June issue on his blog, citing a lack of meaty feature stories. "The Chatelaine of old could deftly blend fluff and substance. Now, much of the substance appears to have been jettisoned."
Pre-Chatelaine, Francisco's most recent publishing experience had been editing women's periodicals with heavy lifestyle, service and product orientations - most notably the decor magazine Style at Home (where she served six months before decamping to Chatelaine), Glow ("Canada's Beauty and Health Magazine") and Wish ("The Fluffiest Omelette Ever!" "5 Gorgeous Make-up Looks for Winter!").
This led wiseacres to quip that soon Chatelaine would be festooned with articles like "Rona Ambrose's Favourite Meatloaf," and "If Barbara Amiel Can Re-organize Her Closet, So Can You," not the thematic, feature-length, often issue-oriented, journalism of yore. "The general feeling/fear . . . is that it's going to become a pretty light and fluffy publication," said one magazine veteran.
Certainly these fears have had a few affirmations in recent months, as Francisco has laid off staff - six alone in March - and imported old associates. Among them: Sandy Kim, former Wish and Glow art director; Catherine Franklin, ex-Wish beauty and fashion editor; and Laurie Jennings, ex-Wish managing editor.
Moreover, Derek Finkle, a Toronto author and agent who represents some of the country's most prominent freelancers, says he knows of "a handful of previously commissioned stories" that have been halted by the Francisco regime. While killing stories you haven't commissioned is standard magazine practice, Finkle thinks the themes of the nixed pieces may offer a clue to the tone of the new Chatelaine. One was about OxyContin abuse among Canadian women in rural communities, another on a Canadian-born Catholic nun who, after studying meditation and yoga in Japan, has brought these disciplines to inmates in British jails.
Readers will also note that the popular Modern Times column by self-avowed liberal Katrina Onstad has gone missing, while long-time Whyte favourite Rebecca Eckler is present with an article on the apparent trend of mothers telling children "the exact circumstances under which they were conceived." However, in a recent interview Francisco said this shouldn't prompt premature conclusions: All previous columns are "on hiatus" and "we will not be introducing any regular columns before our September issue."
What is definitely dead is Chatelaine's 13th issue, produced every October since 2006. Khanna says the money saved will go into "beefing up" the rest of the year.
A more significant departure, though, is Robin, the real-life 39-year-old married woman from Markham, Ont., whom the magazine for years identified as its quintessential reader and used as its demographic touchstone. Two years ago, Robin had two young children and five pairs of shoes. The family income was about $80,000, she had a full-time job, she liked the music of U2 and Diana Krall and she had read The Da Vinci Code. If you were like that, then you would like Chatelaine. Or so the theory held.
Today, Francisco doesn't think Robin "is enough to represent what Chatelaine needs to be in terms of its breadth." For the time being, she's been replaced as a target by "three different theoretical readers" - "a woman who is 28, a woman who's 38, a woman who's 48," and Chatelaine hopes to embrace each of their life stages.
If this sounds vague, well, it is. Francisco talks of "a return to domesticity" among Canadian women and the importance of Chatelaine "hitting the buttons" of health, food, style, life and home with sufficient precision "that people feel like they are getting real value" - all the while creating "more relevance for a younger audience," without alienating Baby Boomers.
So, that would mean being all things to a whole lot of people. But Francisco insists generality is Chatelaine's greatest strength: "One of the things that's great about a general-interest magazine is that you can get a lot in one place - if, that is, you're getting what you need from it . . . the best of the best."
While everyone agrees Chatelaine needs modernizing to be "best of the best," there's little consensus on the strategy to achieve it. But in recent years, Rogers Publishing has had its greatest new successes on the lighter side of the ledger (for example, with Hello! Canada and LouLou). Will Chatelaine be pulled to that side? Or can it find it find a middle balance?
And of course there's the question of leadership. Asked if she felt any anxiety in being asked to become the fifth Chatelaine editor in less than six years, Francisco paused, then replied: "I didn't really. Certainly the expectations are high. But I've been doing this for nearly 20 years.... Instability is the way of the world."