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Magazines turn to federal government for help with a digital revolution

A magazine stand in Toronto

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Canadian magazine publishers want taxpayers to help them reinvent themselves, asking the federal government for money to develop digital products they hope will compensate for falling print subscriptions.

The trade association that represents Canadian publishers has been quietly lobbying federal officials in an attempt to win funding to develop multimedia-rich digital editions that go beyond the capabilities of print.

Despite falling circulation at the country's largest publications and anemic adoption rates for their online versions, Magazines Canada is convinced readers will move online if publishers can train employees how to enhance their products for Web-savvy readers.

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That means tablet versions that contain as much video and audio as text, and other digital enhancements that help readers connect with the content in a deeper way than is possible in print.

"The evolution of magazines into other spaces requires new skills sets," said Mark Jamison, chief executive officer of Magazines Canada, who said it was too early to say how much money the industry needs to go digital.

"The government is talking about investing in areas of the economy where there is potential for growth and change, and we believe the digital space that we occupy is one of those places."

Figures released Tuesday from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show an industry grappling to hang on to readers as more of them turn to the Internet for free content. Paid and verified subscriptions fell 3.1 per cent to 6.6 million copies, while single-copy sales fell 1.6 per cent to 1.2 million.

Readers Digest remained the country's largest title at 575,742 paid and verified copies (a decrease of 4 per cent). Canadian Living fared best in terms of single-copy sales, at 113,864 (a gain of 8.2 per cent). Weakness was widespread among the 10 biggest titles – Our Canada dropped 15.5 per cent, Canadian Geographic was down 10.9 per cent and Maclean's fell 5.7 per cent.

And while those in the industry have held out hope that digital replicas of their magazines could help make up for losses in print subscriptions, data released for the first time by the audit agency showed that only 26,554 people subscribed to these products in the first half of the year – and about 8,300 of those subscribers belonged to Maclean's.

"We got in early in 2010 so we've been able to learn and grow," said Ryan Trotman, senior director and publisher of Rogers Digital Media.

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"But there has been slow pick-up from advertisers so far. We need to educate the industry about opportunities that exist because there is no research to back up the type of campaigns we want to do."

Rogers has a distinct advantage over most magazine publishers in the country – its size allows it to use the same publishing platform for dozens of magazines, and it can hire the technical help it needs to push out enhanced copies.

Some smaller publishers have been successful in offering their readers simpler digital copies that are essentially digital replicas of their print versions. At Canada's History, formerly The Beaver, 99 subscribers pay full price for digital-only access to such editions.

"I know the numbers aren't overwhelming when you look at them," says publisher Deborah Morrison. "We unfortunately still have a long way to go in training consumers that editors and writers can't work for free, but I think there is a realization that good content will cost ultimately cost money."

Top five digital subscriptions

Maclean's: 8,326

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Canadian House and Home: 7,918

Hockey News: 1,318

Moneysense: 1,089

Pacific Yachting: 980

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations

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