So how come everybody loves to hate Shift magazine? It's a hyperbolic question that makes editor-in-chief Laas Turnbull look very, very tired.
During a lunch interview earlier this week at a cheap Toronto sushi hole, he set down his chopsticks, furrowed a freckled brow and turned to his boss, the magazine's co-founder and recently reinstated publisher, Andrew Heintzman.
The young publisher frowned and released what was either a sigh or a politely deflated burp. "I have found," he began carefully, "that people's reaction to Shift often says a great deal more about them than it does about the magazine. It's so unusual to launch something new in this country and then to actually survive . . . " He trailed off. "Well, you'd think people might bear that in mind in their criticism."
For the most part, we don't. And we haven't. In recent years, hating Shift has become a national media sport, second only to casual cocktail-party backstabbing. Unlike most high-profile publications, Shift seems to make senior Canadian journalists uncommonly comfortable slagging their peers out loud and in public.
A little background: Last October, not long after Shift announced an ambitious plan to expand to the U.S., Robert Fulford published a long and unflattering dissection of the magazine in Toronto Life. "Being overly clever is not among the magazine's problems," he wrote, rather ungenerously. But wasn't this par for the course in Toronto Life when it came to slagging all things Shift? The monthly has been obsessively abusing former editor Evan Solomon in its gossipy front section for years now.
Solomon (who, so far as I know, has never done anything worse than being young, successful and tall) apparently lost it with Fulford at last year's Giller Awards, accusing the senior journalist of being the Canadian embodiment of tall-poppy syndrome.
Now that Shift is experiencing serious financial woes (parent company Normal Net recently pulled the plug), you can almost hear the Canadian media establishment squealing with collective, chardonnay-fuelled glee. For many, watching Shift flail is good fun, the local equivalent of praying for the death of Tina Brown's Talk magazine in New York. Every industry has its whipping boy, and for magazines in Canada, Shift appears to be it.
The proof is in the coverage: Rumours of Shift's trouble sparked a recent wave of newspaper articles trumpeting the fact that the monthly owed money to its suppliers, freelancers and printer. In his column for the National Post last week, John Fraser reprinted a nasty e-mail correspondence between Laura Penny (an as-yet-unpaid freelance researcher) and Turnbull.
Penny has every right to be enraged. But airing such correspondence in a national paper was a bit of a low blow on Fraser's part. Seems that when it comes to Shift, the old rules of professional respect don't apply.
Compare this to the coverage of Shift's announcement late last week that the editorial staff is planning to buy back the magazine by taking a collective 35 per cent pay cut. The announcement elicited barely a peep. How come, you ask? Because nobody wants to read (or write) anything good about Shift, silly.
To my mind, the reasons for this strange collective hate-on are threefold.
1. Golden boys are irritating. Evan Solomon and Andrew Heintzman rose to entrepreneurial glory during Canada's last major economic recession -- a time when most journalists were scrabbling in the dirt for unpaid internships or half-heartedly signing up for graduate degrees they would never finish.
Add to this the fact that Heintzman and Solomon are both privately educated, talented and (I can't think of a more sophisticated way to say this) cute. What's not to hate? Turnbull, who fits the same general description, inherited the curse of the Golden Boy when he took over as editor. "I knew the job had baggage from the start," he told me. "If Mother Teresa was named editor of Shift tomorrow, she'd be a target too."
2. Shift is easy to pick on. I don't want this to read like one long boo-hoo session for Shift. I actually think the magazine is far from perfect. But it should be said that it's a whole lot easier to beat up on the new kid in class -- say the little geeky one in the corner playing one of those newfangled computer games -- than it is to take a critical look at your old pals, say the ones who went to the University of Toronto with you in the 1960s.
3. It's a case of mistaken identity. Shift is a niche publication aimed at serious new-media nerds in their 20s. It is not a general-interest magazine that attempts to have broad appeal. This probably explains why middle-aged people who don't know trip-hop from hip-hop so often complain that they don't "understand" Shift. As Turnbull points out, "I don't 'get' Chatelaine or Martha Stewart Living, but I can appreciate the fact that those magazines serve their readership very well."
So I'd like to wish the Shift staff the best of luck in their brave bid to buy back the magazine and rise again. This country needs some comeback kids, whether we know it or not.