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Jennifer Canham, group publisher of Owlkids, in her office in Toronto June 22, 2011. OWL Kids magazine marks its 35th year in June 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Jennifer Canham, group publisher of Owlkids, in her office in Toronto June 22, 2011. OWL Kids magazine marks its 35th year in June 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)


OWL survives in a challenged magazine world Add to ...

Do you know the scientific term for the sound of your stomach growling? Not to worry if you don't - there are more than 75,000 preteens in Canada who can educate you.

They can also tell you the rough number of hairs on your head, describe the migratory patterns of the wildebeest, and give you advice on making an animal-shaped cake.

It's all information that can be found in the most recent issue of OWL, which this month celebrates 35 years of giving children aged 9 to 13 a wealth of fun facts to one-up their parents.

The magazine's publisher is also celebrating its basic survival. After more than three decades in business, Owlkids - which publishes the iconic Canadian children's magazine OWL, as well as ChickaDEE and Chirp for younger readers - is staying alive at a time when the magazine industry is as challenged as ever. Circulation and advertising revenues for Canadian consumer magazines fell more than 15 per cent between 2007 and 2010. And while the publishing industry is showing signs that it is healing, circulation numbers are not expected to return to 2007 levels any time soon.

Compared to its peers in the magazine business, Owlkids is also operating with one hand tied behind its back. While consumer magazines in Canada lean on advertising sales for the majority of their revenues, Owlkids depends almost entirely on money from its readers. No more than two or three pages in each Chirp and ChickaDEE are devoted to ads, and no more than five ad pages run in OWL (which has more pages over all). "It's a challenge," Owlkids group publisher Jennifer Canham says of the subscriber-driven business. "We're facing a challenge of pricing in a fair way so people can pay for our magazines and we can cover our costs. … We have to run a much tighter business than the adult magazines."

Describing her profit margins, Ms. Canham holds her thumb and forefinger a centimetre apart, squinting at the sliver of air in between. But even though it has sometimes been slow, growth has continued. The first issue of OWL had 7,000 subscribers; it now reaches more than 10 times as many. OWL, which originally stood for "Outdoors and Wildlife," has broadened its focus from a nature magazine to more general interest - a move that editor-in-chief Craig Battle partly credits for their continuing success with kids. "We're staying true to the vision, but broadening it to speak to everyone, with news stuff that has a kid focus, for example," he says.

Most of the staff who work at OWL read it when they were kids, says Annabel Slaight, who co-founded the magazine with Mary Anne Brinckman in 1976 when a year's subscription cost $6. "They have a deep understanding of the legacy."

Ms. Slaight watched the magazines she created taken to the brink in 1997, when their parent company went into receivership.

Their white knight came in the form of a group of monks. Bayard Canada, an affiliate of the Bayard Presse publisher in France, is owned by a Catholic religious community in Quebec City called les Pères Augustins de l'Assomption. While some religious communities make cheese or beer, the Assumptionists focus on publishing. They assured Ms. Slaight that the magazines' content would remain non-religious - a condition of sale that was written into the contract.

These days, prayer books pay the bills. Bayard also owns a profitable publisher of religious books, with offices down the hall from Owlkids. Its financial stability gave Owlkids a chance to recover, working on its magazines and the children's books that it also publishes. Five years ago, they stopped losing money.

Ms. Slaight, who turned 70 last fall, has watched the magazines continue their legacy. She was honoured June 13 by the Association of Canadian Publishers as a pioneer in the industry.

But it is still a daily fight to stay viable. Owlkids does not do automatic renewals, so it has to convince subscribers to keep coming back every year. And while the lack of advertising has hurt profits, ad sales are still restricted. Ms. Canham has turned down lucrative offers for candy and fast food ads, which she could have taken because unlike in broadcasting, which has a strict code of standards, there are no restrictions in Canada on advertising to kids in print. "I stand by this, even though our margins don't look too rosy," she says.

One blessing is that Owlkids does not have much competition: Other kids magazines in Canada are more niche-focused, while its titles are general interest. Peter Piper Publishing in Victoria publishes science magazines Yes Mag and Know Mag, and the charity Canada's National History Society publishes Kayak, a history magazine (it also publishes Canada's History, formerly The Beaver, a history magazine for adults). On the wall of her office, Ms. Canham has an original painting of chickadees and a Screech Owl by Robert Bateman. The Canadian artist donated the work in the early nineties so that the Owl Charitable Trust could sell a limited number of signed prints for fundraising. When budgets are stretched, she says she occasionally looks at the painting, wondering if Mr. Bateman would give permission for her to sell it to give them some room to breathe. She hasn't made the call yet.

"It serves as a nice reminder of all the efforts over the years to keep OWL going," she says.

Oh, and that rumbling sound in your stomach? It's called "borborygmi." Just ask a nine-year-old.



The Owlkids family of magazines


Est. 1997

Ages: 3 to 6

Circulation: 72,935


Est. 1979

Ages: 6 to 9

Circulation: 93,913


Est. 1976

Ages: 9 to 13

Circulation: 76,815

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