Turning the Page

Illustration by Dee Farrugia

How B.C.’s magazine industry is finding new ways of connecting with audiences during Covid

By Ryan Ng

Magazines have long relied on their physical presence to draw people in. It’s a tactile experience: holding a copy and flipping through the pages—perhaps at a bookstore, or waiting at a doctor’s office or sitting in the airport lounge. But when Covid hit, all those opportunities to discover magazines came to a halt.

While many B.C. magazines continue to struggle a year later, those that are surviving are finding new ways to reach their audiences through virtual means.

“We’re constantly pivoting,” says Anicka Quin, editorial director at Vancouver magazine and Western Living, published by Burnaby’s Canada Wide Media. “We’re constantly figuring out: what does our brand look like? How are we reaching our readers? How are we getting in touch with people and staying in contact with them?”

Vancouver (founded in 1967) and Western Living (founded in 1971) have historically relied on controlled circulation—delivering copies free to select, high-income neighbourhoods—in order to reach those audiences. Consequently, each magazine’s revenue is largely dependent on advertising—mostly from the sort of local businesses, from restaurants to retail, that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

“We’re very closely connected to the economy. So, if a business is suffering during this time, then advertising and marketing is the first thing that they cut back on,” Quin says. “Back in March, we saw revenue literally drop off a cliff.”

One of the big sources of revenue for both magazines is reader events. Quin and her team have had to adapt in order to stay connected with readers and build audiences without those physical events, which include Vancouver magazine’s Restaurant Awards and Western Living’s Designers of the Year.

“We’ve been looking at different kinds of digital innovations,” Quin says. “So lots of online content, but we also launched, initially for Western Living, Instagram Live—and then pivoted into Instagram TV, where we do interviews with designers. At Vancouver magazine, a food editor does a weekly Instagram Live with (people in) the restaurant business.”

While print-focused publishers like Canada Wide have struggled to find their feet in a virtual world, other digital-first publications found the transition relatively seamless.

The National Observer is a daily online news site founded by Linda Solomon Wood in 2015 and focused on investigative reporting.

Solomon Wood, the Vancouver-based editor-in-chief, says that the remote-work reality has presented the Observer with several opportunities. “We found an energizing new direction with online streamed interviews via Zoom,” she says. “To combat isolation, we invited readers to engage with us more in this live virtual setting and ask questions. This kept our team connected with our readers and helped us to thrive.”

She adds that the past two years has seen a steady increase in readership, with revenue from subscriptions jumping 20 per cent in the last year alone.

Even some of B.C.’s smallest magazine brands are seeing reason for hope.

“Last year, we saw about a 20 per cent increase in page views on our websites and a 25 per cent increase in our social media engagement compared to 2019,” says Jim Barr, founder of Seekers Media, based in Powell River, which publishes SnowSeekers, an online magazine covering winter sports in Western Canada, and ZenSeekers, an online magazine about transformative travel in Western Canada.

Barr believes that more print-only publications shifting to an online format will be an inevitable fallout of Covid. “Going digital is not just a requirement—it’s going to be mandatory in 2021.”

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