Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) – Mongolian newsstands are bursting at the seams. But while the content of the country’s publications is varied, their form is not. Newsprint rules this country’s publishing industry. The few glossy magazines for sale are imports from Russia.
When the democratic revolution unleashed the tide of free expression in the early 1990s, a flood of newspapers poured forth. It made sense. The cheap-and-cheerful technology of newsprint is low-tech, accessible and inexpensive. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher.
But Mongolia’s increasingly sophisticated media landscape is about to go “glossy”. Tomorrow (September 9) sees the launch of Ger (Home), Mongolia’s first on-line magazine. A bilingual quarterly funded by the United Nations, it combines entertainment – articles on the changing sexual attitudes of young Mongolians and the country’s vibrant pop scene – with information on the work of the UN and other NGOs in Mongolia.
“We want something that will tell the stories of Mongolians and their experiences over the last eight years – both to Mongolians and to the rest of the world,” says David South, communications coordinator at the United Nations Development Programme.
This month also brings the premiere issue of Tusgal (Strike), billed as the first full-colour, general-interest magazine in the new Mongolia. Published by Mongol News Company – the privately owned media group whose stable of publications includes the daily newspaper Onoodor and The UB Post – it offers a lively mix of sport, culture and celebrity articles, also aimed primarily at the young.
These two publications are just the top of the stack. Mongolia’s two best-known printing houses, Admon and Interpress, are said to be working on titles of their own.
Mongolia’s quick-to-learn capitalists see a gap – and they want to fill it.
“In Mongolia there are many newspapers, but no world-class magazines,” says Tusgal’s editor-in-chief, Do. Tsendjav. “On the streets you can see a lot of publications that aren’t exactly magazines but you can’t call newspapers, either – newspapers that appear every 10 days or two weeks.
“We want to fill this space. We want to produce the first colour magazine that will reach world standards, something close to Time or Newsweek.”
“There’s an enormous thirst for quality journalism, quality publications that are interesting to look at, top photojournalism – all the things newspapers don’t cover,” adds South.
“We’ve seen newspapers moving to more colour, more photographs, and that shows a desire for quality.”
That quality comes at a price. Tusgal, with 70 colour pages, will sell for between Tg 1500 and Tg 2000 – not much cheaper than an American publication like Time, and too expensive for many Mongolians.
With only 1000 Internet subscribers in Mongolia, Ger has an even smaller market within the country – though South is quick to point out, the UN has established public-access Internet centres in Ulaanbaatar and several aimags.
And he says a print version is planned to follow.
“Distribution is the big problem right now,” he says.
“We have to see how we can organize distribution to reach the whole country. I know more magazines will be launched soon in Mongolia, and hope a distribution network may grow out of that.”
The editors know Mongolia’s magazine market and magazine technology are in their infancy. Although companies like Admon and Interpress get more sophisticated equipment by the month, the capacity to produce quality publications is still limited – the first issue of Tusgal has been printed outside Mongolia.
Human resources need to develop as well, Tsendjav admits.
“To produce a monthly magazine you need highly qualified journalists. We don’t have that right now. We’re still seeking them out.”
But he is confident this will change – and quickly, too, if the pace of development in the past eight years is anything to go by.
“During socialism, Mongolia had many magazines, but it all stopped after 1990,” notes Tsendjav. “It was a question of economics.
“At first we don’t think we can earn money from this. If you want to make money you have to wait two or three years. So what we are aiming for at first is to build a readership.
“I think in two or three years, living standards will improve. People will have more money to spend on things like magazines. But we don’t want to wait for people to get enough money. We want to be the first, so people will develop an interest.
“There will be competition. Nowadays a lot of business-people understand the importance of the media. I welcome competition. It’ll make us work harder. It’s good for everybody.”
In 1994 I was hired by start-up Youth Culture to be Editor-in-Chief of Toronto’s Watch Magazine, a bi-weekly distributed to the city’s high schools and to all youth hang-outs. In 1996 I was hired again to help with preparing the magazine for its national launch.
In 1994, the Internet had not arrived in any great form (though Watch Magazine was on top of its emergence as Internet cafes popped up in the city) and the digital economy was still minimal. There was no such thing as ‘start-up culture’ for youth. There was an urgent need to create opportunity for youth, to create new markets, and to change the business culture of the city of Toronto, which had been hit hard by an economic crash and austerity.
Watch Magazine had had a brief false start prior to my arrival in 1994. The previous format had not worked and the magazine needed a vision and somebody with the experience and dedication to see it through. It was also entering a competitive marketplace for readers, with already existing free magazines capturing most of the advertising spend for youth-oriented marketing in Toronto (though failing to offer a genuine youth content experience as could be found in Europe – the UK especially – at that time). As an example, Toronto lacked sharp and credible coverage of youth popular culture in the early 1990s. Drawing on my extensive experience as a journalist (including at Toronto’s established alternative weekly, Now Magazine) and editor, I assembled a team of youth editors and writers to work on making the content and magazine’s design appealing to the youth demographic in Toronto. The magazine needed to turn a profit in short order and become credible to advertisers, its main source of income (in Canada, 64 per cent of magazine revenues come from advertisers)*. The design and content needed to appeal to a youth audience but work with a tight (but increasing) budget. It was doing this in a tough economy with high unemployment, austerity, business failures, and a generally negative business environment.
By having an actual youth editorial team, Watch Magazine quickly developed an authentically young 1990s voice. The magazine also benefited from its youth team’s ability to spot trends bubbling under the surface ready to explode into mainstream society. As an example, they had this to say on the Internet in a piece on Toronto’s coffee shops, “Some mean places for bean”: “The powers-that-be think we should cocoon in our houses and rent videos, play with the Internet and order in food …”
Youth unemployment was high in the early to mid 1990s in Canada. It reached 19.3 per cent for those 15 to 19 years old in 1993. “It should be noted, however, that youth unemployment relative to that of adults has worsened since the 1990-91 recession (Youth Unemployment in Canada by Kevin B. Kerr, 2000).”
The Canadian economy overall severly contracted and unemployment was at 11.4 per cent by 1993 (Statistics Canada), and as Statistics Canada said, “Because employment recovered at a snail’s pace after the recession of the early 1990s, the decline in the unemployment rate was delayed until 1994”.
As the Bank of Canada also said: “In early 1994, Canada’s economic situation was not that favourable—our economy was facing some rather serious problems. … the recession here was more severe than in the United States.
“Working their way out of these difficulties was disruptive and painful for Canadian businesses. Defaults, restructurings, and downsizings became the order of the day. With all this, unemployment took a long time to recover from the 1990–91 recession …” *
And the media in general could not avoid the crisis. According to the book The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000), Canada’s media was also in a crisis throughout the 1990s, as declining resources, staff layoffs and media closures reduced the breadth and depth of news coverage.
In less than a year, Watch Magazine had gone from being an unknown quantity, to being a fast-growing and profitable youth publication, significantly increasing its advertising revenue: a key metric for a magazine reliant on this as its main source of income. It had expanded in size and audited distribution and was able to make a move to new digs (the Watch Magazine “crib” – a studio and work space) at innovative “arts-and-culture hub” start-up space 401 Richmond Street in Toronto – at the centre of Toronto’s emerging media and design neighborhood in its former fashion district. All the contributors were high-school-age youth drawn from talent across the city; many had already shown their ability by starting their own publications and media. They gained first-hand experience in investigative journalism skills, business skills in a start-up, and magazine and media production skills.
“… thanks to David [South] for all his hard work on Watch magazine! I learned a lot from him and it was a great experience.” William White
In 1996, I was hired again to help with preparing the content format for Watch’s expansion to a national magazine – further proof of its success as a publication and a business.
* (Bank of Canada: Canada’s Economic Future: What Have We Learned from the 1990s?)
* The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000)
Brief descriptions of sample issues are below:
Youth Gangs Cover
In 1994, with Canada’s economy still in the doldrums, Watch Magazine exploded into Toronto’s high schools. Staffed by talented youth, it shook up the staid publishing scene and proved young people did have something to say. This first issue still remains relevant, with its exploration of youth gangs and violence in the school system.
After its successful launch, Watch Magazine was grabbing readers and getting the attention of advertisers and television. It was time to improve the design and introduce the latest in graphic design software. The results paid off: the magazine looked sharper and quickly ran from its cheeky launch, when we had basically avoided all traditional approaches to a launch (like actually having a designer).
For anoraks out there, this photo shoot with Irish band Therapy took place outside the former Wellesley Hospital emergency department in Toronto. And, yes, that is a genuine restraining ‘straitjacket’ used by psychiatric hospitals to restrain mental health patients.
Digable Planets Cover
By this issue, Watch had hit its stride: we were the first to seriously review the ballooning zine culture, get immersed in the rave and late-night party scene, and dig deep into “chopsocky world”: Hong Kong and Asian film fans. But “Hip-Hop Comb-munism”? What were we thinking?
It was also the biggest issue to date.
Highly talented Beck gave Watch his eloquent thoughts on the media’s infatuation with Generation X and how it always desperately needs to sell young people more stuff. Watch took on Ontario’s film censors over the GG Allin documentary, Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, and let students across the city blow off steam on life in the 1990s.
Bass is Base Cover
By October 1994 the magazine’s investigative powers were in full flow. Two investigations – a sex scandal at an alternative school, and whether the Battle of the Bands contests, a fixture at most high schools, are really worth it – joined a profile of the band Bass is Base and more coverage on the growing rave scene in Toronto.
In 1994, Oasis were still an indie band with a lot of bottle and big mouths. Riding a tsunami of hype from the UK, they washed up in North America to face their biggest challenge: could they become as big as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Lead singer Liam Gallagher does not disappoint, as he gives me an expletive-laden exposition on everything under the sun.
This was the first published print interview with the band in Canada.
Canada’s answer to the ‘Madchester’ scene of the early 1990s, Sloan, played the pop game with gusto. In the photo shoot for the feature, it was pants down and prayer hands to an unseen religious icon.
1994: Hired to re-launch and expand Watch Magazine in Toronto.
1996: Hired to re-develop editorial content for Watch Magazine’s national launch.
“As one of those high school kids and the guy who wrote (most of) this article, I’d like to say thanks to David [South] for all his hard work on Watch magazine! I learned a lot from him and it was a great experience.”William White
Toronto’s first youth culture media start-up. Introduced ‘youth culture’ concept to Canada
oversaw two format re-launches of the magazine as it expanded and grew
assembled talented youth editorial team
grew magazine and its profile as the main media source for reaching Toronto’s youth
writers trained and appeared on TV as youth commentators
first profile in Canada of British band Oasis, among many other story firsts
became first stop for anyone wishing to target the youth market, or seeking intelligence on the youth market
created youth culture market in Toronto
first magazine to be based at new start-up hub in Toronto – pioneering concept at the time
Note: Complete issues of the magazine’s first year await professional digital scanning. This could be of interest to a library, scholar or university interested in archiving this authentic artifact of 1990s youth culture. Please send an email if you would like to get in touch or share a thought:mailto: email@example.com.
“Free teen publication Watch Magazine is going national this month – promising to more than double its high school penetration.
The self-described youth culture magazine, which last year at this time went province-wide – delivering copies to 350 high schools across Ontario – plans to send out 125,000 copies to 800 participating high schools across Canada.
Going national only four years after its inception (the magazine started as a Toronto-only vehicle in 1993) could make national advertisers interested in reaching the elusive teen market very happy.”
I worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers from 1991 to 1997 in Canada and the United Kingdom and as a radio host for a weekly spoken word interview programme, Word of Mouth (CKLN-FM). This included working as an investigative journalist for Now Magazine, “Toronto’s alternative news and entertainment source”, as a Medical and Health Correspondent for Today’s Seniors, and as an investigative journalist and reporter for two Financial Times newsletters, New Media Markets and Screen Finance.
Could it be possible to do high-quality investigative journalism in the context of a shrinking economy undergoing austerity, and where the media sector is contracting and consolidating around a small number of media companies? Is it possible to launch new media products in the face of a contracting economy and reach new audiences and create new markets?
In Canada, the early to mid 1990s were the years of government austerity and economic crisis. After the crash of 1989/1990*, institutions came under great stress. Health care, for example, was pitched into a period of turmoil and change. Drawing on my experience working in the health sector (Princess Margaret Hospital/Ontario Cancer Institute), I covered this crisis in many stories for various publications, in particular Today’s Seniors.
The Canadian economy severely contracted and unemployment was at 11.4 per cent by 1993 (Statistics Canada), and as Statistics Canada says, “Because employment recovered at a snail’s pace after the recession of the early 1990s, the decline in the unemployment rate was delayed until 1994”.
The media in general could not avoid the wider economic crisis. According to the book The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000), Canada’s media was also in a crisis throughout the 1990s, as declining resources, staff layoffs and media closures reduced the breadth and depth of news coverage. Canadian media as a whole also has a “great dependence on advertising, which accounts for more than 70% of daily newspaper revenues, about 64% of magazine revenues,” which means there is enormous pressure to only publish stories that do not upset advertisers. And monopolies exert great control over news content in Canada: “In the United States, ten companies control 43.7% of total daily newspaper circulation. By contrast, in Canada since 1996, one single company controls a comparable share of the media pie.”
The impact of this crisis was summed up by Jeffrey Simpson in the book The Missing News, where he said newspapers are “shrinking in size, personnel, ambition and, as a consequence, in their curiosity,” …. “I believe the result has been a diminution in quality.” (p64)
This is the context in which, ironically, it was possible to flourish as a much-sought-after investigative journalist who could get the story and get the quotes and as an editor. And it was also a time for opportunity, in particular as new media rose in importance, from cable and satellite television, to the rise of the Internet.
I broke original stories for Now Magazine as a member of their investigative reporting team, for Today’s Seniors as its Medical and Health Correspondent, and as a reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK. I also broke original stories as a freelancer for many other magazines and newspapers, including Hospital News, The Toronto Star, This Magazine, The Annex Gleaner, Flare, The Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, and others. I drew on strong contacts in health care, media, politics, international relations and the military.
I was an editor for magazines, newspapers and newsletters as well, gaining invaluable experience and contacts. This included as Editor-in-Chief for start-up youth publication, Watch Magazine (seeCase Study 2), and as Features Editor for Id Magazine (seeCase Study 3).
Themes covered included the uses – and abuses – of data, the impact of military engagements to uphold international law, how to re-structure health care when budgets are tight, with populations ageing, and technology and scientific advances quickly expanding options, the emerging new media world of cable and satellite television and the Internet, the sexual revolution 2.0, urbanization and how it re-shapes politics and community, international development, and youth culture.
Story highlights include covering data concerns over Canada’s border screening measures, questions about the air quality of aircraft cabins, the debate over airstrikes in Bosnia, scandals involving peacekeepers in Somalia and reporting on the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, reforms to medical education in Canada, innovators in health care, the tug of war over health care spending during austerity measures, London, UK designers, the growing role of Nordic countries in cable and satellite television, the film financing scene in Europe and the UK, the new sexual revolution and its impact on cable and satellite television and the rising Internet, changes to Canada’s media industry, and Toronto’s embracing of the megacity concept and the political battles it sparked.
I edited newsletters and newspapers aimed at specific communities, from Canada’s medical history community to part-time students. And had the privilege of helming a start-up youth magazine as its Editor-in-Chief to its commercial success (seeCase Study 2).
* “The last two recessions in Canada occurred in 1982 and 1990. … The most recent Canadian recession began in the second quarter of 1990 and over the next 12 months GDP fell by 3.2%. … The recovery from this recession was unusually slow; there was almost no growth between mid-1991 and mid-1992. This slow recovery was export driven.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia)
“In early 1994, Canada’s economic situation was not that favourable—our economy was facing some rather serious problems.
“… the recession here was more severe than in the United States.
“Working their way out of these difficulties was disruptive and painful for Canadian businesses. Defaults, restructurings, and downsizings became the order of the day. With all this, unemployment took a long time to recover from the 1990–91 recession and, in many instances, wages and salaries were frozen or reduced (Bank of Canada: Canada’s Economic Future: What Have We Learned from the 1990s?)
A small sample of published stories with links is below:
1991: Begin career as investigative journalist and editor.
1992: Work as a Medical and Health Reporter for Today’s Seniors and as an Investigative Journalist for Now Magazine. Work as Editor and Writer for the Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine’s newsletter.
1993: Published in many publications, including The Toronto Star, Canadian Living and This Magazine.
1994: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 2.0 and its expansion (seeCase Study 2).
1995: Work as reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK.
1996: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 3.0 and its expansion. Begin work at Id Magazine as its Features Editor (seeCase Study 3).
1997: Begin two-year assignment with the United Nations mission in Mongolia (seeCase Study 4).
“David South … proved himself to be a penetrating, thorough and hard-working journalist. He produced a lot of very good stories …” Neil McCartney, Editor, Screen Finance, Telecom Markets and Mobile Communications, London, UK