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CASE STUDY 3: Id Magazine | 1996 – 1997

Expertise: Editing, investigative journalism, art direction, managing teams, strategy, content development.

Location: Guelph, Ontario, Canada 1996 to 1997

Features Editor: David South  

Click here to view images for this case study: CASE STUDY 3: Id Magazine | 1996 – 1997 Images

Abstract

In 1996 I was hired as Features Editor for Id Magazine, a bi-weekly alternative magazine in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. 

About 

In 1996 Id Magazine, an Ontario, Canada alternative biweekly, was expanding and needed to improve the quality of its journalism, while also making the difficult shift to being a more consistently professional offering. I was hired as Features Editor and set about swiftly assembling a team of investigative journalists. My strategy involved targeting stories overlooked by Canadian newspapers and TV news. In the 1990s, it was often the case the best journalism and the best investigative journalism in Canada could be found in the country’s alternative media. This led to a number of firsts, including an extensive investigation into Canada’s flourishing sex industry, the government’s addiction to casinos to boost revenues, unearthing a plot by neo-nazis to infiltrate Ontario high schools with hate rock, university students’ catastrophic debt culture, reporting from the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Canada’s UN mission, and probing the government’s public services privatisation plans (including being invited to debate this topic on CBC TV’s programme, Face Off). 

There clearly was a gap in the news marketplace Id could better fill with solid investigative journalism and features writing aimed at a younger demographic. 

How large a market gap can be confirmed by various analyses on the state of the Canadian media at the time and since. 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 in a mess in the 1990s resulting from declining resources, staff layoffs and media closures reducing the breadth and depth of news coverage.  

My challenge: Could I bring together a talented, young team and improve the quality and consistency of journalism for a start-up magazine seeking to grow? The proof came in the form of improved audited pick-up of the magazine by readers, the magazine’s confident push to expand on the Internet, and the fact many from that original team have gone on to not only have successful careers in the media and film, but also to be influential in their own right – proof the original belief in their talent was correct.  

Pressure on journalists to toe the line and not upset advertisers was also increasing in the context of ongoing high unemployment, a stagnant economy in a recession, and government austerity. Canadian media as 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.” 

Quoting Jeffrey Simpson in the book, 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) 

Fast forward to “Today, we have a crisis in the journalism industry unprecedented in scope. A media implosion. Newspapers being reduced to digital editions, large numbers losing their jobs, circulation falling, ad revenues plunging, near monopoly ownership of big-city dailies, the old business model in a state of collapse.” (Canada’s media: A crisis that cries out for a public inquiry by Lawrence Martin, The Globe and Mail, Feb. 02, 2016). 

Brief descriptions of sample issues are below: 

Can Harris be Stopped? Cover 

My first Id Magazine cover. It was thrown together in a few days after being hired. While a work of resourcefulness under pressure, it did capture the spirit of the times as multiple demonstrations and strikes tried to bring down the much-hated Conservative government in Ontario. 

“Can the UN Help Remake a Country?” Cover 

This cover photo by Phillip Smith was taken in the market area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I had never seen such squalor and desperation in my life. It got worse as we visited the city’s morgue, packed to the rafters with the dead and mutilated bodies of children and adults. It was a tough assignment and one that was captured with professionalism by Phillip’s camera.  

Christmas Issue Cover 

Back in 1996, the Thatcher thirst for privatisation came to Ontario with a vengeance. In this issue, we asked if it showed a lack of imagination to just sell publicly paid for assets to wealthy investors. We offered other ownership models and I debated this topic on CBC TV’s Face Off.  

“Pulling the Plug on Hate Rock” Cover 

This excellent cover by Gareth Lind was, as far as I know, the first use of pop art on a biweekly magazine cover in Ontario at that time (I certainly hadn’t seen anyone else do it). It sold the excellent investigation into skinhead rock bands infiltrating Ontario high schools very well. It was timed for release during the North-by-Northeast music festival in Toronto, and had zero returns (as in all issues were picked up). 

Sarah Polley Cover 

A regular contributor to Id, Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley challenged the stale Canadian left with her spiky views. In this issue we tackled the decline in the quality of TV programmes and asked if it was a moral vacuum being hoovered up by consumerism.  

Student Issue Cover 

This cover is by great Canadian political cartoonist and illustrator Jack Lefcourt. Always funny, Jack captures well the corporate take-over of the country’s universities and the introduction of the catastrophic debt culture that leaves so many students in a financial pickle. It was also Id’s first student issue.  

“The Great Education Swindle: Are Reforms Destroying Your Future?”

“Today’s Sex Toys are Credit Cards and Cash” Cover 

As Ontario’s economy experienced year-after-year of high unemployment and stagnant salaries, its sex economy flourished. In another first, the Id team tackled all aspects of the growth of the sex economy and changing attitudes to sexual behaviour. Beating the big papers to this story, they wrote with honesty and verve and made a refreshing break from the limp journalism of most Canadian newspapers. 

Timeline

1996: Hired as Features Editor and assembled editorial and creative team.

1997: Id Magazine begins to simultaneously publish its content online, a pioneering move at the time. 

Impact 

Micro 

  • reducing returns and boosting audited pick-ups of the free magazine – a key metric for a publication reliant on local advertising
  • assembled talented investigative team and graphic design and photo team
  • introduced pop art front covers
  • increased news coverage, especially impact of austerity in Canada
  • increased foreign coverage, including on Canada’s United Nations mission in Haiti
  • introduced high-profile contributors, including actor and director Sarah Polley
  • debated stories on other media, including CBC TV’s Face Off 

Macro

  • most of the team have gone on to very successful careers in the media
  • magazine still receives good comments on Facebook many years after its closure
  • one of the first Canadian magazines to embrace the Internet and publish simultaneously online

A sample of published stories is below:  

Casino Calamity: One Gambling Guru Thinks The Province Is Going Too Far 

Will Niagara Falls Become the Northern Vegas? 

Land of the Free, Home of the Bored 

Man Out Of Time: The World Once Turned On the Ideas of this Guelph Grad, But Does the Economist John Kenneth Galbraith Know the Way Forward? 

Porn Again: More Ways to Get Off, But Should We Regulate the Sex Industry? 

Redneck Renaissance: A Coterie of Journalists Turn Cracker Culture into a Leisure Lifestyle

Swing Shift: Sexual Liberation is Back in Style 

State of Decay: Haiti Turns to Free-market Economics and the UN to Save Itself 

TV’s Moral Guide in Question – Again 

Citations 

Schizophrenia: A Patient’s Perspective by Abu Sayed Zahiduzzaman, Publisher: Author House, 2013 

Other Resources 

Freedom of Expression: Introducing Investigative Journalism to Local Media in Mongolia 

Ger Magazine Issue 1 

Ger Magazine Issue 2 

In Their Own Words: Selected Writings by Journalists on Mongolia, 1997-1999 (ISBN 99929-5-043-9) 

The back issues of id magazine reside at the Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / Library and Archives Canada [has v.5(1995)-v.8(1999)] collection.

OCLC Number/Unique Identifier: 1082496695

ISSN: 1208-4476

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2017

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TV’s Moral Guide In Question – Again

By David South

Id Magazine (Canada), November 28-December 11, 1996

Television programmers are under attack once again. Thanks to Guelph activist Patricia Herdman’s Coalition for Responsible Televsion (CORT), two violent television shows – Poltergeist (CTV) and Millennium (Fox/Global) – have lost several advertisers in recent weeks due to pressure from CORT. It’s just another wave in a new assault on the immorality of television.

Positive Entertainment Alternatives for Children Everywhere (PEACE), a Montreal group founded after the murder of 14 young women in that city in 1989, staged a press conference last week, complete with sweet-faced children, to announce its “Toxic TV” list. Who is toxic? Old favourites like Bugs Bunny, Batman and Robin and The Simpsons. PEACE also produced a list of “Positive” TV shows. It included a wrist-slashing selection of insipid programming, such as Barney and Friends, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Kratt’s Creature.

But critics of television overlook the strong and often simplistic moral messages that infuse most programming. Some even argue the mostly Judeo-Christian morality comes at the expense of atheistic and agnostic perspectives.

University of Guelph philosophy professor Jay Newman argues that religious moralists are making television the scapegoat for all of society’s ills.

He argues television, rather than being a moral vacuum, is heavily influenced by Judeo-Christain values – often in shows many people don’t suspect.

Newman sharply criticizes religious moralists, who he says, neglect to observe the same contradictions in their own beliefs that they see in television.

In Newman’s view, religion shares many sins with television. Religion promotes passivity (“The meek shall inherit the earth”), disrupts family life (who needs to talk to that “immoral” gay brother/sister?), does a questionable job of moral education, invents celebrities (the saints), sacrifices spiritual wisdom for meaningless ritual and entertainment (the Mass), and promotes violent behaviour (who can forget the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition?).

Leaning back in his chair at his University of Guelph office, the irascible New York-born Newman enthusiastically defends television.

“When we assess TV as bad,” he says, “I’m not convinced religion is the only moral teacher, and it has not been the best moral teacher. Religion has been a very important force of hatred, whereas Star Trek teaches us to respect other cultures.

“TV has been of great value in promoting pluralism and an increase in tolerance.”

Newman isn’t talking about gore-soaked TV like Poltergeist and Millennium, shows he says speak more about their producers than about the medium of television. “Wanton slaughter can’t be blamed on TV. But I do agree with psychologists that some television inures us to violence.”

He sees Star Trek as a moral force for both pluralism and tolerance, strong values that are essential to democracies with many ethnic, cultural and racial groups. “This show promotes tolerance towards people who appear different. It shows aliens have aspirations and desires just like us.”

Newman does take offence to one race of aliens on the popular series: the Ferengi. While the Ferengi are supposed to be the equivalent of used car dealers in Star Trek’s universe, they draw criticism from Newman for their anti-semitic undertones. But even here, says Newman, TV can’t beat the pantheon of Christain anti-semites.

As for the bumbling antics of Bart Simpson and his dad Homer, Newman says The Simpsons also contain positive morals. “The Simpsons teaches us to accept the foibles of others and empathize. It does it in a gentle way without passing a very austere judgement.”

Newman even sees hope in the dreamy world of daytime soap operas. They teach people to develop empathy. They also use negative role models to show that hatred and contempt backfire on people; that promiscuity and adultry don’t come without a cost.”

As for Seinfeld, a sitcom about a group of friends who seem to never do anything, Newman says, “I’m a New Yorker and I can’t sit through it.”

Newman, an expert on religious fanaticism and hypocrisy, has responded to religious critics of television in his new book, appropriately titled Religion vs. Television. Newman sees religious critics of television as at best hypocrites, at worst specious claimants to higher moral ground.

“[Religious leaders] make judgements to show the usefulness of their institutions in an attempt to restore the lustre of religious authority.”

Newman believes the debate surrounding violence on TV is misguided. He believes the root causes of violence should be dealt with first.

“Television is a convenient scapegoat. Its criticism parallels religious bigotry. They don’t focus on the individual, just the medium. And this is accepted by people who call themselves liberal!”

TV immoral?

But critics of TV say any decent moral messages that slip through are undermined by television’s subservience to a higher God: consumerism. For Rose Anne Dyson of Canadians Concerned About Violence in Television (C-CAVE), this corrupted morality can’t be ignored. “There is only one over-riding religion today: consumerism. Its main purveyor is TV.

“Television is a major socializer today. Parents and teachers are key to modifying that influence. But most if television is very bad and just teaches consumer-driven values. There isn’t a single children’s programme that isn’t infused with commercial values.”

Dyson believes the negative effects aren’t just psychological. “Watching too much TV is bad – it causes obesity and hyperactivity.”

Dyson’s claims were recently backed by a new study showing unhealthy minds may lead to unhealthy bodies. A study conducted by Columbia University claimed the more that children watched TV, the fatter they got. Researcher Dr Barbara Dennison found children who watched 14 hours of television a week had diets with 35 per cent of their calories from fat. The study blamed the high representation of junk food in television ads and the fact they promoted couch potato dining. Canadian children on average watch 18 hours a week of television.

Dyson does agree with Newman’s criticism of organized religions’ spurious claims to higher ground. “Judeo-Christian religions have gotten us into a lot of trouble!”

To control this morally wayward TV, Dyson looks forward to more entertainment conglomerates self-regulating their programming. “The cornerstone of democracy is to obey rules.

“A lot of cultural studies people tend to underestimate the impact of TV – there is too much of a value-free approach.”

Id was published in Guelph, Ontario, Canada in the 1990s.

Further Reading:

Channel Regulation: Swedes Will Fight Children’s Advertising All The Way

From Special Report: NMM (New Media Markets) Spotlight On The Emergence Of Satellite Porn Channels In The UK

Undercurrents: A Cancellation At CBC TV Raises A Host Of Issues For The Future

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021