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
In 1996 I was hired as Features Editor for Id Magazine, a bi-weekly alternative magazine in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
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). With a keen eye for new media trends, the magazine covered the fast-rising Internet economy, early experiments with digital currencies and smart cards (Mondex) being carried out in Guelph, Ontario, and concerns about data privacy.
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.
“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.
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.
- 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
- 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:
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
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