A road less travelled

The following article, and exchange with Tony Seed of Shunpiking Magazine, was published on Novanewsnet, the online site of the University of King’s College School of Journalism, Thursday, 12 February 1998.

By Andrew MacDonald – Linda Pannozzo, Editor

“Just because they’re free doesn’t mean they’re cheap. Independent magazines like The Coast and Shunpiking offer Haligonians a creative brand of journalism. What does it take to start up an independent publication? What do they offer that mainstream media doesn’t? Is there a future for independent, alternative magazines in Halifax?” 

More on this story:

• Considering the alternatives

• The Coast

• An alternate road

• Obstacles to success

• Web sites related to this topic:

• Further Dispatches from the Coast

• The Next Alternative

Considering the alternatives

A lot of the most popular magazines on newsstands today started out as small, independent publications. Back in 1967, Jann Wenner started Rolling Stone magazine with $7,500 in donations from his family and friends. One of the reasons he started the publication was so he could meet his rock n’roll heroes Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Another was that no other paper in San Francisco would publish his work.

Not every independent publisher starts off like Wenner, nor do they achieve his success. Most have stories of first issues, growing pains, and often failures. Kyle Shaw, the editor and one of the founders of Halifax’s popular weekly magazine, The Coast, talks about several obstacles that independent publishers and editors must overcome such as production costs and finding advertisers.

“We immediately realized the business wasn’t just about writing and designing a cool magazine,” he admits. “There were a lot of business issues we had to deal with before we could put an issue out.”

Tony Seed, the editor and publisher of Nova Scotia’s discovery magazine, Shunpiking, boasts of starting his magazine with $14.87 in the bank. He and Shaw hold different views of the term “independent media.” Seed says Shunpiking has a responsibility to its readers to provide high quality journalism that isn’t compromised by the interests or influence of corporate advertisers. Seed realizes this independence from corporate ties limits the amount of advertising revenue at his diposal, but after two successful years of publishing he is confident about his publication’s mission.

Shunpiking shows that there is a future in developing an independant media on a self-reliant basis,” he says.

Alternative magazines normally focus on particular subjects such as music, a community or group of people. The Coast for example focuses on urban culture and reports on culture and entertainment events happening around Metro Halifax. Shunpiking is a discovery magazine that deals with Nova Scotia’s rural and cultural traditions.

Independant publications are often more creative or stylish in both editorial content and layout than daily newspapers. The Coast has regular features like “Media Rare,” a satire heavy column that writer Bruce Wark uses to criticize the media. Shunpiking utilizes four-colour printing which allows them to publish impressive full color covers and centre spreads. These are characteristics readers aren’t likely to find in conventional daily papers.

Because of the freedom independant magazine publishers have in terms of content, design and subject matter, it is difficult to find two magazines that follow the exact same format. Most publishers and editors consider it a challenge to create the most innovative and original publications that their limited resources will allow. The one thing that most independent pioneers have in common is the difficulty of starting up and surviving in a risky industry.

The Coast

Christine Oreskovich’s office seems more like a college dorm than the headquarters of a magazine publisher. Her walls, bulletin boards and filing cabinets are coated with stickers and posters advertising different movies and bands. Papers, maybe news releases or memos, rest on her desk like a term paper in progress. A constant stream of staff-members walk, run and saché by her door as she jockeys her attention between her phone and computer monitor.

“We’ve come a long way since our first issue,” she says. “We have an office now, that isn’t the size of this room.”

Oreskovich joins editor Kyle Shaw at the top of The Coast’s masthead.

Shaw started the magazine with Oreskovich and four others in June of 1993. The group wanted to produce an arts and entertainment magazine to fill the void left when the Daily News cancelled its weekly Seven Days supplement.

“We were all journalists and we worked well together,” Shaw remembers. “It seemed like the perfect job for us.”

It was excrutiating work at first though. Countless all-nighters, no pay and no guarantees was the way of life. It didn’t take long for the financial burdens of starting a publication to catch up with the group. Shaw and Oreskovich knew the magazine would need a major capital injection from a bank loan or investor to improve.

“Our original bi-weekly format didn’t allow us to keep up with what was going on,” says Shaw. “We needed an investor so we could switch to a weekly.”

Last year, Catherine Salisbury, the publisher of a Montreal independent magazine called The Mirror, purchased a majority share of The Coast. This allowed Shaw and Oreskovich to hire a staff (and pay them), rent a downtown office and turn their magazine into a weekly.

“We’ve grown a lot in terms of organization,” says Oreskovich. “We have different departments that needed to learn to work together.”

Shaw says the magazine is still settling into its weekly format. They’ve lost a few columns such as “Tunnel Vision” which monitored television programming and introduced new features like restaurant reviews and a classified ads section.

“We’d like to grow more as a weekly and eventually fill 40 pages a week,” says Shaw.

The Coast’s mission statement says the magazine’s goal is to report on Halifax’s cultural, artistic and political life in a way that is provocative, entertaining and truthful.

Oreskovich believes it is important to have a magazine like The Coast that will take risks by criticizing or reporting on controversial issues. For example, the magazine questioned Nova Scotia’s censorship board when it tried to keep the movie “Bastard Out of Carolina” out of the province last year.

“It’s not always an easy decision,” she admits. “But neither of our (Halifax’s) daily newspapers ever tackle issues like that.”

An alternate road

Tony Seed sits at his cluttered desk looking vacantly at his computer screen. He’s trying to lay out a page for the next edition of his magazine, shunpiking. He says there is too much white left on the page. Someone suggests that he fill the space with advertisements. This person is obviously new. Seed reclines slightly in his chair and lights a cigarette. “What do we need ads for?” he asks in a voice that indicates that no answer will satisfy the question.

A shunpike is an alternate road that takes a traveler around the main thoroughfare. Seed uses this definition as a metaphor to describe the nature and purpose of his magazine. To Seed, the mainstream represents mediocre and homogeneous journalism where publications cover the same stories and issues in similar ways. With Shunpiking, Seed tries to cover stories that are under-represented in other publications. For example, Shunpiking was the first publication to investigate the Jim Cambell’s Barren controversy.

In an editorial he wrote, “The interests and well-being of people and the environment are incidental to this media.”

Seed sees independent media as more than just small weekly publications that offer alternate approaches to news coverage. He believes it should be free from interference from corporate interests. He says that it’s difficult for publishers and editors who depend heavily on advertising revenues to have complete editorial control over their content. When he started his magazine two years ago, Seed says he made a commitment to anyone who picked up the magazine.

“We have a responsibility to our readers to provide intelligent, high quality writing that is free from external influences,” he says.

This, he believes is another characteristic which separates Shunpiking from the rest. In the one year anniversary issue, Seed criticized the increase in monopolization of the media and the “gutting” of reputable organizations like the CBC.

“Without aiming high, we would not be able to overcome such obstacles as the feeling that the task is too big, the region is too broad, that it can never be accomplished,” he wrote.

Seed depends a lot on volunteer writers. He’s not worried about the well running dry though. He believes that quality attracts quality. So, as long as he maintains a sophisticated and enlightened magazine, people will happily continue to contribute writing, photography, artwork and time to the magazine. It makes sense that many of the publication’s best stories come from those who read it. The only external force guiding the publication therefore, is the readership, he says.

“Our first two years of publishing have been very successful,” he explains. “This is because our readers are happy. It is their support that keeps us going.”

For Tony Seed’s response (add link, see below)

Obstacles to success

If money is the root of all evil then it’s no wonder independent publishers have such a hard time.

If a publication’s budget is tight it limits the number of staff it can support as well as the resources it can afford. Advanced multi-media technology is integral to any publication, it is also expensive. Add in the costs of maintaining an office, business expenses like long distance phone calls and internet access and it’s easy to understand why many would-be publishers are daunted by the challenge. And the magazine hasn’t even hit the presses yet.

Money troubles aren’t the only problems that keep independent editors and publishers tossing and turning at night.

Christine Oreskovich, publisher of The Coast, says one challenge for magazines can be finding something to write about.

“All media stems from culture,” she explains. “If a city doesn’t have much going on in terms of music or art then it can be difficult for a magazine on culture to find new stories every week.”

She believes the Halifax environment accommodates conventional media very well, but that some changes need to occur for The Coast to be widely accepted.

“We want a mother in Spryfield to feel The Coast has something to offer her,” she says.

The magazine handles this problem by diversifying its subject matter. Along with covering current affair and news issues, The Coast offers movie listings, restaurant and music reviews, satire and even a sex-advice column called “Savage Love.”

Shunpiking publisher Tony Seed doesn’t agree that the audience or region can be considered an obstacle.

“The main reason for a publication’s failure,” he says, “is its editorial policy being rejected by the reader.”

This is why Seed concentrates his efforts on providing intelligent, well-written stories for his readers.

“Some publishers are just trying to make money off of readers,” he says. “We could do that if we wanted to, but we just decided to serve our readers instead.”

Coast editor Kyle Shaw warns future publishers not to be afraid of these obstacles. He says it goes without saying that the first few issues will be rough and that the first few years will be rougher still.

“If it’s what you know you want to do you have to just do it,” he says as he looks back at his magazine’s humble beginnings. “If we had a dollar in start up capital from everyone who said we couldn’t do it, we wouldn’t have had any money problems to begin with.”

* * *

Tony Seed replies

Date: Sun, 15 Feb 1998 10:28:53 -0400

To: fernythicket@sympatico.ca

From: Tony Seed <shunpike@istar.ca>

Subject: Re: A Road Less Travelled.1

Re: A Road Less Travelled

http://www.ukings.ns.ca/nnn/nnn.html

Dear Andrew and Linda,

Thank you kindly for the positive profile – the thought and work behind it – on independent media in today’s NovaNewsNet, and the prominence and appreciation given to Shunpiking discovery magazine by writer Andrew MacDonald and editor Linda Pannozzo. (The web site is attractive, well-organized and should be popularized.) This made us reflect on the issue and prepare a reply.

Your feature is a recognition that mass-targeted, general interest publishing can set and meet higher standards than the so-called “established powers” in this field.

The continued existence, growth and success of Shunpiking – though modest in its beginnings and not around as long as the Irvings, Blacks, Camerons and Dennises – proves that there is room and a need for mass publications organized principally to serve the readers’ interests. A medium that treats readers as conscious, active people rather than simply as a market to sell to.

It is also heartwarming to see such a feature come from journalism students in a city whose commercial media, print, TV and radio, collectively, has published a grand total of one story about Shunpiking in our over two years of existence. And that was one brief news report in the Herald when our magazine was awarded the 1997 Nova Scotia Environment Award “for outstanding contribution to the enhancement and preservation of Nova Scotia’s environment.” Nevertheless, we are gratified that more and more people within the media are starting to seriously read and follow Shunpiking.

Andrew’s “poetic license” and my objection

However, with all respect to the integrity of the writer, the editor and your article, the following section is fiction.

“Tony Seed sits at his cluttered desk looking vacantly at his computer screen. He’s trying to lay out a page for the next edition of his magazine, Shunpiking. He says there is too much white left on the page. Someone suggests that he fill the space with advertisements. This person is obviously new. Seed reclines slightly in his chair and lights a cigarette. ‘What do we need ads for?’ he asks in a voice that indicates that no answer will suffice.”

Unfortunately, it’s not good fiction!

When I do work at the computer, I don’t stare “vacantly.”

I look very intelligent!

And I move. Graphics/design/layout is action/reaction. As the designer of Shunpiking, I do wish we had far more white space – not “too much white left on the page.” People have aesthetic standards and we bear this in mind in our design. And hence this entire literary metaphor simply doesn’t make any sense! With more advertising, we would have more white space. In fact, many times, I have made design sacrifices and presented what we call a “tight” and hopefully very clean layout in order to accommodate more copy, i.e., content, for our readers. This entire scenario does not ring true. In the last few days, this desk has not been cluttered!

But the negative effect of Andrew’s poetic license is the inference that Shunpiking, and myself, are not interested in advertising. In that respect, this is not only untrue but also damaging to our publication. The flip side is the suggestion that we will not survive without corporate advertising. These suggestions are not something we particularly agree with or particularly like, but we decided to respond because it is part of the present-day reality.

We DO Want Advertisements

Shunpiking is being published for a very definite aim. This aim is the cornerstone of our editorial policy. At the same time, it is very costly to publish such a magazine. There are therefore two issues at hand: our aim, and the cost to fulfill this aim. We seek support for our aim, but not by depending on those who would pressure us to change our aim for the luxury of remaining in the black.

The distinction which many journalists have trouble wrapping their heads around is that, with Shunpiking, the commerial and marketing concerns of the advertisers is subordinate to our editorial policy and the readers’ interests.

Shunpiking is not just one of those run-of-the-mill “niche” or “alternative” magazines. It has been often said that we should be pragmatic – that is, expedient – and mould reality according to the requirements of success. Success is measured in terms of profits. We are against expediency and pragmatism, and we do not measure our success by the profits reaped. We would be quite happy, and consider it a great success, if we were able to address ourselves to the concerns of the people even if, in the economic sense, we did not make fabulous profits.

The motivation for writing for Shunpiking comes not from money, but from the ideal of progress and enlightenment, from the desire to communicate with our fellow Nova Scotians. Of course, it is impossible to defend this ideal without money. The aim of our Subscription 2000 Campaign is to develop an editorial budget from our readership so that all our contributors are renumerated. But to raise money as an aim in-itself is counter productive. It would be working in the old way.

How do we deal with this reality?

Advertising: “quality attracts quality” 

I did point out to Andrew that while our publication and our editorial is not tailored to the advertising dollar, we just had the highest ad month ever. We have been working to increase advertising, despite resistance from the provincial government and the corporate advertising agencies; e.g., Shunpiking has received more provincial awards than ads from the Nova Scotia government, i.e., two in two years.

Shunpiking has also involved much detailed attention to develop classy, well designed advertising. Advertising is a form of information and communication. As Andrew writes correctly in another context, “quality attracts quality.” The slogan we put forward in our first rate card was, in fact, “quality sells.” We have an art director, advertising. This is also in sharp distinction with conventional media where, as is well known, the sales staff design the ad and the art departments have been reduced to punching keyboards.

Shunpiking also clearly distinguishes editorial from advertising, in contrast to most print media where one cannot tell where editorial stops and the advertising begins. We do this out of respect to the reader; as a result we have become more and more credible and worthy of trust. But the progressive advertiser also will benefit too. In fact, their ads will be noticed and read far more times and have a longer shelf life than with the advertorial approach so common today. That’s why we have such a high percentage of repeat advertisers.

We are saying that this constitutes a practical and viable alternative to a mass media market awash in commercialism and press conference official journalism.

What is happening with Saturday Night magazine and Absolut whiskey is only a reflection of increasing pressure by corporate North America – as recently documented in the Columbia Journalism Review – dictating editorial content, themes and approachs in magazines that corporations, such as Chrysler, are placing their advertising in.

The advertising policy of Shunpiking magazine

Our advertising policy is also principled and pro-active. We do not sell off the rate card or make deals under the table. We have developed special sections and rate structures to make advertising accessible to the small business, the professional and the artisan. We do not write articles on advertisers nor develop articles to get advertising. Regular contributors such as Dr. Scott Cunningham and Dave Lawley, first class writers and naturalists who are also involved in ecotourism, do not mention or plug their business name, even in the author’s credit line. Our Rate Card openly states as follows:

Copy & Contracts – The Small Print

• All advertising is subject to the Publisher’s approval. The word “Advertisement” will be placed above copy that resembles editorial matter.

• New Media Publications does not accept racialist, sexist or homophobic or militaristic advertising or advertising for the following products: tobacco and its related products, hand guns, sexual devices, personal ads, items that could be considered weapons, products made from endangered animals, nefarious land, and get-rich schemes.

Shunpiking – a collective work

I did not “boast” that “I” started Shunpiking with $14.87 in the bank. It is a fact. Shunpiking accounts for itself openly. What we say is what we do – there is nothing hidden under the table.

Nor do I consider it “my magazine”, despite pressure by others to do so.

Shunpiking has always been, from our founding meeting in October, 1995, a collective work. More than 40 people are now involved at one level or another. In my view, they are some of the best minds and creative talent in Nova Scotia. Some eight journalism students from Kings have contributed to Shunpiking in just the past year. While there is a lot of talk these days that it’s now time to get around to “diversifying” newsrooms, about half of us with Shunpiking are women and five of us are Black or First Nations. We come from all walks of life.

Overall, only five of us have a prior professional background in the media: Alan Lynch was an award-winning editorial columnist and publisher; Peter Zimmer, a CBC broadcaster and arts and science reporter; Mary Anne Ducharme, editor of Partici-Paper in Inverness County; David Redwood, a Kings’ journalism graduate; and I am a former Toronto Globe and Mail features writer, and National Newspaper Award nominee, among other things. Bob Semple has won some 52 national and international photography awards.

I see my role as one who has been entrusted by the founders, contributors and readers to ensure that Shunpiking is published and develops along the path we have set out. Speaking frankly, Nova Scotians have created a magazine for themselves, a magazine which addresses their concerns, their environment.

Why publications flounder or fail

Andrew was asking about the obstacles we have faced. Without underestimating the difficult task of establishing a new media in Canada, my point was that there are no bigshots who bankroll or write for our magazine. And lack of capital is not the main problem or obstacle to starting a new publication, as the greatest asset is human. Human beings are, with nature, the source of wealth in society. Thus, our problem was how to solve the problem of policy and organization of us humans, so that we could also solve other problems, such as “no money.” Andrew does see this, when he correctly quotes myself in pointing out that the main problem for the failure of this or that publication has been its editorial policy, not lack of capital or advertising. It is a gravely mistaken view that a magazine can stabilize itself and flourish just on the basis of advertisers. How many publications which took this route, but failed to depend on people, have failed in the past? Many! Others would too if they went in this direction. It is our editorial policy that is our strength, and it is this policy which will serve people’s concerns.

To suggest that an “alternative” publication is having trouble because of the so-called “low cultural level” of Nova Scotians – or has a problem of finding enough topics to write about – also won’t do.

Can we say that people are merely a passive and inert force? No, we cannot. We reject being aloof and detached from people’s real problems, indeed from life itself. The written word has great relevance; life has used and continues to use the written word as an important tool in its development. For us, the written word, the content, is the most important thing. This is also what we encourage from our writers and contributors. That’s why we welcome all positive and healthy contributions from our readers and help them with editing, suggestions and so forth. One of our contributors could not read or write. That did not stop him from having some wisdom and insight into social life and nature. I transcribed his story. In any given month, we could publish one third more pages than we can afford to. We ask for honesty and courage from our writers too. A writer may be afraid to write something for another magazine, but no such atmosphere exists here. What we try to demand from our writers is that they do account for their views, that they explain why they say what they say.

“Rural culture and traditions”

Further, there is a description of Shunpiking’s editorial policy as directed towards “rural culture and traditions.” Shunpiking is Nova Scotia’s own discovery, geographic and general interest magazine. Shunpiking is culture and we have a cultured approach. We’re directed to the people of Nova Scotia and the Maritimes. We are proud of our region. But we are not parochial. In matters of design, layout and production, and literary quality – within our limitations – our goals and standards are world class.

Let us look at Nova Scotia objectively and dynamically, not in terms of demographic “niches.”

A sizeable population whose origin is the countryside does inhabit the Metro Halifax-Dartmouth area. John Doherty of Bedford News Rack, whose family established Atlantic News and pioneered the independent news dealer in Metro, once said to me that,

“You’ve done something that noboby else has in publishing (in Metro). Every publication that has come out since I have been in business – whatever their ‘niche’ – has gone after the same niche, the same strata, downtown Metro.

“You saw that the majority of Nova Scotians are either in the rural/urban areas, recently emigrated to the city or are second generation. You’ve gone from the city to the province, and from the province to the city.”

Seventeen thousand of Shunpiking’s 25,000 press run is distributed within Metro. We have another 400 outlets outside Metro in Nova Scotia, as well as in New Brunswick, PEI, St. John’s, Nfld., New England and Ontario. What is astonishing is that – in the year 1998 – we are the sole magazine to address the province.

In my view, there is a sort of media censorship operating within Nova Scotia. Areas such as the Eastern Shore do not have a single publication of their own. Along the South Shore and the Valley, small community papers, many of them owned by chains, extend from the ocean and town inland, like a feudal siegneury. But they do not cover or reflect their area, region or the province. With the exception of the Inverness Oran, none bring any provincial perspective to local issues, in my view. It is also well nigh impossible to find these publications available in Metro or in any area other than their own.

That leaves the province itself to the Herald, the CBC, which is being gutted, and the suppertime crime and fluff TV shows. The Daily News has no influence outside Metro, though they are trying to buy it through sponsorship of such festivals as the Clam Harbour Sculpture and Sand Castle Contest. Only a few individual TV programs, such as CBC’s Land and Sea or MITV’s The Leading Edge, have any sort of regional mandate.

People are localized, marginalized and divided from one another.

They are also fed half-truths. One example of this is the coverage of the Cobequid toll highway, part of the Trans-Canada Highway, as if it was a matter of improving highway safety. Not one story explained that public highways and infrastructure are being privatized across Canada. A half-truth is a complete lie. People are dissatisfied with the breadth and quality of this media and its half-truths. They not only want quality information, they also want to hear first hand what people think and are doing in other communities. They also want to know where you stand.

I suppose for somebody from Toronto or New York this may be a very large “rural” area, but I remember that a central tenet of cosmopolitan culture, especially American, is that anything outside of the metropolitan centre is a cultural desert and wasteland.

What is mainstream?

A shunpike is, after all, not an alternate road. It’s a road people built some 200 years ago to bypass the toll booths on the turnpike. Half the fun of publishing Shunpiking is explaining what it means, what we mean, what we stand for. And the irony of history is that publications such as Shunpiking are mainstream, while those such as the Herald and the Daily News offer an alternate view of reality!

One of our readers wrote to us recently as follows:

“When people are offered an alternative to a road littered with nothing but advertising flyers and junk mail, they will take that road. On that same road, Shunpiking has sought and discovered what is new and of interest to its readers.”

That’s where I want to be,

Tony Seed

P.S. I also live in Spryfield.

Slighty edited for this publication

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