all over north america, the nervous print industry has been struggling to get cool. Signs of retooling are everywhere as aging CEOs strategize to lure the glazed-over eyes of young consumers away from video games, free Web music, snack-bite infotainment and hyper-voyeuristic "reality' shows.The bait, particularly in magazines and newspapers, has been busy graphics, sassy attitude, over-the-top lifestyle reporting, street fashion and dating confessionals.
But if media executives are under the illusion that dumbing down is the secret to winning a youthful readership, they better think again. According to Trent University historian Robert Wright and his new book Hip And Trivial: Youth Culture, Book Publishing And The Greying Of Canadian Nationalism, today's young people "are better educated, more worldly, more media savvy and more comfortable with the world of print culture than any prior cohort.'
With his well-honed perspective on youth consciousness, Wright casts his critical eye on three new mags making their way onto the T.O. scene just as the economy slips, retail spending languishes and budgets are sliced down to size.
Razor, a men's glossy, promises cutting-edge entertainment. Fresh, an urban lifestyle title, is filled with first-person columns. Vain, a pocket-sized club guide freebie, sports sharp design. All three mags are aimed at the 18 to 36 market and have high production values and demand quality.
But can they make it in a market Wright believes is peopled with critical-minded sophisticates?
"Young readers are real media savvy -- therefore, they are not interested in anything that looks substandard.'
Wright says young people read as voraciously as their elders but have a much more intimate tie to the broader world and value cosmopolitanism. They do not seek out uniquely Canadian self-expression and have no interest in making a political point by become reading nationalists.
In other words, Can-Lit and north-of-the-49th publishing in general have little resonance for 20-somethings who have been economic victims in the 90s and, therefore, not terribly sensitive to appeals that they ought to support a product just because it's homegrown.
"Contemporary Canadian youth have been mired in an economic crisis unprecedented since the Great Depression,' Wright says. With 16 per cent youth unemployment in the 90s (things are somewhat better in 2001), and youth incomes a third less than in the 70s, young people are stuck in a permanent state of deferred gratification.
Even moolah for cultural pursuits is scarce, unless they get handouts from their boomer parents. Many live in prolonged dependency, often staying at home until their late 20s.
"Young Canadians have not been particularly well served by the Canadian state and, therefore, have no great love for it,' he says.
"I think the new wave of Canadian writers will be much more comfortable elsewhere in the world -- they won't be stuck in Canada imaginatively. The notion that Canada is a unique sort of place producing a parochial culture is waning. I think the Tragically Hip will be the last "Canadian band.'" Point of view, according to editor-in-chief Craig Vasiloff: "It's just a magazine about extremes. It's about people who stretch the limits, people who try to go a bit farther than anybody else. Obviously, there are girls in it and bikinis and beautiful bodies, 'cause that's what every guy likes to see. That's your reward for all the things you're going to do in life."
Vasiloff, an ex-rock-'n'-roller and hardcore Headstones fan, adds, "The problem with this country is that we breed mediocrity, and (will) as long as the government is gonna finance (magazines that are) crap.'
Razor's first issue features a story on Hell's Angel Sonny Barger, some babe spreads and entertainment heavily weighted toward LOUD music. "It's all too milk-flavoured now, and I think we need something with edge. A lot of the bands we've chosen -- Slipknot, Bif Naked and Nashville Pussy -- are guys who are riding the edge a little bit."
Razor will also have to convince America -- where two-thirds of their circulation is being shipped -- that they know cool, and only just happen to be based in Canada.
"Most of hipness is being part of a hip crowd -- the right names in the right places, the right clubs and the right references. If you are not seen to be on the scene, if you are never in Los Angeles or in New York, then it is not going to work," says Rowland Lorimer of the master of publishing program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
THE WRIGHT REVIEW: It's amazing to me that in 2001 a magazine would launch itself with stories on bikers and prison. If they're going after a machismo male hetero subculture by appealing to things like Hells Angels, prison slang and pretty girls, I can't imagine they're going to be viable. I don't think there are enough guys interested in bands like Slipknot and girls with their legs spread. The young male reader now is more inclusive, tolerant and well-rounded.
Point of view: "It's about people who want to do something with their lives and who are educated and willing to try. I wanted to do something with a lot of younger people I had worked with and who had great vision, great education and 9-to-5 office jobs that sucked the life out of them.'
This is Hughes's first publishing venture. He previously worked for Atlantic Records in New York and was a promotions coordinator with Mix 99.9. Fresh's debut features a couple of charming travel stories, an op-ed pieces from C-list Canadian media personalities like Citytv's Avery Haines, Buzz's Daryn Jones and CTV's Ben Mulroney.
"Fresh is going to have its work cut out for it because it's in a crowded niche," says William Shields, the editor of Masthead magazine, Canada's industry source, citing FW, Impact and UMM as direct competition, along with regional titles and national music magazines like Chart.
THE WRIGHT REVIEW: Do young people anywhere in the English-speaking world want to hear from lesser-known celebrities, or unknown personalities or celebrities, in contrast to what Eminem has to say?
One of the things that really irks me about the way people under 35 are stereotypically understood is that they are considered to be merely the sum total of the things they consume. I don't believe that for a minute, and yet in Fresh it is the core working assumption.
Point of view: "It's all about people going out and having a good time and wanting to look good," says publisher Jack Benzacar. "A bunch of my friends were Deadheads, and even Deadheads try to be vain. They had to wear the right tie-dye shirt and the dreadlocks had to be just right. I feel everyone's vain in their own way."
Benzacar left five years ago for Barbados and a plum job as the director of Elektra Group International, an offshore banking company. Vain is pure eye-candy with a reflective cover so you can actually see yourself as the cover model. Inside there are artist profiles, horoscopes and a feature article by National Post darling Rebecca Eckler about how to cut queues at clubs.
THE WRIGHT REVIEW: It amounts to little more than an advertorial for the clubs advertising in it. I also get the sense it is not really in touch with the streets. People are into fads. It's really cool to know who the hot DJ is and where the new mix sound is going, and I think this magazine has failed to capture this dynamism.
Cover price: $5.95
Office: Richmond Hill
Circulation: 45,000 for the first issue with two thirds of the total run distributed in the U.S.
Financing: Publisher Richard J. Botto, who lives in Arizona and made his fortune in e-commerce.
Issues to appear in 2001: 6
Cost of ad on back cover: $8,000 (US)
Ad-to-page ratio: 6 ad pages out of 98
FRESH Cover price: $3.99
Office: 99 Balliol (Yonge and Davisville)
Rate for ad on back cover: $8,000
Financing: Editor/publisher Jason Hughes, who says he has everything on the line
Issues to appear in 2001: 10
Ciculation: 50, 000
Ad-to-page ratio for first issue: 20/80
Cover price: Free
Office: 96 Spadina Avenue
Number of issues to appear in 2001: 12
Financing: Private investors and Jack Benzacar's savings account
Ad on the back cover: $3,600
Ad-to-page ratio: 30/70