When Gary Ross, former editor of three major Canadian magazines, author of four books, screenwriter, publisher, and recipient of a dozen National Magazine Awards, invites me to meet him at a downtown café after lunch on a Tuesday afternoon, I feel very urban professional, very writerly.
Thierry Chocolaterie is noisy and the pace of the patrons urgent. Ross is waiting for me when I arrive exactly on time. He is polite and graciously accepts my offer to pay for his latté. He is relaxed and unhurried, with the confidence of someone who is used to being in charge. As an aspiring magazine writer, I am excited to have an hour with this baron of the magazine world. Until he starts talking.
“When I was at Saturday Night magazine in the mid-eighties, I remember saying to a particular writer, ‘Here’s a great story for you, I can pay $4,000 for 4,000 words,’” he begins. “She said, ‘I can barely live on that. You want me to spend two or three months on this story for $4,000?’ Then when I was the editor of Saturday Night in 2006 I talked to the same writer—it was the same pay: $4,000, 4,000 words. She said, ‘We had this conversation 20 years ago.’”
“That’s the process that we’ve been seeing,” he continues, driving a stake further into my dreams. “You used to be able to make a living as a freelance writer, if you were good and efficient . . . now it’s basically impossible.”
Gary Ross assures me: he is not cynical—he’s realistic. He knows Canadian magazines, he knows the market and he knows why, after six years as editor-in-chief of Vancouver Magazine, he was unceremoniously ejected by Transcontinental Media West due to “well thought-out re-structuring.”
“I totally understand the business dynamic involved in shrinking the magazine and letting me go,” Ross says. “I totally get it. If it was my money, I would have done the same thing.”
But he acknowledges the move as a signal of what he believes is an irreversible downturn in the quality and content of print magazines. He calls what he was doing at Vanmag prior to the layoff “managing decline,” and says he was doing a lot of it after 2009. “Vanmag had some authority in food and drink for a while. After our restaurant awards, the winning restaurants would get really booked up, people would go and check them out.”
But, he explains, as restaurant reviews become ever more freely available from food bloggers and user-contributed sites such as Yelp!, consumers no longer need to wait for a monthly magazine to tell them where to eat. On top of this, fine dining itself has been in decline, making way for “cheap and cheerful” places, and unfortunately for Vanmag, he notes, cheap and cheerful uses social media.
As readers move online, so do advertisers, naturally, and readership declines, resulting in a downward spiral of less revenue, less quality and fewer readers. “Which, for awhile,” Ross says, “is a fun challenge. And then it’s a terrible grind.”
“Magazines are trying to find ways to stay alive and advertisers are trying to embed their advertising right into the editorial. They’re trying to find ways that aren’t traditional advertising approaches, and magazines really have no choice but to accommodate them if they want to keep going. It’s not a good time for magazines.”
He insisists he’s not sorry to be out of the magazine world. “I don’t like the frustration of having [fewer] resources all the time—letting somebody go, having your editorial budget cut back another 10 per cent, not being able to use the kind of freelance talent you would like.”
As the interview ends, my feet now firmly planted in reality, Ross’s parting words to me are: “Choose your career path carefully.” Since the layoff he’s moved into corporate communications consulting and content development, but he hasn’t given up on magazines entirely. He helped launch a new media property, Modern Farmer, which will include quarterly print editions. He’s diversifying, but he’s still writing and editing.
“Whatever talent I have lies in that area,” he says. “I don’t have a good business mind. I’m not good with numbers. I don’t like bureaucracies.”
“I don’t like being accountable to idiots,” he says with an ironic smile. “I’d rather be accountable to my own form of idiocy.”