The Montreal-based magazine's editor-in-chief talks to us about what keeps the lights on at an independent Canadian publication.
Maisonneuve, the Montreal-based quarterly magazine, is a general-interest publication, which makes it hard to describe without comparing it to other mags. It’s a cooler Walrus, a Vice without nude photo spreads and written to a higher level of reading comprehension, or even a Harper’s, except Canadian and for younger people—and relatively small.
But no matter how it’s described, one crucial thing about Maisonneuve is that it’s a very good magazine, capable of bringing readers dispatches from places as disparate as Afghanistan, FanExpo, and even, once, a furry convention. Another crucial thing is that Maisonneuve is now ten years old. In fact, the latest issue is a tenth-anniversary special. It’s available on newsstands all over Toronto, so if for some reason you’ve never cracked a copy, now would be a good time to do that.
Drew Nelles, Maisonneuve‘s 25-year-old editor-in-chief (he took over for co-founder Carmine Starnino a year ago) spoke to us about a few of the things that have leant his mag its longevity.
Torontoist: Most Canadian magazine editors seem to be in their forties or fifties. Do you think a magazine gains something from being edited by someone younger?
Nelles: Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t want to belittle the efforts of people who are 30, 40, or 50. But yeah, I really do think it does gain something. And even editors who are maybe over 40, I think the best ones are often really enthusiastic about having younger people involved with the titles. Obviously it’s just that injection of fresh energy and injection of people who pay a little bit closer attention to cultural and technological developments, and that kind of thing.
I’ve done my best to make Maisonneuve feel young and exciting while making sure not to alienate readers who might be a bit older than me. And I think that’s one of the things that makes Maisonneuve most interesting.
So this interview is sort of a promotional opportunity. I have to admit that I haven’t bought a copy of the new issue yet. Can you give me the sales pitch?
Basically, it’s our big tenth-anniversary issue. We just wanted to put an issue together to celebrate the magazine’s first decade. It’s 16 pages larger than the issue that we generally do. It’s perfect bound, and most of our issues are saddle stitched. So we did want to create more of a real cultural document. And it’s got a huge amount of writing that I’m really, really excited about.
The lead feature is a piece by Tim Falconer, who’s a well-known Toronto journalist and author. Basically, Tim, his biggest passion in life is music. He really loves music, but he’s never been able to sing. So, he set out to figure out why exactly somebody who is tone deaf loves music so much, because that’s actually relatively rare. So, this turns into a really fascinating journey into the science and culture of music.
Another feature is, the idea is “what really happened at Occupy Toronto.” It’s an on-the-ground report on all the internal struggles among the organizers, the struggles between the homeless population and the hardcore drug users and the activists, and how those tensions were resolved. [The writer] did a lot of really incredible scenes. I guess there was one instance where a group of people tried to chase a couple people out of the park and a group of them ended up at Petro-Canada, and one of the guys had a nozzle and a lighter and threatened to blow the place up.
Maisonneuve is pretty eclectic. What guidelines do you set for yourself to make sure that features aren’t so different from issue to issue that readers who are expecting a particular thing are turned off?
I think I usually say, when you receive a proposal for a piece, when you see it, you know if it’s going to be good, or if it’s going to be bad. The subject matter in that sense is not incidental, but there are a lot of other factors that you keep in mind, like the strength of the writing, for example. So I think when we receive a proposal we just have to keep in mind, is this something we could see doing in Maisonneuve or does it belong in another magazine? Is it broad-minded enough to fit the mandate of a true general-interest magazine?
It seems to me that today, if you were interested in doing something for a younger group of readers, you’d probably do it online in one way or another—not because the revenues are there, but because it’s cheaper and easier to set up. Do you think something like Maisonneuve could start up today, or would it be something in another form?
I think one of the things to keep in mind is that the transition to digital hasn’t hurt magazines the way it’s hurt newspapers. I mean, it obviously has had some effect. A lot of magazine circulation is down across the board, but it’s not really a crisis the way it is with newspapers. People are still engaging with magazines and I think that’s because it is a bit of a different publishing model. It’s not struggling to be updated daily; it’s something that people are able to hold in their hands and spend a lot of time with, and that’s something that people are only just starting to get used to doing on tablets.