Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with Jennifer Varkonyi, publisher of Maisonneuve, which was named Canada’s Magazine of the Year in 2016, among 5 NMAs it took home last year. A quarterly magazine of arts, literature, ideas and culture, published in English in Montreal, Maisonneuve publishes new and established writers, artists and photojournalists packaged around award-winning design.
NMAF: Congratulations again on winning Magazine of the Year in 2016, the third such honour for Maisonneuve since 2004. In presenting the award, the NMA jury said:
“Maisonneuve fulfills its bold mandate of ‘banishing boring,’ clearly striving to engage, inform and inspire. From its refreshing and imaginative art direction to its passionate editorial voice, the magazine feels like it’s constantly evolving, yet at the same time seems to connect with a sense of familiarity with its readers.”
As a publisher, how do you achieve this winning formula of evolution and continuity? And what was the significance to you and your team of winning the big award?
Jennifer: The answer is simple: the people. Maisonneuve has been blessed with great editors, art directors, writers, artists and interns who give their all to the magazine. We take the editorial process seriously, which means we do everything we can to help writers shape their stories to be the best they can be.
This striving for excellence has been a part of the magazine’s ethos from the very beginning, with founder Derek Webster’s drive to create a magazine that reflected intelligence, humour, and genuine curiosity, and the tradition has been carried forward by Carmine Starnino, Drew Nelles, Haley Cullingham, Daniel Viola and now Andrea Bennett.
Winning Magazine of the Year is significant for Maisonneuve. It reminds us that the hours upon hours of toil the editors dedicate to a fifth draft, or to tweaking display copy or scouring for typos, are noticed by readers and recognized within the magazine community. Being in Montreal can feel a little isolating at times, so coming to Toronto and winning the top honour is gratifying. The win also helps raise the magazine’s profile, especially among contributors, and it draws more people to the magazine.
NMAF: What three words or phrases describe the typical Maisonneuve reader? To what extent do you think about your current (and future) readers when you’re putting together and promoting a magazine issue?
Jennifer: I think here I have to go with the three qualities I used earlier: our readers are intelligent, have a sense of humour, and are curious about Canada and the world around them.
As publisher I consult with the editor-in-chief about upcoming issues, stories and themes, but the work of putting the content together really rests on the shoulders of the editors. Our editors ask themselves how they can best draw the reader into the story – how to begin a feature about, say, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the North? How do you grab someone’s attention when discussing the politics of creating a national park? What messages do our graphics send, and are words and images working in unison? These are the kind of questions considered around the editorial table.
NMAF: What are the biggest challenges for a (small) magazine publisher in 2017? How do you address them?
Jennifer: The biggest challenges are resources (money) and maintaining circulation. Many people have a lot of love for the magazine, but connecting with that love and growing circulation even to 5,000 is a huge challenge. That’s partly a reflection of a competitive environment: there is so much amazing content out there competing for eyeballs and subscribers.
The Internet has put small Canadian magazines into direct competition with every other magazine in the world. Without our grants from all levels of government, we would not survive. I wish we were not so dependent on these funds, but it is a reality for most small Canadian magazines. Former editor Daniel Viola recently remarked to me that Maisonneuve runs on enthusiasm, and that is exactly right. I wish we could provide more remuneration to everyone who contributes to the magazine. I think every small magazine editor and publisher in Canada feels that way!
NMAF: Maisonneuve has a national perspective, but also very clearly reflects its Quebec and Montreal heritage. In many ways, Maisonneuve could be said to be the voice of Quebec for the rest of English Canada, in literature, art and current events. How has the magazine embraced this role, and why is it important to project Quebec (and Montreal) onto the national stage?
Jennifer: Maisonneuve has always wanted to blur borders – be they real or ideological. The magazine’s identity is rooted in Montreal, but it’s a cosmopolitan identity (which is very Montreal) so the result on the page is wide-ranging and eclectic. There are regular moments, such as in the Writing from Quebec section, where we shine a light on some new writing from the francophone community, but I think the voice of Quebec is more consistently found in the excellent reporting of L’actualité and the refined cultural commentary of Nouveau Projet, for example.
Maisonneuve really is a national magazine in its scope and story selection. There was a Beaverton headline that made me laugh recently – “Montreal declared the ‘I don’t know I’m just trying to figure my shit out’ capital of Canada” – and I certainly fit this bill when I was 19 and moved to Montreal from Saskatoon. The point being: Montreal presents an alternative to the norm, be it “Toronto” or “English” or whatever – you can do things a little differently in Montreal. Maisonneuve embraces this difference, and people appreciate that.
NMAF: Based on Maisonneuve’s success, what advice would you give to small magazine publishers who are concerned they can’t compete against larger magazines on newsstands (real and virtual) or at the National Magazine Awards?
Jennifer: I think the key is to take chances. Take chances on people, on ideas, on an opening, on a story’s length. If an editor’s interest is piqued, chances are readers will be interested too. One thing that small magazines have going for them is that enthusiasm I mentioned earlier, without the punishing production cycle of larger magazines, so editors can take a little more time with a story, push for something slightly better, and the results can be astonishingly rewarding. That doesn’t pay the rent, but this is where a gold medal from the National Magazine Awards makes the sacrifices worthwhile.
National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year
Submissions to the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions. The award for Magazine of the Year honours the magazine that most consistently engages, surprises and serves the needs of its readers. This award recognizes outstanding achievement in magazine publishing over the past year.
The jury shall evaluate each candidate for Magazine of the Year according to four general criteria—quality, innovation, impact, and brand awareness—and its success relative to the magazine’s editorial mandate. Each submitter will need to complete an application form providing details supporting each criterion. There will be 5 finalists for this award and one overall winner.
The deadline for submissions for Magazine of the Year is January 27.
(For all other categories, the deadline is January 20).