La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Canada Council Drops Support for Controlled-Circulation Magazines

by Wah Keung Chan
The Canada Council for the Arts has quietly dropped support for controlled-circulation print magazines in the Support for Arts and Literary Magazines component of its 2010 application process due on March 1, 2009. In an email, program officer Peter Schneider explained how the decision was reached, "Following this six-year period [actually 7 years –Ed], Council acted in 2008 to restore the previous guidelines, based upon its experience and the advice of peer assessment committees over the time period." Schneider has yet to explain the reasons for restoring the previous guidelines, or say who was responsible for making the decision.
At issue is the “Lola” clause (after the now-defunct Toronto visual arts magazine) in the application guidelines, which stated that an eligible magazine must “maintain at least a 25 percent ratio of revenues earned from paid circulation or advertising.” In 2002, when the program was modified, the reason given by the then-program officer Joanne Laroque-Poirier was that the 25% autonomous revenues rule was adopted to ensure that a publication had readership. She said that the 50% paid circulation rule was instituted to ensure that a publication had a minimum readership. The reason advertising revenues were added to eligibility was the understanding that advertisers would not support a magazine if it did not have an established readership. This reason is as valid today as it was then.
Furthermore, as the restoration to previous guidelines is a step backwards, it seems to be behind the times in magazine publishing. For instance, after an extensive study of the magazine industry, last summer, the Ontario Arts Council revised its eligibility criteria for arts magazines rending controlled-circulation magazines eligible. Moreover, it established groundbreaking criteria (no more than 40% advertising, and a cap at 30,000 copies per issue). Recently, the new Canada Periodical Fund, announced on February 17, 2009, has suggested that the eligibility criteria of a minimum annual paid/requested circulation be instituted. Although the suggested 5000-copy limit is too high for most arts magazine, a variation should be considered to bring eligibility in line with other Canadian Heritage departments.
One of the magazines most directly affected by this decision is the 13-year-old Montreal-based bilingual non-profit classical music publication La Scena Musicale (LSM), one of Canada’s most respected arts periodicals, which discovered the change from the Council’s website only as it was preparing this year’s application. Previously a recipient of Canada Council funding as an electronic magazine, LSM has recently been attempting to obtain funding to the print component. Vancouver-based FRONT Magazine, perhaps the only publication besides Lola to have received funding under this clause, was unaware of the rule’s change when we first contacted them on February 23. However, according to FRONT editor Andreas Kahre, Schneider assured the publication it would continue to be eligible under a grandfather clause absent from the published 2010 guidelines.
For La Scena Musicale, the issue is a matter of principle and transparency. Although controlled-circulation arts magazines represent a minority, they have been innovators in outreach for the arts and should be eligible for funding. For instance, La Scena Musicale publishes 10 issues per year averaging 25,000 copies per issue reaching 500,000 Canadian readers, plus a world-wide audience on the internet. In 2007-08, the Canada Council funded 106 arts & literary magazines for a total of $2,661,900.

The fact that the change was made without consultation and that concerned parties were not notified also indicates a lack of transparency in the process.
La Scena Musicale has launched a campaign to reverse this policy change, including an online petition and a Facebook group. See link below. Contact: info@scena.org.
[Update] Since our post, the story has been picked up by two of the most important sites on Canadian magazine:
The Canadian Magazine Blog acquire the following comments from the Canada Council:

The Canada Council says that the changes to the eligibility rules were published on the website in December, a paper package went to all CC clients in January and in an electronic version 2 weeks later. It is not the practice to send out notifications to previously unsuccesful applicants or to people not considered clients. (Another rule change made program guides were excluded.)

The change was recommended by peer juries who did not feel the provision was a good fit and felt that they did not want to frustrate applicants who had little chance of being successful.

The new rule affects, at most, 1 to 3 existing clients and, in those cases the peer juries have the ability to recommend an exception be made.

The so-called Lola clause was brought in internally, without public consultation, and didn't even result in a grant being given (see comment below)since the publication that sparked it felt four times as much was what was needed. (Note: the average beginning grant for most CC clients is about $7,000.) Ultimately the magazine went out of business.

[Update 2] Here is my response to comments made by the Canada Council to the Canadian Magazines Blog:

Thanks for writing the story and procuring the comments from the Canada Council. Although many government departments make internal decisions without consultation, however, it is surprising that the Canada Council would make internal decisions without consultation given the following statement found on the Council's website, "the Canada Council is committed to the principles of transparency and accountability." This principle of transparency is also hollow given the quote "It is not the practice to send out notifications to previously unsuccessful applicants or to people not considered clients." Is that a new policy for government to ONLY serve those groups that receive existing grants?

I found it refreshing when I received the email notice of the next grant from the Canada Magazine Fund even when LSM was not a recent client. Also, why is it that the Canada Periodical Fund, also in the Department of Canadian Heritage, is seeking open consultations?

It sounds quite considerate of the Canada Council when they state that "The change was recommended by peer juries who did not feel the provision was a good fit and felt that they did not want to frustrate applicants who had little chance of being successful." However, it seems to me that this decision just makes it easier for Council personnel and jury members, as they would have fewer applicants to deal with.

The above quote also gives the implication that the Canada Council considers that controlled circulation magazines are necessarily inferior to "regular" arts magazines. Technically speaking, Lola WAS given a grant by the Canada Council jury at the time, but they closed down and did not use the money. FRONT, another controlled-circulation magazine is also a regular grant recipient. In our 13 years of publishing, La Scena Musicale has always striven for editorial and graphical excellence. We were awarded grants for five years to the electronic magazine component, but recently, we chose to lower our print run to meet the Canada Council print eligibility criteria in order to apply in this component. The main issue is the principle that all arts print publications should be treated in an equal and fair manner, and that includes being evaluated by the peer jury.

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