Our focus is changing

By Leslie Campbell, February 2016

After 28 years as a monthly print magazine, we’re going to begin to decarbonize.

Focus editor Leslie CampbellIN 1988 I STARTED the pre-cursor to Focus, a monthly magazine called Focus on Women. Those were the days when a person with no money, a friend’s Mac Plus, a waxer, a bit of moxie, and a lot of help from friends, could start a magazine. And survive. Although when I think of producing page layouts on that six-inch screen, I am not sure how we did it. 

Technology has always been key to being able to produce a monthly magazine. From 28 years on, though, the “advanced desktop publishing technology” we used back in ’88 seems archaic. When I rented a photocopier that could re-size logos for the ads, which were all cut and paste affairs, it was a huge step forward. Those were pre-scanner days. The “waxer” was a little electric hand-roller that had a cavity containing melted wax. You rolled the back of pages with the wax and pasted them onto large, four-page printer flats, carefully aligning them with the print area (a light table helped). Then we had to paste up the editorial images and ads. Photo mechanical transfers (PMTs) were screened photos made for us to the needed size at Island Blueprint on a room-size camera.

Once completed, the flats were driven to the printer—after which I collapsed for a few days. Then I and some volunteers loaded our cars with bundles of magazines and dropped them off at numerous distribution sites.

It’s fascinating for me—321 editions later—to reflect on such beginnings and the changes I’ve lived through as an editor and owner of a local magazine. I was there before scanners and faxes and pagers and cell phones, let alone digital cameras, the internet and online proofing. When I compare the early days of producing Focus on Women to our pre-press production now, about the only similarity is still having a few late nights prior to our press deadline—and thankfully not as late.

Besides the technology, there have been other changes of course. The biggest one was the shift in focus. In 2004, David Broadland and I transformed Focus on Women to Focus: “Victoria’s monthly magazine of people, ideas, and culture.” Around the same time, we went from newsprint to full-colour glossy pages. And soon thereafter, we started publishing our stories on our website, www.focusonline.ca.

Though there’ve been plateaus, change has been a near constant in our publishing careers. But it’s the web that has been the biggest game-changer. Research is so much easier that we do a lot more of it. We can publish stories almost instantaneously. Online, we can reach far more people, for far less cost, at the expense of far fewer or no trees. If we find out a new fact, or heaven forbid, find out something we published is not accurate, we can immediately correct it online, rather than wait a full month. We can reach younger people for whom a printed product seems a bit alien. The web allows more possibilities, too, for interaction, between Focus and our readers, as well as between readers who share the stories. It also allows stories to be told with sound and moving images.

For those very reasons, the web has been massively disruptive to the publishing industry. For years now we’ve been hearing of the transformations among media players; the movement of ad revenue away from print and towards the web; the lack of a sustainable model for funding investigative journalism, particularly at the local level; the competition for attention from Facebook and all that click bait the internet dishes up.

It can be unsettling at times. This January alone brought news of Postmedia collapsing its newsrooms in four cities; the 141-year-old Nanaimo Daily News being shuttered by Black Press; the even older Guelph Mercury (the only paper in its city) closing its print operations; the elimination of 200 positions at Rogers Media (which owns 40 magazines, as well as TV and radio stations); and the loss of hundreds more jobs at the Toronto Star. Again, that’s just in the past month in Canada.

It is hard for big and small players alike to find a way to pay for quality journalism. But it may well be easier for small, nimble, lean publishers like Focus to carve out a niche for journalism’s survival. We have less baggage and are fuelled more by passion for telling our community’s stories than by making a profit.

Inevitably, the web is the place to be for virtually any publisher. For Focus, the opportunities luring us to do more online are too many to resist. Our digital magazine offers the ability to produce more journalism about local and regional issues and the arts, as well as a community forum, all without the big press bill. We can provide updates on the website about developments in the stories our writers cover regularly—from homelessness, sewage treatment, and the City’s new bridge, to art shows and environmental news. 

Because many of our readers still express a strong affinity for reading words on paper, we will continue to print Focus but on a bi-monthly schedule—starting next month with our March/April edition (my 322nd). The print edition will be more robust, with more pages, more visual arts coverage, interviews, and investigative reporting. But the reduced frequency of printing and the fewer constraints on our time that will accompany it, will allow us to explore how to further our mission—to foster dialogue on important local social, political and environmental issues and celebrate the arts—in the wide-open spaces online.

Finally, applying the climate change lens, all businesses are going to have to work towards decarbonizing their businesses. For us the obvious way to do that is to lower our consumption of CO2-absorbing trees.

At Focus we strive to provide independent, critical analysis of issues that would likely otherwise not be covered. We plan to do more of that more often, online. 

Though independently owned by David and I, Focus is really a community project, reflecting this special place of ours and involving the people who inhabit it. Thanks for being here—in print and online.

After 28 years with Focus, Leslie Campbell thinks she’ll make it to 30—though she never would have believed that back in 1988. And she never would have imagined all the twists and turns and wonders along the way.