Uncommon reading material

Three unique publications, all created by McGill grads, are thriving thanks to their determination to be distinct

by Lucas Wisenthal, BA’03, and Sheldon Gordon

From welfare to media empire

Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi, BA'91 (right) with Vice communications director Alex Detrick, BA'02

The story of Vice is by now the stuff of hipster legend. Three twenty-somethings with an anti-establishment streak turned a government-funded monthly newspaper into an influential lifestyle glossy known for its snarky voice and edgy content. The magazine, now distributed in 34 countries, would go on to spawn a record label, an advertising agency, two television series and a premium online video channel, among other ventures. And its founders, Shane Smith, Gavin McInnes and Suroosh Alvi, BA’91, would not sacrifice their punk sensibilities in the process.

After finishing his philosophy degree at McGill, Alvi taught English in Slovakia for a while, then began work on a graduate degree in psychology in Toronto. Returning to Montreal, Alvi decided to give journalism a try – but quickly realized the plan had a flaw.

“I was basically like, in an ideal world, I would like to work for a magazine or something along the lines of [alternative newsweeklies] the Mirror or the Hour at the time,” says Alvi, “but I was like, ‘No one’s going to give me a job. I’ve never done this before.’”

The opportunity to work in publishing arose in 1994, when Images Interculturelles, a Haitian non-profit, sought to launch an English publication. Though taking the gig meant going on welfare – part of the pay program, Alvi explains – he was on board, and Voice of Montreal was born. McInnes (who is no longer with Vice) soon joined him, and, after publishing a couple of issues, Smith followed suit.

“I think we were so naïve and ambitious and clueless,” says Alvi. “When we started, the people who had some experience in publishing in Montreal said there’s no way that this city can sustain another English, free publication in a shrinking English market.”

But Alvi and his partners looked beyond Montreal. Within a year, he says, they rechristened the magazine Vice and set up shop in their own offices. They then fashioned Vice into a national publication—“even though that only meant we were shipping some copies out to Vancouver and Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto”—and courted American advertisers, streetwear companies from California, for instance, keen on a Canadian vehicle.

As they made inroads outside of the country, they continued to distribute the magazine the only way they knew how: by giving it away in record stores, clothing boutiques and skateboard shops. “We ended up becoming the only international, free lifestyle glossy magazine out there with a 100-per-cent pick-up rate, and we really used that to our advantage,” says Alvi.

In 1998, after selling a quarter of Vice to Montreal software magnate Richard Szalwinski (from whom they would later buy the magazine back), the trio set their sights southward. “The ceiling was low in Canada,” Alvi says. “For business, we had to be in a place like New York City, where the ceiling is not low. It’s the opposite.”

Vice has since flourished. In 2006, it released The Vice Guide to Travel, a DVD that brought its aesthetic to film. “That was a revelation for us, and quickly we saw that that content, online, could scale up in a way that a print mag could not.” The magazine then brokered a deal with Viacom to introduce VBS, an online television network offering original content on music, art, sports, technology and more. “That basically supercharged the company,” says Alvi.

It also gave it enormous credibility in the eyes of more mainstream media. Now, Vice is prepping a newsmagazine, to be hosted by Smith, for HBO, which, like other companies, saw value in aligning themselves with the magazine. These firms “understand that Vice got to where it is by making the type of content that we do, and the only way to have a real engagement—engaging with the audience they’re trying to get—is through this [type of] content,” Alvi says.

The brand’s rise, however, hasn’t come without concessions. “We realized if our company’s going to grow, we have to make some changes,” says Alvi. Montreal imbued the publication and its founders with “this incredibly open-minded perspective towards our publishing, anti-censorship, freedom of expression.” But while their willingness to print controversial stories—the magazine made its name in large part through frank pieces on sex, drug use and other contentious subject matter—gave them cachet, “it’s hard to grow a business when it’s like you’re not going to play the game at all with bigger advertisers, especially in America,” says Alvi.

But despite the company’s multimedia ascent and the changes it forced, its print product remains a point of pride. Earlier this year, it was nominated for a U.S. National Magazine Award, in the General Excellence category, alongside venerable titles like The New Yorker, GQ and Bloomberg Businessweek. “We were really, really excited when it happened, and laughing at the same time, like, ‘This is ridiculous on some level,’” says Alvi.

Vice may have lost to Bloomberg Businessweek, but Alvi and company were not discouraged. Their brand, print and otherwise, has emerged as the true alternative, he says. “So many magazines went out of business over the last five years, and we kept going. It was a survival game, and that’s why I think we’re in the lead, is we just stuck with it.”

The importance of a good launch party

Maisonneuve's editor-in-chief Drew Nelles, BA'09, and its founding editor Derek Webster, DipEd'94 (Photo: Will Lew)

In spring 2002, Derek Webster, DipEd’94, introduced Maisonneuve, a quarterly general-interest magazine, at a shindig during Montreal’s Blue Metropolis literary festival.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of a party or a launch event,” says Webster, the magazine’s founding editor. “There were all sorts of writers from the festival who came to that party because we invited them. They brought news of this magazine back across the country and into the States and, in some cases, to England.”

The fledgling magazine’s renown quickly grew. Over the next decade, Maisonneuve would publish journalism and commentary by some of North America’s best-known writers, while offering young up-and-comers an invaluable vehicle for developing their emerging voices. It has now won a total of 18 Canadian National Magazine Awards, including 12 gold medals and five silver medals. And in spite of the economic uncertainty that pervades publishing, it continues to produce the work that has earned it so many accolades. This year, Maisonneuve was nominated for nine NMAs and walked away with the biggest prize of the evening, Magazine of the Year, an award it also won in 2004.

Maisonneuve began after Webster returned to Montreal from St. Louis, where he studied writing at Washington University. “I found that there were a lot of people who were around, who were intelligent, good writers and had good ideas, and I thought maybe we could get a scene going in Montreal, where a really intelligent magazine could play a role,” he says.

Webster envisioned a publication filled with high-quality writing and artful design. “I wanted to have a model for a magazine that was low-cost, and I wanted to be able to make it look good, but I didn’t want to have the whole thing turn into a big enterprise,” he says.

Ignoring the business end of publishing proved impossible, but with its young, sophisticated voice, the magazine succeeded in introducing readers to new ideas without speaking down to them. “We tried to make it seem like just a really intelligent conversation,” says Webster.

Producing a quarterly gave Webster and associate editor Carmine Starnino ample opportunity to tweak stories. “There was a lot of old-style editing, just taking the time to develop the potential. We developed a roster of editing techniques that helped us get the most out of pieces.”

He and Starnino also cultivated young talent, including Drew Nelles, BA’09, an intern who rose to the position of editor-in-chief. In 2009, Webster left Maisonneuve for Reader’s Digest. After Starnino followed suit, Nelles took the reins.

Under the former McGill Dailyite, Maisonneuve has continued to publish lengthy pieces, some of them longer than anything the magazine had run before. “I’ve really tried to focus on investigative and political journalism, and in our big, 10th anniversary issue, there’s a 7,000-word, on-the-ground feature on what really happened at Occupy Toronto last year,” says Nelles. The magazine’s winter edition included a story on snow-removal corruption in Montreal, a piece that won a Canadian Association of Journalists award for investigative reporting.

Nelles has also worked to bolster Maisonneuve’s web presence. He and Webster believe that the move to electronic platforms has not diminished readers’ appetites for long-form journalism, a fact that the magazine’s web statistics confirm.

But despite the shift toward electronic platforms, the dead-tree edition is still very much alive. Maisonneuve has begun to gain footing as a self-sustaining enterprise, says Nelles, opening the door for what he calls modest growth. “I think the last couple of years have proven for all magazines that print magazines actually aren’t going away.”

Move over, Huffington Post

Jeff Anders, BA’97, BCom’99, CEO and co-founder of The Mark (Photo: Catherine Farquharson)

Jeff Anders, BA’97, BCom’99, wants Canadians to make their mark. The 36-year-old is making his own by building a Toronto-based online media company, The Mark, which competes against the HuffingtonPost.ca in the Canadian market and has ambitious plans to expand globally.

Launched in May 2009, The Mark offers multimedia public affairs through opinion articles, video interviews, podcasts, debates, live chats, polls, and live video conferences between readers and contributors. It has more than 1,800 contributors, ranging from politicians and artists to business leaders and scholars, reflecting diverse viewpoints.

Anders got the idea while studying and working abroad during most of the 2000’s. He came across Canadians “all over the world doing interesting things” in business, academe and culture. “There are three million Canadians working outside of Canada, but there was no media organization to knit them all together,” he recalls.

He and co-founder Ali Rahnema, who is now an executive at TorStar Corp., decided the time as right for Canadians to make their mark – by sharing their expertise when it was relevant to events in the news. By publishing on the Internet, they could become a “community of global influencers.” The new media company would have two revenue streams – one from selling its editorial content to other Canadian media, and another by selling advertising on its web site.

Anders, the CEO, won’t reveal numbers, but says the company’s revenue grew by “triple digits” in 2011 from 2010, and that it achieved its first full calendar year of profitability. Clients include the PostMedia newspapers, TorStar and Rogers Publishing. “Our asset is our network of contributors,” says Anders. “We have access to the most influential newsmakers on topics of global significance.”

He concedes that the Huffington Post may not view The Mark as a formidable rival just yet, but in five years Anders hopes to have acquired a global audience. “We intend to be a media company that produces high-quality video, written and other content for as many countries as possible.” He has already syndicated content from thought leaders (both Canadians and non-Canadians) with global reach, including former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound, BCom’62, BCL’67, LLD’09, former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, BA’49, MA’50, and famed financier T. Boone Pickens.

A native of Ville St. Laurent, Anders did two degrees at McGill, including one in finance and strategic management which “positioned me to get a job straight out of undergraduate school in management consulting. That job taught me how to think about business, and set me on the path to where I am today.”

The position was with global management consultant Mercer Oliver Wyman; he spent five years in their Montreal office travelling the world to advise Fortune 500 companies. “Every three to six months, you were tackling a new business problem in a new industry in a different geography with a different team.”

Then, while earning graduate degrees in the U.S., he spent two summers working in Asia. First, he helped Hewlett Packard in India launch a team of local PhDs to do marketing analytics for Western clients. Later he worked with a software provider in China to raise capital and plan its international expansion. Those gigs provided valuable skills when it came time for Anders to heed his inner entrepreneur and launch The Mark.