Canadian Magazine Turns To Detroit, Millennial Women To Help Save It

By Frank Witsil
Detroit Free Press

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Even though the publishers of “Geez” grew up on digital communication, they say they believe there’s something about holding paper that feels special. They hope that their new home in Detroit will inspire some creative solutions to a dying print industry.

Detroit Free Press

In the cramped quarters of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church’s Peace and Justice Hive in Corktown, three young women are trying to create a miracle, turning to the little they have to publish a magazine into a media form that will reach a multitude.

Geez — an irreverent Canadian publication that focuses on religion, social justice and progressive politics — recently moved to Detroit, more specifically, Corktown, in an effort to save it from financial collapse.

“Everyone is pretty sober about the fact that print media is struggling and lots of print has gone under,” said Lucia Wylie-Eggert, the quarterly’s art director. “It has to partly be a passion project. We are hopeful and we have a lot of youth and energy and we hope will find some creative solutions.”

In this case, “passion project” is a euphemism for working for little pay.

The tiny publication’s bold, and perhaps quixotic, effort to reset in another city, another country, underscores the print industry’s struggles in a digital age as subscriptions and ad revenues are in decline.

But, whether the effort succeeds or fails, the magazine represents the ambitions of young women, who are taking an entrepreneurial path to do something that matters to them — the ethos of the millennial generation. They are determined, confident, independent and more concerned with making a difference than making money.

“We’d rather do what is ethical and contributes to the world than be in a corporate setting,” Wylie-Eggert said. “And we’re willing to make the sacrifices, if we need to, to do it.”

They also are aiming to capitalize on two things that economic developers seeking to attract businesses large and small to Detroit say makes the city special: a gritty, hardworking, never-say-die spirit and proximity to Canada.

“It’s a really good fit because we are on the border,” Wylie-Eggert, 29, said, explaining the strategy to relocate 1,200 miles from Winnipeg to Detroit. “The magazine has a long history of being a Canadian publication and holding up the Canadian voice.”

And, as much as this move presents opportunity, it also poses another challenge.

“There are many longtime readers who are nervous to give their publication over to America that already has such a dominant culture in the world,” Wylie-Eggert said. “But, we’re grateful we can ‘commute,’ essentially, and collaborate with Windsor and other folks in Canada, and we can keep this perspective open.”

New business plan
Aiden Enns, who lives in Winnipeg and had been a journalist for church publications, co-founded the magazine as a nonprofit and ad-free quarterly with a religious and social activist bent.

For 13 years, it survived off revenues from subscriptions, donations and the understanding of staff and freelance writers who were more interested in creating art and expression than getting wealthy.

The magazine’s name is a variation of “jeez,” an abbreviation for Jesus, and, when used as an interjection, expresses either surprise and amazement or annoyance, distaste, and even contempt.

“Basically, we wanted to be shit-disturbers in the church,” Enns, 57, said. “We wanted to appeal to the younger generation who were disappointed with older folks who get really upset when you take the Lord’s name in vain, but don’t get upset when a nation drops bombs on another killing innocent civilians.”

The magazine’s covers are in color and its 64 pages, in black-and-white.

Articles have been on a variety of topics, including: “wealth distribution,” “fear and social change,” “gay identity,” “gender flex,” “being a girl sucks,” “the cosmology of damnation,” “the death knell of Christianity,” and even “the future of food in an urbanized world.”

But, in recent years, with staff turnover, declining circulation and not enough revenue to regularly pay its staff, the publication sought a new approach. Enns turned to one of the magazine’s section editors, Lydia Wylie-Kellermann.

“He was sort of realizing that both financially and energy-wise, in Winnipeg, it wasn’t something that they could continue to sustain,” she said. “He was looking to see: Is this a moment where the magazine dies or is there a way to pass it on?”

Currently, the magazine has a North American circulation of about 1,000 with about 60 percent of its subscribers in Canada and the rest in the United States. A single copy is $12. The $39 annual subscription barely covers payroll, and it takes in another $30,000 or so in donations that go to printing and other overhead expenses to meet an annual budget of about $70,000.

To save the magazine, Wylie-Kellermann — Wylie-Eggert’s older sister — proposed moving the offices to Detroit, where the sisters already lived, and running it as the new editor.

Assembling a staff
The sisters, who are three years apart and both have their own families, grew up in Detroit. Their parents, Bill and Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann were activists who both wrote books. Their father is a minister and their late mother, Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann, ran a religious magazine, The Witness.

The 1990 book she wrote, “Poletown: Community Betrayed,” was about how 4,200 residents in a Polish neighborhood lost their homes in the 1980s to make way for a General Motors factory that the automaker now plans to close.

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, who works at the same small wooden desk her mom once wrote from, graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in theology and women’s studies, and became an activist, too.

She started working part-time for Geez about six years ago, first as a freelance writer, then, remotely, as a section editor.

Becoming the magazine’s editor, Wylie-Kellermann said, “felt like a dream come true,” but “it also very clear it was not something I could do on my own.”

So, she recruited her sister, who lived on the same street in Detroit, to help. She also studied at Loyola and studied, among other things, public relations. Wylie-Eggert also oversees design for Riverwise Magazine, a community publication by the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center.

They recruited Kateri Boucher, 23, to be an assistant editor. She grew up in Rochester, New York, graduated from Hamilton College and worked for a year in Boston with the Quaker Voluntary Service program before moving to Detroit.

A fourth woman, Em Jacoby, 33, joined as finance director, working remotely from Chicago. Jacoby graduated from Grand Valley State University, and lived in Detroit before moving with her husband out of state.

For now, Enns — the only man — is staying on, and and will remain in Winnipeg.

All of the women but Boucher are mothers with young children, which Wylie-Kellermann expects will play a role in editorial choices. It will create, she said, a more “feminine voice.”

“I love that it’s moms,” Wylie-Kellermann said. “The office will be crawling with infants and ways of thinking about models about working that can support being able to work in the midst of little kids.”

Inside the church
To keep costs down, they are taking part-time pay, and renting about 150 square feet of office space for $200 a month at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a nearly 100-year-old church where Bill Wylie-Kellermann, had been a pastor.

The church space also serves as offices to more than a half-dozen other nonprofit groups. The environment is traditional and contemporary, with old stain-glass windows and colorful, modern wall murals.

On a clear day, the Geez staff can look out their small, second-story office window, and see the Detroit skyline.
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann — who has a wife and two sons, age 5 and 3 — said that in addition to being close to Canada, Detroit offers other opportunities. It has a history of social justice movements and inequality.

The social justice issues are different from those in Canada, she acknowledged. In Detroit, there are concerns about poverty, racial inequality and health care that Canada isn’t facing or is dealing with in other ways, she said.

But, she added, the struggles’ broader themes are similar.

Business challenges
Still, if the recent fortunes of other print-based newsrooms are any indication, Geez’s fresh start in a new city might not be enough to solve the financial woes the magazine is trying to leave behind.

The print-publication business is challenged nationwide, and the pressure to publish online — which is faster and eliminates the high costs of printing and delivery — is one reason why.

From 2008 to 2017, the number of newspaper newsroom jobs fell from 71,000 to 39,000, or about 45 percent, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

In 2010, Newsweek — a well-known national publication — was sold for $1. Since then, it changed hands and went through different financial plans. It was all-digital for a couple years, then in 2014, went back to being a print magazine.

In October, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger reportedly said in an interview that in 20 years, the number of journalists “has dropped faster than the number of coal miners.” And last month alone, the news business cut about 1,000 jobs.

Added to that is the memory of a failed effort a decade ago of a new print publication.

After the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News cut home delivery every day, publishing brothers Mark and Gary Stern saw a business opportunity and created the Detroit Daily Press based in Royal Oak.

Plagued with problems, it shut down within a month.

Their last hope
Detroit native Rodney Curtis, who had been laid off from the Free Press and briefly worked as a Daily Press photo editor, said that his short-lived experience there showed how hard it has become for publications to succeed — even in a city where grit defies the impossible.

Curtis, 56, now works as a freelancer, photographing a lot of weddings and portraits. He also teaches journalism workshops on writing and photography. He thought the brothers who started the Daily Press had some things doing for them, too.

“They thought they could crack the code. But it didn’t work,” he said, adding that doesn’t mean Geez, or any other publishers with a dream will fail. “I wish this company all the success in the world.”

Fred Vultee, an associate professor of journalism at Wayne State University, said that Geez, unlike big-city newspapers, might be able to make its plan to reset in Detroit a success.

“They don’t have a lot of barriers in front of them,” he said. “It sounds like they are motivated. There are people who are already here. And lots of things seem to be working in favor.”

And that kind of optimistic analysis makes the Geez staff smile.

Even though they grew up on digital communication, they said they believe there’s something about holding paper that feels special. And, they added, they think people are now “disillusioned with the digital world.”

Still, the new editor acknowledged that this move is likely a last hope for Geez. She said that if they can’t find a way to pay the bills — to turn the few fish and loaves they have into much more — the publication will end.
The magazine’s 52nd edition is set to publish in March.

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