There's Something About Kerry

Kerry Mitchell's impressive career in magazine publishing has often been controversial, especially because of her alleged tendency to dabble in editorial. But the higher she gets at Rogers Publishing, the more questions crop up—about her plans for her publications, and the company's plans for her

Maiya Keidan and Robyn Urback
March 3, 2010 | Comments (3) - Report an Error
credit: Enza Anderson

Wherever Kerry Mitchell goes, tales of an interfering publisher follow. There are judgments: incessant micromanagement, a hungry ambition and a cool demeanour. There are whispers: former Chatelaine editor-in-chief Sara Angel allegedly threw furniture at her after one too many fights over editorial control. There is vitriol: some people can't stand her, plain and simple—though they'd never say it publicly. And the latest rumour: she's crossed Rogers Publishing leading man Ken Whyte, a feat that could herald the end of the Mitchell regime.

Loved by some and feared by many, Mitchell is a rapidly rising star in magazine publishing. Her voracious quest to find something more, something better, something, perhaps, unreachable has affected every publication she's worked for. And not just in atmosphere. Mitchell has tentacles in all aspects of her magazines. Industry rumours even accuse her of dabbling in display writing—angering editors as a result.

Her involvement may seem intrusive to some of her underlings, but it's no longer an anomaly in publisher-editor relationships. "Hands-on" is the new "removed overseer." While there are no "maybes" about Mitchell—those who have worked under her either extol or despise her—her successes don't lie. Though it may seem she's just in it for herself, her profit-turning prowess has made her popular with the higher-ups.

Mitchell has been in the magazine industry for over 20 years. Once a researcher at Chatelaine, she started taking the reins in the mid-1990s. An executive with publishing house Key's Where International from 1992 to 1995 before joining Telemedia, Mitchell became publisher of Equinox, founding publisher of Style at Home and publisher of Canadian Living. She left Telemedia in 2000, shortly after Transcontinental bought the company, and then joined Rogers in 2002, becoming the publisher of Profit until 2004. Later that year, she added the publisher job at Chatelaine to her resume.

She hasn't relied just on her pumps to take her to new heights. Mitchell and Whyte now run the show over at Rogers. Several publishers have left, quietly surrendering or "retiring." Former Flare publisher Orietta Minatel was ousted when Mitchell took over that magazine (along with Glow and Cosmetics) in June 2009. Today's Parent publisher Ildiko Marshall has also left the building.

Mitchell has collected magazines much as Whyte amassed titles. He became publisher of Canadian Business, Profit and MoneySense, along with his posts as publisher and editor-in-chief at Maclean's. Some observers, such as David Swick, instructor of journalism ethics at University of King's College in Halifax, are wary of their abilities to juggle their growing dominions. As he said in an e-mail, "Fractured energy naturally means less energy for each individual focus."

As the industry evolves, the presence of the micromanaging publisher becomes more familiar and resistance is (somewhat) subdued. In days of old, publishers and editors respected the "church and state" divide—publishers stuck to business and editors to content. But for better or worse, that chasm is closing, and publishers such as Mitchell are at the forefront. "Kerry tends to be less 'church and state,'" says Dré Dee, who worked with her as a senior features editor at Chatelaine. "It's not the old days anymore when it comes to women's books." Indeed, Mitchell had her hands in every aspect of the publication, down to asking editors to change the colour of cover text.

Lee Oliver also had an issue with her changing text, but what sticks out in his mind was a call for a change at the end of a production cycle. Oliver, who was senior editor at Profit from 2003 to 2004, says the team took a copy of the finished magazine to Mitchell as a courtesy. But she didn't like the cover—the shade of blue text was off, and she wanted it changed. Some staff members traded frustrated glances. And then they did as they were told.

Such incidents didn't always bring out Mitchell's cordial side. "I wouldn't characterize her as an openly warm or friendly person," says Dee, before qualifying, "but I wouldn't expect that of a publisher."

Others weren't so quick to concede—notably Kim Pittaway, who quit the editor-in-chief position at Chatelaine in 2005 after less than a year. There'd been "a fundamental disagreement about which areas of responsibility were mine and which were the publisher's," The Globe and Mail quoted Pittaway at the time. "The publisher told me my opinion was important, but hers was very, very important." Mitchell wanted lively covers to boost newsstand sales. So, copies of Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping and O started appearing during story meetings to serve as examples. Next came a consultant, hired in August 2005 to suggest further changes. Soon after, Pittaway went on vacation, returning only to collect her things. And that's when Chatelaine's revolving door started spinning.

"Editor-publisher conflict can create a better product," says Swick. "That is if they actually listen to and learn from one another. When the relationship is based on power and fear, no one wins—especially the reader."

Since Mitchell took over the magazine in 2004, there have been four editors-in-chief, and about 15 other staffers have left—movement that can be attributed to "poor hires and mistreatment" in Dee's view. Still, Chatelaine flourished in the second half of 2005. Readership surged by nine percent and Mitchell survived all the chaos. The magazine embraced new ways of approaching advertising. Models started appearing on covers again, replacing mouth-watering food spreads. Another change was more shocking: the July 2005 issue included a 16-page "bonus section" on outdoor living, clearly branded with Home Depot and Chatelaine logos. It was a throw to the section on the front cover, though, that caused the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors to slam the edition for too radically blurring the line between advertising and editorial.

And yet the magazine is still successful, raking in an estimated $56.5 million in 2008 under Mitchell's leadership, despite the ever-changing masthead.

But can it last? "Whatever's happening there, the symptoms are clear," says Paul Benedetti, program coordinator of the Master of Arts in Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario. "If you hire talented, smart, experienced people to run your magazine, you have to let them run it. The more you meddle, the more you run the risk of losing your editor or derailing your magazine."

He believes a healthy publication has the right people serving specific interests. That means publishers working with advertisers, and editors writing to readers. But recent trends reflect more publishers picking fonts, and when they can't tell Arial from other sans serifs, the results aren't pretty. The content suffers when "the wrong person is creating the wrong content for the wrong audience," Benedetti says. "The publisher still sees the advertiser as the customer, and that's wrong."

Still, some observers think the shift is inevitable. "Shrinking revenue probably has a lot to do with it," says Mark Hamilton, a journalism instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. "As finances get tighter, the editorial job gets trickier and the whole newsroom goes into survival mode." But Hamilton doesn't think the greater editorial role played by some publishers is necessarily a bad thing, "as long as there's a willingness to listen and communicate."

Mitchell can play that role, too. Lise Ravary, editorial director of women's titles and new magazine brands at Rogers Publishing, says, "Kerry is very, very open. She loves to surround herself with people who will argue with her. She respects that." But in the end, Mitchell makes up her mind and the debate is finished. "That," says Ravary, "is what a good manager does."

When Mitchell was publisher and ad director of Profit, she reported to Deborah Rosser, who was publisher of Canadian Business, and the two had a professional, respectful relationship. "Kerry helped improve the profitability of the publication," says Rosser. "She's very smart, focused, knows what she wants and goes for it."

And she wasn't going to settle, whether she was dealing with copy or her own career. When Rosser hired her, she knew Mitchell, who was experienced and overqualified, would soon want bigger and better things. "I told her, 'I want two years from you.'" She got a year-and-a-half. Oliver also sensed her restlessness. "Maybe I'm a big baby, but her head always seemed somewhere further in the game," he says. "She always seemed to be thinking three steps ahead. She wasn't that engaged with her staff." To him, Mitchell's year-and-a-half was clearly just a stepping stone.

In spite of her supposed transgressions, Mitchell has her allies. Ian Portsmouth, long-time editor-in-chief at Profit, says, "I loved working with her. I was very sad when she left; I was the first person she called." The pair still meets for coffee, and Portsmouth has fond memories of their time working together. "Her door was literally always open."

Craig Offman, too, who worked under Mitchell as an executive editor at Chatelaine in 2006, said she was always warm with him. She remembered his kids' names, and even threw a party for him at the Drake Hotel in Toronto when he left. "Which was nice," he says, "because she always adhered to a strict budget. It shows the kind of person she was with me." Offman didn't face the same sort of power struggles with Mitchell as Pittaway did. "I went there with an understanding that I was helping out," he says. "I had no desire to be editor-in-chief."

Mitchell's manner hasn't always curried favour with her staff. "When at a function, you'd see people break into groups," says Oliver. "And you'd see people like Kerry who gravitate towards CEOs and power brokers over the editors." The workplace wasn't much different: she'd walk by him and act like he wasn't even there. "She did not have a lot of words to say," notes Dee, "and when she did, they were in CEO-speak."

The way she carries herself has tended to isolate her in the past. A former Telemedia employee fondly recalls how much the team socialized, but "Kerry definitely didn't fit in," he says. Perhaps that's what she wants, though—to maintain a distance from those working under her.

That same effort to ensure separation does not extend to her "church and state" philosophy when it comes to magazines. "She was not afraid to wade into matters editorial," according to an e-mail from Janice McLean, who was art director at Equinox. "That quality didn't (and doesn't) distinguish her from many other male publishers of that era and this one. It may have left a little metaphorical blood on the office floor, but that's not uncommon either."

Though Mitchell's bouts with editor Jim Cormier were legendary, Alan Morantz, another former editor at Equinox, likes her. When the magazine sold, he was the only staff member to stay on, moving up to editor-in-chief. Mitchell mailed him a letter "out of the blue," wishing him well. "She didn't have to do that," he says. Morantz admits he wasn't privy to the day-to-day tensions at Equinox, though he heard about the fights, which neither he nor anyone from the defunct magazine will recount. He admits, however, that he can see how others might perceive her as frosty.

Like her or not, little of Mitchell's personality creeps out from the cloaked image she presents in the workplace. Some find that professionalism admirable and respect it. Others are just dying for a sense of the real person, who refused to speak to the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Ken Whyte also did not respond to interview requests.

But her rising star status is now in question. Ask one person and she's planted her feet. Ask another and she's battling Whyte for a top spot at Rogers, allegedly made vacant by senior vice-president of consumer publishing Marc Blondeau's departure last fall. Maybe she's being groomed, or maybe it's only a matter of time until someone pulls the chair out from under her, too. It's hard to tell if hers is a situation that is truly unknowable, or if those around her are simply hedging their bets.

And as for the staff at One Mount Pleasant? The ground continues to tremble with ferocity. In early March, six more Chatelaine employees were shooed out of the glass building, this after editor-in-chief Maryam Sanati was fired to pave the way for Jane Francisco back in December 2009. This led to plenty of rumours, of course, but here's a fact: Mitchell is missing from the magazine's most recent masthead. In her place? Ken Whyte.


Ken Whyte responds 

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COMMENTS (3)
Valerie Carter
I recently came across this article, and was struck by what appears to be a personal and rather sexist attack on Ms. Mitchell by the authors. I felt compelled to comment because I know Kerry and worked with her a number of years ago.

Over the past 20 years, Kerry Mitchell has had a very successful career in an era of publishing that has been challenging to say the least. Like all senior executives, she has had to make difficult and unpopular business decisions to achieve corporate goals.

I know Kerry to be smart, fearless, innovative, fair and pragmatic, and who has demonstrated a rare talent for envisioning and delivering winning business solutions.

I wonder had she been a man, would this have been the same piece?
Posted on 05/13/2013
Maria Veronica
She is a nightmare, I worked for her but not in publishing industry. I provided much more personal services to her....she has a serious mental issues and needs a psychiatric help - pronto!
Posted on 05/05/2012
MMMM
She sounds like a nightmare WOW!!! However is she worth hiring, if the hiring door is always on the move with staff b because of her WOW!!
Posted on 08/18/2011
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