Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cover Story: Maryam Sanati

Published in Richmond Hill Post. [October 2008]

Chatelaine's new editor, on the magazine's fresh direction, the joys of modern motherhood and her love of all things Richmond Hill.

In the crowded realm of Canadian consumer magazines, Chatelaine sits alone at the top. With a circulation of over 550,000 and a total readership of 4.2 million, it has been the country's most profitable magazine since 2001, generating $59.2 million in revenue last year alone. As Marco Ursi, editor of the magazine industry bible Masthead says, "They are the cash cow for Rogers. They are the big money machine." And since February of this year, the person steering this monolith has been Richmond Hill's Maryam Sanati.

While being editor-in-chief of Chatelaine is notoriously demanding (Sanati is the third editor in four years), Sanati showed no strains during a phone conversation in April. "It's quiet thrilling," she said merrily. "For me, this is probably the best job in Canadian journalism and maybe the best job in North American journalism."

The buzz resonating from the magazine in the past three years would run counter to that. Staff turnover was amongst the highest in the industry and as Ursi explains, "the story for a long time has been the disorder and turmoil there."

However, it's easy to understand Sanati's optimism. Since its first issue in 1928, Chatelaine has become a staple in Canadian women's lives and has a fiery progressive past. Its first story on the birth control pill appeared on its pages sixteen years before the pill became legal in the country. Cahtelaine's stories in the 1960s and '70s on the legalization of abortion and the plight of Native Canadians made it a relevant magazine to an increasingly restless generation.

Stepping in as the magazine's eleventh editor-in-chief, Sanati admits that she feels "this pull between tradition and moving forward." However, revisiting the magazine's extensive back catalogue has made her confident that she will be able to put her own unique stamp on a Canadian institution.

"Every generation of women has issues that they deal with, and right now we are at a unique time in history because Canadian women have all the advantages of the generations that came before them," she explains. "There's nothing really holding us back from our ambitions, but the unique issue is that Canadian women are also very busy. Women are juggling so many duties and that's where we come in now - we want to explore how those pressures and challenges affect women's lives."

Her life would seem to be the definition of the unique challenges that women have to face.

Sanati describes herself as "extraordinarily lucky," and says that Chatelaine is "more interested in the lives of our readers, women who have to balance and deal with a lot of challenges that I don't directly face. My hat goes off to women who have challenges with accessibility and affordability of daycare."

If Sanati seems a bit too cool about balancing work and family, it's probably because she has spent a lifetime preparing for her current position. Describing herself as "always having my nose in a book," Sanati caught the attention of her Grade 4 teacher, in her native Iran, following a creative writing assignment.

"In a parent-teacher conference my teacher informed my mother that she thought that I was going to be a journalist," she remembers. "My mother who was determined that I should go to medical school said, 'No, she's going to be a doctor.'"

As Sanati developed her love of language, her mother quickly came around to her dream of becoming a writer. "She's so delighted with what I chose to be," she says. However, the family would soon have to deal with more pressing issues. The country was being transformed by the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Islamic Revolution of 1979.

"I remember that one night my sister and I were in the back seat of the car with our parents driving to the airport," she says. "It was a very turbulent time and people were leaving very quickly. It was just the precursor to the revolution and there were months and months of unrest and protests in the street. My parents were very concerned for their kids so they decided that we would just go awhile for a little while, and then a little while turned into forever."

The family would first move to Germany and then England. Admitting that the family "faced a lot of difficulty in Europe during the time because it wasn't a great time to be Iranian during the hostage crisis," Sanati remembers how trying her first Iranian New Year away from home was.

"It was extraordinarily difficult because there were images on TV of all this turmoil in Iran and we felt disconnected," she says. "There were certain things and food that you couldn't even get and it was a bit lonely. Kids are extraordinarily resilient but looking back, that loneliness was especially poignant to my parents."

In 1980, the Sanatis moved to Richmond Hill where they faced a completely different environment. While isolated in Europe, the Sanatis discovered that their story was just one of many multicultural stories.

"People were very welcoming and there was already a small Iranian community here so it was a sharp contrast," Sanati says. "Toronto and Canada for my parents and us was quiet heavenly."

A self-described "joiner of things," Sanati flourished in her highschool. The editor of her school's newspaper and literature collection, Sanati collected her graduating year's English prize.

After graduating from the University of Toronto, she got her start as a lowly intern at Toronto Life. By the time she left the magazine five years later, she was a senior editor about to embrace a unique challenge - becoming the deputy editor of a technology and culture magazine Shift, a Canadian publication hoping to reverse an industry convention by attempting to break into the American market with an American edition. While she says the experience of working on the redesign and launch in New York "was a fabulous experience," she soon received yet another amazing opportunity: to become Deputy Editor of the Globe and Mail's flagship Report on Business magazine.

In 2005, she took on a Deputy Editor position at Chatelaine where in the midst of internal chaos she kept her cool and was groomed for an editor position.

Although she's currently on maternity leave and spends most of her days taking her baby son to the park, where the trees monopolize his attention ("I'm not looking forward to this winter," she quips), she oversaw an ambitious redesign of Chatelaine that debuted with the magazine's April 80th anniversary issue.

"It's the biggest issue that we've ever published - well over 360 pages, which is quiet formidable in Canadian publishing," she says. "We've redesigned the magazine and it's really more of what people have come to love about Chatelaine."

In addition to bolstering the magazine's food, health, style and beauty and d
écor sections, Chatelaine has redesigned its logo, something that Ursi has noticed. "The logo looks a little bit more classic," he says. "It's closer to what they had in the '60s and '70s."

It's not just the look of that era that Sanati wants to echo
with the redesigned Chatelaine. That period under editor-in-chief Doris Anderson, who ran the magazine from 1957 to 1977, is considered the magazine's golden age and is a legacy that Sanati is mindful of.

"If you look at the magazine in the 1950s to the '70s it was breaking ground and talking about things well before it became acceptable to discuss them in polite company," she says. "It was hugely ahead of its time and that's what we want to do now with this. We have 4 million readers and that just speaks to how connected people feel to the magazine. How relevant it is."

Link to story in Post City Magazines here.

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