Founded in 1976 by Annabel Slaight and Mary-Anne Brinkmann of the Young Naturalist Foundation, OWL magazine focuses on science and nature. The goal of OWL magazine was to inspire children aged 8-12 to become more engaged in scientific discovery; it is therefore fitting that the name OWL is an acronym for “Outdoors and Wildlife”.
Published 10 times a year, OWL magazine began as an eclectic mix of poems, comics, drawings, scientific- and nature-oriented stories and activities. Early on, it also featured works by well-known Canadian literary heavyweights such as Farley Mowat. Two years after OWL magazine was first published, OWL launched ChickaDEE magazine, which targets 6-9 year olds. In 1997, OWL added Chirp magazine, which targets 3-6 year old.
Not content with just magazine publishing, OWL branched out into book publishing in 1979, which was the same year that it launched ChickaDEE magazine. In publishing books as well as magazines, “Owl Books established themselves as an information-based nonfiction publisher”. The book publishing division was owned by Michael de Pencier’s Key Publishers and directed by OWL editor Annabel Slaight. Initially, these books simply repurposed material from the first run of OWL magazines, but the book division evolved into its own branch publishing “full-colour, illustrated natural history books like Jan Thornhill’s The Wildlife ABC, which is still in print to this day”.
In a continuing effort to expand, OWL media launched the OWL/TV program on November 10, 1985. OWL/TV was shown both on CBC in Canada and on PBS in the United States. OWL/TV adapted many of the elements from its printed magazines to the television platform with Dr. Zed, the Mighty Mites, and television-specific personality Bonaparte the talking skeleton. The aim of OWL/TV was to show that science and nature activities could be fun. Additionally, executive producer Annabel Slate wanted children to be active and wanted OWL/TV to “show kids that they can get involved in shaping their world”. The show spanned nearly ten years and remained in syndication for years after its initial run.
While the magazines were always successful, the book publishing division and television show OWL media ran into financial trouble in 1997. These difficulties required “the media group to turn away from its non-profit roots” and sell all magazines holdings to “Bayard Presse Canada, a for-profit international publisher with expertise in publishing children’s books and periodicals”. This shift in ownership from non-profit to profit-driven has had an effect on editorial content. Some critics have noticed a content change in OWL magazine, with Asquith, Roberts & Robinson arguing that OWL magazine has shifted from encouraging active engagement (through crafts, projects, and experiments) to encouraging passive consumption of media products (such as music and movies). Additionally, as part of its change to a profit-driven publication, OWL magazine started including advertisements for the first time ever. Today, OWL magazine and its sister publications continue to be operated as a for-profit commercial enterprise.
OWL media currently receives funding from the federal government of Canada through the Canadian Periodical Fund. This fund provides funding to Canadian periodicals to offset market disadvantages. Funding is allotted to three categories: aid to publishers, business innovation, and collective initiatives. Under these parameters, OWL media constitutes a publisher. The Canadian Magazine Fund, in dispensing of funding, “divides the total program budget among all approved periodicals”. The funds are then allotted “according to the number of eligible copies distributed” buy the publisher.
OWL media’s magazines meet all the parameters of publisher and periodical eligibility under the Canadian Periodical Fund as evidenced by their approval for funding. OWL media is a corporation, which is majority-owned by Canadians (51% or more), has its principal place of business in Canada (10 Lower Spadina Ave, in Toronto Ontario). As a periodical, OWL (and its sister publications) is a printed (non-daily) magazine, which is circulated through paid circulation, contains “at least 50% Canadian editorial content”, and is “edited, design, assembled and published in Canada”.
In the 2013-2014 year, OWL media received $397,890, in 2011-2012 it received $319,987, and in 2010-2011 it received $294,594. The allocated funding provided by the Canadian Periodical Fund can be spent on such things as the “creation, design, production, marketing, and distribution”.
How OWL Promotes Itself
As OWL magazine has shifted to becoming a for-profit enterprise, it has had to sell itself to advertisers. For instance, the OWL Kids 2013 media kit asks advertisers of children “[a]re you reaching them?”. The media kit calls tweens (8-12) “[p]owerful and [i]nfluential consumers” with “$2.9 billion of their own money” presumably to spend on these potential advertiser’s products. The kit goes on to discus the influence tweens have on family-buying decisions, as well their brand loyalty. In discussing tweens in relation to their buying power, influence, and loyalty to brands, OWL media is clearly defining tweens as consumers. Arguably, OWL media is not concerned per se with producing edifying editorial content to enrich and enlighten the world of a child, it is producing content that will fit comfortably with a consumption based buying message provided by advertisers.
OWL media benefits in this market driven environment due to its early decision to niche market its magazine selections. Chirp, ChickaDEE, and OWL magazines perfectly segment children into tight niches based on age. These niches are a net benefit when selling advertising space. For instance, the OWL media kit devotes one page of information to each publication under the OWL media banner. Chirp (ages 3-6), is read with parents 90% of the time, 95% of people read each issue 3 or more times, 53% spend 45 minutes or more reading an issue and 88% of people keep their issues. ChickaDEE (ages 6-9) is read 3 or more time by 96% of people, 86% of children share the information with adults, 73% spend 45 minutes or more reading and issue and again 88% save issues. OWL (ages 9-13), is read 3 or more times by 98% of people, 83% of readers share the information with an adult, 60% share information with a friend, 72% spend 45 minutes or more reading an issue and 90% save past issues.
It is important to note that the targeted age groups overlap (Chirp is 3-6 year and ChickaDEE is 6-9, OWL is 9-13); this means that a child is never left out of the brand. Essentially, children can grow-up (from age 3 to 13) with OWL media and never leave the brand. This brand loyalty is much sought after by advertisers. What is also notable in the media kit is the importance placed on statistics, such as time spent reading and the number of times an issue is read, whether or not the information is shared with others, and whether or not the issue is saved. There is no discussion about the content of these magazines, or what a child could be learning, such as their reading comprehension or whether the magazine is working within standard school curriculums, etc. As a market-driven magazine, OWL is most concerned with the child as a consumer, not as a citizen.
Additionally, OWL magazines are seen as educational holding a special place in many Canadian’s psyche. Many parents who grew up with OWL are willing, if not excited, to buy it for their children. This trust is an important factor for advertisers as trust in OWL media, arguably, translates to their products. In this case, OWL is not only offering segmented marketing niches to advertisers, it is offering the good reputation associated with the magazine as a whole.
Owl’s circulation and advertising sales did fall between 2007 and 2010. The print magazine was struggling to compete against other alternative forms of children’s media. Owl does not rely on advertising sales for most of its revenue. It relies on sales from readers. It’s magazines only devote 5 pages of advertising to each issue. This makes it challenging for Owl to sell magazines at a competitive price and still pay for publication.
The Canadian Connection
Owl was founded in 1976 by Young Naturalist Foundation members: Annabel Slaight and Mary-Anne Brinkmann. They designed the magazine initially to be distinctly Canadian by focusing on science and environmental content for kids. In 1997, the publication was bought by Bayard Canada in Montreal.
The Owl brand does focus on children only ages 3-13. Each of its publications further segment that market. Owl does have advertising, but not as much as other magazines. It has always been advertised as a publication for kids that they can not only read, but also participate in and use to make their own media by submitting poems, drawings, etc. In this way, although Owl is mainstream children’s media, they’re also providing a platform for children to partake in the making of media. Furthermore, it is a form of educational children’s media which makes it unique in comparison with many other kids shows that focus mainly on entertainment. The Owl brand focuses on education but offers entertainment also.
Owl is also keeping up to date with changing media trends. It started out as 1 magazine, then produced multiple magazines, then a kids TV show, and now is showing content in digital format for children. Owl offers apps as well as the option to read their magazines on an e-reader.
Chirp: Chirp was designed to introduce children to the Owl magazine brand at the youngest age possible: toddlers and young kids between 3-6. Chirp, the yellow chick is the mascot featured on the cover of every issue. He encourages children to play, be kind, and to be curious. Because this audience is so young, Chirp is made to be enjoyed with or without parents. Chirp also has a smaller frame than the other magazines for its small readers. It features educational activities for a pre-school audience. The aim of this magazine is to teach young kids to read, write, and get them to be eager to learn. Each issue features a unique them to appeal to readers.
ChickaDEE: ChickaDEE was launched to target the elementary children’s market of ages 6-9. It gets its name from the magazine’s two characters, Chick and Dee. This magazine features more interactive games and science experiments and always features a different editorial theme. The focus of this magazine is to provoke children’s intellectual curiosity and teach them about the world they live in. It still stresses educational value such as science and animals, but also features lots of fun pieces to entertain kids.
Owl Magazine: Magazine aimed at the pre-teen market. Owl tries to keep an educational focus in its magazine while making fun for kids to read. It started featuring only science and technology, but later expanded to include other topics that are of interest to tweens. Unlike other children’s media, Owl appeals to girls and boys. They have topics ranging from sports to entertainment, friendships, the environment, and pop culture. They also feature comics and puzzles. What’s interesting is Owl’s initial focus was on educational content, but they didn’t include entertaining content until later. The company could’ve done this to appeal to a broader audience.
Owl/TV: A children’s TV show ran from 1985-1994. Aired on CBC, CTV, and PBS. 30 min. long segment focused mostly on science. Based on the magazine’s features. It was designed to show that kids can get more involved in science. They did this by showing kids teaching each other about science instead of the stereotypical gray-haired old doctor in a lab.
Asquith, K., Roberts, A., Robinson, D. (2011). From Active Young Explorers to Passive Young Consumers: The Commercialization of Canada’s OWL Magazine. American Review of Canadian Studies, 41(3), 198-211.
Bayard Canada. (2013). OWLkids [Media Kit] Retrieved from http://www.owlkids.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/2013-MediaKit.pdf
Canadian Heritage. (2010a, November 9). Canada Periodical Fund: Aid to Publishers- Applicant’s Guide 2014-2015. Retrieved from http://www.pch.gc.ca/eng/1267303755421
Canadian Heritage. (2010b, November 9). Canada Periodical Fund: Recipients. Retrieved from http://www.pch.gc.ca/eng/1273583771753
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