Canadian Uses Severance Pay To Publish Country Magazine

WHAT do you do when your company fires you? Do you look for another job? Get into consulting? Or do you follow your dream of doing something on your own?

Signe Ball had other job offers and consulting opportunities, but she decided to chase the dream and start a country magazine in the rolling hills north of Toronto. Once she commuted from her home here 1-1/2 hours each way - longer if there was a snowstorm or a traffic jam - to her job as public relations manager at the Canadian branch of Deloitte & Touche, one of the Big 6 accounting firms.

``It was a brutal commute. I was upset for 20 minutes, but getting fired was really the happiest day of my life,'' Ms. Ball says. ``Suddenly I had options.''

The options stemmed from a severance package from the accounting firm. The rest of the financing came from a federal government program to help people start up small businesses.

Ball came up with the idea of the magazine as she sat staring out the window of her village house. ``I always thought I'd like to have a community newspaper when I retired,'' she says. ``Losing my job - with a severance package - brought that forward a few years.''

The magazine is called ``In The Hills,'' and it focuses on life in exurbia: ``A Magazine of Country Pleasures in Erin, Caledon, Mono, and Mulmur.''

Twenty or 30 years ago, those places - all townships north and mostly west of Toronto - were filled with farms; today, they are just past the suburbs and filled, instead, with weekend houses or the homes of long- distance commuters from Toronto.

``It actually is a community,'' says Ball, who has lived here for most of the past 20 years. ``The landscape is very striking. The hills unify the place. It was always crummy farmland, so the people who have come here did so because of the landscape.''

The magazine's first edition, which focuses on gardening, came out in time for spring. In the issue, Ball writes: ``It's an exciting and somewhat spooky time to be launching a new magazine. Spooky because the economic ground still seems shaky beneath our feet.''

Nevertheless, the summer edition should be out next month, and fall and winter issues will follow later in the year.

Story ideas come easily - gardens, or a man who makes fly-fishing tackle and sells it around the world. The next issue features people who run computer-based businesses from the area, like the man who does research on the Internet from his cottage here.

For a former journalist and marketing/public relations person, finding stories and writing them has been the easy part.

The most difficult part of changing her dream into reality, she says, has been selling advertising. ``I've been in advertising and marketing, but never on the sales side. I'm a writer for a reason,'' laughs Ball, who is both the editor and publisher of the new publication.

``I've studied marketing theory, but it's brutal putting [it] into practice. The one good thing is that people in the country are courteous and friendly even when they're turning you down,'' she says.

On a Saturday in May in her old life, she would typically spend the day gardening. On this particular Saturday, though, she visits the stores and businesses that advertised to see if they'll run an ad again. It is two weeks to deadline for the second edition.

Representatives of a bookstore, which paid $750 (Canadian; US$544) to run an ad for a gardening book, say they'd love to advertise again. They sold $1,300 worth of copies of the book and put that down to the response from their ad.

The next big decision is whether to change from newsprint to glossy paper.

That's what Ball was aiming for at first, but now she's not so sure.

``I've had a really good response from the present format, and the color pictures have reproduced so well,'' she says.

``I might go to a different process called `heat set,' where the ink doesn't soak into the newsprint but dries right away. It produces even better color, but it's a lot more expensive,'' she says.

Although the magazine has not turned a profit yet, Ball says: ``I expect to start making money on the Christmas issue. That was my plan going in. The ad sales have grown in the second issue.''

For Signe Ball, success is important; the magazine has to take off, or it is back in the car for a 1-1/2 hour commute.

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