I was a summer intern at an Alberta business magazine-you can’t be an intern and not be lowly. I was making a list of rich CEOs, people with the kind of money a student of magazines shouldn’t think about if he wants to stay sanely out of business school. Then the news of The Walrus reached across the country andfound me. I knew I’d get involved. This wasn’t going to be simple. It was bigger. Even if the money was a hell of a lot smaller.
By late September, I was in Toronto and on the case. Here’s what I knew: money from a philanthropic backer was drying up; an editorial shakeup was on the way; the magazine would get smaller; and the co-founder and current editor, Ken Alexander, the man who had led the charge to attain charitable status for the foundation that publishes The Walrus,was out. His replacement: John Macfarlane. If Canadian publishing were a war, he’d be a decorated general, complete with the scars of a few lost battles. Lingering around the facts was the smell of controversy, sweet and spoiled, that attracts journalists the way starlets attract paparazzi. Gossip. My job was to get past that smell and answer the questions that caused it. Why did Alexander leave? Why Macfarlane? And why does The Walrus deserve so much ink?
When I began making notes, a picture shot into my head: the sign in the window of a shop that exists in every neighbourhood, that store that’s always making eyes at insolvency, like a homegrown café sitting next to a Starbucks. The sign reads: Now Under New Management. And you can’t help wonder if another owner can succeed where others couldn’t. In fact, there’s a place like that outside The Walrus. It’s a restaurant-one of those cheap, familiar places that serves everything, but you’d only ever order breakfast. In the window is the sign: Temporarily Closed. Re-opening Soon. New management is implied. I look at the darkened windows and the mail piling up against the locked, grimy door and, call me a college kid, but I see a metaphor.
The Walrus office feels like the kind of place you discover while exploring a strange school off hours. It has a familiar, bookish smell, clinical fluorescent lights, but it’s too quiet to be really comfortable. Except in her office, which looks as if it got hit by a campaign bus: papers loitering on two desks, a garage sale of books crammed into the bookshelf, magazine covers on poster board leaning against the walls. On a large whiteboard she has a list of celebrities, some circled or with checks beside their names-all people who will play a role in an upcoming fundraiser. She came to The Walrus in 2006 and her name is Shelley Ambrose. She’s the magazine’s co-publisher and executive director of The Walrus Foundation. She’s got a tough job: “I stand on street corners every day and tell people that we are in financial trouble. We’ve been in financial trouble since day one, and we’ll be in financial trouble until we get a $20-million endowment. It’s a gerbil wheel,” she says. “We have no sustainable funding. Every $1,000 I raise this week, I will have to raise it again next year.”
Without donations, the magazine would die the death of its predecessors. “No national general-interest magazine in Canada has ever been able to draw enough advertising to stay alive,” Don Obe told me. He’s a magazine-industry veteran and an old, friendly rival of Macfarlane. “Advertisers want targeted audiences; they don’t want general audiences. That’s been going on for 30 years.”
Ambrose rattles off the financial woes easily, like articles of faith: “We had a 12.5 percent paper increase last year, we had another 12.5 percent paper increase this year, we had to renegotiate rent, it went up 23 percent. The board has asked us for big budget cuts.”
The cuts are part of her responsibility to keep the shortfall between what The Walrus makes through ads and circulation and what it needs to make charitably “at $1 million or less,” she says. She’s trying to run a $3-million operation, down $1 million from what Alexander spent. Most of that shortfall used to be taken care of by the Chawkers Foundation, run by Alexander’s family, which had donated $1 million per year for the past five.
“The biggest challenge has been replacing Chawkers while raising other money,” she explains. “When it’s just you, it’s hard. We’re not children or AIDS.”
When Alexander left, she knew the kind of person she wanted: “I didn’t need a story editor or assignment editor. I needed an editor-in-chief, somebody who understood the financial side. And was a poster boy for unbelievable professionalism.” She wanted Macfarlane.
“Put it this way,” she says. “I had no Plan B.”
But getting him meant convincing him away from his retirement dreams. He had just spent 15 years atToronto Life. It’s tough to stay interested in a thing for 15 years. Ask the cast of Cats. The last thing on Macfarlane’s to-do list was to take the helm of another magazine.
But Macfarlane gave her an opening. When he heard about Alexander’s exit, he called board member Richard O’Hagan and offered to help. Next thing he knew, he got the pitch from Ambrose, which he turned down. She took him out a second time, now flanked by Allen Gregg, chairman of the foundation, and laid all the magazine’s financial woes on the table. “If you won’t take the job,” she said, “will you at least help out for a while?” This time Macfarlane agreed, provided “helping out” wouldn’t last long, and he wouldn’t be expected to do it full time.
Fortunately for Ambrose, he soon changed his tune.
If this were a television show, right now Macfarlane’s stone-cut face would fill the screen and letters would click across it in Courier font, complete with the obsolete sounds of a typewriter.
Macfarlane, John. Age: 67.
At 23, started at The Globe and Mail, as an editorial writer. Later, moved to the Toronto Star as entertainment editor. By 30, he had worked at Maclean’s, and was editor of Toronto Life for the first time. He then honed his business skills at a PR agency. “The money is good and he gets his name on the door-all the wrong reasons to leave journalism,” quotes a 1992 Toronto Star profile. Then came Weekend, a weekly newspaper supplement that gave him his first big success, and his first taste of magazine defeat. When that died, he was hired to be publisher of Saturday Night, which will die in 2001 (years after he left).After getting the boot from there once it was sold, he shuffled over to the Financial Times to become editor and associate publisher. TheGlobe bought that in 1989, and he was out again; after a brief stop at CTV, he returned to edit Toronto Life. While at The Financial Times he also started a publishing company, called Macfarlane Walter & Ross, which died in 2003.
If you’re keeping track, that’s four dead ventures to one still alive. Those failures, though, they don’t mean much. Without sounding like a doting stage mom, his failures weren’t entirely his fault. Sure, Saturday Nightlost money like a pirate without a mapmaker, but that’s the nature of the beast. In his memoir, Best Seat in the House, former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford describes the days when Macfarlane was at the magazine as some of the best it ever had. “We won all the National Magazine Awards it was possible to win, we were quoted more than any other magazine,” he says. That to me sounds familiar. Weekend was ambitious, but its desire to be great isn’t why advertisers started pulling out. It was the ’70s. Blame television.
Back in the 1980s, when Macfarlane arrived at Saturday Night, which Fulford was running, tongues wagged. Some foresaw a rivalry or a takeover, but instead they worked together as a team until somebody named Conrad Black decided it was his turn to lose money on it. He fired Macfarlane, though these days he has nothing but nice things to say about him. Sort of.
“I never really knew John Macfarlane and don’t feel qualified to comment on him, except that I think he was a dedicated and resourceful champion of the Canadian magazine,” he writes me in an e-mail from prison.
Fulford’s praise is less ambivalent: “He’s a first-class professional and has a finely developed sense of quality.” Long-time friend Gary Ross says, “John’s the kind of guy that when he goes on holiday, he’s good for about half a day of sitting on the beach, then he starts wondering, ‘Why the fuck am I not doing something?’
“So,” he goes on, “the idea of his retiring to travel with his beloved, and sit on the occasional board and teach the occasional class-I had trouble picturing that.”
Ross, now editor of VancouverMagazine, is easy to talk to. He’s friendly. Even laughs at my nervous jokes. And he’s a good enough friend to come up with some dirt on Macfarlane, and then not come up with much. He also speaks in pull quotes.
I ask him why Macfarlane, specifically. “He would be perfect for The Walrus in many ways. He’s got a big Rolodex. And The Walrus needs a big Rolodex of people who might consider supporting the magazine.” Which makes me chuckle because, sure it’s a figure of speech, but it also dates Macfarlane. Who still uses a Rolodex?
Ross continues, “And he has decades of experience, and he’s not a complete wanker.” Then, “He loves serious journalism, and serious journalism is going the way of the dodo. The Walrus is a holdout, the last bastion of serious journalism. It’s a match made in heaven.”
“But why,” I press, “will he find the money?”
“He’s well connected.”
“In ways others aren’t?” I ask. “I guess, naively, I don’t understand what connection means here.”
Ross sighs and says, as if it should be obvious, “John’s partner is Roz Ivey, of the London Iveys-the Richard Ivey School of Business. Through her, he’s been exposed to all kinds of people who have tonnes of dough and sit on boards and write seven-figure cheques for the revamping of the Royal Ontario Museum. So he knows who is philanthropically inclined and is able to be supportive and able to get people on the phone. It really helps when you have personal connections and have been on the person’s sailboat when you say, ‘By the way, we’re looking for a couple of hundred thousand dollars.'”
Ambrose sounded the same: “He knows a lot of people. Fundraising is relationship-building. Period. Over. And no one is going to give you an endowment of $20 million if they haven’t first given you $1,000.”
But all that would be nothing, Ross stresses, without Macfarlane’s journalistic credibility.
I’m more nervous to meet Macfarlane than I am going into a job interview. It feels like, if he doesn’t like me, after graduation I’ll be relegated to penning desperate blogs from my parents’ basement. After the breezy talk with Ross, I have more confidence. Ross told me that Macfarlane has a boyish quality to him, and that he likes to laugh. So speaking to Macfarlane should be easy, too. Only that assumption is a rookie mistake. He picks up the phone. I introduce myself. “Yes,” he says, as if I’m not done. He knew I would be calling, but he doesn’t get down to business. He lets me do it. A suitor asking a father if he can date his only daughter.
“Glad I could get hold of you finally,” I continue. “How was your vacation?” Good question: I figure it shows I talked with Ross, which should give instant credibility, while being casual. Only he doesn’t bite.
“Good,” he says.
“Good,” I say.
“Well, that’s all I needed-to know your vacation went well,” I say. It’s a joke.
“Okay. Well, I was wondering if this would be a good time to talk to you?”
“How about we meet Thursday?”
“Great. Talk to you then.”
If this were a round, he’d have taken it.
Macfarlane’s office looks spartan, as if it’s being rented. He hasn’t bothered to decorate it much, and the only point of interest you can find is a huge, seemingly petrified walrus dick laying on a small table, a gift from the last possessor of the office. Macfarlane points it out, knowing I’ll need colour.
As I sit down, I remember something Ross told me: “In his early days, he used to travel with a bottle of Windex, because things might be dirty. He was the king of the renovated office. Whenever he could, he’d persuade the owners that we should remodel and hire a decorator.” So I ask Macfarlane about the office.
“Saturday Night and Weekend were the only places I redecorated,” he clarifies. “Here, it would look bad.” He tells me that when he was editor of Toronto Life the second time around, he stayed in the same shitty office with the same shitty couch for more than a decade. His words. He says it as if he’s got something to prove.
“I was going to reinvent myself as a corporate director,” he says of his pre-Walrus plans. He’s been on non-profit boards since the ’70s, and likes that it keeps you intellectually involved without getting your hands dirty with the day-to-day operation. He even enrolled in a course at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Afterward, he started meeting with headhunters, refining his pitch. He also set up his home office, agreeing to edit a book about Toronto.
He then moves on to talk about Saturday Night and I get an idea. “Is there a redemption narrative I should be picking up here?” I ask.
He smiles. Laughs a bit. And says, “I did it for me. Seven years at Saturday Night trying to save it and not succeeding, but knowing that Canada needs that kind of magazine. I learned a lot of things before I was atSaturday Night, I learned a lot since, and I’m going to try to employ those things here. But I don’t see this as kind of Saturday Night, Part II.”
I can’t resist the crack: “Macfarlane’s Return.”
He pauses: “Return of the Macfarlane.”
He’s right. His is funnier.
Macfarlane is nothing if not professional. Some read it as being cold and aloof, impersonal, wanting to avoid confrontation while keeping his hands clean. Others see in it a desire to nurture and give second chances. The one flaw Ross was able to pinpoint was that Macfarlane could be too slow to fire people.
Both Macfarlane and Ambrose will tell you they haven’t had to lay off any employees. But if you’re a fan of reading mastheads, you’ll notice the absence of Nora Underwood and Marni Jackson. They both took leave at the same time, to pursue their own writing. Before her leave ended, Jackson was told by Macfarlane there wouldn’t be a job for her anymore. Then she told Underwood. Macfarlane never did. “I’m sure Macfarlane would have told me officially, even though I already knew, if I had given him the chance,” Underwood tells me. “I don’t really need to go through the motions. I don’t need the guy to have a coffee with me since he found out that I’d heard that I don’t have a choice anymore.”
Liz Primeau, former editor of CanadianGardening, tells an eerily similar story from when Macfarlane took overWeekend and brought in British talent to work on the art direction. People use that as an example of his eye for skill and his willingness to go big. But according to Primeau he hired the new talent without telling the old talent his job had been farmed out.
To be fair, Underwood had never met Macfarlane, and she doesn’t seem to have hard feelings. And Macfarlane will tell you that the awkward job shuffle at Weekend came when the magazine was planning to move to a new city, and he was told to keep quiet about it. But somewhere incidents become indicative of character, the way a social drag becomes a smoking habit.
Then, by contrast, Richard Siklos, now editor-at-large at Fortune, tells me that I should be so lucky to get to work with Macfarlane, who not only helped launch Siklos’s career, but did it by allowing him to create a comic strip for the Financial Times. Imagine giving an untested j-school grad the chance to run something new in a business magazine. Doesn’t exactly seem cold. Sarah Fulford, who took over his job at Toronto Life, says the same thing. You can see her gush on YouTube even. Supportive. Nurturing. How he’ll defend you when the hate mail comes in. It’s touching. Seriously.
When Primeau decided she wanted out of Weekend, she says when she told Macfarlane she was quiting, he said. “But I haven’t decided about you yet.”
David Hayes, freelance journalist, was speaking to my class, where I learned that Macfarlane was playing with his band that night. Like a groupie, I go.
The dim lights bounce off the brick walls in the Gladstone Hotel, and the whole room feels warm and intimate. As if we’re all at a loft filming a beer commercial. Only everyone in the room is too old to be in a beer commercial. The room swells with boomers, hunched, sweating and dancing in that way parents do, so recklessly un-self-conscious that if their kids saw them, the kids would want to be dead. Macfarlane is the one making everyone dance. Well, he’sone-eighthof the reason. One-ninth if you count all the wine. It’s a book launch party. The band, 3 Chord Johnny, is the entertainment.
Other than the guitar, Macfarlane doesn’t look much different on stage than he does at The Walrus. The jeans he’s wearing tonight look like the same ones he wore when I met him a week earlier, which means he either dresses as if he’s rocking out at work, or that he rocks out dressed as if he just got away from the office. I remember something that Alexander had said when he was comparing himself to Macfarlane: “He’s a completely different character than I am. His hair is in place. His teeth are better. It struck me that he might even iron his jeans.”
While he’s playing, Macfarlane’s face forms into a hawkish smile, as though he knows a good joke and is getting ready to tell it. In other words, he looks as if he’s having the time of his life. Unlike his contemporaries on stage, his face doesn’t follow the bluesy rock with any musical contortions. But he has a way of putting his top lip behind his lower lip, tightening his already compressed smile. When he hears a solo that’s especially good, his lips will part, as if the joke he told landed.
His territory is in front and he doesn’t meander. He’ll turn around, sure, but he doesn’t stray from his small patch of stage. But that could be because the stage is so goddammed full of middle-aged professionals pretending. It could be Broken Social Scene up there. Or Broken Social Security Scene. After the show, Hayes, who is also in the band, concedes there were some slip-ups, but I didn’t notice. I was too busy wondering if this scene had any meaning other than a man enjoying his hobby.
And I think it does: from the way he stands in front, but doesn’t get too crazy. That’s Macfarlane. I talk to him after the show, and it’s strained. As if he’s uncomfortable with the intimacy I just saw on stage. It’s no surprise that the next time I meet with him, we’re back at his office.
The theme of this visit: his Walrus.
The office looks the same. Nothing seems to have changed. His act toward me hasn’t changed either. Our talk is about as personal as two commuters waiting for the bus in the cold. Interviewing him, I feel as if he studied talking points beforehand, and that, frankly, he doesn’t trust me. In about 15 different ways he says: We’re going to focus the magazine, spend less money, be more timely, commission more…. And you get the point. No surprises. He doesn’t allow any.
“You keep asking about specifics,” he says as if I’m Frost and he’s Nixon. “I’ve been around this track. There are things you don’t want to talk about until they are public.” And then it’s back to generalities. The magazine is going to be beautiful, it’s going to be topical. It’s going going going. Oh, the places it will go….
I get the February issue in the mail, his first. Back in September I came across a posting on The Walrus‘s site written by contributing editor Don Gillmor, praising the departing chief: “The Walrus is Ken Alexander, both in conception and attitude (democratic, wide-ranging, messy).” I wondered if The Walrus would become Macfarlane. In the same way you can see traces of a parent in the squished face of a newborn, this newWalrus does look a bit like its new father. You also have something that looks a hell of a lot like Saturday Night in the ’80s, says Hayes. Which is either exactly as it should be or a sacrilege, depending on whom you ask.
Macfarlane’s a man of his word. He told me that he was going to tighten up the mix. Each issue, he said, would have a profile, an essay, a piece of reporting, a memoir or a photo essay and a piece of short fiction. Stick that in between a revamped front of book and a slightly altered back of book, and you have the newWalrus.
“If they do some Saturday Night redux it will go the way of the dodo,” Alexander had told me after our discussion of why he left-to spend more time with family, to write a novel and because looming cuts to budgets, he seriously believed, would compromise the hard-won charitable-status agreement he and others negotiated in 2003 (a charge both Ambrose and Macfarlane say has no merit). It’s easy to assume Alexander’s criticism springs from wounded pride. But under his sprawling method of editorial selection, the magazine reached its peak circulation of 60,325. So, he reasons, if he was successful, why change?
According to magazine consultant D.B. Scott, The Walrus‘paid circulation has hit a plateau. Its last audited number was a little lower than Alexander’s stat (58,763 on average), but in the same neighbourhood.
“We’re hoping the redesign and sharper focus of the magazine will result in higher newsstand sales, subscriptions and renewals, which will help with increasing revenue from the circulation area,” says Ambrose.
Macfarlane’s magazine, more than anything, seems to be an attempt to show the public that The Walrus has grown up. If that sounds condescending, especially coming from a two-bit student journalist who’s never been paid for an article, let me explain.
What makes Alexander impressive is his idealism. Without it, The Walrus wouldn’t exist at all. As writer Marci McDonald sees it: “I sometimes wonder if he simply became too successful at putting out a magazine that didn’t cater to the usual establishment suspects.” It takes idealism to do that. Some might call it naiveté. Take Alexander’s idea of Walrus readers. They are mythical in their intelligence: “The Walrus reader reads a lot,” he told me. “The vast majority have read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.” The Walrus, he added, needs to talk up to people like that.
Macfarlane sees it a little differently. It’s not that he thinks less of his audience; it’s that he wants to expand his audience. If he can understand who that audience really is, Macfarlane has shown in the past that he can give it what it wants.
One reason he was successful at Toronto Life:he knew his audience, and had the insight and discipline to construct a magazine tailored to it. Marq de Villiers, his predecessor at Toronto Life, mentioned that Macfarlane focused the magazine’s editorial mandate. It was about Toronto, damn it. De Villiers, by contrast, would let a feature sneak in even if it wasn’t Torontocentric.
As for The Walrus, his audience, as Macfarlane sees it, wants changes. Readers want a magazine that is of the moment. People mentioned that Alexander’s Walrus lacked consistency. Macfarlane now has weekly meetings with his staff, at which they build a list of pressing issues facing Canada, so they can stay current. It’s a shift from a writer-driven magazine to an editor-driven one. Which leaves some writers unhappy, but I wonder if the typical reader will notice.
His first issue, with Stephen Harper painted in profile, may not hit the mark exactly, but it’s a clear statement that there is a new direction. Starting with that cover.
“It’s saying Harper should have been on the cover six years ago,” says Hayes. “How can you have an intelligent national magazine about ideas and culture and not profile the sitting prime minister?”
His peers see where Macfarlane is going, even while they concede he isn’t there yet. “In a lot of ways it’s better; in a lot of ways it still sucks,” says Ross.
This isn’t a surprise to Macfarlane. He almost seems disappointed with his premier issue of The Walrus: “I think most people who know me will tell you I’m always more inclined to focus on things that are wrong.” At least one article, for example, wasn’t exactly what he wanted. But the statesman doesn’t elaborate. “If people want to judge me on one issue, they can go ahead. I’ve been around too long to worry about that. I don’t even know if it will be fair to judge me a year from now.”
A few weeks after the issue hit stands, I ask around. Obe hasn’t read the new Walrus. “I’m not as curious as I once was,” he says. When I call them, neither had Fulford or John Fraser, who became Saturday Night editor after Black bought it. They tell me to give them a few days and call back. I do, but they don’t. Anne Collins, former managing editor at Toronto Life under Macfarlane, didn’t have time for it or me. Black hasn’t looked at it, but he has an excuse. Hayes had skimmed through it. Same with Ross.
When the issue came out, Hayes asked what people thought of it on his Toronto freelancers e-mail list. He got an underwhelming response, though some talk about how the issue was sexist because it didn’t have many female voices in it. But little talk about the articles.
Now is not the time for apathy, not for any magazine, but especially not The Walrus. I look at the newsstand sales numbers of The Walrus since September, and they aren’t good: more than a 20 percent drop in sell-through rate on average. That could be the recession speaking, but it still doesn’t bode well.
But I’ve read the issue, which came out just before this edition of the RRJ went into production. It’s not bad. People mostly slag the Harper profile, and I can see why: bland, nothing new. But there’s an interesting bit about the recession, which is timely. There’s a big piece about endangered tortoises that was well written, but would I have read it if not because of this story? I liked that the arts section at the back opened with an essay on video games. That seemed current. I can see Macfarlane’s push to be of the moment, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe that’s just because I was looking hard for it. Plus, The Walrus is easier to navigate, which makes the whole enterprise seem more welcoming.
But it still seems somehow tragic, like curtains rising on a theatre half-full of drowsy spectators looking at their watches. Still, there’s hope. Recently Ambrose was able to hire a part-time fundraiser. And that fundraising gala pulled in a net sum of $175,000. They also had a lunchtime conference to help promote it. And the employees are happy. For The Walrus, that’s something.
When I visit The Walrus for the last time, the restaurant across the street has taken the sign down from the window, along with the hope of reopening. It’s no big loss. The country doesn’t need another pancake place. I’m not sure the same is true about a magazine. Writers want a place to write, and Canadians want a place to engage with Canadian ideas. If The Walrus fails, history has shown that it won’t be the last of the general-interest magazine. But I’m still struck by the shuttered restaurant. Maybe if they knew their customers better the place would’ve stayed open. Maybe if they served better food. Or had somebody helping them pay the bills. Maybe.