It’s a little before 10 a.m. on March 27, 2001, and more than 100 Maclean’s magazine employees are gathered in a reception room at the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto. They’ve trooped up the sidewalk from company headquarters at 777 Bay Street for the long-awaited announcement: the unveiling of their new editor-in-chief. Excitement mingles with relief. Today marks the end of an extensive recruitment process that took more than four months, included approximately two dozen names, and carried a price tag said to be in excess of $50,000. Will it be Toronto Life editor John Macfarlane? Expatriate Canadian newspaperman John Cruickshank? Or maybe Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente? The people settle in their chairs asMaclean’s publisher Paul Jones makes his way to the podium. After a quick introduction he reveals his choice: Anthony Wilson-Smith. He’s the Maclean’s insider thought to be the lead candidate from the beginning. So much for suspense.
The next day, the Globe publishes an article on the front page of the Review section that had been in the works for months. Headline: “Can This Man Save Maclean’s?” The subtext is clear: this is a magazine that needs saving, but Wilson-Smith hardly seems like saviour material. Writer Sandra Martin assesses his articulated vision-to make the magazine more “Canadian” and to redefine news as “what’s new to me now” rather than what happened last week-as “bland” and “so last century.” In the National Post, columnist John Fraser isn’t much kinder. He’s skeptical that the new editor can do anything meaningful to change the general editorial texture and tone that Maclean’s has developed over the years. Less than 24 hours into his mandate and already Wilson-Smith is a bum. Fair? Probably not. Painful? For many incoming editors, yes. But not for Wilson-Smith. He shook off the critics on day one, and reflecting on their comments more than six months later, he’s still doing it. “How can I wail about taking a hit when I’ve dished out plenty in my column myself, including whacking the Globe a few times?” he asks as he sits back casually on the plump green sofa in his office, left foot propped on right knee, hands crossed behind his head. “They whacked me back. I understood that came with the job.” He stares out the window intensely with those bulging brown eyes and grins. “You just have to ignore it and drive on,” he adds nonchalantly, brushing invisible dust off his knee as if the answer is as simple as that.
Yet he should be a little worried. He has been chosen to lead what publisher Jones is calling the most radical reconception ever undertaken by a newsmagazine in North America. Success on that order will mean reversing a decline that’s been more than 10 years in the making. It also means outperforming infinitely richer rivals like Time and Newsweek going through the same process. “All magazine junkies know that the very concept of the newsmagazine died at an indeterminate moment some time over the past decade or so,” says the Post‘s Fraser. Even Peter C. Newman, who transformed Maclean’s from a general interest monthly into a weekly newsmagazine in the 1970s, admits that the format has been taken as far as it can go.
Unfortunately for Wilson-Smith, while Time and Newsweek have been working hard on new models?focusing on special reports, thematic issues, and investigative articles-Maclean’s has been spinning its wheels. By the time former editor Robert Lewis announced in November 2000 that he was stepping down, or up, to become vice president of content development for Rogers Media, the need for a new leader with a fresh vision was obvious. For the past decade, Maclean’s form of reporting what happened last week has been floundering. Since 1998, its newsstand sales have fallen 35 percent (64 percent since 1992) and annual advertising revenue is down $7 million. Less quantifiable-but just as palpable-is a widespread recognition that Maclean’sstature as a publication of national record that leads rather than follows is greatly diminished. Within the business itself, it’s getting harder to find anyone with anything good to say about the writing, design, story selection, covers…anything.
So what makes the imposing six-foot, five-inch 45-year-old Montreal native think that he-a product of the system that made the current magazine-holds the key to salvation? “It’s sort of like, ‘If not me, then who?'” Wilson-Smith asks. “I think, inevitably, when you’ve been around a place for a while you have certain ideas about how it should be run, and if you have an opportunity to implement them, then you do that.” Maybe. But being in sync with the publisher’s vision doesn’t hurt either. In Jones’s speech before he introduced Wilson-Smith as the new editor, he presented three major themes for the new magazine: building on the link betweenMaclean’s and Canada, redefining news, and “embracing” the virtues of a magazine-engaging design, arresting photography, and great writing. He says it was Wilson-Smith who won him over with his “enthusiasm” for these themes and for his “passionate commitment to the changes necessary to make them reality.”
What neither man is willing to confront directly is the likelihood that Wilson-Smith was also one of the few candidates willing to tackle these themes and challenges on a shoestring. Who else but a company loyalist would take on such a job when one of his first acts as leader would be to cut $2 million, or approximately 25 percent, from the magazine’s editorial budget? In this light, the critics may be on to something. Despite Jones’s lofty rhetoric, most of the visible changes at Maclean’s in Wilson-Smith’s first year in office have been less about making the magazine a must-read and more about making a mandated 10 to 12 percent margin on revenues. That assessment could change-the jury’s out until a completely redesigned and rebuiltMaclean’s debuts in July-but don’t hold your breath. “Almost nobody makes buckets of money and is a critical success,” says Wilson-Smith matter-of-factly. “To be well respected and to bring a good return to the company may sound like modest goals, but I think they’re pretty good ones.” Radical reconception?
Unlikely. More Canadian? Indeed.
Still, last year’s slowing economy and the fact that Maclean’s is competing for the same advertising dollars as national newspapers, split-runs, and international weeklies means the magazine has taken huge hits lately. “In the last three years, the advertising community has been consumed with the newspaper war,” says Jones, who speaks slowly, searching for the best words and pausing to consider them. “And my corporate masters are saying to me, ‘Golly, these margins are awfully thin [less than five percent] and we’ll be a lot happier if they’re more robust.'” Despite his bottom-line emphasis, Jones insists that the magazine’s problems are, at root, journalistic. Finding the perfect editorial pitch is what counts, he says, because you have to engage readers to attract advertisers. In the old days, Maclean’s had a relatively homogeneous audience with few other voices competing for its attention. Now that audience has fragmented, and so has the competition. While Jones boasts (repeatedly) that Maclean’s holds a glorious target audience for advertisers-readership is two-thirds urban and an average age of 41, has a family income above $100,000, and the majority hold university degrees-the notion that Maclean’s folk are aging and that newsmagazine numbers are down everywhere is cause for fresh thinking. “We have to be ahead of the curve, not behind it,” Jones says. The dilemma: how to add something new without alienating this aging core readership.
If Wilson-Smith wants help with the answer, he doesn’t have to look far. Within journalistic circles, almost everyone has an opinion on what’s wrong with Maclean’s and what needs to be done to fix it. A prominent view is one espoused by media critic, long-time journalist, and former Saturday Night magazine editor Robert Fulford. “Writing is their major problem,” Fulford says. “Lack of authorial voice and writers with unique personalities-that’s what is needed if we’re going to turn back to it every week.” Others agree, sayingMaclean’s should become more provocative, thoughtful, and opinionated, and should model publications likeThe Economist, The New Yorker, and Harper’s. It should be a magazine, they say, that requires reading rather than browsing; one that is worth rereading and consulting long after the shelf date has expired. Not everyone agrees with this thinking, but there is universal consensus that Maclean’s must shed whatever vestiges remain of the rigid newsmagazine format it adopted in 1975 under editor Peter C. Newman. While Newman’s now-legendary decision to boost frequency and change focus saved Maclean’s at the time, it wasn’t long before many began to view the newsmagazine approach and the subsequent editor’s strict language policing-including a list of more than 70 banned words-as a crippling burden. To cope, senior entertainment writer Brian D. Johnson says he would resort to “slipping secret puns and double entendres” into his copy, hoping his editors wouldn’t catch them. For the longest time, the rules remained stringent, perhaps because editorial management thought it was a style that readers liked and expected-homogenized prose, without viewpoint or voice-and because it made for what former editor-in-chief Kevin Doyle (1982-1993) described as a “recognizable mainstream magazine.”
Wilson-Smith willingly admits that he grew tired of using “indeed, clearly, for his part, moreover” and all the standard trademarks of newsmagazine writing. And while Doyle’s successor, Robert Lewis, made great strides to open Maclean’s to more opinion and analysis, Wilson-Smith, upon taking over, made sure to send a clear signal to the staff that his Maclean’s would be more open and relaxed. Staff would have more freedom to do their jobs, to collaborate and come up with their own ideas. Last spring, for example, he allowed Johnson to cover the Quebec City Summit of the Americas and to write whatever he wanted. “I loved the fact that he basically set the parameters as wide as humanly possible,” says Johnson. And unlike past editors, Johnson says Wilson-Smith doesn’t micromanage the prose. “It’s nice now to be able to write the same piece for the editor as you’re writing for the reader. In the old days, it would have been like, ‘Well, this is what I want to do, but how can I do it in a way that they’ll accept?'”
Whether Wilson-Smith will want to go as far as Fulford and others suggest is another matter. Given that at least two of the magazines that embody the latter’s ideals-The New Yorker and Harper’s-are perennial money-losers, it’s more likely that Wilson-Smith will attempt to meet them halfway. From day one, Wilson-Smith has said he wants to make Maclean’s more writerly, to bring in new voices and more styles. Early on, however, only the most attentive readers would have noticed much of a difference-fewer opinion columns freed up room for longer feature stories and for writers like Johnson to open up their beats, but that was about it. All in all, bylines and voices were little changed. By year’s end, Wilson-Smith became bolder. Columnist Allan Fotheringham, who had had a lock on Maclean’s back page for 26 years, was bumped inside to share space with other long-time columnists Peter C. Newman and Barbara Amiel. In Fotheringham’s place, Wilson-Smith plans to rotate a greater number of writers through the back page-some of those first “new voices” include Calgary writer Will Ferguson, Toronto’s Andrew Pyper, Elizabeth Renzetti, a formerGlobe reporter based in Los Angeles, and authors Taras Grescoe and Hal Niedzviecki. Other new features include essay space for guest writers and much more use of photography and illustration. From a content standpoint, Wilson-Smith believes Maclean’s should focus more on social trends, Canadian history and lifestyle stories, rather than the traditional politics and business news. His aim is to make the magazine flexible and “smarter.”
North’s comments hint at another widely known truth about Maclean’s-that it’s long been rife with factions, infighting, power struggles, and political intrigue. Wilson-Smith, it seems, has played the game well.
Since the late 1990s, the biggest internal rift lay between the news junkies, who wanted to continue summarizing the week’s big stories or use those events as jumping-off points for investigative work, and those who wanted the magazine to focus on new trends in lifestyle, health, and Canadian culture. For much of the time, the leader of the pro-news faction was managing editor Geoffrey Stevens. A seasoned journalist hired by Robert Lewis in 1997, Stevens leaned heavily toward a diet rich in politics, business, and news. During his four years at Maclean’s, he hired new journalists and set up an investigative reporting team. The stories they produced, such as “The Human Smugglers” and “The Smugglers’ Slaves,” won awards for outstanding investigative reporting from the Canadian Association of Journalists in 1999 and 2000. Stevens believes this type of news reporting is an important element of the newsmagazine culture. “There’s no reason why a newsmagazine shouldn’t be out there finding, developing, and breaking news,” says Stevens. “It has to have impact or it’ll lose readers.” Wilson-Smith and a number of executive staffers had other ideas. The consensus among this group, often referred to as the “Old Boys Club,” was that the magazine had to focus less on news and more on feature and opinion stories in order to fit into the changing media environment. The idea was that it should be more like a “current affairs magazine, for lack of a better word,” says deputy editor Peeter Kopvillem. Its hallmark would be writer-driven features not seen elsewhere. Kopvillem says the magazine has been trying to head in this direction for some time, and when Wilson-Smith became editor, “The decision was made that this is what we’re doing.”
Just three days after the new editor’s appointment, Wilson-Smith asked Stevens to resign, a move that was characterized by one insider as swift and brutal-and one Stevens well knew was coming. “The new editor wants his own people around him and he felt that I may be more of a threat than an asset,” says Stevens. Interest in the investigative team also faded, and some staffers within the group were laid off. Today, Wilson-Smith contends that these changes were needed. “They were the wrong people with the wrong talents for the direction in which we are headed,” he says.
Another anticipated clash that Wilson-Smith has apparently defused was the potential conflict between him and current editor-at-large, Ann Dowsett Johnston. In the race to succeed Lewis, the strong-willed Johnston was an active campaigner. As one of the few female managers at Maclean’s, Johnston wields considerable influence thanks in part to her stewardship over large, money-making projects?in particular, Maclean’s annual Canadian universities ranking issue and a separate publication, Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities and Colleges. When Wilson-Smith won the job, it was unknown what would happen between the two. But a few months later, Johnston professes happiness with the outcome. “It was clear from the minute Tony took over that we, as colleagues who have known each other for a long time, would have to make this a win-win in any way we could,” she says. According to Johnston, her largest wish-which Wilson-Smith granted-was to have the opportunity to do more writing.