Inside the main theatre of the Toronto Centre for the Arts, past and present Maclean’s staffers are about to gorge themselves on dinner, celebrating both the one hundredth anniversary of their magazine and its radical new design. They’ll dine under a row of chandeliers, joined by a mishmash of Canadian celebrities – Kim Cattrall, Gordon Lightfoot, Belinda Stronach and Svend Robinson, whomMaclean’s will put on its cover a few weeks later and call a “self-aggrandizing lout.” Theatrical producer Garth Drabinsky, facing fraud charges in the U.S., is coordinating this glitzy night for the new Maclean’s, but another businessman with legal troubles, Conrad Black, will steal the spotlight by slapping Peter C. Newman, also in attendance, with a libel suit. It’s the kind of gossip-ridden spectacle Maclean’s editor and publisher Kenneth Whyte loves.
I’m with twenty or so other reporters and cameramen, and, as Whyte leaves the photo op, our frazzled handlers sweep us out of the lobby through a back door, send us down a maze of corridors and through the kitchen past bewildered servers and busboys, finally ushering us into the green room. We’re not totally cut off from the festivities, though. We can watch the guests eat via the closed-circuit TV bolted to the wall. At least I think we can; the fuzzy blobs on screen are hard to decipher.
“Does this thing get any other channels?” someone asks. No one laughs. As we settle into our purgatory, a reporter from Sun TV’s entertainment show Inside Jam! pulls out a copy of the new Maclean’s from her press kit and asks me, “This is like the first redesigned issue or something, right?”
I tell her it is.
“Huh,” she says, flipping through the pages. “It looks like a tabloid.” Furrowing her brow, she puts it down.
Forty minutes later, a reporter from Omni Television tires of staring at the blurry figures and asks, “Does anyone have a magazine to read?”
“I think we’ve got Maclean’s,” says a cameraman with a smirk.
She wrinkles her nose. “Ugh.”
After waiting for thirty minutes, we’re released back into what’s now an empty lobby. The cameramen form a wall in front of the doors, hoping to catch anyone noteworthy skipping out to the washrooms, but it’s nearly another hour before the dinner ends, and the guests come out for champagne.
When Whyte walks through the doors, he hops from person to person, greeting the likes of Edward Greenspon, John Honderich and Black. Judging by the smile on his face, you never would have guessed that after being fired from the National Post two years ago – the newspaper he helped build – Whyte never wanted to work as an editor again. So this event isn’t just for a tired magazine struggling to regain relevance, it’s also for a renowned editor trying to top himself.
“We’ve got to overcome some really deeply ingrained impressions of what Maclean’s is – that it’s your grandfather’s magazine,” Whyte told me a week earlier over the phone, “and not something you yourself would find interesting.” As a result of those impressions, at least in part, he added, Maclean’s has been losing money and resonance with readers for years. Whyte calls it a “death spiral.”
But he also said he’d been thinking about ways to fix the magazine for practically two decades. In 1993, for instance, he called Maclean’s “boring” in his Globe and Mail column and suggested it could learn a lot fromAlberta Report – the raucous conservative publication where he got his start in magazines. His solution then is not much different from his solution now: “If you want to attract readers,” he told me, “you gotta grab ’em by the lapels.”
Whyte doesn’t just grab people by the lapels – he slaps them in the face with sex, sizzle and contrarian ideas. Although his cerebral-meets-trashy approach never failed to attract attention at Saturday Night and the Post, there’s one thing it never produced: profit. And while Whyte’s previous boss, Conrad Black, seemed content to live with losses in return for the influence that came with owning a prestigious publication, it’s unclear whether Ted Rogers and his company want the same deal, especially since Maclean’s still makes a profit. Whyte’s bosses have given him enormous clout – he’s both editor and publisher – to stop their flagship magazine’s decline. If he fails, not only will the death spiral continue, but as Whyte’s former boss David Asper told The Toronto Star, he’ll have to take his “high priced tea party to another employer who will also get tired of the act – and the losses.”
Two months later, Whyte, slightly over dressed in a dark blue suit and yellow tie, is far removed from the glam of the anniversary party. We’re sitting in a half-empty cafeteria in the Rogers Publishing building, and his mind is on more practical matters like story selection, tightened leading and decreased font size (2.3 per cent smaller). We’ve been talking about Maclean’s for the past hour, yet Whyte seems to be somewhere else. Hunched forward on the table, he’s scanning the cafeteria or picking the label from his water bottle and wrapping it around his fingers. This is the Whyte I’ve heard about, the one who rests his head on his desk when he’s thinking, the one of awkward silences, the one whom Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells calls “reclusive and borderline autistic.” Whyte once half-jokingly remarked that he’s probably spoken to every journalist in Canada; despite this, no one will admit to knowing him well. “You’d kinda think you were close to him,” says Kirk LaPointe, a former Post executive editor. “But you probably weren’t.” Whyte speaks in a quiet, rambling monotone, and conversation with him is sometimes a challenge. “He does that thing where he doesn’t speak and waits for you to speak,” explains Michael Cooke, who was on the Post development committee and is now editorial vice-president of the Sun Times Group in Chicago. “There are long, uncomfortable gaps, and you feel some kind of social obligation to talk.” Yet Whyte’s remoteness is merely a reflection of his wild attention span, says LaPointe. If you were boring him, “He’d find something else to do in a room. It could be frustrating, but he didn’t drift off. He’d just multi-task all of a sudden.”
And so when I ask Whyte about his final days at the Post, he stops fidgeting, sinks into his chair and remains silent for a while as he stares out the window at the grey January afternoon. Whyte says he considered quitting when the Aspers bought the Post from Black in 2001. Instead, he stayed and was fired two years later. When I ask if he’s read Ego and Ink, Chris Cobb’s account of the rise of the Post, Whyte replies, “I have my own memories of it and most of them are good. I don’t want to pollute them with anyone else’s interpretation of what happened.”
The Post consumed six years of Whyte’s life, and when he was fired, he didn’t know what to do next – other than to go back to bed. Whyte was called into the Post‘s headquarters early in the morning on May 1, 2003 and told by Rick Camilleri, CanWest Global Communications Corp.’s chief operating officer at the time, that he was being “transitioned out of the company.” Whyte says he went back home and slept (he doesn’t like waking up early) until he got a call from someone at the Post telling him Martin Newland, his deputy editor, had also been fired. The two met for lunch, and, after making jokes at the expense of Camilleri – all of which were “very juvenile,” Whyte says – they reminisced. “We kinda felt a lot of relief,” he adds. “We’d had a great adventure and accomplished a lot more than either of us thought we would when we got there.”
When Whyte later returned to the Post to gather his things, he called Newland into his office. He’d been saving a message on his voicemail Black had left him on the day the Post launched. Whyte played it for Newland. “I’m really phoning essentially to congratulate you. It was a damn good paper,” Black said. “You have a first-class team there, and they have a first-class leader. You don’t have to phone back, but I’d be happy to hear from you.” Whyte erased the message and left the Post for good.
He thought he was leaving editing for good, too. He never wanted to do it again. He couldn’t even look at a Canadian newspaper. “I just felt exhausted,” he says. “Whatever I’d had in me as an editor I’d given there, and there was just no need to do it again. Where else would you go after you’ve been at a startup like that? To just go and edit another existing paper, most of them in quasi-monopoly, non-competitive situations – anybody can edit those things.”
His career had been on a phenomenal arc up until that point. The Winnipeg-born, Alberta-bred Whyte shuffled through a variety of jobs after dropping out of university and he was working as a janitor when he stumbled upon an ad in the local paper for a sports reporter. He finished his shift at midnight, drove to theSherwood Park News office and slept in his car that night to be interviewed first. Within a year, the 21-year-old Whyte was running the News. Two years later, he left for Ted Byfield’s Alberta Report, where he developed his political-writing voice and was influenced by the magazine’s zest for provocation and outrageousness. Whyte has called Byfield a “right-wing redneck radical” but also one of the most skilled newsmen he’s ever met.
Saturday Night editor John Fraser soon plucked him from the Report to become a national affairs correspondent. “He was much brighter than most of the troglodytes writing at that magazine,” Fraser says. By 1994, at only 33, Whyte packed up his family and moved from Edmonton to Toronto to become editor-in-chief of the Black-owned Saturday Night. Along with his editorship came concerns that the Byfield-groomed Albertan would turn it into a neo-conservative rag. While it didn’t stray as far to the right as some worried it would, there was no shortage of provocative stories: nude photographs of an 80-year-old woman; an article implying author Farley Mowat was a liar (complete with a cover illustration of Mowat with a Pinocchio-esque nose); and another criticizing child-poverty activist Craig Kielburger, which resulted in Saturday Night shelling out $319,000 in a libel suit. While the magazine won a string of National Magazine Awards under Whyte, it was also bleeding red ink.
His last year at the magazine was taken up by another concern: an offer from Conrad Black to start a new national newspaper. By day, Whyte edited Saturday Night, but by night, he planned, researched and courted potential writers and editors for what would become the National Post. Some on the planning committee were skeptical of Whyte’s abilities since the only newspaper he’d worked at was the thrice-weekly Sherwood Park News. He earned the moniker Magazine Boy, a term that came from the people who were “massively envious,” LaPointe says. It quickly became apparent, however, that Magazine Boy knew more about newspapers than any of them. “If you spend four minutes talking to the guy, you’d very quickly understand he was a great, avid reader of newspapers,” adds LaPointe. Whyte absorbed himself in every aspect of planning, even going so far as to research printers and production schedules to ensure the latest possible deadline for the Post.
So after building a national newspaper, what does a guy do for an encore?
I ask Whyte this question in the Rogers cafeteria, and instead of taking time to ponder and drone out his usual series of “ums,” he abruptly states: “Anything but edit.” Although the terms of his departure from thePost didn’t contain a non-compete clause, he found himself turning down job offers, except for one from the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, where he became a visiting fellow in media and communications. Whyte guest-lectured, organized conferences and spent a lot of time working on a book. (He won’t say what it’s about, except that it involves newspapers and he’s superstitious talking about it.) McGill gave him the chance to recharge, he explains. Employers still courted him, however, and Whyte would talk to them out of duty (and at his agent’s insistence) but still couldn’t get excited about journalism. Then came the call from Brian Segal, president and CEO of Rogers Publishing, sometime in the summer of 2004.
Rogers was planning to launch a handful of new magazines, and Segal wanted Whyte to sign on as a consultant. Whyte did so, hesitantly, “mostly because I thought I should,” he says. “It was the first time I actually started thinking like a journalist or an editor again. And aside from the fact that I felt a bit rusty, it wasn’t as bad as I expected.” Talk with Segal inevitably turned to Maclean’s, and Whyte shared his ideas informally on what the problems were and how to fix them. Eventually, Segal got serious and offered him both the editor and publisher positions.
Whyte spent a while considering the offer and negotiated his contract with the company by himself. He wanted to make sure Rogers executives understood that if Maclean’s was going to succeed under his direction, there would be major changes, and a serious investment from the company would be required.
Whyte started in March of last year. He was nervous about editing again and viewed it as a necessary chore; it was the publisher position that really interested him. As far back as the Sherwood Park News, he had recognized just how much control publishers had over editorial. He went on to dabble in publishing at Alberta Report and expected to become publisher at Saturday Night had he stayed. He then served as deputy publisher at the Post during his last year there. He even attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for a three-month-long executive MBA program in his last year at the Post. “I’d worked so many years at money-losing publications. Most of my life, in fact,” he says. “I wanted to prove that it wasn’t all my fault and that I could turn one of these things around given the chance.” If he wanted a challenge, he couldn’t have picked a better one than Maclean’s.
As Ahyte’s career was taking off in the 1980s, Maclean’s was, in retrospect, starting its death spiral. All weekly newsmagazines were struggling – or at least that was the perception in the media, says Paul Jones, Whyte’s predecessor as publisher. Jones clipped an article from The New York Times the day in 1978 he told the Financial Post he was leaving to become research manager at Maclean’s. The article predicted the demise of newsweeklies, says Jones, and “I remember going home with a clipping to show my wife, thinking, ‘I’ve made a horrible mistake.'”
The Times may have been overly dramatic, and Whyte counters by saying that the more news there is, the greater the need for a publication to make sense of it all. “That’s sort of what we aim to do,” he explains. “To sort through everything that’s out there and figure out what’s interesting, what’s meaningful and present a coherent, well-packaged look at the world and Canada in a particular week.”
In a way, that’s always been the Maclean’s mandate, but certainly something was wrong by the 1990s. Jones left the magazine in 1990 to run a subsidiary of Maclean-Hunter, but he returned in 1999 as publisher. “In 1978, there was very much a role in Canada for a magazine that told you what happened last week,” explains Jones, but “by 1999, that was a laughable concept. I made this very clear the moment I arrived. My view was that the evolution was not going quickly enough.” Jones worked with editor Robert Lewis to move Maclean’saway from regurgitating last week’s news, but Lewis was only partly successful, says former executive editor Bob Levin. “He was very much a news guy at heart.” In Lewis’s view, if a big story broke Friday night,Maclean’s should do all it could to cover it. When the RCMP raided the home of then-premier of British Columbia Glen Clark in 1999, the magazine scrambled to get something together for its readers on Monday. The problem was that Clark had been in the news for four days by the time Maclean’s arrived on the newsstands. “It’s like a dog walking on its hind legs,” Jones says of the magazine’s ability to pull off such a task. “It’s a remarkable achievement, but it isn’t necessarily pretty or useful.”
Lewis left in 2001 to become vice-president of content development for Rogers Media, but the vestiges of the traditional newsweekly didn’t leave with him – many other editors had also been with the magazine for years. “You can’t put out a continually evolving magazine with a group that’s been together for fifteen or twenty years with very little new blood,” Jones says. “We all knew there would have to be some very difficult decisions.” The first decision was finding a new editor. Jones wanted to bring in an outsider (Whyte was called for an interview but was unwilling to leave the Post), and when he was unable to find someone, he appointed national affairs columnist Anthony Wilson-Smith.
Wilson-Smith was swift in ushering in change. He fired nine people and hired a bunch of young writers, mostly those fleeing the National Post. He also changed the production cycle so that if something broke Friday night, it wouldn’t make it into the magazine. Story range became broader, shifting towards lighter, general interest fare (“How to Take the Fear Out of Your Fridge,” for example). “I wasn’t fond of it,” says executive editor Peeter Kopvillem, “but if somebody thinks it’s going to make money, we may as well. I’m just glad I didn’t have to handle it.”
“I hated writing them,” says national correspondent Jonathon Gatehouse of the borderline service pieces. “That’s not why I got into journalism. Thankfully, I wrote very few of them.”
Yet the magazine did begin to package news in a different way. A 2004 poll about Canadian antipathy toward George W. Bush ran on the cover under the headline, “Canadians to Bush: Hope You Lose, Eh.” Maclean’sran another cover story a few months later calling Canada the “Know-It-All Neighbour,” intent on telling America how to run itself. Both covers created big buzz, yet despite the success, there was sense among some staff that the magazine was still not doing enough.
“I worked hard at Maclean’s before Whyte arrived, and I gotta say it often felt like shoveling your copy off a cliff. It wasn’t getting noticed,” says Paul Wells. “Maclean’s is an institution, so people are going to buy it. But when you think that way, people have no desire to do anything great.”
Former writer Sue Ferguson, who left in 2005, thinks the slow change process had more to do with a fear of upsetting loyal readers. “Maclean’s reputation had brought it so far already. It might be too risky to try something different because, well, we’re Maclean’s,” she says. Jones says that was the whole point of the changes under Wilson- Smith, but they happened so gradually media critics didn’t notice.
Whatever else Wilson-Smith had in mind for Maclean’s, he was strained financially; he had to cut $2 million, nearly twenty-five per cent of the magazine’s budget, when he first became editor. Jones left as publisher in 2004, and for him, the biggest disappointment was that Wilson-Smith never had the investment from Rogers to make the necessary staff changes. “If you can, it’s most satisfying to add fresh faces,” he says. “The only other option is to start replacing people, each of who individually is doing a perfectly acceptable job. These were the people who’d been supportive to Tony throughout his career, and I think he was loyal to them. Loyalty in this business is a two-edged sword. There are times when it’ll get you to the top, and there are times when it’ll move you out the door.” Wilson-Smith left two months after Jones.
Ken Whyte wouldn’t have the same problem with loyalty.
Remaking a Canadian institution may seem like a daunting task, but Whyte says he felt little pressure. “It’s just the pressure you put on yourself,” he says. “I have certain goals I want to accomplish at Maclean’s, and if I don’t do them, I’m gonna be really unhappy.”
His first step was research – pouring over data about Maclean’s readership, circulation, advertising and past redesigns, studying issues of old Maclean’s, Time and Newsweek from every era as well as tabloids, celebrity magazines and old police gazettes. Whyte made a point to interview all Maclean’s employees about their roles at the magazine and how they thought it could be improved. When he started, he told staff he didn’t have a specific vision but later came up with a list of four goals to achieve with his redesign: more text, more excitement, more news and a sense that his Maclean’s is a fundamentally different magazine. Past redesigns, he says, have played it safe by catering too much to existing readers. “We’re going to be noisy.”
Whyte decided not to make any decisions about staff for three months, and during that time, he used story meetings to judge writers’ creativity, enthusiasm and how much they challenged his ideas – he likes it when people do that. He also looked at how much writing they’d done, both the inches of copy they produced and the impact their stories had. “I don’t mean to be dramatic,” senior writer Brian D. Johnson says, “but some people felt they were writing for their lives.”
The firings came swiftly after that; Whyte let over a dozen people go, and three others, including twenty-eight-year-veteran Ann Dowsett Johnston, left of their own accord. Assistant editor Patricia Hluchy moved to theStar in January. “Let’s just say that there were things about the new regime I wasn’t so crazy about,” she said. The changes might seem ruthless (for instance, Whyte called writer Sharon Doyle Driedger the weekend before she was due back from a year-long parental leave), and when I ask him about letting people go, he rolls his eyes as if expecting the question before turning apologetic. “Anybody that’s done it knows it’s about the worst thing you ever have to do,” he says with a sigh. “Even if you’re confident that the team you’re putting together is going to be an improvement, it’s still hard to do and hard to justify morally. I mean, you’re taking away people’s livelihoods.”
The other big internal change is Whyte’s insistence that writers and editors bring story ideas, on paper, to story meetings each week. “I don’t think I’ve seen such long and detailed meetings take place here,” Johnson says. It’s a competitive, nerve-wracking process, but many writers say meetings are also more engaging and communal, and more ideas are generated as a result. Whyte has told staff more than once that Maclean’s will live or die based on the strength of its ideas, and so concerned is he about not disturbing the creative process of these meetings that he won’t allow any outsiders to attend – no curious journalists, not even senior Rogers Publishing executives. Whyte himself is usually impossible to read during meetings. “He’s Sphinx-like,” says Gatehouse. “You’ll pitch a story and there’ll be no expression on his face. You’ll think it’s flopped, and then you’ll hear back from somebody a week later asking, ‘So when are you gonna do that story?'” It’s not because he’s forgetful; he just needs a lot of time to think.
If Whyte’s editorship can be boiled down to one trait, it’s his story sense. Each publication he’s edited has been stamped with the Whyte brand of sex, quirk, intellect and contrarian ideas. A flip through Maclean’sshows it shares more with the Post than just its former writers. Whereas the Post became known for mixing serious items with offbeat stories (and pictures of Anna Kournikova) on its front page, Maclean’s will run a profile of a blind, homeless trapeze artist and a story on slavery in Canada back-to-back.
This editorial mix comes from Whyte’s desire to marry high-end magazines like The New Yorker with low-end celebrity rags like In Touch and US Weekly. Of the latter, Whyte says, “They’re newsmagazines. They just do one particular branch of news: celebrity news. That stuff is all over the Internet. It’s all over the TV. But there’s still room for these weeklies, and it’s because of the way they push and shape their stories.”
Whyte also read a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which dissected the weekly newsmagazine genre. It found traditional newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek are moving toward softer, trendoriented coverage as their readerships shrink. According to the institute, smaller newsmagazines like The New Yorker, The Economist and The Week are not only playing a larger role in setting the news agenda, but their readerships are slowly growing – and the latter two do the unthinkable by reporting on last week’s news. This was proof for Whyte the newsmagazine wasn’t entirely dead.
The new look, though, has more in common with the low-end magazines – screaming headlines, candid photography and salacious display copy – but it’s a look Whyte says is elegant with “tabloid flourishes.” Both the Star and the Globe praised it, and a roundtable of art directors at Masthead concluded the redesign conveyed a sense of urgency not usually seen in Maclean’s, and, despite going overboard at times, the energy level is “cause for optimism.”
The slightly trashy look is perfect for the display copy, some of which seems right out of The National Enquirer: “Norman Bethune Sex Shocker”; “The Scariest Man on Earth: The Nuke-Happy, Jew-Hating Lunatic President of Iran”; and “Jesus Is My Homey.” The Globe‘s Michael Posner thinks Maclean’s is going down-market, trying to appeal to a younger, less sophisticated audience. But Robert Fulford, who wrote for Whyte at the Post, says: “If it attracts attention, then I’m all for it.”
Whyte’s had no problems attracting attention or making noise, but the serious journalism for which Maclean’sis known is sometimes hard to find amid all of the clatter.
“The Female Chauvinist Pig” ran on the cover in October 2005 and featured a blonde woman in a cowboy hat flashing her breasts. The article, which discussed young women’s tendency to treat themselves as sexual objects, was primarily a book review. When I tell executive editor Kopvillem, who’s been with Maclean’s for nearly twenty years, that it seemed the article contained little original reporting, he says, “I don’t think a magazine piece, by definition, needs to have that much original reporting. You’re bringing something to people’s attention, and it’s what you’re writing about that’s provocative.” Another employee was blunt: “Why was it still a cover story? Because it was about slutty chicks.” An article about Governor General Michaëlle Jean “showing some leg in Winnipeg” was in a similar vein, primarily criticizing her fashion sense.
Yet the serious reporting is still there – despite what the display might lead you to believe. Maclean’s featured NDP leader Jack Layton on the cover in December under the cover line, “Who Is This Man and Why Is He Running the Country?” Layton was photographed in stark black and white and bore more than a passing resemblance to Vladimir Lenin. (“We didn’t direct him,” Whyte says. “He posed that way himself.”) The article itself, however, was a thorough, thoughtful and measured portrait of Layton. Ditto “The Spielberg Massacre,” George Jonas’s critique of how Steven Spielberg transformed his book Vengeance into Munich. While Jonas was critical of Spielberg, his understated tone was at odds with the blaring display. “Whyte is coming at it with spirited mischief and a sense of humour,” film critic Johnson says, “and that’s the first time I’ve seen that in all the time I’ve been at the magazine.” Fulford doesn’t think it’s a problem. “If someone’s accused of going too far,” he says, “that means he just might be going far enough.”
Others are concerned that Whyte is taking Maclean’s too far to the right politically, as many stories have had a predominantly conservative slant, including gentle criticisms of Stephen Harper, an anti-Kyoto feature, a cover story on why the rich are happier than the poor and that attack on Svend Robinson accompanied by a “From the Editors” column titled “Let’s Svend Him Packing.” (The new column space sometimes functions as an editorial. Whyte says the process is informal and anyone who’s available could end up writing it, but the point of view is almost always Whyte’s.) There was also the arrival of Mark Steyn as a book columnist. In his first article, he mentioned a few books in passing while railing against feminists, Canadian manhood, abortion and Cameron Diaz, among other things.
Steve Maich, who was promoted to senior editor by Whyte, wrote an article titled “Why Wal-Mart Is Good,” which showed how Wal-Mart helps the poor, creates jobs and stimulates the economy. While over 4,000 words long, it still found little space for the company’s detractors. Maich argues, “There are still many people who, understandably, don’t think articles should take a point of view or make an argument unless they’re clearly marked as ‘opinion.’ Had I pitched a Wal-Mart article in the past, I’d have been encouraged to give equal treatment to both sides of the debate…That’s a legitimate journalistic approach, but not the only one.”
Whyte is either being coy or naive when he says, “Nobody talked about balance at Maclean’s before I came in…My idea of political balance is much more balanced than other people’s.” Certainly there is an attempt at balance (Whyte interviewed former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, for example, and at least two of his recent hires came from the left-wing This Magazine), but despite Whyte’s denial that Maclean’s has shifted to the right, Wells and Johnson say it’s absolutely clear that’s what happened. Wells is quick to point out it’s not necessarily a bad thing, saying the shift is a welcome change from the old, safe, middle-of-the-roadMaclean’s.
Media have followed staff changes and story selection closely; for bloggers, the reappearance of Barbara Amiel and Linda Frum, for example, indicated some kind of conservative conspiracy. While Whyte’s formerPost colleagues are having little trouble getting along, there’s discontent among some of the staff, judging from the emails I received requesting anonymity; a couple of people forwarded me a Janice Kennedy column from the Ottawa Citizen in which she accuses Whyte of debasing a Canadian institution, and one employee even suggested Whyte, rumoured to be a member of the ultra-conservative and secretive Catholic faction Opus Dei, is on a mission to change Canadian society. (He’s not a member, however, and laughs at the rumour. “I can barely claim to be a Catholic,” he says.)
But should Whyte be trying to influence political discourse in Canada, as he was unabashedly doing at thePost, he’ll have an easier time doing it as both publisher and editor. The positions give him more power than any of his recent predecessors, but magazine industry expert D.B. Scott says, “It’s impossible to do both jobs well.” Combining the positions is unusual but not unprecedented, as it typically occurs when a magazine is just starting out. And the only other time it has ever happened at Maclean’s was when John Bayne Maclean founded the magazine in 1905. Aside from the amount of work involved, Whyte’s appointment also raised concerns among staff as to whether his loyalty would lie with advertising or editorial. His decision to allow Cadillac to sponsor a series of articles by Peter C. Newman caused a minor ruckus, and in Mastheadmagazine, Don Obe, an associate editor at the magazine in the early 1970s, accused Whyte of “selling out [the magazine’s] integrity,” concluding “the sovereignty of Maclean’s is being nibbled all around the edges, and if the nibbling continues long enough, there’ll be nothing left of it.”
Whyte ran another controversial ad in the magazine’s annual university rankings issue. The four-page pullout for Axe deodorant spoofed Maclean’s rankings with provocative pictures and fake categories like, “My university is known for having the best looking students.” Dowsett Johnston, who’s managed the university issue for over a decade, told University Affairs magazine she hadn’t been aware of the ad beforehand, fielded many calls from upset readers and professors and said it “undermined me in a very public way,” sending a “terrible message to the reader.” Dowsett Johnston also told the magazine University Affairs, as well as theStar, that she left Maclean’s in part because of the ad. When I mention the issue with Whyte, he says the ad was available for anyone to see before publication, and nobody questioned it. Dowsett Johnston, now vice-principal of development, alumni and university relations at McGill University, didn’t return calls.
Whyte argues that part of his interest in publishing comes from a desire to protect editorial. “We on the editorial side like to think everything revolves around us, but the more time you spend editing, the more you realize that a surprisingly high proportion of decisions that affect readers aren’t made in the editorial suite, they’re made in the business suite,” he says. “It’s fine if the publisher knows what he’s doing editorially, but fewer and fewer of them do.”
As publisher, Whyte is one step closer to his goal of turning the business around, despite the fact that ad revenues have been falling by around $1 million a year since 1997. Maclean’s finished last year with $19.5 million in ad revenue, up from $18 million the previous year, and given Maclean’s history of decline, the increase is a big one. “We’re not by any stretch done yet,” Whyte says. “We’ve got to prove we can do it at least two years in a row.” He’s going to hold circulation at 350,000, convinced Maclean’s can be more profitable at that level. It means targeting a slightly different audience, one that’s younger and more affluent, Whyte hopes. Yet he’s careful not to get too specific with readership just yet. He’s put his editorial product out there, and now he has to see who it’s going to attract. He’s still in the process of gauging response to the redesign, and with reader surveys set up, he won’t know for a while. In the meantime, he’s focusing on publishing the best magazine he can. He admits he’s made mistakes, but he won’t say what, and smiles and blushes when I ask. “It’s embarrassing,” he protests, looking out the window. “We’re not accustomed to putting it out yet,” he says. “And that’s gonna take several more months of just watching it more closely and getting everybody accustomed to the expectations of each element of the design.”
Newsstand sales are slowly climbing (they rose during Wilson-Smith’s last year, too) and Maclean’s finished 2005 averaging nearly 9,000 copies a week, up from the 5,000 it was averaging last June. Whyte sees it as a sign Canadians will be able to handle his brash, loud and right-wing Maclean’s. “I don’t think Maclean’sreaders are dullards. They have a sense of humour and a sense of mischief,” he says. That said, between 300 and 400 readers cancelled subscriptions in November and December last year – that’s twice as many cancellations as in 2004. Whyte jokes he expected to lose that many readers with the Svend Robinson cover alone, but he’s confident he can pull in more than he loses. “If there had been any less than that, I would have been disappointed,” he says. “It would have meant nobody had noticed any change.”
The one hundredth birthday and relaunch party is coming to an end. Guests are leaving, but some stick around for more champagne. Suddenly, Mark Critch from This Hour Has 22 Minutes nabs Whyte for an interview.
“Aw, geez,” Whyte groans before composing himself, pulling his lips into a tight smirk.
“Here we are with the man himself,” Critch says. “Tell me of this new Maclean’s.”
“Well, it’s the same old magazine,” Whyte says. “We just shuffled a few things around.”
“Way to do the hard sell,” Critch eggs on.
Whyte’s smirk tightens. He tries joking with Critch about the prevalence of Maclean’s in doctors’ and dentists’ offices, but he scans the crowd as if for a way out, looking annoyed, amused, embarrassed and smug all at once.
“So I guess it was just Peter C. Newman and Allan Fotheringham starting it off a hundred years ago,” Critch says.
Whyte doesn’t crack a smile.
“What’s the biggest change in a hundred years?”
Whyte pauses. “Uh…geez. I can’t really think of anything.”
He looks at Critch for help, who starts asking another question.
Then Whyte finally finds his answer:
“I’ve shown up.”