Canadian Magazine Industry News
5 September 2013,     TORONTO
Q&A: John Macfarlane on 10 years of The Walrus
John Macfarlane
John Macfarlane
The 10th anniversary issue of The Walrus weighs in at a hefty 124 pages. In a conversation with Masthead, editor and co-publisher John Macfarlane said work on the issue began 18 months ago.

The Walrus was founded in September, 2003. Over the years, thanks in large part to a financial model that leans heavily on donations (the mag is a not-for-profit venture), it has outlasted negative forecasts, money shortages and an era of high turnover, and stands as a strong purveyor of Canadian long-form journalism and short-form fiction.

Macfarlane joined the magazine in 2008 as interim editor, bringing with him years of experience at mags like Toronto Life and Saturday Night. In this Q&A, Macfarlane discusses the 10th anniversary, and how The Walrus swims where Saturday Night sunk.

Masthead: How did you approach the 10th anniversary issue? What kind of content did you want to include?

John Macfarlane: We wanted to touch all of the bases. There's politics, culture, there's a kind of story that we call 'the way we live now.' There are nine major features, and then there are eight smaller single-page pieces that break up these nine major pieces. For the purposes of this issue, we've done away with the front and back of the book. The short pieces address things that we didn't have 10 years ago, like iPhones, armed drones, and well, Justin Bieber. Foodies, hand sanitizers, cyber-bullying.

Is there no editor's note?

No, there's an editor's note, and there are letters and a masthead. But there is no miscellaneous section, which we normally have at the front of the book, and at the back of the book we normally run cultural pieces that are shorter, and for the purposes of this issue they're not there. For the last page, we have a look back at the next 10 years by the Canadian illustrator Barry Blitt, who does covers for The New Yorker.

How long ago did you start planning? How do you fit the extra workload into your editorial calendar?

We started planning well ahead of time, probably 18 months ago, in earnest. And because we started it so far ahead of time and because we were able to get the pieces in earlier than we normally would, the workload, while onerous, was not back-breaking.

When you started there in 2008, you were an interim editor. How did your co-publisher Shelley Ambrose convince you to take the job permanently?

It was Shelley and then-chair Allan Greg. I had worked [as publisher] at Saturday Night in the 1980s and I believed that Canada needed, and needs, a magazine that plays the role that Saturday Night had played, the role that The Walrus now plays. The magazine was experiencing some difficulties and so I offered to help, but I thought it would be a short-term assignment. I thought a year at the most. After 15 years [as editor] at Toronto Life and another 30 years at all kinds of other magazines, I thought that I wanted to retire after I left Toronto Life. But it turned out that I was enjoying myself here, and I thought, why wouldn't I continue doing it?

Is retirement still on your mind? Is there a plan in place?

There's no plan in place. I've always said that I would retire if one of three things happened. First, that I was no longer enjoying myself. Second, I no longer felt that we were making progress in improving the magazine, however slowly. Or, I looked across the room and saw somebody who I thought would be a better editor for the magazine than me, and I do think that person exists.

One person in particular?

There are a number of people who I think would be a better editor of The Walrus than me. However, they may already be employed, and it may be difficult to persuade them to leave their current place of employment. But those are the three things that would make me contemplate retirement. As of this moment, I have no plans.

How do you and Shelley work as co-publishers? How do you navigate personalities and divide the workload?

Well, I know I'm called co-publisher but Shelley does most of the heavy lifting. We have a good working relationship; it's not without its stresses and strains because those always exist between editors and publishers, but I would call her an enlightened publisher. Those moments are few and far between. It works very well. Here we are, 10 years later. I wouldn't have bet that The Walrus would survive for 10 years.

Is that because of your experience at Saturday Night?

Yeah, I know how tough it is. And I think the brilliant thing that the founders of The Walrus did is create a business model that is actually proving to be sustainable. We refer to it as the Harper's model, which means we aren't dependent on the two traditional revenue streams of advertising and circulation. We have a third one, which is philanthropic support. Without that third one, we wouldn't be here today.

You replaced another popular industry figure, Ken Alexander, when you came on board. How much has the magazine changed since, and did that go according to plan?

When I stepped up I didn't have a plan. I've been doing this long enough that I think I know what has to be done, and so I think the magazine is a little more focused and deliberate than it was when I got here. I like to say that you should be able pick up any magazine, leaf through it, and be able to articulate what that magazine is all about. I think that's probably truer of The Walrus now than it was prior to my joining. But I haven't done all that myself. We have a wonderful group of editors and art directors, and it's very much a group effort.

Do you approach editorial ideologically? Is The Walrus a left-leaning publication?

No. The Walrus, as Shelley likes to say, has tusks but no wings. No, we're not ideological. We publish material that's all over the spectrum, from left to right. What The Walrus is, is a magazine about Canada and its place in the world. Full stop.

When it comes to evenly representing different viewpoints, do you just make a commitment to run quality pieces, whatever side they land on? Or are there quotas of left-right to fill?

To be very honest, unless it became apparent to us that we were starting to tilt in one direction, we simply run what we think we ought to be running at any given moment. Some things come to us, and some things we initiate ourselves. But we don't keep track.

Are there any specific lessons that you've learned at Toronto Life or Saturday Night that you've put into practice at The Walrus?

I'm sure there are many, but I can't begin to enumerate them. I would say the biggest thing I learned at Saturday Night, though it took me far too long to learn it, is that Canada is so small a country that a magazine that aims to do what Saturday Night and The Walrus aim to do, and at the level they aim to do it, such a magazine cannot exist on commercial revenues alone.

All you need to do is understand that in a country as large as the United States, which is 10 times our population, magazines like this nevertheless struggle to survive. Harper's has to have an endowment. The Atlantic only recently become profitable, and I don't know what that means. It may mean it's making $100 a year. And The New Yorker enjoys the ownership of a privately-held corporation. . .they can afford to do what they want to do without answering to shareholders. So even magazines of that calibre in a country of that size struggle. To think that a magazine that plays the same role in a country 1/10th of the size isn't going to struggle? It would be naive.

The Walrus has hovered at around 58,000 to 60,000 in circulation. Is that its ceiling?

No. I don't for a moment think it's the ceiling, because of my experience at Saturday Night, which had 130,000 circulation. But maybe only 90,000 of that was solid and the rest was agency-sold subscriptions that we sold thinking, naively, that that extra 35,000 would attract more advertisers, which it didn't. So I think The Walrus has a solid ceiling somewhere between 75,000-100,000. But to get there, you have to spend money. And post-recession, we haven't had that kind of money to invest.

And print readerships are down in general, right?

They are, but it depends on the readership. Our renewal rate is very, very robust. We haven't suffered like some other magazines.

Given that a lot of the funding comes from donors -- do donors ever try to influence the content?

No. I think they are, typically, enlightened people. So they know if they did [try to exert their influence], it wouldn't work. And I'd say the same is true of our advertisers. Since I've been here, we haven't had any pressure from advertisers to do this or that.

The Walrus has grown with internet TV, ebooks, tablet editions, events. Do you see them as helping to push magazine sales, or are they separate revenue-generating streams?

I think everything pushes everything. So long as everything is congruent, and everything we do adheres to our mission to create a national conversation about issues that are important to Canadians, and to reveal the country to itself, so long as everything services those ideas, then I think everything supports everything.

Where do you see the magazine in the next 10 years?

Right off the bat, I'll say I think The Walrus will be here 10 years from now doing what it's currently doing. I also think there will still be a print edition, although some of the print audience might have migrated to other platforms. It's hard to say at the moment because we're all in this fog and finding it difficult to see into the future very clearly. I think and hope that paid circulation will have increased, on whatever platforms. I hope that The Walrus continues to become a better and better magazine, and I don't see why that won't happen, since that's what we come in here every day to do. I don't see that culture changing.

I hear publishers talk about how demographics in Canada are changing, and how readerships will be different in the coming years. Is the changing face of Canada something The Walrus thinks about?

We think about it, but--I mentioned a minute ago that I think we're in this fog. And when you're in a fog, you can't see clearly, and you get panicky. That's human nature. So, I'm not convinced that the readership of the future is going to be that different in its needs and desires from the readership of the past. The world has changed enormously since I was at Saturday Night, and yet I don't see the needs and desires for whom we publish this magazine having changed very much, if at all.
— Jef Catapang
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