Earlier this month, John Macfarlane announced his intention to step down, at the end of 2014, as editor and co-publisher of The Walrus. Of course, the seeing will be the believing. When Macfarlane, 72, joined the current-affairs magazine in July, 2008, shortly after a 15-year run as editor of Toronto Life, he thought it would be largely a “part-time” gig, lasting a year at most. Enough time, he figured, to put the award-winning but troubled periodical on a firmer footing institutionally, financially and editorially. Six years and umpteen National Magazine Awards later, he’s still on the masthead.
“I freely admit I stayed on because I found that I was enjoying myself,” Macfarlane said recently, during an interview at The Walrus offices in downtown Toronto. “I thought I never wanted to edit a magazine ever again. But it turned out I was just tired of editing Toronto Life after all that time!” Thus, part-time became full-time, with Macfarlane opting to stay the course “until I wasn’t enjoying it, or I didn’t feel we were making any progress, or I was asked to leave.”
At this juncture, Macfarlane’s departure is contingent “on whatever success we have finding my successor.” At the same time, intimations of mortality are at play. “I can see the horizon. I now understand that I’m not going to live forever. There are things that I want to do while I’m still relatively healthy that I can’t do while working full-time.”
Anyone writing a history of the last 40 or 50 years of the Canadian periodical industry in particular, and journalism in general, would be remiss to not give due consideration to Macfarlane. Just naming the publications, defunct and extant, he’s published, edited, revitalized and sometimes helped shutter – among them, Saturday Night, Weekend, Maclean’s, the Financial Times of Canada – is enough to evoke the bitter and sweet nature of what’s always been a precarious trade. With this in mind, The Globe and Mail asked Macfarlane to pick a handful of issues he’s helped produce, and to discuss their significance professionally and personally.
Toronto Life, January, 1973
I went to Toronto Life [in 1972] when Michael de Pencier and Peter Gzowski had just purchased it. I’d been at Maclean’s as associate editor, and they invited me to come edit Toronto Life. It was the first time I had my own magazine. We all shared the same vision: We wanted to turn Toronto Life, heretofore a kind of society magazine, started in 1966, into a real city magazine like the one Clay Felker had [with] New York. The only trouble was, we didn’t have much money and there was only a staff of three.
This issue followed the December, 1972, municipal election, and we’d commissioned a writer, John Aitken, to do a sort of Theodore White/The Making of the Mayor 1972. There were three main candidates [including eventual winner David Crombie]. The cover concept we had was of the winner, in a tuxedo, kneeling down, kind of doing a showbiz victory gesture. But because there was no Photoshop back then, we had to shoot all three candidates, then tack their faces, somehow, on the body of a model, because we didn’t know who was going to win …
But I don’t think I made it to the end of 1973. I eventually burned out. Three of us putting out a magazine that, I admit, sometimes was as small as 68 pages was more pressure than I could handle. So I left. Someone offered me a lot of money to go into public relations. I submitted and I went to the dark side.
Weekend, March 11, 1978
Macfarlane stayed out of journalism for more than 18 months, but in 1975 Peter Newman, editor of Maclean’s, invited him to return to that magazine as executive editor to help oversee its transition from a current-affairs monthly to a fortnightly news periodical.