As the song has it, “nothing’s for certain/it could always go wrong.” But if I were a betting man, I’d wager that The Walrus, pretty much the country’s only mainstream magazine dedicated to long-form current-affairs journalism, is actually going to mark its 10th birthday next year hale and hearty.
Ken Murphy has already bet in the affirmative. Last April, the president of Toronto-based High Fidelity HDTV inked a deal with The Walrus to produce original high-definition documentaries “inspired” by articles in the magazine – articles that have helped earn The Walrus, tempestuous history aside, more than 60 gold and silver national magazine awards since its inception in the fall of 2003.
Fourteen documentaries, ranging from eight to 15 minutes, have been shot as part of the deal – which Walrus publisher Shelley Ambrose describes as “a natural pairing” – and today they begin to be broadcast on eqhd, High Fidelity’s 24-hour, digital-only “ideas and culture” channel, available to 600,000 Canadian homes. More films are in the works.
Not surprisingly, there’s a promotional mantra for the entire shebang: “Smart on the page, smart on the screen: The magazine you can’t wait to read has just become the magazine you can’t wait to watch.”
For Ambrose, though, this cross-platform deal is not just about smarts; it’s about survival in the digital age – broadening audience, diversifying revenue. As she dryly notes, since 2008, none of the interns The Walrus has hired (they’re in their mid- to late 20s) has subscribed to a daily newspaper, has a land line or owns a TV set.
“So with respect to Walrus content, we need to be where people are or where they’re going. We can’t sit here and pull people to be towards us.”
For Murphy, who co-founded High Fidelity 10 years ago after a lengthy stint at The Discovery Channel (including four years as president), partnering with The Walrus is a “happy convergence.” On a practical level, the short documentaries allow eqhd – a commercial-free channel – to round out its programming (instead of following, say, a 45-minute program with promotions for upcoming shows).
More significantly, the deal gives the channel access to stories and a like-minded audience.
“There are not a lot of magazines out there that see their audience the way The Walrus does, in my humble view,” Murphy observes. “They’re proudly Canadian, they’re proudly intellectual and articulate and I think they lead the media pack in that regard.”
Another likely synergy is in the realm of sponsorships. As a non-profit – and with a paid circulation of only 60,000 – The Walrus has increasingly relied on sponsorship dollars to bankroll its magazine and online content. For its July/August 2011 issue, for example, the Bennett Jones law firm paid for an essay by painter Joanne Tod about her portraits of the more than 125 Canadians killed in Afghanistan since 2002. Beermaker Stella Artois is the sponsor for the online humour feature The Walrus Laughs.
For now, the plan is for eq to spin off at least one documentary from an article in each issue of the magazine, which is published 10 times a year. High Fidelity commissioning producers have been holding monthly meetings with Walrus editors since last spring, firming up projects and, in some instances, assigning camera crews to accompany Walrus writers on their interview and research rounds.
The documentaries can also be seen online at walrustv.ca, also launching today. But eventually the new documentaries will be available first on eqhd for an exclusive “window” of five to six weeks each, after which they’ll move onto walrustv.ca.
In addition, since last April High Fidelity has been shooting Walrus-published poets such as Linda Besner, Damian Rogers and Jeff Latosik reading their work and broadcasting the results on its “music and art” digital channel, HIFI (formerly Treasure).
High Fidelity also intends to shoot some of the special events The Walrus hosts – the magazine has 28 debates and forums scheduled for 2012 – and edit them into features for eqhd. An example is the debate last October at the Art Gallery of Ontario on the question of whether Toronto can ever be beautiful: eqhd has prepared a 25-minute version of the joust, while walrustv.ca will run its entire 90 minutes as a video podcast.
But that’s just for starters. Just before Christmas the independent Toronto-based media company Blue Ant, headed by former Alliance Atlantis executive chairman Michael MacMillan, announced it was purchasing High Definition, including the eqhd service. “Think big,” is reportedly what MacMillan told Murphy, who duly relayed the command to Shelley Ambrose.
Asked what that means, Murphy said it likely will result in more Walrus content on TV and longer-form features inspired by The Walrus.