Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

A new ethos for the still-endangered Walrus

Shelley Ambrose still "cracks up" when someone grabs her arm at a dinner party or public event and breathlessly declares: "I hear The Walrus is in financial difficulty."

It's at once old news and as fresh as tomorrow for the 46-year-old Ambrose, publisher of the award-winning, not-for-profit current-affairs magazine since November, 2006, and executive director of its namesake charitable foundation.

As she's keen to point out, The Walrus was in financial difficulty even before its founders, Torontonians Ken Alexander and David Berlin, published its first issue in October, 2003. It's been in financial difficulty under Ambrose who says she "inherited about a $700,000 deficit the day [she]walked in the door." And it's still in trouble today, some seven months after John Macfarlane, at 66 one of the country's most respected magazine mavens (Toronto Life, Saturday Night), took the post of co-publisher and editor.

Story continues below advertisement

He succeeded Alexander, who resigned last June, citing both "sheer burn-out" and a disagreement with The Walrus board of directors as to how best to "carve out" (Macfarlane's words) $1-million from the magazine's editorial and art budget.

Ambrose almost likes it when people say The Walrus, which has won more than 25 gold medals at the National Magazine Awards, is "clinging to the ice floe and the fingers are loosening.

"It means they know something about the magazine," she said during a recent interview at the magazine's downtown Toronto offices. It's also a recruiting moment, as in: "How'd you like to help rectify our difficulties? Can I put you down for $5,000?"

More people (and institutions and corporations) are, in fact, writing cheques, or otherwise contributing financially to The Walrus - all of which provides tax-related benefits to the donors since the magazine, after strenuous lobbying, was granted charitable status by the Canada Revenue Agency in November, 2005. Just last month, as the magazine prepared to unveil, for the March issue, a refreshment of its design, the Walrus Foundation held a gala at Toronto's Distillery District to mark the magazine's fifth anniversary. The event netted $180,000, with $16,000 coming from an auction of 45 bottles containing autographs and "secret messages" on the meaning of life from such celebrities as Sir Richard Branson, Sarah, Duchess of York, Ian Rankin, Douglas Coupland and Lewis Lapham. (A crystal decanter filled with five predictions hand-written by Margaret Atwood was auctioned for $7,000.)

Meanwhile, corporate sponsors such as the Royal Bank, Toronto Dominion Bank, the Bank of Montreal and Enbridge Inc. have come aboard in one capacity or another. Last year, the Walrus Foundation took in $1.44-million in gifts and grants - including $250,000 from government agencies such as the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council, a first in Walrus history and another benefit of charitable status. At the same time, the magazine division's total gross revenue, including subscriptions, newsstand sales and advertising, was $1.93-million.

Although a charity, The Walrus is permitted to sell ads, but they can't take up more than 30 per cent of the magazine. So far this hasn't been a worry for Ambrose as none of The Walrus's 50-plus issues has ever come close to that threshold. The March issue, in fact, running to 68 pages, has only about 10 non-Walrus-themed full-page ads.

The magazine, scheduled to publish 10 issues a year (it produced nine last year, including three double issues), currently has about 40,000 or so subscribers while newsstand sales have, at least until the onset of the recession last year, ranged from 9,000 to 15,000 copies. Macfarlane calls this "60-ish [60,000 paid circulation]pretty remarkable for a five-year-old magazine in a tiny country," although he acknowledged newsstand circulation was "pretty crummy toward the end of 2008," dipping to 4,000 in December. Now he's "looking to see a spike in both newsstand sales and [subscription]renewals as people begin to see the magazine evolve."

Story continues below advertisement

The most obvious sign of this evolution is its current issue, highlighted by the new look that Macfarlane commissioned from the magazine's new art director, Brian Morgan. (Make that "semi-new" director, as Morgan was The Walrus's creative director from 2004 to 2006 before moving to Maclean's as deputy art director. The look, too, is "semi-new" in that, as Macfarlane observed, "it's still The Walrus" - still the same trim size as before, still heavy on text - "but subtly different in 100 ways." It's all rather like a good repair job on your car, he said: "You don't necessarily know precisely all that they've done; you just know it's running better."

Dedicated Walrus readers, however, will notice that Macfarlane has ditched the crossword puzzles and brain teasers that used to occupy the periodical's back pages. Gone, too, are the mini-book reviews as well as the Field Notes section (the latter is now called Miscellany). At the same time, the new Walrus appears better organized and easier to navigate, with more attention paid to giving the reader both a greater variety of story lengths and a hierarchy to those stories.

The most significant cosmetic changes are on the cover. The "The", for instance, is now perpendicular to "Walrus," freeing up space to run cover lines along the top. In the Alexander era, covers, at least on the issues sent to subscribers, often had few or no type lines atop illustrations that sometimes were quirky to the point of inscrutability. A famous example is the December, 2007, front, featuring a Chris Levine portrait of a waxy-looking Queen Elizabeth II with her eyes closed. Striking for sure - but nowhere in the issue's 114 pages is there an article (or at least an obvious article) about the Queen or England or the Commonwealth.

From now on, Ambrose promised, "the cover will be more related to the editorial content in the magazine, and I think the image in pretty much all cases will be representational." Certainly this is true of the March issue: There's an almost Alex Colville-esque portrait (by Marco Ventura) of Stephen Harper on its cover alongside a 12-line stack of Harper-themed type. And be darned if there isn't an eight-page article inside on the guy. (The cover for the April issue, on newsstands Mar. 19, is more arty - a collage of Kara Walker-style silhouettes, by Ronald Calla, to illustrate a lengthy essay on Barack Obama by Mark Kingwell.)

Profiles were something of an anathema in the pre-Macfarlane Walrus. In part, this was due to the circumstances of the magazine's charitable status. According to CRA regulations, The Walrus has to be, over the course of any year, 80 per cent "educational" in content, and profiles were seen as not being up to that mark. Ambrose still believes "we have to be careful with the word 'profile' for fear its [suggestion of]entertainment might jeopardize the magazine's charitable status."

Macfarlane, however, stoutly "rejects the notion that personality pieces aren't educational" and indicated such features would be appearing under his watch. This doesn't mean eight-page profiles of Shania Twain are in store for Walrus readers. But, pointing to the Harper cover story in the current issue, Macfarlane asked, "If The Walrus didn't do or attempt to do The New Yorker-style profile of our sitting Prime Minister, who would? I would submit that Harper's personality is germane to the way he governs; the same would be true of [Michael]Ignatieff."

Story continues below advertisement

Behind the scenes, Macfarlane has substantially thinned both the magazine's ranks and its backlog of stories. Since his arrival in mid-2008, many commissioned pieces have been killed. Going forward, "the magazine will be far more internally driven," he said. "More ideas are going to be generated around the story conference table," rather than from writers pitching proposals. At the same time, Ambrose hopes to see more women's bylines.

Meanwhile, the number of senior editors has been reduced to two from four, the arts-and-literature-editor job eliminated, along with the contributing-editors roster listed on the masthead ("Window-dressing," said Macfarlane. "We're not Condé Nast," said Ambrose.) At present, the magazine's in-house staff totals fewer than 15, including a recently hired director of development financed through a grant from the Metcalf Foundation.

Some might suggest The Walrus is chafing under the limitations imposed by being a charity. Among other criteria, it's required to have an educational review committee, sponsor various outreach programs and, at the end of the calendar year, have ensured that 80 per cent of its stories were recognizably Canadian. For Ambrose, though, the "constraints" mean "we can actually be the kind of magazine that The Walrus wants to be."

There's no doubt the periodical has broadened its support in the last two or three years. Still, no individual has yet to write a cheque for more than $10,000. And certainly no single organization has come close to matching the millions provided by Montreal's Chawkers Foundation, started in 1988 by Ken Alexander's father, Charles - $1.95-million in 2005 alone, a similar amount the next year and $1.3-million in 2007. As both the activities and supporters of The Walrus Foundation have increased, Chawkers has been reducing its involvement, investing $640,000 last year and $120,000 for the first half of 2009.

While both Macfarlane and Ambrose would like to see much more advertising on The Walrus's pages, they know this is especially unlikely for the time being. Car companies, for example, used to buy as many as seven ad pages an issue; the March issue has only one.

Maybe, at some distant point, The Walrus Foundation will be able to establish a multimillion-dollar endowment similar to the one America's MacArthur family helped establish for the Harper's Magazine Foundation. Regardless, as long as it survives, The Walrus will be a charity case - which Macfarlane is not ashamed of, as long as it remains an independent, serious, general-interest publication and not Canada's Vanity Fair or Esquire. "No one thinks twice about supporting a ballet company or an opera company," Macfarlane observed. "They think it's natural. They don't think the National Ballet is bad just because it fundraises. They see it as a cultural good, a public good. Why can't the same thinking apply to a magazine?"

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.