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A new ethos for the still-endangered Walrus Add to ...

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.

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."

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.

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