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Cover boy: John Macfarlane dishes on the stories behind his storied career

Some of Macfarlane’s standout issues.

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."

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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.

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In 1976, while at Maclean's, I was recruited to edit Weekend, which at that time was a Montreal-based supplement carried in The Globe and Mail, The Kingston Whig-Standard, the Vancouver Sun and other newspapers. I told the headhunter that I didn't think an English-Canadian magazine could be edited out of Montreal at that time. [René Lévesque's sovereigntist Parti Québécois had just been elected, and Quebeckers of all stripes were "entirely focused" with the fallout.] I thought it would have to be moved to Toronto, the centre of magazine publishing in Canada. Eventually, they agreed.

Weekend had a circulation of 1.7 million when I was there, and I had a bigger budget than I ever dreamed of, or ever saw again. And when it was folded [in 1979], I said that it was the end of an era in which Canadian editors could afford to behave in ways that New York editors take for granted. If I wanted to send Adrienne Clarkson to China for the 30th anniversary of the revolution, I could do it! We brought over two great art directors from London, Robert Priest and Derek Ungless, and near the end The New York Times was syndicating Weekend stories all over the world.

This is the first issue of the redesigned, reinvented Weekend. However, the cover [by scabrous British artist Ralph Steadman, best known for his work illustrating Hunter S. Thompson's journalism; and referring to a story on the Newfoundland seal hunt] was so raw it created a bit of an incident in St. John's, because it was included in the Evening Telegram. Later, we did a story on a defrocked priest, and I think the publisher of the St. John's paper manually tore out that article from every Weekend issue.

Saturday Night, January, 1987

When Weekend died, I got a job as publisher of Saturday Night, not editor. [Robert] Fulford was, and he generously allowed me to be a part of the editorial process. My main job was to keep the magazine afloat, and I didn't realize until the end of my seven years there that what we were trying to do was impossible: You couldn't do a magazine like Harper's or The Atlantic in a country [that's one-tenth the size of the United States].

This issue was a special one, marking Saturday Night's 100th anniversary. The plan was to sell 100 pages of ads. We didn't succeed. We had about 125,000 paid circulation, but 50,000 of that was bogus; it was agency sales, it was people paying a dollar a month for five Canadian magazines. The problem was, they were buying the magazine for the wrong reasons – it was cheap – and they didn't renew subscriptions. Still, this was a wonderful issue; there are stories by Ron Graham, David Macfarlane, Jan Morris, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, John Kenneth Galbraith. And it was 192 pages.

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Then Conrad [Black] bought it [in summer, 1987]. I remember vividly Norman Webster, who owned it then, coming into my office late on a Thursday afternoon – we knew he was looking for new ownership – and saying, "We've found a buyer." And I said, "Terrific. Who is it?" and he said, "Conrad Black," and I replied, "That's great, too" because I knew Conrad had the resources to support it. Then Norman said, "The only problem is, he doesn't want you."

The Financial Times of Canada, January, 1988

Macfarlane shifted to The Financial Times of Canada, a Toronto-based weekly business periodical then owned by Southam, where he worked first as a consultant, then editor, then editor/publisher. Macfarlane subsequently hired Ungless, at that time art director for Rolling Stone, to redesign FT as a tabloid, with a buff-coloured front page. Writers included now-former Globe and Mail staffers John Stackhouse, Michael Posner, Patricia Best and Sarah Murdoch.

We described it to ourselves as "Business Week meets Rolling Stone" because we focused not solely on the mathematics of business but also on its Shakespearean elements – the narratives, the human stories – which the other papers, like The Globe's Report on Business, and the Financial Post, weren't doing.

What I didn't know about business journalism then would have filled a library! I remember the first day I arrived for work, Oct. 19, 1987, was Black Monday; there was panic in the newsroom; the Dow Jones was plummeting by 508 points – and I barely knew what was happening. So I was on a very steep learning curve. Which I loved. It was like doing an MBA outside a university. [In 1989, Southam sold FT to Thomson Corp., proprietors of The Globe and Mail, and it was closed in spring, 1995.]

Toronto Life, October, 2007

Departing FT in 1990, Macfarlane spent two years at CTV as managing director of news, features and information programming before returning to Toronto Life, this time as editor, in the summer of 1992. Again, he was charged with overseeing a redesign, duly implemented in early 1993 with help from Ungless, Priest and Bruce Mau.

When the Conrad Black criminal-fraud trial came along [in March, 2007], I knew it was maybe the biggest Toronto story of the last quarter-century. But unlike The Globe or the Toronto Star, we didn't have the resources to cover it. So I thought, I'm gonna go out and get the biggest name I can get and I'm gonna pay that person more than anybody's been paid for a magazine article in Canada but not enough to spend two or three months in Chicago every day. This was Peter C. Newman, with whom I'd worked, and who knew Conrad. At the end of the trial, Newman wrote this – oh, it must have been 15,000 words, with a cover by Anita Kunz depicting Conrad as Humpty Dumpty. Newman was pretty savage, I have to admit. But it was a natural Toronto Life story: We had to do something big, and we did.

The Walrus, October, 2013

Around the time of the publication of the Black cover story, Macfarlane, then 65, announced he'd be leaving Toronto Life at the end of 2007. He thought he'd like to serve on sundry boards, which he'd already been doing voluntarily with not-for-profits since the mid-seventies. Today, he says,"I don't know if I'd have been very successful." Luckily, Ken Alexander, the co-founder, original publisher, and later editor of The Walrus, was departing the magazine after five years.When publisher Shelley Ambrose and Allan Gregg, then-chair of The Walrus Foundation, sought Macfarlane's service, he agreed.

This is the 10th-anniversary issue, a milestone for any magazine, but also emblematic for me of the changed and more secure circumstances of The Walrus.

We've established a business model that works. We've demonstrated that if you want to do a magazine like The Walrus in this country, you can't make it viable with just circulation and advertising. The third leg of the stool is philanthropy and events: fundraising.

Five or six years ago, if Shelley had gone to somebody else and said, "We'd like you to edit the magazine," that somebody likely already had a job, maybe a mortgage, maybe kids to educate, and he or she would have asked, "Will The Walrus be around in a year?" and Shelley couldn't have looked that person in the eye and said, "Yes." Now we can. Five or six years ago, we were pretty close to shutting the place down. Today we can look for an editor who has skills I don't have and we'll be able to say to that person, "The Walrus will be here 10 years from now and we'll be able to pay you what you're worth."

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