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Maclean's magazine has appointed what publisher Paul Jones describes as the tallest editor in its history with the confirmation yesterday that national-affairs columnist and editor-at-large Anthony Wilson-Smith will head the magazine into its centenary celebrations in 2005.

Height is not his only qualification. Wilson-Smith, known as Hyphen to Maclean's staffers, is also fluently bilingual in the country's two official languages, speaks Russian from his days as the magazine's Moscow bureau chief and has reported from more than 30 countries in his 18 years at the newsmagazine.

Jones made much of the fact that for an insider, Wilson-Smith, who will be 45 in April, is the closest thing to an outsider since he has been at Maclean's Toronto head office for only four years, despite his long history with the magazine.

Clearly Jones felt this was a point worth making, given that the appointment of Wilson-Smith is the culmination of an exhaustive search by Caldwell Partners that took four months, included a long list of approximately two dozen names and a price tag said to be in excess of $50,000. Wilson-Smith may well be the "agent of change" that he claims to be, who is not content with the status quo or interested in following through on ideas from other times, but it doesn't take much of a jaundiced eye to conclude that Maclean's could have saved itself a lot of time and money and looked around their own newsroom in the first place.

Back in December, when former editor Bob Lewis stepped down, or up, to become vice-president of content development for Rogers Media, the need for an exhaustive search seemed obvious: Newsmagazines are in trouble. In a 24/7 CNN world that has a glut of information, getting your news in a weekly dollop in about as old-fashioned as a Saturday night bath in a tin tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. In much the same way that consumers are increasingly servicing their own banking needs using the telephone, the Internet and ATMs, readers are feeding their information appetites by scrolling through magazines, newspapers and Web sites on the Internet, and catching bulletins on television, radio and close-circuit monitors in office buildings.

"We're talking about something that is written on paper and delivered through the mail. Can you imagine anything more primitive than that?" asks Brian Lee Crowley, an economist and public-policy expert who heads the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax. "I'm not even sure what a magazine is any more, or what it will be in five years time," adds Crowley, one of the score of people that Caldwell interviewed.

Even Peter Newman, who transformed Maclean's from a monthly general-interest magazine into a newsmagazine three decades ago, admits that "the format has been taken as far as it can go."

Maclean's is not the only newsmagazine in this dilemma. Time and Newsweek are also trying to reposition themselves by offering special reports, thematic issues and investigative articles. All are serving an aging demographic. They have large subscription bases, which are expensive to service and maintain, but their readership is declining, especially among young, savvy urbanites.

The problem for Maclean's is more acute than for the American newsmagazines, which have global profiles and international editions, because Maclean's has to compete in a small national market saturated with foreign media.

Asking what Maclean's should be is like stopping a bunch of strangers and asking them how you should renovate your kitchen. Each one will give you the design that suits his or her needs and tastes. Generally, the people I talked to want it to be more provocative and thoughtful, to be breaking ideas rather than news, and to be offering a greater range and diversity of opinion. The models that most people mention are The Economist, The New Yorker, Harper's and The Atlantic, magazines that are provocative, thoughtful and opinionated, magazines that require reading rather than mere browsing, magazines that are worth rereading and consulting long after their shelf date has expired.

From inside Maclean's there seemed to be a yearning for leadership and vision. "I want the magazine to go back to its heritage as an incubator of great Canadian journalism," said film critic Brian D. Johnson, citing trenchant political profiles and great investigative pieces as the stuff of the Maclean's he would love to work for. "I want my friends to read it because they would be crazy not to."

Instead, Jones and his bosses at Rogers Media have settled for a talented political reporter and commentator, with little management experience, from their own newsroom, and an editorial vision that owes more to the past than the future.

Maclean's wasn't supposed to be looking for the same old, same old. One media executive who was involved in the hiring process was told by the search consultants that Rogers media was not looking for Maclean's to be a major profit centre. They wanted it to break even, but they really saw it as a prestigious vehicle for the Rogers communication empire.

This person was also told that Rogers was very open to different ways of thinking about the magazine, including looking at it as a totally on-line vehicle. Finally, they were looking for an editor who would also be a public figure, "a guru who would give speeches and who would appear on journalistic panels and testify in front of Commons committees." In other words, they were looking for a visionary leader -- a Peter Newman or a Ralph Allen for the new millennium.

While there is no specific model, Jones says the magazine will maintain its current editorial budget at slightly under $10-million and focus on three main themes: Canadian content, redefining news as what is new to readers rather than a digest of what happened last week, and a more flexible format and style that will celebrate traditional writerly values.

Through focus groups the magazine had identified three major themes, all of which were reiterated in some form by the four final candidates on the short list. "For Maclean's, the value proposition for readers is Canada. There is no other major national medium that can stare everyday Canadians in the eyes, wink, and say with as much credibility, 'We're on your side,' " Jones said in an interview. Jones considers this brand identification a huge advantage.

Just because the concept of a newsmagazine is spent doesn't mean the mission is invalid, says Newman, the veteran journalist who has been associated with the magazine for more than 40 years as national editor, Ottawa editor and columnist. "It should be a mirror for Canadians to see themselves and a window through which they can view the world. That was Ralph Allen's vision and that is still the basic mission for Maclean's," Newman said in a telephone interview.

In truth, Maclean's, a younger sibling to Saturday Night in the Canadian consumer-magazine family, had hit upon nationalism as a vision long before Allen took the helm in the 1950s. Founded in the mid-1890s, the magazine operated under a number of titles, including Business and The Business Magazine, and was primarily a digest of articles gleaned from other periodicals. When John Bayne MacLean bought it in 1905, the magazine had a circulation of about 5,000. He changed the name to Busy Man's Magazine, soon began adding original poems, essays and fiction, and relaunched it as MacLean's six years later. Together with his editor, Thomas B. Costain, who would later write such popular histories as The White and the Gold, MacLean invented the pro-Canadian formula that defined the magazine from the end of the First World War until Newman's radical remake in 1978.

By the 1920s, it was doing so well that it began appearing every two weeks; and by the 1930s, the capital L was dropped and the magazine acquired the name it is still known by today. The heyday of Maclean's as a monthly magazine was in the expansionist postwar consumer culture under editors Arthur Irwin and Allen. Blair Fraser was contributing articles and his must-read political column from Ottawa. Peter Gzowski, Peter Newman, Barbara Moon and Robert Fulford all wrote for Allen's magazine, which was an agreeable monthly mix of essays, profiles, light features, fiction and visuals. It was compared favourably to The Saturday Evening Post.

By the 1960s, though, television had made monthly magazines less pertinent, advertisers were using other vehicles to promote their products and editorial and management wrangling was taking its toll. Newman left to become editor of The Toronto Star and returned in 1971. "Maclean's had had 10 editors in 10 years and had lost $10-million," he remembers grimly.

Much like now, the magazine needed a new vision and a leader capable of making it happen. Newman realized that print had an authority that television didn't because although people loved watching television, they still "mistrusted the news part of television." Using Newsweek, more than Time as a model, he and his editors (who included Bob Lewis fresh from eight years at Time magazine) envisioned a magazine that was not so much concerned with the weekly "tally of events," but a magazine that "defined the times those events added up to."

The biggest problem he remembers was circulation costs -- they had to go to $36 for an annual 12 issues to make the magazine viable. The biggest boon was the passage of Bill C-58 in 1976. It protected Canadian magazines from foreign competition by amending the Income Tax Act to ensure that only those periodicals that were 75 per cent Canadian-owned and that had editorial content substantially different (later this was deemed to be 80 per cent) from foreign publications could qualify for tax deductions.

Magazine historian Morris Wolfe, who believes that Maclean's owes its existence to Bill C-58, argues that newsmagazines were already becoming irrelevant when Canada's "weakly" newsmagazine made its first appearance on September 18, 1978, almost 50 years after Henry Luce invented the concept. Writing in The Canadian Forum in June, 1997, Wolfe levelled a criticism that is even more relevant today now that national newspapers are more like daily magazines, especially on weekends. News, even home-grown events and crises that rarely make it -- even as fillers -- on editorial lineups anywhere else, are stale by the time you read them in Maclean's.

Despite alarming reports about the economy and a disturbing downturn in magazine advertising in the United States, Jones boasts that his advertising bookings and contracts are 28 per cent ahead of last year. For how long is the question.

Jones and his new editor seem to be aware that Maclean's needs to refresh itself.

As Wilson-Smith told the news conference: "We have to reach further afield and learn how to make time our friend rather than our enemy."

He wants to enlist "other voices" and "let our pages become more of a two-way street with Canadians."

Perhaps it is too soon for specifics, but the recipe that Wilson-Smith recited yesterday seemed bland. There was little talk of deconstructing events, original research and investigative reporting.

For policy wonk Crowley, Maclean's is a dinosaur of the information age. The nationalist perspective is exactly what Crowley thinks is wrong with the magazine. "If your starting point is that you can't talk about something unless it is relevant to Moose Jaw and hockey and north of 60, the lens through which you are interpreting the world is way too narrow. It is such a small pinpoint of light that it is like looking through an ice window in an igloo."

Rather than using Maclean's as a vehicle to tell Canadians about Canada and the world, the editors should use it to take a Canadian view to a much larger audience. "We should do on a continental basis what The Economist does for the world," he said.

Instead, Wilson-Smith is promising us a newsmagazine that will "put the emphasis on magazine" rather than news, that will be more "fun" and have more cartoons, illustrations and photographs.

So last century.