The name is shorter, the pedigree of famous contributors longer, but after 35 years, Canada's premier magazine of the left is still struggling to find its way and pay its bills. Last night, the faithful, including Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein, Clifton Joseph, Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club and economic nationalist Mel Watkins, opened their pockets and their mouths at Radical Equations, a Toronto fundraiser and public debate about New Visions in Education.
Founded in 1966, as This Magazine is About Schools, the magazine became simply This Magazine in the 1970s, and just This in the 1990s. Over the years, it has become a bit of an institution, known as much for its ability to serve as a journalistic trampoline to envy-making jobs at mainstream publications (at such diverse spots on the ideological spectrum as Shift, The Globe and Mail and The National Post) as the mouthpiece of left-leaning radical politics.
The most recent issue, a double anniversary number on education, marks a return to its roots -- even though those roots have long since been trampled and truncated. As long-time contributor Rick Salutin wrote in a retrospective essay: "You used to worry about rigid and undemocratic values being imposed in the classrooms; now you hope to save enough pencils so the kids won't have to share."
Salutin, an editorial mainstay of the magazine from 1973 to 1993, recruited Atwood and Klein, both of whom are still listed on the masthead as contributors. Atwood wrote articles and a comic strip in the 1970s called Kanadian Kultural Komics, KKK, reflecting nationalist and feminist issues of the time. The strip featured Survival Woman, a character Atwood describes as "the Canadian equivalent of Superman, but she couldn't fly, she wore snowshoes and she had a friend called Woman Woman." (Atwood resurrected Survival Woman in the cartoon she drew for The Globe above.)
"The magazine was always run on dedication and youthful energy," Atwood said in an interview, "and to my mind it is extremely important to keep it going because it is one of the few doors where things and people can get in who otherwise wouldn't." She remembers being stuck with U.S. poet Carolyn Forché in Mount St. Helens in Washington State when the volcano erupted in 1980. Forché had been travelling in El Salvador and began talking about her frustrations in trying to find a vehicle to publish a critical article about U.S. involvement in that country's civil war. "Have I got a magazine for you," Atwood replied.
The other great strength of the magazine in Atwood's view is that the editors have always been willing to put the time into doing investigative stories. That's why, she says, it continues to be "widely read by anybody having anything to do with politics or public policy."
Klein says there is a direct link between This magazine, the writing of her best-selling No Logo, and her involvement in anticorporate global activism. She was 21, a student radical at the University of Toronto and a features editor of the Varsity when she and Salutin appeared in the early 1990s on CTV's Canada AM to debate the allegedly hot issue of the day: political correctness. Sharing a taxi home after the show, Klein remembers telling Salutin that "this debate is bull because students can't even afford to care about this issue. Most of them are holding down two part-time jobs." He told her she should write about it, which she did in This magazine.
That first polemical essay led to a cover story on baby-boomer dominance in the media and eventually to an invitation to apply for the newly created position of editor in early 1993. The mag, like many self-organizing groups from the 1960s, was going through the painful transition from a hands-on, volunteer editorial collective to a professionally run and edited magazine.
"It was a really lucky time to be at the magazine," says Klein. The recession of the early 1990s meant there were hiring freezes, so that talented young journalists, such as Klein herself, Doug Saunders, Carl Wilson, Simona Chiose and Clive Thompson, wound up writing cheaply for This instead of being hired at mainstream publications. "They all have great jobs now," Klein says, "but at the time we were willing to work for practically nothing. Basically, we moved our little student-press conspiracy to This mag -- we were all friends from Canadian University Press."
The good part was that they had a magazine to play with and to learn from; the bad part was that the magazine was always in financial trouble and the left itself was in retreat. Klein and her gang did a special issue about the "cost-cutting cowboys" -- about how the young bucks of the right were in charge while the left didn't know where it was going. Her frustration with the seeming paralysis of the left made Klein realize that "unless there is a movement, there is really not a future for progressive journalism because there is nothing to report on." So she left This magazine and went back to school "and met a new generation of activists who believed we have to go where the power is and that we have to go after it directly."
By contrast, Salutin says he wrote in This magazine in the 1970s because nobody else was offering him the platform he wanted. "I didn't want a career as a journalist, but I wanted to have my voice out there. For 20 years, I went every week to an editorial meeting and read every article that appeared and discussed the editing of every article with everybody else." He admits the process was "insane," but it was also a lot of fun, and for Salutin editorial meetings became "a pretext for discussing a lot of other things and so you actually had a place where you could bring your particular interests and you could battle things out and continue to grow."
To him, it was a time of great arguments and a feeling that "you were dealing with a collective voice." Now, he thinks the magazine has become the vehicle of the editors, and while there is still an editorial board, it operates in an advisory capacity. A series of talented and energetic journalists -- Clive Thompson, Andrea Curtis and Sarmishta Subramanian have followed Klein as editor, each staying about 18 months before moving on to other better-paying jobs. Burnout, low salary and poaching by other publications all take their toll, says publisher Judith Parker, who is herself moving on after almost three years at the magazine.
Does that mean that Thisis no longer an alternative? Even Salutin is hard pressed to think of things he could write in This that he wouldn't be able to get away with in his weekly column in The Globe. But that, he says, is not really the issue. He thinks Julie Crysler, the current editor, is being really smart in her editorial approach by asking: What does it mean to be genuinely alternative? In doing so, Salutin thinks she is raising real and important questions about the magazine's identity and significance.
To Salutin, the magazine has the opportunity to become a new kind of alternative, now that the previous versions of the alternative have disintegrated. He thinks it can become a forum for voices that are trying to define a new position for the left. "What we did was to lay out the alternative and raise the banner and hope people would flock to it. I think it is just as valid to use the magazine as a place to try to sort out what the alternative looks like, in a confusing time, and try to reformulate it."
Crysler's instinct that the magazine should go back to its roots to find its new place is a shrewd one, says Salutin, because the two areas that are showing the fault lines in capitalism and globalization are health care and education. "In their guts, people are terrified about health care and they are very energized about education," says Salutin. "Questions about your kids' education go so deep."
Will the magazine still be around to celebrate another 35 years? "This is not a country that sustains institutions very well," he says, "but I guess I would say that its chances are probably as good as Maclean's -- maybe better." Maybe so, but only if the subscription base, now at a lowly 5,000 readers an issue, gets a mainstream boost from a new generation.