Ten Years of Popping Off
Early last April, the Ryerson Review of Journalism hit the newsstands and the newsrooms of every major media company in Toronto. On the cover was a dramatic black-and-red illustration of a powerful hand squeezing blood out of a Maclean’s magazine. The headline read: “Strong-Arm Tactics: How the Life Gets Squeezed Out of Canada’s Weekly Newsmagazine.” Inside, student writer Andrew Leitch attacked the magazine for prose he called homogenized, standardized and without viewpoint or voice, the product of a ruthless and often debilitating editing process.
The story caused immediate waves within Maclean’s. So much so that four senior editors decided to troop down from their offices on the seventh floor of the Maclean Hunter building to the nearby Ryerson School of Journalism. This unofficial delegation was made up of assistant managing editors Michael Benedict and Robert Marshall, national editor Ross Laver and foreign editor Bruce Wallace. They had arranged to air their grievances with Review instructor Don Obe and school chairman John Miller. As Obe recalls it, the visiting editors argued that the Review had unfairly criticized Maclean’s for failing to deliver a brand of creative writing that actually doesn’t belong in a newsmagazine. Though the tone of the 45-minute meeting was largely civil, says Obe, editor Laver was particularly upset and at times agitated. “He seemed to take what the article said as being directed at him personally.”
Laver, the only one of the four Maclean’s editors who will talk about the meeting, doesn’t hesitate in repeating his harsh opinion of the Review story. “It’s a shoddy piece of journalism,” he says. He charges that it was poorly researched, included much dated information and relied too heavily on unattributed sources to smear Maclean’s. Leitch counters that he would have preferred to name more names but that Kevin Doyle, then editor of Maclean’s, “has a reputation for not forgetting people who cross him, and the people I talked to didn’t want to burn any bridges.” Obe adds that he trusted Leitch’s sources because he knew their identities and they had all been taped. He concludes of the meeting: “We agreed to see them as a professional courtesy, but in the end we told them we liked the piece and stood behind our writer.”
The whole Maclean’s episode reflects the clout that the Ryerson Review of Journalism can have when it questions the journalistic establishment. This year the Review, written entirely by senior journalism students, is celebrating its 10th publishing year as a unique voice of press criticism in Canada. The response of the Maclean’s editors to their experience under its lens reflects an ongoing debate about whether its student writers are qualified to be effective and fair media critics. “The Ryerson Review of Journalism puts a lot of professional publications to shame,” says Stephen Kimber, a free-lance writer and journalism instructor at King’s College in Halifax. “It’s the only magazine in this country that looks at journalists critically-and God knows we’re not perfect.” On the other hand, Ian Urquhart, managing editor of The Toronto Star, feels that students don’t have enough expetience in the field to write analytically or to judge the media’s ethics, and says Review articles reflect that. “It’s admirable that Ryerson is trying to put out a magazine that attempts to analyze the actions of the media,” he says. “Canada needs a magazine like that. But in many respects the Ryerson Review of Journalism falls short of its mandate, and I feel it’s because the articles are written by students.”
It can’t be denied that the students lack experience, but that’s why they’re in the magazine program at Ryerson-to upgrade their skills for employment after school. Obe, who founded the Review in 1983, says he did partly aim to create a media watchdog (“There wasn’t any magazine in Canada that was an effective journalism review”). But he also wanted the Review to train students to think critically about their chosen profession. “I wanted students to develop a spirit of reform and not just accept things as they are,” he says. “We’re not interested in sending people out to be foot soldiers to the industry. If that’s all we did we’d be little more than a trade school. Working on the Review teaches them to challenge the status quo.” While their various challenges may have upset their targets, Review writers have gained many admirers among their peers in student journalism internationally. In 1987, the American-based Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication created a competition for student-produced magazines in North America. Competing against some of the top journalism schools in the United States, the Review won the award for best single issue of an ongoing magazine four years in a row, and placed third last year. What’s more, Review writers have twice won the AEJMC award for best consumer magazine article by an undergraduate: Mark Richardson in 1989 for “The McPapering of London, Ontatio,” and Anthony Seow in 1992 for “Whipping Boy,” about The Globe and Mail’s lone wolf sportswriter Marty York.
At 6 p.m. on a typical evening, when most Ryerson students are bustling off the campus after a long school day, the students and instructors working on the Ryerson Review of Journalism are just about to start work. It’s been that way since the premier edition when they met evenings and weekends to get the magazine out. The only space they could find was a former storeroom into which they could barely fit a bench, table and filing cabinet. “Sometimes there was so much smoke in the room you could hardly see the person sitting across the table from you,” recalls Kit Melamed, a features editor on the first issue. This year the journalism school has a new home in the Rogers Communications Centre, where Review students now work out of a space at least 20 times the size of the original, equipped with 10 Macintosh computers, a conference room and two private offices.
The Review was conceived in the summer of 1983 when Don Obe became journalism school chairman. The former editor of Toronto Life and The Canadian magazines, Obe immediately recognized that the school offered inadequate training to students interested in entering the magazine profession. To fill the gap, he decided the students should produce a real consumer magazine, something that no other journalism school in Canada had ever done. Better yet, he reasoned, it could have a modest role in shaping journalism in Canada if it aimed to critically review the profession.
The Ryerson Review of Journalism was born in April 1984, exactly nine months after its conception, at Imprint Typesetting in Toronto. Obe and the 12 students who worked on the first issue set a standard for all the mastheads that followed. “We knew from the start,” recalls Obe, “that every aspect of the magazine, from writing to production values, had to be up to professional levels.”
In the first year, the magazine’s biggest problem was lack of money. Obe managed to scrape up $1,000 from the school’s budget, and negotiated to have a $3,000 Reader’ s Digest grant for student travel applied to the magazine instead. But this $4,000 paid only for a cheap printer and stock, leaving Obe to improvise and pressure colleagues for donations of time and skills: “I shamelessly exploited all of my friends in the business to make the magazine become a reality.”
James Ireland, a veteran art director who had worked with Obe at several magazines, was intrigued by the Review and agreed to design it for a mere $500. He’s stayed on ever since. “Working on the Review went beyond a friend coming out to help,” says Ireland, who now has his own design firm. “By investing in the stu3ents’ future, it turned out, I was investing in my own. Every year I make contact with people who will soon be professionals-that is to say, potential clients. I’ve got work from a number of them since they graduated.”
The Review’s launch issue featured a glossy cover containing a self-caricature by political cartoonist Ed Franklin. Inside were 48 newsprint pages, with no colour or advertising. Launch stories examined the controversy surrounding Shirley Sharzer being passed over for the job of managing editor at The Globe and Mail, the effect of upscale circulation on the editorial content of magazines and the changing voices of the ethnic press.
In the spring of 1984, Maclean Hunter, thinking the magazine program a worthy investment, gave the school $125,000, to be spread over five years. In 1990, it upped the grant to $35,000 annually and renewed it for two more years. The second issue was the first to carry adsthough there were only six pages of them. But as ad revenue grew, the magazine added colour, better paper stock and increased in size, from 52 pages in 1987 to 88 pages in 1989. With increased enrolment in 1990, the school decided to split the magazine students into two separate staffs and produce two issues. The additional issue is supervised by journalism instructor Paul A. Rush, the former publisher of Moneywise and The Financial Post 500 magazines.
Each year, seven or eight students at the Review get a chance to work closely with some of the country’s top magazine editors and writers, who act as handling editors on their stories. “It’s like a special apprenticeship,” says Obe. “They probably won’t get another opportunity to work that closely with a top editor until they’ve been out of here for some years.” Student Andrew Leitch had Joann Webb, former editor of Harrowsmith and Canadian Business, as his handling editor last year. He says the advice and guidance he got from her helped him through the tough times. “Joann did the real hand-holding. I’d be on the phone with her for an hour in the evening talking about my article, and I could hear her kids in the background, playing and making noise, and she would be on the phone calmly helping me work through the piece.”
Review instructors also help students with job tips and references after graduation. For instance, Angie Gardos, managing editor of the 1989 Review, got a summer job as a copy editor and fact checker at Toronto Life on Obe’s recommendation. She and Leanne Delap, who was also on the 1989 Review, are now both associate editors at Toronto Life. Other Review alumni appear on the mastheads of consumer and trade magazines ranging from enRoute to Canadian Grocer.
By the time their Review work is finished, many students have acquired some hard-won insights into their chosen profession. Many are most surprised to learn that working journalists are often reluctant to talk about what they do and are sensitive to criticism. When writing his profile of Marty York, Anthony Seow ran into dozens who neglected to return his calls or hung up on him. “It really pissed me off,” he recalls. “I mean, give me a break; they’re journalists too. They had to start somewhere. I guess they forget where they came from. There were times when I really wasn’t looking forward to making the next call.”
The subject himself also proved a challenge. “York was fine in my interviews with him when he thought I was on his side,” says Seow, “but when I started asking him tough questions he immediately changed his tone and began acting very cold.” When York sensed that the piece would be critical, he threatened to call up Seow’s sources, and eventually came down hard on the student. “He blasted me for 45 minutes one night, trying to scare me and make me feel guilty. He told me that he didn’t want the story published and was going to call his lawyers and complain to my instructors.” In 10 years the Review has never been sued, but Seow says that at the time he sensed York was serious, and the whole experience didn’t give him a very good taste of the business. In the end, after the Review came out, York called Obe and told him he thought the article was fair and balanced.
Another dilemma Review students face is whether writing a controversial piece about the media will affect their employment prospects. Joan Breckenridge wrote “The Patience of Shirley Sharzer” in the first issue of the Review. The story took a critical look at upper-management attitudes toward women at the Globe-where Breckenridge very much wanted to work.
“I did wonder at times if writing this sort of article might hurt my chances of getting a job later on,” she says. But the Globe was more impressed by her honest reporting than annoyed by her criticism. After graduation she was hired by the Globe and has worked there ever since.
As it faces its next 10 years, the Ryerson Review of Journalism is at an impasse. Obe would like to see it increase its frequency to quarterly so it could have a greater impact on the Canadian media. However, he fears that students could not produce that volume of work themselves without having to trade off the learning experience of working at their current, more studious, pace. “The magazine couldn’t remain student-produced unless we were willing to accept inferior work,” he says. Professional journalists could be invited to contribute to a quarterly, but that might harm students’ sense of their own contribution. While Obe hasn’t abandoned the latter idea, he’s still thinking it through.
A more pressing concern for the Review right now is whether it will continue to receive its annual $35,000 grant. “Technically, the grant has run out, but Maclean Hunter has seen fit to continue providing the funds,” Obe says. “While we’re grateful for that, it still means a year-to-year sweat over whether the money will be forthcoming.” The Review usually nets about $20,000 from advertising, which is split – between the two issues, but that money alone isn’t nearly enough to produce even one issue that would meet the magazine’s present standards. Leitch remembers one day last year he went into Obe’s office in the back of the old journalism building to talk. Obe, who was sitting at his desk, looked up at him and said, “I don’t just want the Review to be the best student magazine in North America, I want it to be the best magazine in Canada.”
This year will be Obe’s last as one of the Review’s instructors. He will continue his involvement with the magazine as the school’s director of magazine journalism and as the instructor of a third-year writing course. Obe feels the writing course will be vital in preparing students to write their Review articles in their final year. After 10 years, he feels he’s done all he can as the Review’s instructor and now it’s time to move on. “The magazine is like a child to me. You work with it and guide it to a certain point and then when it’s grown, you let go. I’ve decided it’s time to let go.”
Whatever changes are made to the magazine in the future, it will likely continue to be the controversial and critical journalism review that Obe and the students have created in the past decade. “The Review is a shit-disturbing publication by its own mandate,” says Obe. If the magazine stays true to that original mandate, Ryerson students will continue to write stories that rattle the cages of media industry giants.