Rachel Pulfer

On a Left Wing and a Prayer

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Jim Lorrimer wants to remake the Canadian Forum into a Harper's of the north. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy flight

James Lorimer is a man with a mission. Hes coming to Toronto this weekend, and he’s got no time for pesky interviews he’s sitting in on the last editorial meetings before the official March relaunch of his magazine,Canadian Forum. Lorimer’s the kind of guy who demands flowchart analysis from his editorial staff: he doesn’t want to waste time answering questions. And as for sitting for a photo shoot? “I won’t release a picture on principle,” he says gravely over the phone from his publishing office in Halifax.

Principle. Yeah, that figures. Lorimer is a man of principle, that’s for sure. He’s a good guy, in a sense. A book publisher since 1970, he’s made a reputation out of investing in marginal publishing deals. His specialty? Canadian cultural projects with a decidedly left-wing slant.

Some pretty daring stuff has gone through James Lorimer and Co. like Deborah Coyne’s Meech Lake critique, Roll of the Dice. Or Heather Robertson’s fictionalized accounts of the life and times of Canada’s own wacko prime minister, Mackenzie King. And now Lorimer is relaunching that venerable bastion of CanLit and Letters, the 79-year-old Canadian Forum for the second time. There’s been much applause from the Canadian media establishment for Lorimer’s latest initiative. The Globe and Mail arts reporter Doug Saunders cheers the Forum relaunch as “an exciting new direction for an old warhorse.”

Award-winning magazine art director James Ireland says the relaunch is “a grand thing.” And as for all the downtrodden lefty writers who scatter our socialist land, there should be shouts and roars. Another place to publish, another way to even the score, as right-leaning Blacks and Whytes gobble up media space across the country.

So the man is no coward, no shrinking violet. He’s a strong supporter of Canadian writing, left-liberal style, and we’re glad to have him around. Or is he? And are we? Former This Magazine front-of-the-book editor Paul Jay jokingly calls him the “Conrad Black of the Left.” He seems to have more enemies than friends in media circles, and in this case we can’t even credit some right-wing conspiracy for Lorimer’s popularity problem. “Lorimer’s a nightmare,” “Control-freak,” “Hell to work with you need to have a very thick skin” are just some of the comments I’ve heard.

So what’s the story with Lorimer? He’s in the middle of trying to relaunch a magazine that’s a Canadian Cultural Institution, but few of the media professionals he attracted to the project seem to stick around long enough to see the thing through. It is just over a year since he started this relaunch, and already most of the originial editorial team have moved on. His first pick for editor, Julie Beddoes, resigned after just one issue. By February of this year, editorial assistant Chris Garbutt had thrown in the towel as well. Worse yet, Lorimer’s having a tough time finding investors to help him underwrite this great Canadian cultural intiative properly. It is starting to look uncomfortably like the “new” Canadian Forum will be more fizzle than fantastic.

Canada has one of the most concentrated media industries in the Western hemisphere. Of the four principal chains Southam, Quebecor, Torstar, and Thomson Conrad Black’s Southam has 40 percent of daily newspaper circulation, based on December 1998 figures. That’s almost half the readers in Canada. As writers and editors drown in Southam newsprint, places to print journalism disputing Conrad Black’s view of the world are in regrettably short supply. Wouldn’t Lorimer’s new-an’-improved Canadian Forum be a way to redress the media’s ideological imbalance?

Back up a second. Lots of people in media circles think relaunching the Forum is a good thing. But what isCanadian Forum? Where did it come from, and how’d it last so long? It was started by a group of U of T profs and undergrads in 1920. Since then, its reputation has ebbed and flowed. It has had highs Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are just two of the poets picked up by the Forum early in their careers. It has had lows deeply in debt and virtually ignored at the time Lorimer and “silent partner” business associate Aubrey Golden rescued it from an almost certain death in 1989. But it has survived, on almost no budget, to record almost an entire century of Canadian history.

The tradition at the Forum is that no one was ever paid. In good times, the mag was usually edited by a dynamic academic with a passion for Canadian writing. Northrop Frye is a case in point: he edited the mag in the forties. Historian Frank Underhill is another. In 1931, during Underhill’s tenure, writer Graham Spry published the first-ever argument for public broadcasting in the Forum.

The flip side of this “voluntary” tradition is the Forum‘s tweedy-reedy academic image. The standard joke at the magazine is that all the earnest Canadian-culture scholars cite it, but nobody actually reads the damn thing. A quick glance at the quarterly Canadian Historical Review reveals that Forum references appear no less than four times in the last year alone. Even confirmed fellow-traveller and Globe columnist Rick Salutin jokes, “Really, we always just thought they were a bunch of old coots.” When Lorimer first made a stab at relaunching the Forum in 1989, it differed only slightly from this volunteer tradition. The magazine was run on a shoestring the budget was $1,200 an issue at the start. Although the editorial board decided it would break the nobody-gets-paid concept by sending writers a nominal fee, this was still tiny $25 for book reviews, $50 for columns, $100 for articles of 1,500 words or more. Somehow, though, that version of the Forum took off. Circulation climbed from around 3,000 readers in 1989 to just under 10,000 by the mid 1990s. That’s no small feat in the world of Canadian independent magazine publishing. So how did it come about?

Lorimer’s choice for editor was inspired. In 1989, he asked Duncan Cameron, a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa, to do the job. Cameron was the president of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives at the time and agreed to edit the Forum provided it move to Ottawa. He installed the mag in the CCPA office and got together people like Governor General’s Award-winning writer Pat Smart and book editor Roy MacSkimming to brainstorm the editorial content.

The CCPA is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to social justice critiques of public policy. It is located at 251 Laurier Ave. W., a building that in Ottawa circles is affectionately known as the House of Lost Causes. There are lots of lefty-leaning nongovernmental activist groups housed at 251 Laurier: Maude Barlow’s Council of Canadians and public policy activist group the Action Canada Network, among others. The Forum was a good fit.

I spoke with Ottawa-era managing editor John Urquhart at an anti-MAI rally in Toronto. Urquhart is an older man with greying hair, a wide smile, and the patience to sit through three hours of the Raging Grannies without complaint. “We felt that the views of ordinary Canadians weren’t adequately represented by the media,” he says. “We saw ourselves as valuing the CBC, national culture, and a role for government in the economy and social programs.”

Spurred by a positive public response to the Forum‘s coverage of NAFTA negotiations, Cameron started assigning more stories on Canadian nationalist themes. For example, in the January/February 1995 issue, Marcella Munro then of the Canadian Federation of Students published a great piece on student debt. In a brilliant, forward-looking scenario, Munro illustrated how then-education minister Lloyd Axworthy’s new debt-dissolving initiative, income-contingent repayment loans, would lead to a generation of people mortgaging their lives before they even finished university. The article is the Ottawa Forum at its considered best relevant, politically engaged, and eerily prophetic.

The magazine still relied on grant money to keep publishing, but it was at least being taken seriously by the reading public. Subscription revenue climbed. The magazine started running full colour photos on the cover, and in the January/February 1994 issue switched to a glossy paper stock: better-looking and easier to read than the previous flimsy version. Lorimer and the editorial board members occasionally clashed over the yawnsome design and layout of the magazine, which was done by Lorimer’s publishing house in Halifax. Apart from this, however, Lorimer-Forum relations seemed to run fairly smoothly.

Still, by 1993 Lorimer was already worrying about his franchise. He felt the magazine’s circulation had reached a plateau, and called in a team of industry experts among them former Chatelaine editor Doris Anderson and Ryerson magazine instructor Lynn Cunningham to give the Forum a bit of professional polish. The pros recommended that Forum writers and staff be properly paid. Lorimer took this to heart, instituting a fund-raising drive in 1995-96. By 1996, the magazine had enough money to hire a full-time intern, Nadia Halim. Although from 1995 Canadian Forum‘s provincial grants were cut each year, the magazine took on new commitments to pay its writers competitive rates. “We were paying up to a dollar a word for feature articles,” says Cameron.

But the move to professionalize the magazine had some unforeseen consequences. For example, Duncan Cameron found himself swamped with work. On one hand, as university fund transfers dried up, the University of Ottawa put more pressure on him to teach extra courses. On the other, commissioning professional writers and editors meant Cameron spent more time on Forum work than on his own writing. More and more editorial work fell to one man: managing editor Urquhart.

y 1996, the magazine “had achieved about all I felt we could achieve,” says Lorimer. Despite the effort to professionalize the magazine, circulation still had not budged. And as grant cuts bit into revenue, the mag went back to printing on toilet paper. Editorially speaking, it was reading more like a left-wing version of “Canadian Universities This Month” than the independent alternative periodical Lorimer wanted it to be. As longtime Forum associate (and fan) Mel Watkins gently put it, “[the Forum] just didn’t seem to have a cutting edge.”

Once Duncan Cameron handed in his resignation in September 1997, Lorimer knew the Ottawa Forum had run out of ed-juice. Articles like the May 1998 cover, “Anglo Remnant: A Visit to the Most Wonderful Library in Canada,” and an overabundance of worthy but predictable opinion columns weighed down the magazine’s editorial content. Still, it just isn’t in Lorimer’s nature to let one of his projects keel over. He decided to move the magazine back to Toronto and relaunch, recruiting an editorial team that he thought capable of making the Forum more cutting edge.

“I must admit, Jim Lorimer pulled together a pretty interesting group of people to brainstorm this relaunch,” says current editorial board chair and former This Magazine managing editor Judy MacDonald. She’s referring to the group of media pros who met from 1997 on to brainstorm the new Forum. So who was there? Award-winning journalist and author Heather Robertson was one. Former Globe and Mail architecture critic Adele Freedman was another. “It was Jim-directed group work,” says Freedman. “I was there to talk about design, but most of the time we just sat around, ?discussing.'” Freedman had no problem debating editorial points with Lorimer, but objected to his meetings-heavy editorial approach. She quit the board in the spring of 1998. Another Lorimer-picked media star, Toronto Star film reviewer Geoff Pevere, left after two meetings. Still Lorimer pressed on. He scouted for possible editors, calling up Clive Thompson, who had edited This Magazine and was then working at Shift. “Lorimer said he wanted to skew the readership younger,” says Thompson. “I said no.”

After almost nine months of searching, Lorimer managed to lure former Flare associate editor Julie Beddoes on board. In June 1998, she left her secure job as an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan to come to Toronto and edit the relaunch. For Beddoes, this decision turned into a five-month nightmare.

How had this come to pass? Lorimer was used to working with a purely academic editor in the standardForum tradition. During Duncan Cameron’s tenure, Lorimer was the one making the cover decisions and orchestrating the art and design. Cameron was happy with this arrangement he was busy enough soliciting writers and art.

Once Lorimer hired a professional like Beddoes to edit the magazine, however, he took on a new kind of editor one who wanted to be involved in all aspects of production. Again, the volunteer culture of the oldForum clashed with Lorimer’s attempts to professionalize the magazine. Lorimer didn’t see why Beddoes wanted to be involved with art or budgeting. She believed he was acting like a control freak.

The tension between Lorimer and Beddoes came to a head in mid-July 1998. Lorimer asked her to spell out her working relationships with other publishers and editors. Beddoes described situations where the magazine was run very much as a community of ideas, with no clear line between design and editorial. Lorimer’s response to Beddoes? “Well, it is not like that over here. Here, I have the power, and you do what I tell you!” Beddoes found the situation increasingly intolerable, resigning on August 19.

“Lorimer’s like a puppeteer with all the strings in his hand,” says Beddoes. It’s November 1998, she’s sitting on a white sofa in her apartment on Avenue Road in Toronto, and we’re going over why she left the magazine. A compact woman with an alert manner, there’s this wry look on her face as she talks about her experience. “Everyone who works for Lorimer, their strings go to him.”

She illustrates what happens when you put such a publishing philosophy into practice. One of the things Beddoes and Lorimer argued over constantly was the art budget. Beddoes wasn’t sure who was responsible for art for the October issue. She knew the design and production was run from Halifax, and when she was hired, Lorimer promised her a redesign.

As the summer months went by, however, no redesign was forthcoming. “I had no idea what was happening in production, I didn’t know what the budgets were,” she says. “I sent him memos, I phoned. At one point, I asked him point-blank what was happening with the promised art redesign, and he told me that I was never to talk to him about design or reproduction, that it was none of my business. Has there ever been a magazine in history where the editor is not allowed to talk to the designer!?”

Later on, in August, Lorimer suddenly asked Beddoes what had happened to all the photo research. “So then, in the last couple of weeks that I was there, I was scrambling around, drumming up the photos and the illustrations for the first issue that came out,” says Beddoes, laughing slightly. “It was ludicrous.”

In his defence, Lorimer himself admits that being the editor of a magazine undergoing a relaunch is no picnic. “I’m glad it is not my job to edit the magazine,” he says. “I know it is not easy. Julie gave it a good shot. When it came down to it, though, I felt we were producing a magazine that was too much like what we were doing before.”

This is true. The first three issues of the new Toronto Forum look pretty much like the Ottawa magazine in its heyday. So where does Lorimer want the magazine to go? He says he sees the magazine as a “print version of CBC’s Ideas program.” He’s aiming for a Canadian literary monthly, along the lines of a left-liberal New Yorker or Saturday Night. But is he aiming too high? Cut to early November 1998, and we’re walking toward the Forum‘s new offices, which are located in the Egerton Ryerson building at 35 Britain St., in vintage industrial-era Toronto. It’s just off Queen at Sherbourne, in the pawn-shop and antique-store neck of downtown, past smoke-darkened brick buildings and iron-grilled windows, through a large door and up two flights of stairs.

The offices themselves are crammed with files and books. Julie Beddoes has gone, and the new editor, Bob Chodos, is commuting in twice a week from his home in New Hamburg, Ontario. Editorial assistant Chris Garbutt is still working at the magazine. His desk is scattered with October issues, a splash of purple against the dull brown wood. But Garbutt shocks me straight off by announcing his intention to leave: “I don’t expect to be here by the time this article comes out.” (As it transpired, he was right: he lasted until February.)

Garbutt is tall, younger than I expected, friendly, and open; he has long blond hair tied into a neat ponytail. Founder and publisher of the Lazy Writer, a new magazine of Canadian writing, Garbutt’s well plugged in to the Toronto magazine scene and talks fluently and honestly of the Forum‘s situation.

“We’re looking to publish writers who might not be published elsewhere, but without this excessively partisan perspective, without the prescriptive, judgmental tone,” Garbutt says. “Writers undercut their arguments when they fail to address legitimate points made by the other side. I’d like to see the Forum get beyond that.”

A lot of the former columnists, such as Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow, aren’t part of the new Forum. Why are they off the sked? “Maude Barlow should be reported on; she shouldn’t be writing the column,” says Garbutt. “And Judy Rebick is writing for us as a journalist, not a columnist.” Since the new issues came out there have been a number of faxes, e-mails, and calls protesting these changes. Garbutt admits this is part of the difficulty of trying to relaunch a magazine with an entrenched readership like theForum‘s, but hopes such readers will recognize that magazines need to reinvent themselves in order to grow.

When he’s in Toronto, editor Bob Chodos works out of the other office. He’s there today, an older man clad in a turquoise track suit and Birkenstocks. Former editor of the Jesuit journal Compass, Chodos agreed to take over the editor’s job on a part-time basis. He explains that since Beddoes left, the magazine has been sectioned off. Each member of the board takes charge of a specific area. “Jack David, who’s the publisher at ECW Press, is doing the long book excerpts, and I’m doing features,” he says. Chodos wants the board to be an active presence, more so than he feels was the case in Ottawa. With the editorial work parcelled out in this way, he reckons it is possible to reimagine the magazine part-time.

In a follow-up interview a few months later, however, Chodos stresses the first three issues are not indicative of what he wants the new Forum to be. There have been good articles by writers like Rae Murphy on Red Toryism, and Helen Forsey and Richard Lloyd on Senator Eugene Whelan’s campaign against Monsanto, but no spectacular departures from the magazine’s old turf. Now, though, Chodos has built up the board, with Rudy Wiebe as one of the latest recruits. The March issue, he says, is more where he wants the magazine to go. There’s a piece on the crisis between rural and urban environmentalists in Canada by Brit Griffin, a piece by young writer Paul Webster on access to information, and a book excerpt from novelist Stephen Osborne’s latest offering, Fire and Ice.

What’s more, the magazine has been completely redesigned by Zero thru 9 Design Company Inc., a Toronto design firm. Jill Peters provided a Quark template for the redesign, a look she describes as “smart and sophisticated.” In-house staff are supposed to use this template to lay out each issue. Peters says she did the work “virtually for free,” and that there have been problems in implementing the design. Apparently the Forumbudget doesn’t allow for an on-staff designer to come in each month and work on the template. Peters regrets this, pointing out that a magazine is not a newspaper. In magazine work, publishing the stories is not simply a case of slotting the copy into a series of text boxes. The art needs to work with the stories, hence the need for a professional art director to guide that process. So who’s the designer at the new Forum? “Guess,” says Garbutt, with an ironic look. Why did Garbutt decide to leave? “I’ve worked for Conrad Black and I’ve worked for Jim Lorimer, and I can honestly say I preferred working for Black,” he quips. He explains that the design issue was the last straw. “Lorimer suddenly told me I was the designer, about halfway into my time here,” says Garbutt. “I dug up the job description, and there was no mention of ?designer’ in the ad I applied for.” Plus, it sounds like passions ran pretty hot on a day-to-day level. Occasionally, Garbutt couldn’t deliver what Lorimer wanted and got a half-hour harangue on the phone.

“There was talk about making me managing editor in December and giving me a raise,” Garbutt says, “but Bob said that it was not the right time. When I realized I’d have to continue coordinating, copy editing, and designing pretty much the entire magazine with no raise in pay or job title? For $20,000 a year? I’d rather work on my own magazine and skip the verbal abuse.”

So the editor and art designer are now part-time, the board is all volunteer, and the editorial assistant has just jumped ship. Still, media pros speak of Jim Lorimer’s ability to finance the relaunch, sell his mag’s way to better days. “If he’s got the money, it just might fly,” says Naomi Klein.

But Lorimer’s not in the mood to open up his pockets. “Jim’s not getting fat on this magazine relaunch, that’s for sure,” says Adele Freedman. And if you look at the kind of money the Forum needs to put it on par withThe New Yorker or Saturday Night, you can see why Lorimer might balk at selling the farm to fund the Forum. Saturday Night is backed by Conrad Black’s bucks, and Saturday Night art director Barbara Solowan says her art budget stands at roughly $8,000 an issue for art, photos and illustrations alone.

By comparison, Chodos and Garbutt estimate the Forum‘s current monthly budget for all of editorial at $5,000. Of that, art makes up around $500 an issue. Seeing as the Canadian architectural students’ journal, The Fifth Column, also budgets around $5,000 an issue, it might be wise for Lorimer and co. to rethink the financing of this relaunch. Claiming professional status for a magazine while funding it at student-journal rates doesn’t seem like the best way to turn Canadian Forum into The New Yorker of the Canadian left.

Moreover, there aren’t any new cash sources on the immediate horizon. The Forum squeezed through the 1998-99 Ontario Arts Council funding cuts, holding onto its grant of $14,700, but next year the grant will be cut completely. Although nonsensical from any thinking person’s perspective, the current OAC push to fund magazines that “don’t mix arts and politics” makes the avowedly left-liberal Forum‘s chances of getting more money from the provincially funded agency look pretty slim. Moreover, Lorimer’s application to the Atkinson Foundation’s publishing grants committee was turned down last fall.

On the bright side, the Forum‘s grant from the Canada Council doubled in this past year, going from $17,800 in 1998 to $31,200 in 1999. However, given grant cuts throughout the nineties, this simply means the Forum‘s Canada Council grant is back to what it was in the early nineties when the mag was run by volunteers. Not a hopeful outlook for a magazine that’s trying to switch from a volunteer to a professional footing.

Prospects? Future? Some have speculated that Lorimer is trying to duplicate the successful redesign of the younger, Toronto-based This Magazine. Earlier in the nineties, This decided to overhaul its editorial focus. Managing editor Anne Bains and editor Naomi Klein jazzed up the old mix of NDP politics, union stories, and the odd Canadian-culcha success story, adding pop culture politics and gay activist items to the sked. Five years on, the “new This” is a huge critical success, winning more awards than ever before. Readers are slowly catching on. After a period of suspicion from its own old guard, the magazine looks set to go from strength to strength if it can solve its money problems. But can Lorimer’s Forum do the same? There are some parallels: the This redesign was similarly underfunded. In fact, it was $30,000 in debt, with a budget that rang in at $200,000 a year. That meant that only two and a half staff members were actually getting paid (one was part-time). However, the new This was spearheaded by a group of focused, talented writers people like Bains, Klein, Clive Thompson, playwright Jason Sherman, novelist Andre Alexis, writer and editor Andrea Curtis, and future Globe and Mail arts reporter Doug Saunders. Ambitious and driven, they dedicated energy to the magazine, using it as a way of launching their own journalistic careers. Plus, as board members, they were the magazine. There was no one controlling the purse strings a situation This board member Mel Watkins describes as chaotic but liberating. Contrast the Forum with This, and that sort of catalytic group energy just isn’t there. Moreover, the process of relaunching has cut away a lot of the magazine’s former editorial team, people like Maude Barlow, Tony Hall, and Judy Rebick. They may write for the mag in future, but without that sense of it being “their” magazine, an outlet for their voice.

So it seems the new Toronto Forum is in danger of alienating its traditional source of editorial energy on the cheap dynamic academics and left-media establishment people. At the same time, the publisher doesn’t seem able or willing to pay for the professional talent that is the other route to making the Toronto Forum a truly great Canadian magazine.

The prognosis? In the memorable words of one ed board member, “I’m afraid that in trying to relaunch Canadian Forum in this way, James Lorimer just might kill it.”


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