A look back at "a brief and shining moment that will never come again." How the freebie inserts changed Canadian journalism
Toting his notes, thermos of coffee and a pack of Salem Light Menthol cigarettes, Earl McRae would creep into the closed Simpson Tower on Yonge Street and ride the elevator to the 11th floor – home of The Canadian magazine. Squeezing into his office with barely room for a desk and chair, he’d begin pounding away at his Underwood typewriter.
In the early hours of the morning, a grey cloud of smoke would be swirling around his head, the thermos would be drained and the story forming as a stack of pages on his desk. At about half past eight, shortly before the rest of the staff began to arrive, McRae would take a piece of carbon paper from his desk and smear black circles under his eyes. He secretly enjoyed these midnight writing sessions and needed the help to look sufficiently haggard and sympathetic for his peers. Like most late nights at the office, he’d be long past his deadline. This was all part of McRae’s routine at The Canadian. By 1976, McRae, now a columnist for The Ottawa Sun, was at the centre of a dramatic time in the history of magazines in Canada. That year marked the pinnacle of competition among the top rotogravure magazine supplements – The Canadian and Weekend magazines – and he fit in perfectly, carbon paper makeup and all.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the weekend supplements hosted a different breed of magazine journalist: the staff writer. These intrepid and often eccentric wordsmiths introduced the country to narrative journalism. The supplements themselves, laid out on stock paper with cheap ink, and printed by a process called rotogravure, a process now generally reserved for advertisements, averaged 18 pages in length. Tossed in weekend papers across the country along with the flyers, they turned out to be diamonds in the rough, taking Canadians around their country and around the world, and introducing art to the world of art direction. “They represent a brief and shining moment that will never come again,” says Don Obe, former editor of both The Canadian and founding editor of The Ryerson Review of Journalism. The supplement magazines were not of the most impressive quality, but for a time they contained journalism of the highest standard. Writers had the time and space to be creative. “You got to do all the things you wanted to do, and had the time to do it,” recalls Tom Alderman, writer for The Canadian and now a journalist at CBC’s The National. For decades, Weekend and The Canadian were a facet of the country’s cultural identity. Like beer and hockey, they were a national habit. The rotos invaded virtually every home across the country on Saturday mornings like an eccentric elderly relative.
The saga of the weekend supplement dates back to the launch of The Montreal Standard in 1905 as a Saturday-only paper. The Star Weekly was introduced as competition in 1910. But neither of these were the trademark full-colour-photo books, the principal feature for which the supplements would become well known. Weekend made its debut in 1951, appearing in nine papers across the country, boasting photo spreads and bright colours. Despite competition from The Globe Magazine and Southam’s monthly insert, Canadian Homes, Weekend was gaining momentum. By the 1960s circulation had reached two million and it was inserted into 41 dailies. Readers liked the magazine so much they were willing to pay an extra nickel for their Saturday paper. Before long, Weekend had driven up circulation allowing its papers to charge more for advertising on that day. Competing newspapers took notice. Only one paper in each market could carry Weekend. The Telegram had rights to the magazine in the Toronto area and its competitor, The Toronto Star, came out with its own version, called Canadian Weekend, in the early 1960s. Still the market leader, by 1965 Weekend was earning impressive profits, distributing about $900,000 (almost $5.5 million in today’s dollars) back to its newspapers that year, forcing the competition to rethink its strategy. By the following November, the Star and Southam had joined forces to create The Canadian. Suddenly Weekend, had a strong rival. Along with Weekend’s French counterpart, Perspectives, there were now three major weekly supplements. In 1969, the companies took an unusual step, merging their sales teams into one independent company called MagnaMedia. With advertising, marketing and printing efforts reduced to one set of staff, each magazine was more cost efficient.
Instead of the marketplace, the war between the two supplements would be waged in editorial departments. The Canadian in Toronto and Weekend in Montreal developed a spirited sibling rivalry that peaked in 1976 when John Macfarlane took the helm at Weekend. Freelancers and editors were the sole producers of the magazine which adpoted an international focus under Macfarlane’s direction. Obe steered the Canadian and its staff of writers toward a focus on national issues. At their peak in the mid-1970s, the rotos had a combined circulation of four million. The rivalry between Obe and Macfarlane was intense. “There’s no doubt Don wanted to kick Weekend’s arse every week,” recalls McRae. “In fact, we did!”
Now editor of Toronto Life, a post once held by Obe, Macfarlane managed his magazine very differently from The Canadian. As editor at Weekend from 1976 to 1979, he did away with the notion of the staff writer, putting money toward travel expenses. He often sent freelancers and his associate editors overseas to chase down big stories. Adrienne Clarkson, now Governor General, went to China to write a story marking the 30th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Judy Stoffman, now an entertainment writer at the Star, travelled to Rome to write about Doris Anderson, a former editor of Chatelaine. Macfarlane also had the vision to send Barry Callaghan to Africa for a piece on Canadian missionaries. The resulting story, “The Light in Darkness,” focused on two missionaries working among a colony of lepers in Gabon, West Africa. Callaghan’s depictions of Albert Schweitzer and his protégé portrayed an intense, eccentric and somewhat prejudiced pair. He punctured the saintly image of agreement missionaries and revealed their more human side.
While Macfarlane sought out international issues and attention, Obe was looking for glory at home. He took over at The Canadian in 1974 and introduced a truly national focus – a magazine by and for Canadians. He took risks by examining topics that had never been done seriously before. The writers penned stories about French Canada, Native reserves and everyday Canadians. Tom Alderman, David Cobb, Earl McRae, Roy MacGregor and other well-known writers all worked at The Canadian under Obe’s direction. He understood their eccentricities and let them be creative. Their efforts didn’t go unrewarded. The Canadian dominated the first year of the National Magazine Awards, in 1977, receiving eight prizes. Its closest competitor, Saturday Night, won six. MacGregor’s story, “A Canadian Tragedy,” is a classic example of the style of writing that grew out of this time. The story follows Fred and Ethel Stein, typical southern Ontario dairy farmers struggling to keep afloat in the face of government quotas and cutbacks. With profits barely outweighing the costs, Stein contemplates putting three generations of work and tradition to rest, and selling his farm.
Writers for both magazines were starting to introduce descriptive scenes, the writer’s voice and colour to their stories. Both writers and editors were breaking conventions. They admired American magazines like Esquire and writers like Tom Wolfe, who used narrative techniques, but the supplements were never quite as daring or experimental as the Americans.
As for heroines, there were few. Up until the late 1970s, few women could be found as staff writers or editors at any magazine. Copy departments were a pink ghetto of sorts. Globe columnist Margaret Wente started out in magazines as a copy editor at The Canadian. She was 28. Wente remembers a time when a senior editor went on a bender and neglected to submit his story for a special issue. The pages were already in place with colour photographs, so one way or another it had to go to print. She had his notes so she decided to ghost write the story. “Very often women could get ahead by picking up after men who dropped the ball,” she says, laughing. Many of these women, like Anne Collins, now publisher at Random House of Canada, weren’t complacent about their lowly positions and eventually went on to successes elsewhere. “It was a first-rate copy department,” says writer David Cobb, who was also managing editor during The Canadian’s last two years. Prue “Hawk-Eye” Hemelrijk researched the weekly “Ask Us” column. She recalls an occasion when writer Paul Grescoe turned to her and said, “Do you know you do more research on one of those silly little questions than I do on an entire feature?”
The staff writers at The Canadian during this time say they often went to each other’s offices to discuss their stories, but soon found themselves talking politics or sports. “We were very much a family,” says Globe columnist MacGregor. This was a group of men who wrote eloquent and sometimes very serious stories, but often behaved in a silly manner. McRae used to enjoy doing caricatures of his colleagues that he would sometimes tack to their office doors. Managing editor Alan Walker kept a bullwhip and long pair of barbeque tongs in his desk drawer. No one recalls the purpose of the whip, but the tongs were for handling unwanted sports stories. Walker didn’t touch sports stories – literally or figuratively.
There was a similar sense of frivolity among staff in the early years. Travel writer Michael Hanlon was editor from 1969 to 1974. “He brought an urbanity and cheeky humour to the magazine which probably didn’t sit well with some of the readers in the boonies,” says Grescoe. He recalls Hanlon encouraging him to write a story proposing the legalization of marijuana and heroin. Young Grescoe took the story seriously and did all the necessary research. “Our publisher, Ed Mannion, wondered how to list $50 for marijuana on the expense account,” says Hanlon.
Weekend, under managing editor Paul Rush from 1968 to 1973, had a comparable dynamic, but staff were never as close. Patrick Nagle recalls a day when he and another writer, James Quig, stumbling back to the office after lunch at the local tavern, happened upon a store with Beatles wigs in the window. When they entered the office wearing Fab Four bowl-cut hairdos, the first person who came by was senior editor Hugh Shaw. Shaw, a former navy man, was rather serious by nature. He shook his head and went straight into his office without cracking a smile.
Macfarlane’s staff of associate editors was rarely as silly as their predecessors, concentrating their subversive efforts instead on shaking up a conservative magazine and country. One story, titled “Gay in the ’70s” was accompanied by a photo of prominent gay Canadians. Stories like this had rarely, if ever, been done so openly. Some newspapers in the prairies refused to carry that issue. “We felt we were on a mission to raise the standards of magazine journalism,” says Stoffman. But that didn’t stop them from doing features on Hollywood celebrities alongside the serious stories. From Elton John to Dolly Parton to John Travolta, Weekend wrote about virtually every celebrity of interest in the late 1970s. For a story about British stage actress Maggie Smith, Macfarlane hired famed United Kingdom theatre critic Ronald Bryden. With the constant rotation of writers, each story had its own style and each issue had a different flavour. Macfarlane’s efforts were so successful that for a while Weekend was syndicated by The New York Times and distributed around the world.
Over the years, both magazines hosted a cast of interesting characters and witnessed countless stories of debauchery. Most of these involved booze of some kind. “Journalists today are earnest to the point of tedium,” says writer Ernest Hillen. His days as a writer at Weekend were anything but serious. Much more heavy drinking went on in those days. Writers regularly kept a flask in a desk drawer, had drinks over lunch and then went to the American Tavern on St. Antoine Street in Montreal or the Press Club on Yonge Street in Toronto after a tough day at work. There was a macho pride in being able to drink at lunch and then go back to work for the afternoon and be productive. Under Hanlon’s direction, the staff at The Canadian would take over the top floor of a nearby pub for “story conferences.” Hanlon’s secretary would have to tag along to take notes, otherwise no one would remember any of these brilliant ideas the next day. Paul Rimstead, a notoriously well-oiled newspaper columnist who wrote for The Canadian during this time, used to check himself into the Victoria Hotel to write his stories. “Rimstead would need eight bottles of scotch and 10 days in isolation to get it written,” recalls lawyer-turned-journalist Jack Batten. Then he would turn up at the office with a near perfect manuscript. The staff at Weekend, during the late 1960s, often went for liquid lunches at the Bistro in the basement of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, just down the street from their offices in Montreal.
By the mid-1970s, the content of these magazines stood in stark contrast to the low quality of the rotogravure product. “The stuff John [Macfarlane] produced was of such a high standard it didn’t have any business being on rotogravure,” says Globe columnist and magazine writer Michael Posner, who was the senior editor at Weekend in those days. The full-colour spreads that looked so impressive in the 1950s and 1960s now seemed positively drab. But the art departments for both magazines persevered and managed to produce award-winning layouts.
The stylistic differences between the two rotos basically came down to finances – at least according to the staff at The Canadian. “I was jealous of John’s budget, but even if we had it, I couldn’t have spent it as well,” says Jim Ireland, art director at The Canadian during this time. Macfarlane insists that his staff didn’t have much more money to play with than the competitor. To blame the differences on budget is “a kind of cheap shot,” he says. “Weekend was as good as it was because of the way we chose to create it.” But even in its early years, Weekend seemed to have a lot of money to throw around. “It was a money machine,” recalls Hillen. “It didn’t matter how much you spent.”
Ireland and his team opted for a clean and simple design – one that could be supported by a meager budget. Ireland carefully tailored the art to the stories, using short heads and decks, classic fonts without any fancy colours or drop caps, and not nearly as much colour photography as its rival.
While The Canadian used only homegrown photographers, illustrators and designers, Macfarlane picked talent from Europe and the U.S. He imported art director Robert Priest from Britain. Priest, who now lives in New York and has since worked on American magazines like Esquire, says, “In my job interview, John said he wanted a magazine that could compete on the world stage.” And eventually it did. Despite greater accomplishments, “It was the best 22 months of my professional life,” says Priest. They also hired world-renowned artists who travelled across the globe with the writers to photograph the stories. Weekend ended up with a flashy cutting-edge design, while The Canadian became classic and understated.
Quality aside, by 1979 there was little hope of keeping either publication alive, as revenue and readers were in decline. The Canadian and Weekend both died that year. “Macfarlane was brilliant in trying to save the thing, but it wasn’t salvageable without cooperation from management,” says Weekend writer Nagle. Several problems contributed to their downfall, including the increased cost of printing by rotogravure. Also, the rotos insisted on continuing with the same old cigarette, car and mail-in advertisements they had always depended on, despite the fact that these companies were being lured away by the glamour of television. Even the broad range of editorial content – had made Weekend appealing as a general interest magazine 25 years before – now seemed out of synch with public taste.
But Star president Martin Goodman still saw the supplement as a valuable part of his weekend paper. He recruited the help of pollster Martin Goldfarb to test his idea for one unified supplement. After many focus groups and analyses, Today appeared in March, 1980. A hybrid of The Canadian and Weekend, called Canadian Weekend, had been published for six months in the interim. Goodman’s merger of the two supplements was meant to celebrate what he called “Canadian heroes,” while fostering national identity and encouraging a sense of unity. No one was buying it. Not the editors, not the writers, not the readers. It was quite a change from the efforts made at The Canadian. “The idea was to get past the PR star machine, down to the real person,” says Obe. “To cut through the hero-making.” To now start fabricating heroes did not seem an attractive concept to those who had worked on the old supplements. “It was a disintegration of two great products,” says Ireland. He, Macfarlane and most of both staffs decided to move on to other magazines as a result. “Focusing on the little people who made Canada great became a bit boosterish,” says freelance writer Loral Dean, who was a senior editor at Today. Posner calls it “a diluted product that didn’t match the quality of Weekend.” Despite being the largest magazine in Canada, with a circulation of three million and advertising revenues in excess of $16 million, Today lasted only two years. After Goodman’s death the first year, no one’s heart was in it. The last issue appeared August 28, 1982. Perspectives, the very last of Canada’s roto supplement magazines, struggled without the advertising, editorial and print support of the other supplements, and lasted only six months longer.
The history of the supplements spans almost 100 years and their contributions to the development of magazine journalism in Canada are significant. The Canadian and Weekend created a space for the introduction of narrative journalism, raised the bar for future art directors and laid the foundations for the quality publications that we see today. The two men who led these magazines through their best years see them differently, of course. Obe recalls the rotos with intense affection. “They were as good as magazine journalism ever got in this country,” he says. Macfarlane, however, lacks wistfulness when speaking of the good old days. “Weekend would certainly be one of the highlights of my career,” he says matter-of-factly.
It is early July 1982 when Earl McRae gets the news that Today will be killed. He’s been at a cottage with his family on Nottawasaga Bay near Penetanguishene. He heads out to a nearby phone booth this morning to make a collect call to the office. McRae wants to let his editor know he has finally finished a story that is way past deadline. Receptionist Jane Bond answers and sounds panicked.
“Earl, we didn’t know how to reach you. Have you heard?”
“Heard what?” he replies.
“About the magazine.”
“No. What are you talking about?”
“Earl, it’s over. The magazine has folded.”
After telling his wife the bad news, he gets into his car and makes the two-and-a-half hour trip back to Toronto. He drives into the city knowing that the manuscript in his briefcase – the last he’ll ever write for the supplements – will never appear in the pages of Today. Tears well up in his eyes as he clears out his beloved office and takes a final look at the view from his office window.
Like many of his peers, McRae had grown to adore working for the supplements. “It was like a death in the family,” he says.
by Karen Robock
Karen Robock was the Last Laugh Editor for the Spring 2004 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.