Ted Kenney

Telling Tales on John Fraser

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Tweaking noses and trading in gossip, Fraser has set the industry abuzz. But talk alone won't save Saturday Night

John Fraser sits behind his modern desk on the eleventh floor of a medium rise tower in downtown Toronto. By magazine standards, the office of Saturday Night’s much-talked-about editor is both spacious and elegant-there are four matching occasional chairs, a brass floor lamp, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf running along one wall. Seven editorial staff members form a semicircle around the desk, and assistant editor Ann Anderson chairs the early November production meeting. When Fraser, 45, has a point or one of his numerous asides to make, he looks like an exuberant schoolboy. Smallish and bespectacled, he moves and talks quickly, but later in an interview he also reveals a schoolboy’s earnestness lurking behind that exuberance. “There was no gentle easing into the job,” says Fraser, who Q took over in October 1987. “In retrospect, it was very difficult. Even as na~ tional editor at the Globe, I hadn’t realized how much depends on the sense of ~ confidence and vision of an editor.”

He could add crisis management to is the list. In his first 10 months at the magazine, Fraser had to contend with an extremely unstable masthead. In June, publisher Peter White quit to become the prime minister’s principal secretary. What’s more, senior editor Barbara Moon was off work for five months after tripping over Fraser’s portable computer and breaking both wrists, two editors went on maternity leave, award-winning senior writer David Macfarlane defected to Toronto and art director Bruce Ramsay quit following the magazine’s redesign.

But Fraser’s biggest challenge has been learning his new craft while under the intense scrutiny of the country’s magazine community. Fraser loves the attention. “Gossip is what keeps the whole world going,” he says. “For anyone to dismiss gossip is to dismiss themselves.” Certainly nobody is dismissing Fraser-he’s been a staple of industry chat since it was learned that he would be replacing Robert Fulford, who resigned shortly after Conrad Black’s purchase of Saturday Night in July 1987.

First there was the rumor that Fraser’s deal with Black included a salary of $125,000 a year plus a car: some said a BMW, others a Porsche (Fraser admits to the car-a Volvo-but says his salary is “much less”). Then the buzz centred on Black’s statement way back in 1973 that he wanted to buy Saturday Night and turn it into a National Review clone. Under the guidance of Fulford and former publisher John Macfarlane, Saturday Night had established a reputation for publishing some of the finest journalism in the country. What everyone wondered was whether Fraser could maintain those standards and at the same time create a book that would boost circulation and advertising, both of which had been soft for years.

Much of the speculation was due to Black’s involvement. Conrad Black, CEO of Hollinger Inc., does not seem the archetypal savior of a national cultural-political magazine, particularly one that was losing as much money as Saturday Night (in 1986 it lost more than $750,000). But Black didn’t put down $1.4 million expecting to make a lot of money, or even any at all: “Hollinger is a rather prosperous company, and the losses at Saturday Night are just not-I don’t want to sound blase, of course I find any loss fundamentally unsatisfactory-but it is not a loss that is frankly material to us at all.” He believed that he could pare the losses if the magazine were positioned properly and financed adequately. “I thought it was a bargain, not in operational terms but because it had some value as a national franchise,” he says.

After Fulford quit, Fraser’s appointment really was no surprise. He’d gained editing experience at The Globe and Mail, won three National Newspaper Awards, enhanced his reputation with his 1980 book, The Chinese: Portrait of a People, based on his time as Globe bureau chief in Beijing, and most recently spent three years as the paper’s West European bureau chief. More important, though, he was friends with Black, a friendship that dated from the days when both were schoolboys at Upper Canada College.

Fraser protests that their relationship became mythologized in the wake of the sale: “It was very close when we were very young boys, under the age of 11 or so, and then there was virtually no relationship for a couple of decades. I really only got mixed up in his affairs when I reported on his takeover of the Telegraph in London.” He also makes it clear that he never shared the concern about Black’s agenda: “All sorts of people made all sorts of assumptions on what I was and my relationship with Black. My line at the time was that I subscribe to Bruno Bettleheim’s thesis that ‘nightmares embellish the quality of middle-class life.’ If Conrad Black didn’t exist, we’d have to create him for people to be fearful.”

When he signed on, Fraser insisted on a hands-off clause in his contract-“The editor is solely and exclusively responsible for the direction and integrity of the total editorial product, process and staff”-but he says he did this to reassure the public and his staff rather than to protect himself: “When I was a regular reporter, I was the one likely to burn the bridge first when someone thought they knew or controlled me. That independence also gives me the freedom not to be frightened by an association with someone like Black.”

Fulford says, regarding his replacement, “Black rightly saw that Fraser was talented, and had known him personally for 35 years. Fraser also has one hell of a reputation. And those three things are a pretty good combination.”

There was a fourth reason why Fraser was an attractive choice. Black says he felt that “the goodwill and regard of the rather diminutive intellectual journalistic community-around Toronto especially, and to a lesser degree Ottawa-would automatically accrue to the magazine because Fraser has been well regarded by those people.”

Having readers accrue as well may be Fraser’s most important-and toughest -assignment. Between mid-1987 and mid-1988, circulation dropped almost 20,000 from 134,009 to 115,083. Fraser notes that this was by design, and explains that the circulation had previously been inflated by a number of “trash” subscriptions sold cheaply through a direct-mail agency. “It shows up as actual circulation although everyone knows it’s junk,” he says. “When I arrived here, a lot of it was coming due. We made the decision not to go for the trash and to build up quality circulation, and make our advertising pitch to that.”

It’s a strategy that may backfire, according to Judy Goddard, associate media director at McKim Advertising, the largest ad agency in Canada. “A drop in subscriptions often is an indication that the readership isn’t there, so that’s a concern,” she says. Victoria Munger, the magazine’s associate publisher and director of advertising, naturally disagrees. “[Advertising] people want Saturday Night’s readers, so when we say that the circulation is going down on purpose because we are cleaning our list, that doesn’t upset them,” she says. Rob Wilson, who has covered magazines in Marketing for 10 years, points out that with the changes Saturday Night has gone through a drop in circulation was to be expected. The job now, he says, is not to let readership drop below the 100,000 mark: “If they fall below that, advertisers will be bailing out like crazy. Quality only sells to a certain extent. The trick is the numbers-that’s the second step.”

As it battles to keep the numbers up, the magazine is also spending a lot of money to dispel its image among advertisers as a stiff, stodgy read. Although Saturday Night was respected, Fulford himself admits that it was also perceived by many as “dull” or “highbrow.” For a number of years, Saturday Night’s superbly crafted “important” pieces routinely won more National Magazine Awards than other publications but these simply didn’t translate into circulation or advertising revenue. In his 19 years as editor, Fulford says he came away with only one firm conviction advertising people don’t like Saturday Night: “Their gut feeling is ‘I don’t like this’ so getting them to buy an ad is an unbelievable project.”

McKim’s Goddard confirms that some advertisers don’t like the magazine and “if they don’t like it personally, they have a hard time dealing with the fact it’s on a buy.” She says the uniqueness of the product may actually be a detriment: “Its kind of articles are certainly not going to be found elsewhere. But I don’t think it becomes ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to buy that book because you’re not going to get anybody if you don’t.’ It’s a very select audience.”

Maybe too select. Ron Bremner, senior vice-president of media and research at Vickers & Benson, says that when advertisers choose Saturday Night it’s a decision of “class versus mass.” Although the magazine has good demographics, its audience is so small that, as Wilson says, “Anyone who’s interested in politics may be a regular Saturday Night reader but they’re probably also a Maclean’s reader. And Maclean’s has a circulation of 619,000.”

What Black and Fraser are trying to do is spend their way around this problem (the magazine’s budget is confidential but Fulford estimates that last year it lost at least $2 million, more than twice what it dropped during any year of his tenure). “The problem with Saturday Night,” says Munger, “is that it never had enough money to really promote the product in the proper way. It’s like everything in life-you can have an excellent product but if you don’t tell anybody about it, then who’s going to know?”

There are signs that this spend money-to-make-money approach is working. In Fraser’s first full year there, the magazine contained roughly 290 pages of paid ads. While this was down from 357 in the previous year, the 1987 figures were skewed by the special l00th anniversary issue published in January which had 82 pages alone. But for the October, November and December 1988 issues-the first three of Fraser’s redesign-the average number of ad pages per issue was 42, compared to 33 for the same period in 1987. The January and February 1989 books had 20 and 21 pages respectively, compared to 15 and 14 the year before-a respectable showing for what are traditionally slow ad months.

One reason for the increase no doubt is Black’s deep pockets, but another is the editorial changes that have come about as Fraser has put his stamp on the magazine. He has expanded the books and letters sections, added regular politics and travel coverage, introduced a poetry page and his own column “Diary,” and brought back the crossword puzzle. Fraser’s influence permeates the pages of the magazine.

Once a respected “duty read,” it’s now hipper and has more of an edge. “His personality is about what’s happening today; he likes talk and gossip,” says Ann Anderson. “He’s mischievous and likes to see people talking about issues.” The result is a substantial shift in the magazine’s tenor. As John Macfarlane says, “It’s a very different magazine than it was when Bob Fulford and I were there. There’s less journalism and more commentary.”

Such a shift is potentially dangerous. The magazine is considered by many to be a national treasure, and it stirs proprietary feelings in both readers and contributors. At the time of the sale, fears that the magazine would become the battering ram of the New Right in Canada emerged, then escalated when Fulford announced his departure. “People put two and two together and came up with five,” says Ottawa editor Charlotte Gray. “They put together the fact that Conrad Black had bought it and that David Frum was on staff they’re both well-known right-wing ideologues. “

Fraser was aware of these concerns and has made a conscious effort not to succumb to the critics’ expectations. While Saturday Night has developed a slightly stronger right-wing voice, it has hardly become the National Review of Canada. When the phone rings Fraser will joke: “It’s either my family or Conrad Black”-and Black does call to critique each issue. But Fraser says Black is one of the least intrusive owners of a publication in Canada: “If he doesn’t like certain articles he talks about them constructively-but they’re private views between the editor and the proprietor.”

Writer Rick Salutin, a long-time critic of the “old” Saturday Night, finds th new direction preferable in some ways: “I think the Fulford Saturday Night, was a highly ideological organ, the PUI pose of which was to suffocate every body under a sense of awe and respect for everybody with wealth and power in Canada. In the new one, you’re directly attacked by the right-wing horde with out [the magazine] pretending to have a neutral, above-it-all voice.” Salutin believes this “explicit, reactionary babble” is not the only voice emanating from the pages of the magazine, just the strongest. “There’s a wider range-it’s more open on both the left and the right than it was under Fulford,” he says. “The magazine is infuriating, which is better than being condescending and boring.”

As the voice of the magazine has changed, so have the criteria for what comprises a Saturday Night article. “I think they are making an effort to be brighter and less dull, a little less intellectual,” says Rob Wilson. “The old Saturday Night had these great monolithic articles that seemed to go on for four days.” Fraser’s aim is to open the magazine to polemical debate and to get people talking about it. Hence articles like Danielle Crittenden’s “REAL Women Don’t Eat Crow,” which succeeded in infuriating both feminists and REAL Women members; Linda Frum’s diatribe on Canadian universities, “Reach for the Mediocre”; and “The Fixer,” in which Norman Snider attempted to psychoanalyze Brian Mulroney-pieces that two years ago Saturday Night would never have run.

“I like tweaking people’s noses – I always did,” Fraser says. “It’s important to have a certain number of articles that are studiously provocative, that rouse people to come to terms with their own thinking, get them to write furious letters to the editor-either in support or against. To me, that’s a healthy climate, that’s a readership in touch with what they’re reading.”

Although Eraser won’t criticize his predecessor’s editorial direction, he does admit he found the look “uninteresting” and uncontemporary. Fraser has tried to make the inside of the book

brighter and less static by breaking up the grey blocks of type that once characterized the magazine: there’s been a move to garish pictures and more illustration, particularly cartoons. The redesign was done by Bruce Ramsay, who resigned in August before the October issue showcasing the new look was published. “:He wasn’t used to the editor being intrusive in the art process,” says Fraser, “But wasn’t so much intrusive as I was curious. We just didn’t really hit it off.”

At one point, Fraser says he planned to fire Ramsay and conducted interviews hoping to find a replacement but soon discovered that Ramsay was “among the best there is.” Ramsay says he didn’t resent Fraser’s “intrusion” but found his “extremely literal” visual sense very confining. An example of the literal style that may have offended Ramsay’s sensibilities was the May “REAL Women” cover, which featured a supremely banal image: beatific mom with babe against a pink background, overlaid by a red circle with a slash through it. In the industry it was widely believed to be Fraser’s concept although he maintains “we all sort of liked the idea.”

The new look includes a brassier, more aggressive cover style designed to garner a larger percentage of newsstand sales, which in 1988 averaged a dismal 6,700 copies per issue. “There’s no question that the old cover design was more beautiful,” Fraser says, “but we’ve made a calculated decision on a certain kind of cover. On newsstands, you have to sell yourself to death.” Fraser claims that more recent sales have been above 8,000 although it’s too early to get confirmation from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Toronto designer Art Niemi, former art director at Quest magazine, is not alone in pronouncing the new covers “aesthetically a failure.” Many people attribute their unattractiveness to Fraser’s inexperience in the magazine business. Certainly Fraser has made other blunders that a more seasoned editor would have avoided. There was his decision to flank a pro-smoking piece in the July issue with cigarette ads, which Fraser says he did “to make a statement” against the tobacco advertising ban. Instead they created the impression that the magazine had sold the ads on the basis of editorial content: the error in judgment had the magazine community tut-tutting, and earned Fraser a slap on the wrist in Marketing. There was also the story of his expressing regret that a writer on assignment in New Brunswick couldn’t file his piece by laptop computer-a comment that suggested a fundamental lack of understanding of how magazine writers go about their craft.

Fraser has also tentatively assigned stories, only to renege. “I take it as a sign he doesn’t yet have a grasp on the space he has available, and he really doesn’t know yet what he wants to do with the magazine,” says author and journalist Erna Paris. There have been other problems too: complaints from some writers that their payments were delayed and from others that months would go by before they got a response to their queries; instances of articles being rewritten without consulting authors; and at least one case of an editor inserting right-wing opinions in a piece. While Fraser apologized to the writers involved-“He’s very good at apologizing,” says one-the incidents were the mark of a rookie editor and were gleefully reported on the gossip circuit as more proof that Fraser was floundering.

But Saturday Night associate editor George Galt says Fraser’s lack of magazine experience has its positive side: “It made the first few issues quite bumpy and made him, I think, a little vulnerable to dubious advice at the beginning. On the other hand, not having a lot of preconceptions and not being dug-in the way people who have been in a job 10 or 20 years are, he was able to turn the magazine around and make some important substantive changes in a relatively short time.”

In so doing, Fraser has earned his place in the magazine community. His magazine still has problems, but there’s no question he’s put his own mark on it and in some ways made it better. “To follow in Bob Fulford’s footsteps is a very difficult thing to do,” says Erna Paris. “A lot of people were watching very, very critically.” Fraser’s job has no doubt been made harder because of his predecessor. Yet through all the turmoil he managed to get the magazine out-despite being educated in public, his mistakes both visible and subject to scrutiny. “My sense is that we have the right to make mistakes, that I’m in the business of not only saving the magazine but making it a vital force in national life,” says Fraser. “As long as I’m responsive to my own errors, or errors that emerge in terms of marketing, what we need is not caution but a sense of daring.”


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