The Walrus Loses Its Carpenter(2)
The time has come the walrus said, to talk of many things, of ad sales, circ and lofty goals - and management reshufflings
It is the afternoon of February 4, 2004. David Berlin has taken time out from deadline pressure at The Walrus’ Duncan Street offices in downtown Toronto to be a guest speaker in a journalism class at Ryerson University. The editor of the ambitious new Canadian general interest magazine – Canada’s answer to Harper’s, he hopes – has a refreshing, off-the-wall candour that captivates the students. He listens to their story ideas and offers to let them sit in on a meeting at the office. Just before the break, however, things get more serious.
The students discuss one story from each of the nascent magazine’s three existing issues, including Berlin’s “Where Leaders Fail,” based on a trip to the Middle East in November. Provocatively, he tells them he’s “internally twisted” because he’s angrier about the Middle East situation than he appeared in writing, that he wanted to criticize the Israeli position more forcefully.
Berlin says a member of the board of directors that oversees The Walrus – a board put in place by the non-profit Chawkers Foundation, which funds the magazine – “strongly advised” him the piece better have balance. The fear was that without it the magazine would lose subscriptions. And now that he’d neutralized his position he felt sick about it. It wasn’t what he had observed and it wasn’t what he believed. Berlin’s eyes well up and he’s clearly upset. The instructor signals that now might be a good time to go for a break.
One week later, February 11, the students who were so impressed by Berlin’s performance the week before are now stunned to read the e-mail flying around the journalism community: Berlin resigns as editor, citing “health reasons.” After a blur of action and bravado – with the fourth issue just put to bed – The Walrus’s carpenter quietly tiptoes offstage. But the question lingers: did the man Masthead editor Bill Shields called a “compelling character” who “doesn’t hold back” lay down his tools – or was he told to put them down?
Health must certainly be an issue, as many people notice how exhausted and haggard Berlin looks as he puts the finishing touches on what turns out to be his final issue – but it might be just one ingredient in a potent cocktail. The cone of silence is thick, but it seems not everyone is pleased with the editor’s colourful performance. There are rumours of chaos in the office – of a lack of focus and direction, of a publisher assigning features, of a board interfering with editorial and possibly even one board member actively seeking change at the top.
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One glance at Berlin’s resume reveals a man who has had many false starts. He studied and dropped out of medicine, received his Masters in political science from York University and attended the University of Chicago for his Ph.D., only to leave without finishing his dissertation. He worked with his father at Interlink Corp., the family business, in materials handling and robotics. He ran as a New Democratic Party candidate in the 2000 federal election, though he now insists he’s a centrist and has no party affiliation.
Berlin first attempted to edit a magazine in 1998 after he and publisher Denis Deneau bought the Literary Review of Canada. Previously its mandate had been to review Canadian books and authors. “It was a very serious magazine,” Deneau says, “where academics were able to discuss matters at length that they might not be able to in an academic journal.” But Berlin dreamed of turning the LRC into a glossy general interest publication. During the initial excitement, the tension between competing visions didn’t surface, but as time wore on the identity of the magazine became less clear. “It was all over the place,” says Helen Walsh, then part owner and now publisher of the LRC. “The focus was on Canadian books, but there was a lot more American stuff.”
After nearly three years of argument, Berlin was bought out. The decision was mutual, but his departure was messy and he has not spoken to his former LRC colleagues since. In the February 2002 issue of Masthead, he attacked his ex-colleagues in a column, calling them a “vainglorious swat team.” He wrote, “I wanted our magazine to play a role in creating the huddle of public intellectuals that this country so desperately needs.” Now he says, “At the LRC I wasn’t able to move away from the academic types – I couldn’t do the forward thinking stuff I wanted to do.”
To do the forward thinking stuff Berlin would have another fight on his hands – against the dismal legacy of Canadian general interest magazines. Heavyweights like publisher John Macfarlane and editor Robert Fulford were unable to make Saturday Night a feasible financial venture in the 1980s and 1990s. The magazine, which has folded and been resurrected three times in its 116-year history, lost $750,000 in 1986 alone under Fulford’s charge. And Canadian Forum, the 84-year-old left-wing title that first published writers such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, suspended publication in 2000. Publisher Jim Lorimer had relaunched the Forum only the year before, but its meager monthly editorial budget of $5,000 wasn’t enough to keep it afloat. Similar attempts to create a venue for great journalism and debate have died quickly. One of the most notable, Gravitas, a national quarterly published out of Toronto from 1994 to 1998 by Ian Mason, couldn’t raise enough revenue to stay in business.
Dismal legacy or no, by spring 2002 Berlin was set on producing his glossy general interest magazine. Reclining with his feet on the desk in his Walrus office last fall, he remembered what got him there. “It started off as a lark,” he said. He emailed John R. (Rick) MacArthur, Harper’s publisher, complaining there were no Canadian publications nurturing public discourse. He asked MacArthur to consider a Harper’s North and was surprised when he received an invitation to discuss his plans with Lewis Lapham. A few weeks later, Berlin and the Harper’s editor smoked cigarettes and blue-skied in Lapham’s office. After the allotted hour, the Harper’s team provisionally agreed to do a split run with up to 40 pages of Canadian content. “Rick basically said he’d be willing to spring for the printing,” Berlin recalled, “but we’d have to pay for our own staff, which is why I began looking for funding.”
Little did Berlin know that Alexander, then senior producer of cbc’s CounterSpin, had also been pondering a magazine to tackle important issues. The pair heard about each other’s ideas through a mutual friend and eventually met at a dinner party. Over supper, the two agreed there was a need in Canada for an independent, smart magazine that dealt not just with Canadian issues, but also world concerns. Six weeks later, Berlin met with members of Alexander’s father’s Chawkers Foundation, which agreed to provide $5 million spread over five years and establish a board to oversee the project. Alexander raised another $150,000 from the George Cedric Metcalf Charitable Foundation for an internship program.
By fall 2002, Berlin’s search for funding had given him enough money to produce 10 issues a year – independent of Harper’s support. But he asked Lapham to contribute a long review of a Marshall McLuhan documentary to the inaugural issue. Over the ensuing months, Berlin assembled a cast of editorial talent, including former staffers from Saturday Night and This magazine, and prepared to launch. One of the first promises was that The Walrus, unlike similar magazines, would not be a quaint collection of stories about Canada written by Canadians. Instead, the mandate was to deliver a homegrown perspective not only on domestic issues, but on international matters as well.
Even before Berlin started talking up The Walrus in the media, he was known for expressing his thoughts uncensored, and knew how to draw criticism. “David doesn’t have a diplomatic bone in his body,” says former federal ndp leader Alexa McDonough, with a laugh.
In January 2003, McDonough led a peace-seeking mission to the Middle East. Berlin was included because of his connections. Although he grew up in Canada, he was born in Israel, attended university there and served in the army. But the trip turned controversial when the Israeli embassy in Ottawa publicly criticized the contingent. Spokesman Ronen Gil-Or claimed that when Berlin met with the Israeli Defense Forces (idf), he compared them and what they were doing in the Palestinian territories to what the Nazis did against to Jews during World War II. He made reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who oversaw the deportation and murder of millions. McDonough will only say the controversy was a “shocking experience, riddled with inaccuracies. It wasn’t the focus of our mission and we weren’t about to be thrown off by it. For David, the mission was a very intense and painful experience.”
Berlin’s own account of the incident differs from what was reported. “I served in that army and I asked them whether they sent their soldiers to courses to deal with civilians,” he says. He believed the idf put its soldiers in danger by not properly training them and made his anger about the situation known. He says he never made the Nazi comparison. “That’s bullshit, why would I do that?”
Although it’s unclear what actually happened in Israel, one thing is certain – Berlin has the ability to infuriate people.
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It’s October 1, 2003, one week after The Walrus hit the streets. Berlin, publisher Ken Alexander and other staff members are set to reprise the magazine’s swank September 25 launch at the Capitol Theatre in midtown Toronto. This time it’s for an exclusive gathering in Manhattan. The elite crowd – including Canada’s Consul General Pamela Wallin, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and New Yorker writers Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik – crowd into a posh Chelsea penthouse, north of the dark void where the Twin Towers once stood. Guests drink giant martini glasses filled with a specially prepared cocktail dubbed ‘The Walrus.’ To celebrate the year’s work, Berlin swallows eight cocktails in three hours. When he makes his way to the front to give a short speech, following Alexander and Wallin, he quips that they’ve taken “all his good lines.” Groping for a witty comment, he says, “After two of these drinks, you start asking about the Twin Towers – where are they?”
“When I heard it, my heart sank,” says Paul Wilson, then deputy editor and now Berlin’s replacement.
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Now it’s late October and the first issue has been out a month. Berlin looks haggard as he sits smoking at the bar of “Quotes” Bar & Grill on King Street in Toronto. The hype has been replaced by a real publication and there’s no more blubber to hide behind. Berlin knows it’ll be a struggle living up to his lofty claims, including the dubious promise to pay freelance writers $2.50 per word. So far, the reaction has been mixed. People are starting to wonder whether this former academic – with only a disappointing tenure as editor of the lrc to show for his magazine experience – can lead a Canadian general interest magazine.
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Now it’s early November and the second issue has been out a week. Alexander is sitting at a Second Cup coffee shop just around the corner from the office, contemplating what a Canadian perspective on international might mean editorially. “We tend to be measured in our responses to events, and we like to think matters through before leaping,” he says. “One might describe this as part of our ‘compromising’ approach; I think of it as more considered.” Alexander believes Canadians need to weigh in on world issues now. “While there’s nothing wrong with reflecting Canada back to Canadians, such a mandate is a bit parochial in our times. You need to put Canada in the world of nations and engage the world.”
Asked whether the impolitic Berlin is the right choice to helm an international magazine, Alexander says, “It’s not a conservative choice, but then it’s not a conservative magazine, is it?”
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Now it’s early December, two months after the New York gaffe. Berlin shakes his head, exasperated that his blunder has been brought up yet again. “My meaning was you have a few of these drinks and you get a utopian feeling, like 9/11 never happened,” he says. He says the incident hadn’t been entirely negative, as it had promoted debate. “Part of what we’re trying to create is a cadre of public intellectuals – people who go out there and take risks – and there’s no insurance policy on that. The country needs a lot more people like me, who are willing to make their mistakes.”
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Like the choice of cover story for the first issue. The 10,000-word investigation into Paul Martin’s Canada Steamship Lines business empire, written by Canadian journalist Marci McDonald, was hardly the topic to engage the rest of the world. London-based Tim Rostron, formerly a consulting editor for The Walrus, admits, “Paul Martin is an unknown in London and New York.” Rostron agrees that for The Walrus to get through to the rest of the world, non-Canadians need to be engaged. Then why Martin? “It was argued that it was an archetypal story about wealth and power,” he says.
Robert Fulford, who critiqued the first issue in one of his National Post columns, believes there has to be a connection between the reader and the subject. “If you’re going to publish to the world,” he says, “you have to write about the world.” But he also thinks The Walrus’s strength will be its Canadian stories. “Why should I pick The Walrus up instead of The Atlantic or Harper’s? Because it will say something about Canada.” Fulford thought it would be hard for Berlin to carve out The Walrus’s perspective until he had published several issues. “You have to grope towards these things in public,” he says. After the third issue, Fulford is more reserved: “I’m disappointed in what I’ve seen since the original issue. It’s slipped a bit and become a little more self-important.”
While Berlin groped in public, another very real challenge loomed – to ensure the magazine’s survival after five years, when Chawkers’s $5 million runs out. While traditionally only 30 per cent of a magazine’s revenue derives from subscriptions, The Walrus needs to rely more heavily on that source and less on advertising.
Initially, readers bought in. Last summer, a direct mail campaign targeting 60,000 households netted over 6,000 paid subscriptions – a 10 per cent response rate, far better than the industry average of between one and three per cent. After its third issue, The Walrus had 30,000 paid subscriptions, according to consultant Greg Keilty. A Print Measurement Bureau number won’t be available until next year, but it’s an encouraging start.
Instant acceptance hasn’t been so easy to win from advertisers. Except for Roots, companies were wary about buying space in the first issue. The second issue fared marginally better, with new clients Audi and Porsche. Both issues contained only 16 pages of ads, but Marty Tully, advertising sales agent for The Walrus, isn’t concerned. “Advertisers get it,” he says, “they understand what we’re trying to do.” But industry expert Lynn Cunningham is skeptical. She wonders if major advertisers are paying the full advertiser’s rate – or anything at all. “It’s not an uncommon practice for new magazines to give free or discounted ads to create the right environment,” she says.
Sixteen per cent is well below Alexander’s target of a 30 to 70 advertising to editorial ratio. In terms of attracting advertising revenue, the general interest category has declined in popularity. Today, magazines need a clearly defined audience. According to Fraser Sutherland, author of The Monthly Epic: A History of Canadian Magazines, there has been a trend toward narrowcasting since the late 1980s. “Advertisers want to get the best bang for their buck,” he says, “and can sell products better by specializing, instead of painting the whole media scene with products.”
And now Berlin, whose specialty was painting the media scene with colouful controversy, has left. “It was refreshing,” says Masthead editor Shields. “Many editors are so careful not to say the wrong thing – David Berlin went out of his way to provoke.”
Two days after the announcement, Berlin doesn’t elaborate on “health reasons,” but says his doctor warned him he “couldn’t live under these conditions.” He doesn’t feel great about it and ideally would have stayed on a couple more years. “I was the guy with the vision,” he continues, defiantly. “It was my idea and I’ll still have to stand on top of it.”
Tim Rostron is more reserved. The former consulting editor, who said putting Martin on the first cover was a mistake, offers, “I think it’s best if I hold my fire regarding editorial meetings.” Off the record, one contributor says Berlin didn’t have the vast editing experience required to run a magazine like The Walrus, nor did he have the ability to delegate: “When the stakes are this high you can’t afford to dick around.” Another source says it sometimes seemed as if the publisher wanted to be editor and the editor wanted to be publisher. There were even rumours that Alexander assigned stories, although he denies this.
New editor Paul Wilson, who says he’s happy to continue editing Berlin’s features, confirms there was some confusion in the office. “In the enthusiasm for the project, everyone got mixed up. You can’t run a magazine when the lines of authority are blurred,” he says. “It was a big collective, but I don’t want to get too far into that. The division between church and state will be strictly observed now. The two of us are co-operating to make sure both sides are talking. Ken is new at the publishing game, but he’s worked his ass off to learn it.”
But Berlin may have endured interference from more than the publisher. One board member, according to a source, was “actively trying to oust” him because of a perceived lack of focus and editorial direction – criticisms that also surfaced at the LRC. Wilson denies this flat out, saying, “The board never played a role in the editorial side.” Chair Jack Shapiro says board members are “outspoken people,” but the allegation should be taken “with a grain of salt.”
Putting a brave face on the shake-up at the top, Alexander says, “The magazine is going great guns and we’re in terrific shape!” As The Walrus travels the bumpy road toward commercial viability, one question remains: how will it challenge readers and stir up the public without its insouciantly confrontational leader who, once again in his peripatetic career, has moved on? Until the sudden exit, it might have been possible to believe that, at age 52, David Berlin had finally found his vocation – as editor of The Walrus magazine. Not any more.
“You were always wondering,” says Martha MacLachlan, his campaign manager from the 2000 election, “how the hell did David get there?”
by Liz Brown
Liz Brown was the Display Editor for the Spring 2004 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.