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They’re History?

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Former editor Christopher Dafoe thought he was leading The Beaver in the right direction. Now publisher Laird Rankin is charting his own new course. But is there any future for a magazine literally stuck in the past?

ON LAND, THE INDUSTRIOUS BEAVER TENDS TO BE SOMEWHAT SLOW and clumsy. It prefers to stick close to home and constantly sniffs the air for signs of danger. When cutting down the trees it uses to construct its lodge, a place of shelter and protection, the beaver cannot predict which way the trunk will fall. Focused intensely on its work, the beaver sometimes gets squashed by its own falling tree.

On a Monday morning last July, Christopher Dafoe, editor for the past 12 years of The Beaver, the 77-year-old magazine of Canadian history, got squashed himself. He’d been invited to the ominously named Velvet Glove Restaurant by Joseph Martin, president of the society that publishes the magazine. After a brief and somewhat awkward conversation about each of their cottages, Martin pulled out an envelope and handed it across the table. Dafoe didn’t open it. He knew what it meant – two weeks earlier a board member had warned him that the tree was about to fall. Dafoe sat there, his coffee going cold, the unopened envelope in his hand, then he left the restaurant, walked to the bus stop and read the letter. His position as editor was terminated, effective that day.

Two weeks later, Laird Rankin, the magazine’s publisher, tried to put a public relations gloss on the event, informing a Winnipeg Free Pressreporter that Dafoe had taken early retirement; Beaver staff were told the same. But Dafoe wasn’t interested in this face-saving exercise. “It makes it sound like I have an incurable disease, or got caught chasing the secretary, or with my hand in the till,” he says. Instead, he launched a wrongful dismissal suit. The Beaverhad spent three-quarters of a century telling stories of war, conquest and conflict. Now, for the first time in its long history, it was experiencing a little drama of its own.

THE BEAVER WAS LAUNCHED BY THE HUDSON’S BAY COMPANY IN 1920, in time to report on the company’s 250th anniversary celebrations. As a staff magazine, it kept the Bay “family”-as it was called back then-up-to-date on company news. Page after page of the modest journal-size quarterly was filled with bulletins on promotions, vacations, retirements, marriages, births and deaths. The original editor, Clifton M. Thomas, was apprehensive about making it anything more than a staff publication. But the overwhelming response to his invitation in the first issue for employees to submit “notes, narratives, personal news items, history, biography and poems” about the company made it evident that The Beaverhad the potential to tell a larger story: the story of northern progress and the Bay’s role in Canadian history. From then on, along with the birth announcements and gossip, each issue carried a couple of articles like “Little Journeys to the Haunts of Canada’s Fur-Bearing Animal” and “Famous Trips by H.B.C. Dog Teams.”

In 1933, under the editorship of Douglas MacKay, The Beavershed its house-organ feel, changing its tagline from “A Journal of Progress” to “The Magazine of the North.” While the magazine grew to standard size, began using more art and photography and increased the number of features, most of the content continued to touch on the HBC in some way. That changed in the 1940s, when a new editor took a chance and decided that the Bay need not be an ingredient in every story. Over the next four decades, The Beaverremained a general-interest magazine focusing on the North and the West, featuring such worthy pieces as “Cold War on the Fraser” (1955), “Artists in Haida Gwai” (1969) and “Arctic Fur Trade Rivalry” (1975

The Beaver underwent some superficial changes in those 40 years-content became stronger, art and photography more attractive-but essentially, the magazine Christopher Dafoe took over in 1985 was visually and editorially similar to that of the 1940s. Dafoe, then 49 years old, had been a writer, critic and editor for the Winnipeg Free Press, a columnist and critic for the Vancouver Sun and a CBC documentary writer. His work had appeared in the London Times, the Jerusalem Post and the Manchester Guardian. One of his two plays, The Frog Galliard, had been performed across Canada and in London, England. But for him, becoming editor of The Beaverwas the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. “When I was 7 years old my aunt gave me a subscription to the magazine, and I read it for many years,” he recalls. “I thought being the editor would be the ideal job.” And for a while it was.

Dafoe was given a free hand to take the magazine in a new direction-a direction that was necessary if The Beaver was to stay off the endangered species list. By early 1980, it had become clear the Bay’s top management had little interest in the magazine. “It was just a relic of company history,” recalls Rolph Huband, a former Bay vice president whose duties from 1983 to 1997 included serving as publisher of The Beaver. The magazine had only 15,000 paid subscribers and an annual deficit around $100,000; it was in danger of being closed if the Bay had a bad financial year. That year came in 1983, when the Bay lost millions of dollars. “The Beaver was on the hit list,” says Huband. But instead of folding the magazine, he hired a consultant to determine if the 60-year-old magazine could be saved from the same fate as the Bay’s trading posts and fur departments. On the consultant’s advice, Huband devloped a strategic plan; it involved aggressive direct-mail promotion, eliminating the 15,000 complimentary copies that went to uninterested Bay staff and refocusing the magazine on Canadian history generally. All of this had been achieved by the time Dafoe arrived. What Huband hoped his new editor would do was raise the visibility of the magazine and help take it from a respected yet relatively obscure HBC publication to a high-profile magazine of popular Canadian history. With Huband’s support, Dafoe broadened the scope of the magazine to include such topics as sports, medicine, the women’s movement and industry, changed the tagline to “Exploring Canada’s History” and started running pieces about all regions of Canada, not just the North and West. With an increase to bi-monthly frequency, a stronger visual presence on the newsstands and a new editorial focus, The Beaverhad a better chance of increasing its readership and becoming self-sustaining. Dafoe asserted his presence as editor by creating a letters-to-the-editor section and began contributing a well-written and witty editorial each issue. His goal was to maintain the historical legitimacy of the magazine while ensuring that the articles were accessible to a general audience.

The salvage plan worked. By October 1990-The Beaver’s 70th anniversary-there were almost 40,000 subscribers and the magazine was close to being self-sustaining. But because the Bay was continually moving further away from emphasizing its own history, there was always a chance it would kill The Beaver. Huband, Dafoe and managing editor Carol Preston were all anxious to devise a way of ensuring the long-term health of the magazine.

That opportunity came in 1994 when the Bay donated its archives and museum collection to the province of Manitoba. Part of the savings arising from the $23-million tax credit were used to fund Canada’s National History Foundation, of which Huband became president. The CNHS, whose mandate is to promote “greater popular interest in Canadian history,” acquired The Beaver in August 1994, just as Huband had planned it would. Huband naturally turned to Dafoe and Preston, who shared his love for The Beaver, to not only suggest how the new society might function but, because they were in Winnipeg and he in Toronto, to take on the administrative responsibilities of the new society. “We thought the CNHS would be the savior of the magazine. We thought any financial woes had come to an end and that the money would be primarily spent to improve the magazine,” Dafoe recalls. “We created all this,” he laughs, and then adds in a slow, low voice, “and then…it got off the table.”

“All this” is the board and committee structure of the society. Dafoe says that when the society was being formed and the board chosen, he suggested that there be an “honorary board” with big academic names and a small board of “useful people.” “Instead,” he says with dry exasperation, “we got the biggest collection of cementheads this country has ever seen.”

Chief among the cementheads, in his view, were the five board members who made up the editorial committee. When the Bay still owned The Beaver, there had been an editorial advisory committee, but Dafoe was able to ignore its suggestions, which he did regularly. On the CNHS editorial committee, only one member-William Nobleman, former Saturday Night publisher turned consultant-had magazine experience, but all five were also on the society’s board of directors. “The editorial committee saw its role as the production of a magazine that met the goals and desires of the organization as a whole,” Nobleman explains. According to him, the board was fed up with having its recommendations and advice dismissed by Dafoe. The list of grievances was long: poor design and layout, articles that were too lengthy, too narrow a range of topics, underedited pieces, lack of editorial planning and an overall product that failed to attract a readership larger than 40,000 and younger than 60 years old. Dafoe, in turn, not only had little respect for the committee’s opinion of how he ran the magazine, but little respect for the board as a whole. “If the editorial committee told the board to drop their pants, they would,” is his assessment.

It’s true that Dafoe’s Beaverhad a somewhat dull and predictable look. Part of the problem was simply a shortage of appropriate visuals. Canada is a young country-there aren’t endless historical illustrations, and much early photography was of poor quality. Dafoe also operated without an art director, and his modest annual budget of $15,000 meant poor paper stock and limited colour. But the committee felt that Dafoe was too slow to implement the design changes it requested. Nobleman says, “I have some sense that Chris wanted to control the design as he controlled the editorial.” Dafoe responds that even after a partial redesign in late 1996 that involved increased white space, better captioning of photographs and bolder display type (all changes the committee had pushed for), the committee was still not satisfied. In turn, one board member says the problem was that Dafoe didn’t implement the changes as quickly and thoroughly as the committee wanted. In 1997, the board added another $10,000 to the art budget in hopes of further improvements. “It was never spent,” says Nobleman. Dafoe doesn’t deny this. “When the committee said the money was for design, I thought, that’s nice, we will certainly spend it when it seems justified,” he says. “My policy was never to spend money just because it was there.”

When it came to the editorial content, one board member claims that even before the society was formed, Dafoe was told that too much material was getting into The Beaver underedited (contributors describe Dafoe as an editor who gave them a free hand to write what they wanted). After the CNHS took over, this criticism intensified. However, Dafoe believed that the magazine would suffer if he didn’t stand up for his editorial decisions.The committee saw this as being territorial; Dafoe saw it as doing what he was hired to do. Besides, he says of the editorial committee, “Pleasing that group was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

A much more satisfied group was the magazine’s 40,000 subscribers. A 1994 readership survey-conducted by Nobleman’s own company-found that readers were happy with the balance of articles, their length and the overall editorial package. The renewal rate-80 percent-reflected the almost fanatical loyalty of The Beaver’s readers. Many place ads in the magazine for issues they need to complete their collection, and one even requested that his Beavers be buried with him. Last summer, when Dafoe tipped readers that a name change was being considered (every one of The Beaver’s editors has been faced with having to explain that the magazine is about history, not nature or naughty women), more than 300 wrote in to voice their disapproval: “If you are determined to destroy the magazine…then go ahead, but please don’t pretend to consult us”; “Are there some busy bodies in this new Society who have nothing better to do?”;”We are losing our Heritage. Retain the title The Beaver.” And after the news of Dafoe’s firing broke, he received a call from a lawyer in Florida who said his 100-year-old client had cancelled a bequest she had planned to make to the CNHS.

Historian Marian Fowler has a theory about this passion for the magazine. “I think their readers feel a great sense of pride in their country. The Canadians they appeal to are Canadians who grew up here. That’s not to say that other ethnic groups don’t want to learn about Canadian history, but I don’t think they feel quite the same passion as native-born Canadians.” But she also notes that they are, well, rather historic themselves; the main reasons subscribers don’t renew are failing eyesight or death. The board worried that readers had little in terms of a future.

Not responding to this concern is where Dafoe went wrong, Nobleman claims. The board wanted a younger audience, one with an interest in history but also with plenty of reading years ahead of them-they wanted forty- and fiftysomethings. However, Dafoe suggests the problem wasn’t his but Nobleman’s. As well as being on the editorial committee, Nobleman was paid by the society to manage promotional efforts: it was Nobleman’s outdated techniques that kept The Beaver circulation at 40,000, Dafoe charges. He may be right; after Dafoe was fired, someone new was brought in to handle promotion.

Targeting this “younger” demographic and making The Beaver appeal to an audience still a decade or two away from wintering in Florida is part of the long-term plan. “I think there is an interest in history, and if we can give it to people in a way they want to get it, I think we can definitely go for a younger demographic,” says the new editor, Annalee Greenberg. So far, Greenberg, who’s 44, says that the editorial committee has been supportive and has worked with her to establish a set of criteria for the magazine’s content. The board wants to see shorter pieces, a better balance of topics and more commissioned stories; Greenberg plans to feature more social history. But for now¤and probably for the next year-a lot of the articles in the magazine will be ones that Dafoe bought.

Even if The Beaver does take on a flashier look and material with broader appeal, will fortysomethings pick up a magazine about Canadian history? “I don’t see a great future for The Beaver,” Marian Fowler says. “Today, you learn a little bit about a lot-everybody is a generalist now. People are unable to put past events into historical context, it’s like everything is equal time and equal value.” The CNHS board is banking on the 10 million Canadians who are approaching 50, hoping to capture a fraction of them. The theory is that when people reach the second half of their lives, they suddenly realize they’re mortal; as Shirlee Ann Smith, head of the editorial committee, says, “They get off their merry-go-round and start thinking about their past.” The board is also hoping that the pending millennium will pique people’s interest about what has occurred during the last few centuries. “There’s potential for history,” says Laird Rankin. “Therefore, there’s potential for us in the history business.”

So while those at the CNHS are planning for The Beaver’s tomorrow, for the first time in 12 years Christopher Dafoe is planning for a future that does not include The Beaver. “It’s been quite damaging for me to lose this job,” he says. “My reputation is tarnished. I’m 61 years old and the chances of my getting another job are slim.” He’s been looking, though, and in the meantime he’s written a book about the city where he experienced all this grief. He’s toying with the idea of leaving Winnipeg and moving farther west, but that depends on his finding work-and the outcome of his lawsuit against the CNHS.

DAFOE’S SUIT IS JUST A SIDE EFFECT OF THE REAL STRUGGLE THE CNHS is facing. The board kicked out Dafoe in the hopes that, without him, it could attract a younger group of readers. So once it’s done taking on Dafoe in court, it will have to get ready for the true fight: getting Canadians under 60 interested in history. The problem is the future is the big commodity right now. People’s attention is focused on what is yet to come, not what’s already happened. For such a young country, Canada has an endless number of fascinating stories to be told. Can the sleepy little Beaver continue to gather enough readers to tell those stories to?

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