Doug Bennet
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This Mag at 20

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Bringing new life to an old dissenter

Twenty Years and Still no Respect” ran the headline on the editorial in last October’s This Magazine. True, the Toronto-based publication was celebratingits20thanniversary.But This Magazine gets a fair measure of respect. Since its genesis in 1966 as This Magazine Is About Schools, when it was a champion of the free-school movement, This Mag has become a gutsy opponent of injus tice, hypocrisy and the status quo. Some journalists, such as The Toronto Star’s Richard Gwyn, praise its “energetic political commentary”; others, notably Saturday Night Editor Robert Fulford, recoil at its “surly suspicion of capitalism with all its works.” Few, however, deny the reputation it has earned.

Now, as it begins its third decade, This Magazine has taken bold steps to strengthen that reputation. Investigative reporting has joined the regular fare of columns and commentary; articles so far have examined such topics as the drug lobby in Ottawa, the Motion Picture Association of America’s manipulation of free trade talks and the pro-business activities of the National Citizens’ Coalition. As well, short “dissenting” news items from around Canada make up a new section called “Briefings,”
introduced last October. And with the February issue, This Magazine boosted its frequency from six to eight issues per year. New subscription and typesetting systems have been introduced, and direct mail drives are planned to raise circulation from the current 7,500 to 10,000 in two years.

Bold plans, indeed. But bold plans usually require bold financing; that, plus the problem of getting enough good stuff to fill the 48-or-so pages most issues contain, is the risk facing the II-member editorial collective that controls the nonprofit periodical.

Risks have worked before. In 1973, as the ’60s faded away, the magazine dropped the last three words of its name, changed size and shifted its focus to Canadian nationalism. Over the next 13 years it developed a loyal readership, largely because of its popular and outspoken columnists. University of Toronto economist Mel Watkins, who analysed American control of the Canadian economy in the historic Watkins Report for the federal government in the late ’60s, signed on in 1978 to write “The Innis Memorial Column,” in which he writes about the economy; lately he has been writing from England. Rick Salutin, a journalist and playwright best known for Les Canadiens and 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, joined the magazine in 1973 and has been contributing the “Culture Vulture” column since 1975. Joyce Nelson, author of a number of books on film and a contributor to CBC Radio’s Ideas program, has penned the “Media Tedia”

column for three-and-a-half years. Political activist Stan Persky, American writer Marc Cooper, and author Susan Crean are just a few of the other regular contributors who have given This Magazine the consistency and quality that have allowed it to survive.

Still, the collective hasn’t been entirely happy with its creation. “For years we’ve wanted to have the magazine more topical,” says Salutin. “We’ve always worried about this sort of timeless quality about it. But we just didn’t have the wherewithal to do much about it.”

A phone call in February, 1986, did do something about it. The caller was Nick Fillmore, a part-time foreign affairs producer at CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning and former editor and publisher of Halifax’s 4th Estate, a muckraking “alternative” newspaper published from 1969 to 1977. In late 1985 Fillmore had spearheaded an attempt to revive Goodwin’s magazine, an Ottawa-based quarterly that called itself “Canada’s Investigative Magazine with a Social Conscience.”

Goodwin’s had lasted only eight issues before it folded in May, 1985-a noble but ultimately second-rate product. The revival also failed. The fundi- raising program was a bust, and the group Fillmore had gathered never developed a common editorial philosophy or business approach.

But instead of abandoning the dream, Fillmore had another idea: why not roll the energy into This Magazine? “I had the impression that This Magazine was the closest of any publication in the country to the kind we wanted to establish ourselves,” he says. Salutin and John Lang, another member of the collective, met Fillmore at a Bloor Street bar, and out of that came the idea to include investigative journalism in This Magazine. Fillmore is now the magazine’s investigative editor.

At about the same time that Salutin, Fillmore and Lang were having their beer, another alternative journalist from the ’70s was considering getting involved in magazines again. Robert Chodos had been an editor at The Last Post, an 11 year-old national alternative magazine that folded in 1980. Chodos’s renewed motivation was twofold: that there really had been no new generation of journalists to carry on a vigorous alternative press, and events, particularly free trade, were galvanizing many social movements. He phoned Fillmore, whom he’d known from the old days, and through him eventually met with This Magazine’s collective, which was looking for ideas. He suggested a news section, the collective agreed, and Chodos now edits “Briefings.”

Both Fillmore and Chodos work for small honorariums. Only Managing Editor Lorraine Filyer who has been with This Mag since 1971, and Editorial Assistant David Hunt, hired last September, receive regular salaries. Except for journalists writing investigative pieces or short news items, all This Magazine writers are paid a flat fee of $100 per article, no matter how long. Contributors to “Briefings” get $50, and investigative pieces earn writers between $400 and $1,500, depending on length and complexity.

With the expansion, Lorraine Filyer estimates This Magazine’s annual budget will increase from about $130,000 to $160,000. Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council grants will account for roughly 30 per cent of the total, including a new $10,000 OAC grant for arts writing. (Joyce Nelson was paid $1,300 under the program for her investigative piece on the Motion Picture Association and free trade in last October’s issue.) Three-quarters of Hunt’s pay is covered by an arts management internship grant from the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Culture. And revenue will also come from an increase in the subscription rate from $12.50 to $17 per year to cover the cost of two extra issues.

But that won’t be enough. To make up the shortfall, This Magazine is making a direct appeal to supporters for tax deductible donations. A new development and fund-raising committee hopes to raise $25,000 to help pay for the expansion. Donors can direct their money toward the costs of expansion (bigger printing bills, for instance), a fund for investigative journalism or a long-term §ustainers’ program (for those who can afford monthly donations).

The vital circulation increase, in particular, is a notoriously expensive goal, requiring a direct-mail campaign to 100,000 potential subscribers. “It costs us $10 to get $10 worth of subscriptions,” says Filyer. But the gamble is that 70 per cent of new subscribers will renew the following year without expensive coaxing. So far the collective is confident, buoyed in part by successful parties held last July and November to gauge support for the plans.

The other gamble is quality. There is some concern that an extra two issues may dilute the calibre of writing in This Magazine. “We don’t want to destroy what we already have,” says Filyer. Rick Salutin is equally wary: he predicts the magazine will need a few more columnists because the regulars won’t be able to turn out eight fresh ideas a year.

Changing with the times has been a key to the success of This Magazine; so has the collective’s shared political commitment. “It’s certainly not a party line, because we have massive disagreements amongst ourselves,” says Salutin. “But there is a kind of shared oppositional standpoint that’s more than just muckraking, something more than just being left.” As the Age of Reagan heads into decline, This Magazine is hoping to stay as critical, entertaining and informative as it has been throughout the last 20 years. There is, after all, a reputation to maintain.

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