Pity poor Maclean’s, or how he learned to stop fact-checking and love the scandal

The new editor-in-chief of Maclean’s changed the magazine’s editorial style and content to bolster sales. Critics say that’s a loss to Canadian journalism.

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By Mairin Prentiss

Fear, war, sex, hate, religion, shock, exposés, inflated language, celebrity, betrayal and tragedy; the new Maclean’s magazine has it all. Want to know the secrets of Hugh Hefner’s bedroom? How Wal-Mart is saving lives? What Belinda Stronach is wearing? Whether Barak Obama is black? The answers will be revealed when you turn the pages of your newsweekly.

It’s a whole new editorial style, attributable to the arrival of Kenneth Whyte as both publisher and editor-in-chief.

Before coming to Maclean’s, Whyte was the first editor of the National Post, a newspaper founded in 1998 by Conrad Black in an effort to combat what Black believed to be a liberal bias in Canadian print media. Upon arrival at Maclean’s in 2005, Whyte set out to resuscitate the then-failing magazine, and, some say, turn it to the right too.

By the end of the year, he had re-launched it with a new image and new staff in the art and editorial departments. Whyte’s Maclean’s appeared to have picked up some style tips from tabloids. It featured candid and celebrity photographs and the words and elements on the cover were often alarming. The following year proved his efforts were paying off. The magazine’s declining circulation stabilized, newsstand sales went up and annual revenue increased.

Under Whyte, critics and readers began to see changes beyond just the surface. Not only was the magazine more edgy, potent and arresting; some say its political stance drifted to the right. Critics say its standards of journalistic professionalism have slipped, with fact-checkers considered redundant.

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Doug Bennet, of industry-watcher Masthead magazine, says that Whyte has taken Maclean’s to a right wing perspective as he did with Saturday Night magazine and the National Post, however, he says with so many perspectives available today, that’s OK. According to Bennet, bringing aboard former National Post writers is part of the strength of the new Maclean’s. It is now more in tune with the times than previous versions.

“Really what I think Ken has done is bring a lot of the early-day magic of the National Post over to Maclean’s with a lot of the same contributors and editors. He’s really sort of reconstituted that team, ” Bennet said.

Whyte was not the last of the former National Posters to be brought on. Readers are now looking at a masthead that lists Barbara Amiel, Rebbeca Ekler, Linda Frum, Scott Feschuk, Cathy Gulli and Steve Maich among others.mairin1_01.jpg

“Ken Whyte comes from the blue end of the spectrum, I think his politics are reflected in the magazine, his world view is reflected in the magazine, I think everything in Maclean’s has his fingerprints on it,” said D.B. Scott an editor, teacher, magazine consultant and author of a blog entitled Canadian Magazines. “There is definitely an editorial perspective and slant to what they do and that is a commercial decision on their part.”

At first, Derrick O’Keefe, a high school teacher in British Columbia, peace activist and publisher for the alternative Seven Oaks magazine, had trouble taking the new Maclean’s seriously. He equates it with Fox News. “As well as having moved more right wing, Ken Whyte has definitely just tried to make it more sensationalist, I guess more along the American or British model of magazine covers; you really (have) got to have something outrageous on the cover to increase your newsstand sales.”

O’Keefe says that Maclean’s increasingly deals in fear and shock to grab attention. He points to one article specifically, Why The Future Belongs To Islam, a piece written by Mark Steyn that foretells a new world order due to the declining population of the west and the increased power of Muslims in Europe.

O’Keefe labels it as implicitly racist propaganda that stokes fear and mistrust of Muslims. “To have a cover like that is reminiscent of historic efforts to whip up fear and paranoia against a particular ethnic group and was really disturbing.”

The piece was one of several that prompted the Canadian Islamic Congress to file complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal against Maclean’s. The complaints are still in the investigative stage. While there was a wave of letter writing from the Muslim community in Canada, O’Keefe does not recall any outcry from non-Muslims groups about the cover story. “I think some people will be discerning enough to be able to look at this, think critically and not be affected by it, but like any propaganda system, it does seep into overall society and it does have an impact on people.”

The managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, Kirk LaPointe, worked with Whyte in the founding days of the National Post starting in 1998. He says that Whyte is balancing his desire to address a sophisticated audience with keeping it fascinated.

“He can find things that some of us may think are uncomfortable and put them in front of an audience and assume they’re intelligent enough to receive it. So he’s not worried about offending because he’s got a very good sense of how tolerant people are. A lot of editors are very defensive and they don’t want the phone to ring with a complaint and Ken is more of the view that if the phone isn’t ringing then you’re not doing your job.”

LaPointe says that at times you want a publication that you can argue with, rather than one that simply validates your own experiences. “Our job is to get people to talk to each other. I think way too much journalism is committed onto pages in such a way that the reader knows how the story is going to end a third of the way through. Too much of our media have a predictability about them (and) are going through the motions (of what) is highly paid stenography. We cover too much and uncover too little.”

Since Maclean’s became a newsweekly in 1978 it has had to wrestle with American news magazines crossing the border and cultivating the attention of national advertisers. Internet and 24 hour news networks have recently proved to be another strain on print media, especially weeklies, which cannot compete in a market of immediacy.

Yet it was not only the owners, the advertisers or the readers that came to Maclean’s aid. Instead it was our government, with the intention of maintaining a national institution. Maclean’s magazine receives the largest amount of financial help from the Canadian Magazine Fund. The fund was established by Ottawa to offset the loss of advertising revenue to foreign competitors.

Maclean’s has received more than $4 million in the past six years from the fund. Annually that is a $700,000 average while the average for all magazines combined in 2005-06 fiscal year was a mere $55,000. Maclean’s receives the most due to the structure of the fund, with grants based on high editorial and Canadian content. According to Masthead, Maclean’s would flounder without the funds provided by the federal program.

Despite federal funding, and the slogan, “Canada’s news magazine,” critics say the new Maclean’s does not provide a balanced point of view for its readers. Rather, they say, it shouts a message that seems to deliberately counter common thought, akin to a morose teenager doused in black, blasting Simple Plan and quoting Sartre. “If they are looking for an approach to a story they take the temperature of the community and what the generally accepted view is of something and then they take up a position that is of variance to it” said Scott.”I think Ken Whyte and staff are following the iron rule of publishing, which is don’t bore the readers, and that seems to be working for them.”

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mairin2_01.jpgA long time reader and law professor, Philip Saunders, said that he would personally like to see Maclean’s keep slanted views on the opinion pages and put some “real news” in the magazine. Saunders found that two recent Maclean’s issues were particularly disagreeable, one of which was “Canada’s Best Professional Schools” in September, 2007.

The article based the rankings 50-50 on faculty quality and graduate quality. The former was calculated through a quantitative search for how often faculty members at each school were cited by other academics in Canadian legal journals.

Graduates were ranked on three factors, “Elite Firm Hiring”, “Supreme Court Clerkship” and “National Reach,” based on whether a law school was able to place its graduates in leading law firms beyond its region. Saunders says that kind of rating is ludicrous, because it bases quality on who is recruited to the largest corporate firms, while those that go to departments of justice, legal aid, or even large firms that are spilt among the region into small groups are not included in the assessment.

The number of Dalhousie faculty used in the ranking was also incorrect, Saunders said, thus distorting the calculation and making the quality assessment inaccurate. The university was not contacted for the article, he said.

According to Scott, Maclean’s let go most of its research staff more than 18 months ago, “I wish that they would continue to do fact checking, I think that they would be better if they did, but they, for whatever reason, have decided to forgo most of that.”

In early August, “Lawyers Are Rats” was splashed across a Maclean’s cover in large yellow print. Below there was a photograph of five nameless people, with the words “I pad my bills”, “I’m dishonest”, “I sleep with my clients”, “I take bribes”, and “Justice? Ha!” plastered across their suits. The article is an interview with Philip Slayton, a former educator and ex Bay Street lawyer discussing his new book, Lawyers Gone Bad: Money, Sex and Madness in Canada’s Legal Profession. The Canadian Bar Association immediately condemned the article “that paints a distorted, one-sided and sensationalized picture of the legal profession.”

CBA president, J. Parker MacCarthy, said in a press release, “By cherry-picking the worst cases of lawyer misconduct, the article has tarnished the reputation of thousands of professionals who are honest, hard-working, and community-minded people.” Saunders said that there was no evidence provided with Slayton’s statements, no quantitative analysis and the interviewer did not challenge or push his point of view.

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Paul Wells, the magazine’s senior columnist, spoke for Maclean’s. He refrained from defending that article specifically. Instead, he listed other stories that appeared in that issue, a column on why Stephen Harper will never win a majority, an article why Canada needs skilled immigrant workers, one discussing Vancouver’s drug problems, one on Vladimir Putin, one on the UN’s mission for eliminating poverty and one authored by Wells himself on NATO’s dilemma in Afghanistan. He said that neither an edition of the CBC national news nor an issue of the Globe and Mail has more hard news than that issue of Maclean’s.

“Lawyers are free to get upset, but journalistic professionals had better actually read Maclean’s before they get upset about it. And if all they care about is the cover then by definition they’re not journalistic professionals.”

Wells says that journalism underwent a shift in the ’70s and ’80s. It was a time when the journalist’s highest responsibility was to not upset anyone, he said.

“Editors used to shoot down a story idea by saying ‘well we’re going to get letters if we do that’. That is a bigger betrayal of the rich and lively Canadian journalistic tradition than anything Maclean’s could do today.” According to Wells, Maclean’s had run out of relevance. “No human being on earth can remember an article in Maclean’s from before 2005.”

The controversial nature of the magazine, he says, is in part what makes its rebirth one of the most interesting and encouraging developments in journalism in recent years. “We are in the global game of calling it like we see it. We spent 10 years trying not to ruffle feathers and if we had continued it would have killed the magazine.”

If success is measured in increased newsstand sales and advertising revenue then Maclean’s is slowly recovering. While subscriptions may have gone down a marginal 3.7 per cent in 2006, newsstand sales were up more than 50 per cent. The editors are certainly proud of that success, and why not? It has earned them the Magazine of the Year award from the nation’s distributors.

LaPointe says that weeklies have to compete with news that we can access immediately and the best way they can do that is with original content. “There is very little week-in-review coverage left in it; it’s mostly trying to think about the week to come.”

LaPointe says that Whyte is following up the daring, contrarian and tantalizing moves he’s made with Saturday Night magazine and the National Post. “It actually a hopeful sign to see a magazine get a reputation again and get itself back onto an agenda where people discuss it. The worst thing in this business is not to be discussed. As Ken once put it ‘If you don’t think you’ve gone too far you haven’t gone far enough.'”