April 21, 2003
Letter to Walrus

Seeing the request for feedback on the Walrus magazine's web site, I sent them some thoughts on the state of Canadian journalism and what a good national magazine could look like. Excerpts follow.

posted by dru in letters

It seems to be an exciting time for Canadian journalism and discourse. The mainstream sources of information are starting to become bad enough that people are aching for some quality alternatives. Almost everyone I've mentioned my idea to seems to be excited even by the prospect of a new national newspaper. This bodes well for Walrus, I think. At least one other group of people had the same idea that we did, at roughly the same time: the students who recently started Entrepôt magazine.

It's great to see people with similar goals (raising the level of discourse, being critical, not being completely beholden to advertisers) coming out of the woodwork.


Journalism is so lousy in Canada that finding really interesting stories to cover that no one else is doing is a matter of cherry picking. Many of these are issues that the corporate-owned press won't touch, but that the left-wing press, to the extent that it exists covers them in an extremely partisan way, leaving plenty of room for an intelligent, balanced treatment to be not only compelling, but sorely needed. A few easy examples:

The Irving Group, which still owns most of New Brunswick, and runs it in a massively vertically integrated, bizarrely 19th century monopoly kind of way. Very interesting from many different angles.

Regulation of media ownership in Canada, or lack thereof. Quoth Alexa McDonnough, when I interviewed her last summer: "The market power of the media in Canada exceeds anything that would be allowed in the US, UK, or any other western European nations." If that's even remotely true, it's a fairly crucial topic, and it's not hard to see why it's not being covered.

Proportional representation. Lefties tend to think it's a great idea, the mainstream poo-poos it when they mention it at all (with one or two notable exceptions). A long look at the pros, cons, ins, outs would be good.

The history of US involvement in Iraq. I've seen exactly one solid article taking a close look at the sanctions in Iraq, and that was in Harper's, a year ago. There are plenty of left-wing columnists mentioning this to prove a point, but a sustained look at the US support of Saddam Hussein, the US-approved slaughter of the Shia uprising, and where the fault lies for the destruction of the sanctions would be timely. The whole idea of the US "liberating" Iraq is dependent on a complete obfuscation and ignorance of the US's history in the region, right up to the attack.

Water. Maude Barlow and a lot of activists are working on this, but the media is ignoring them. Why not pay attention to the issue, and see what comes up?

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, which some folks say prevents democracy, and everyone else ignores. Ditto massive, subsidized arms shipments overseas, which have increased significantly since 9-11. (see: http://www.fas.org/asmp/)

Arts coverage is almost all crap. Any improvement would be, well, an improvement.


I'm at once excited by an emphasis on good writing, and wary that it will lead to fluff, as so often appears in magazines like the New Yorker. There is no lack of extremely comprehensive, beautifully crafted essays about very little of lasting relevance. People still like to read these articles because everything else is crap, because good writing is a pleasure to read and makes the reader feel smart. Advertisers love them, because there's an unfortunate correlation between people questioning institutions or systems and not being in a mood to buy expensive luxury goods. (Like the "internet fridge", the subject of both a full page ad and an advertorial in a recent Globe and Mail.)

What I'd prefer, though I may be part of the minority: essays that give me a new understanding of how the fundamental machinery of my country (and the world) works, what this machinery excludes, and what other possibilities people are exploring. Writing beautifully while providing fundamental insights into the workings of daily political and cultural life that will change the way the reader sees the world is a huge challenge. If I had my way, I'd have you look at each issue and ask: "how did this change the understanding that Canadians have of their world in a fundamental and lasting way?"

It's a lot easier to toss off some jaunty wit, or provide a venue for light critical bickering, and I suspect advertisers would prefer both.


One major thing: how about a decent web site?

The current web site doesn't even show up on google. Do a google search for "walrus magazine", and my web site comes up, followed by a few L. Ron Hubbard fan sites. At the minimum, get rid of the images of quotes and use actual text. That way, people with slow connections can read it, and search engines can index it. And it'll look better.

When the web site starts featuring actual content, a few good practices: decide on a good long term path structure so that material will be available at the same location 2, 5, and ten years down the line. Make all the articles available online eventually, and be sure to provide *some* of the article (say, the first 400 words) immediately. This will enable people to link to articles on the site immediately (without risking sales of the newsstand copy). If the web site is good, people with web sites will use it, quite possibly resulting in a lot of incoming traffic and positive attention. The Globe and Mail's web site is a case study in how to make it extremely difficult for people to direct attention to a site.

Even better: for each article in the print issue, provide a list of links to good online reading and resources about the topic covered.

And why not put the 'preview issue' online so that the general public can see it. Barring that, how can I get my hands on a copy?