Sunday, 13 December 2015

Why I'm Cancelling My Walrus Subscription

It's time for me to say goodbye to one of the long-standing dysfunctional relationships in my life.  So long, Walrus.  Our five year-plus subscriber-magazine LTR (long term relationship) is over.

This is not, as you might think, due to the embarrassing and maladroit behaviour of some of the higher-ups over there that was recently highlighted on the Canadaland podcast.  Yes, I am a long term supporter of that show and I did, in fact, learn of its existence from an article in the Walrus, but none of that should take away from the fact that the segment gave a peek into what looked like a rather toxic culture. The Canadaland story also brought into focus, crystallized if you will, the unease with which I watched those increasingly desperate unopened renewal notices pile up on the table at my front door, but it is not the reason I'm out.  It gave a conscious validation of my subconscious whispering to me: "I don't want to give these guys any more money." Trust me, I wouldn't just ditch a media outlet over someone criticizing it, since all media outlets are run by humans and therefore fallible. But this struck at something deeper.  I could tell something had been amiss at the Walrus for some time.

And let's get this out of the way: This is not about Jon Kay's editorial bent, or his perceived conservative leanings, either.  On the contrary, I look forward to reading Jon's forceful and incisive op-eds in the Walrus just as I did when he was at the National Post.  Unlike many bien-pensant elite members of your readership who were horrified at his hire, I myself was quite gratified, because I thought he would head up a smashing of the complacency I felt was developing at the publication. John MacFarlane did a good job but the meandering, stodgy Central Canadian paternalism that came through in his op-eds was wearing pretty thin by the end, which may just be more generational than anything else.  I think you have to be John's age to be able to square this progressive, enlightened view of Canada as this great social democratic force for good in the world with a steadfast refusal to pay interns.   Briefly, I was rewarded by this changing of the guard.  Patrick Graham's piece on ISIS was the most jolting and informative article I had ever read in the magazine, topical and relevant and forwarded to countless family, friends, and acquaintances in PDF.  I cannot emphasize how much more entertaining this piece was than a piece about local TV shows in Regina, or a photographic retrospective of curling memorabilia throughout the ages.

Therein lies the tie-in with all the drama surrounding Kyle Carsten Wyatt stealing the idea for his cover essay about plagiarism.  Now bear with me here.  It wasn't a bad article, and it was his original work, even if he stole the idea.  I'm not firing the Walrus because of that.  I'm not firing the Walrus because MacFarlane refused to pay the interns or even comment publicly on that decision.  I'm not firing the magazine because it appears that one of the publisher's first actions on the job was to secure herself a 1%er, multiple six figure salary, or because she may have also overrode journalistic integrity standards at the behest of a highly placed, downtown elite employed at one of Canada's megacorps at least once.  I'm firing you because this is all behaviour that is symptomatic of a toxic and dysfunctional organization.  Now, being toxic and dysfunctional is not a grounds for dismissal in itself (if it was, I would have to exclude 90% of the great music, books, and acting that have occurred in the past half century), but it is when it affects the product (and we've all experienced the moment when our favourite toxic and dysfunctional movie stars, musicians and writers go south and we can no longer take what they are doing seriously).  I'm firing the Walrus because I believe this toxic and dysfunctional nature has caused the publication to fundamentally fail at its mission.  For that, you no longer deserve my $29 a year.

What is that mission again?  It bears repeating here: "Report and encourage debate on matters vital to Canadians."And why has that mission failed? I'll tell you why.  Because all of these lies and machinations and backroom bullshit shenanigans that have been going on over there and have come to light are of interest to no one, and I mean precisely no one, in this country. There are two reasons you have failed in your mission - #1, because I'm probably the only person in Canada who is pathetic enough to remember an approximation of that lame-assed stated mission and #2 because when I read that lofty and ambitious proclamation and then look at what is actually going on at the publication do you know what do you see?  A bunch of scheming, jockeying Downtown Toronto Elites all trying to protect their own status and turf, the boundaries between whom seem to be defined by the clashing of their own massive egos.  Lost in all this is a simple but fundamental question: Who reads the Walrus?

Does my Dad read the Walrus? Does my Mother-In-Law read the Walrus? Does my boss read the Walrus? Does my son's teacher read the Walrus? Does anybody I know read the Walrus? And the answer to all those questions is no, not really.  Is the Walrus a piece of shit? No, I actually enjoy reading it most of the time.  And yet, for the same reason I stopped giving money to another publication I enjoy most of the time, the Globe and Mail, I will stop financially supporting it.  You arrive at a certain point where you just cannot stand the utter arrogance and entitlement with which people in downtown Toronto pretend to address and speak for the whole country anymore.  The reason this is precisely so insufferable is because in reality, they are speaking to an infinitesimally small subset of like minded people just like themselves.  The whole country suffers as a result, when these so-called "national newspapers" and "national magazines" cannot look beyond their own white, middle-aged, moneyed, educated, Torontonian navels with the accompanying interests and perspectives.

And there have been great writers in the Walrus; I guess some are there, and some are not.  But people like John Lorinc, Ivor Tossell, Sasha Chapman, and Rachel Giese, to name a few, were why I loved to read the magazine.  I enjoyed their work very much and mean no disrespect to any of them by writing this kiss-off.  But I think the mismatch between the magazine's stated objective and how reality played out on the ground can be explained by one feature the Walrus aped from another great magazine.

Some years ago, John MacFarlane detailed in an op-ed how the Walrus became financially sustainable: it set itself up as a non-profit charity, following the same structure the New Yorker uses. Great idea - now, as a once-happy New Yorker subscriber who had to stop because once a week is just too much, maybe I can point out two other areas where the Walrus would do well to follow that venerated publication.  First of all, by calling itself the New Yorker, the magazine has no pretension to be based anywhere else, have the perspective of anywhere else, or be primarily grounded in the worldview of anywhere else.  It could never be America's "National Magazine", and it never tried.  This allows the magazine to remain incredibly erudite and highbrow without ever feeling the need to pander or fulfill some indescribable mission (like the Walrus's).  Second, for first rate long-form and fiction, it is simply the best.  And I don't mean stereotypical dense literary fiction or academic compound sentences that are the literary equivalent of BDSM;  just great writing that is like candy to people who enjoy reading great writing.  I mean, I can find a New Yorker lying around in the garbage from 3 months, 1 year, 3 years, 10 years ago, from 1947, it doesn't matter.  They always publish great stuff to read.

So the Walrus is doing something right, and if you keep pieces like Patrick Graham's and John Lorinc's coming, you should achieve long term success.  But please ditch these 3 or 4 pointless, 200 word blurbs every issue about insignificant events happening in nowheresville, Northwest Territories. I don't have a problem with you running stories that happen in godforsaken corners of our country but for the love of god let them be fucking interesting.  It is the worst kind of Central Canadian conceit that we need to "create a culture" by "telling stories about ourselves" and "representing our regions". No.  It's time someone stood up and said that a village in Saskatchewan is not interesting to Canadians, it's not interesting to the world, and it's not interesting to the people who live there.  This is the very reason Canadian cultural elites bemoan the fact that the industry they preside over produces content that the vast majority of Canadians are either ignorant of or absolutely indifferent to.  Like they are with the Walrus.

Walrus, you've come a long way but you've got a long way to go.  At least if you were developing great talent or had an awesome collegial culture I could maintain a soft spot for you.  But you guys need to up the bar 1000% before you give yourselves licence to treat interns like shit again.  You cannot have your cake and eat it to.  These young impressionable people could not possibly know how irrelevant your publication is.

Cutting the cord (*sniff*)
Christopher Lackey

PS...don't think I take myself seriously.  A subscriber threatening to cancel is like an opposition MP asking when the minister will resign - bluster-filled and par for the course.  Nevertheless, we should have good magazines to read that are not owned by rogers...and this is about the principles that could facilitate that more than $29.

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