Standing on Guard for THIS

A salute to 35 years of independent thought

Miryana Goloubovich
Summer, 2002 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

The small staff at This magazine have kicked it into high gear, as usual, but it's not really evident from the noise level. Other than the rapid hammering of computer keys, an occasional sneeze, and a random phone call, the staff-editor Julie Crysler, associate publisher Joyce Byrne and an intern-are quietly plugging away on an issue devoted to travel. Crysler wears jeans and a sweater, but she knows it is best to dress in layers, since she can never tell when the heat will be on or not. Her wooden desk looks as if it has been in the This family for years-every time she opens or shuts its drawers they squeak like a machine in need of oil. And the computers look as if they are barely new enough to understand the Internet. She is on the phone trying to strike a deal. After hanging up, Crysler excitedly breaks the low hum: "Gregory Boyd Bell just said he'd do a piece for the insanity issue! I think I'm going to have to do a happy dance!"

As the editor of Canada's longest running alternative magazine, Crysler has the name of an established and respected publication to drop when recruiting writers. Unfortunately, she's also got shallow pockets and can't afford to pay the big bucks an editor would normally offer someone of Boyd Bell's status. But she knows some writers don't necessarily write for This for the money; they do it because they believe in the magazine. As an established writer, Boyd Bell isn't starving for assignments, especially low-paying ones, but says, "I feel good about being in it, because it's a magazine of ideas and there aren't a whole lot of those." He's willing to take a significant pay cut because he respects the magazine and thinks the writing is good.

Now a national magazine with a political focus and a paid circulation of over 5,000, This was once distributed in an ice cream shop in Toronto's Cabbagetown. Known simply as This since 1995, it started out as This Magazine Is About Schools in 1966. Bob Davis, Satu Repo, and George Martell, a trio of radical teachers, put the first issue together in the basement of an alternative school on a farm near Guelph, Ontario. "The pages were crooked, the middle stuck out, and I'm sure there was the odd magazine that was out of order," laughs Davis. It had a North American scope and fairly large U.S. readership. The name changed to This Magazine in 1973, after Repo and Martell became Canadian nationalists and wanted the magazine to have a broader focus on issues concerning Canada. The shift led to a drop in American readership, but there were few financial problems then because no one got paid to write.

With the appointment of Lorraine Filyer as managing editor in 1976, This achieved a certain level of stability, as she guided the magazine all the way to 1991. In the past decade, though, real money concerns have begun to creep in, and have never really gone away. "We were so broke," remembers Clive Thompson, who was editor in the mid-'90s. "When I arrived at work, Trevor Hutchinson, the publisher, basically spent about half his day fielding calls from collection agencies that were trying to turn off our electricity and repossess our photocopiers because all these bills hadn't been paid."

Readership in Canada has not usually been kind to homegrown political magazines. The closest comparison to This may have been Canadian Forum, a left-wing magazine that began in 1920. Three years ago, the Forum attempted a relaunch to give its academic image a face-lift, only to go under the following year. Fredericton's Mysterious East, another effort from the left, lasted only three years, from 1969 to 1972. On the right, The Idler had a run from 1985 to 1993, while Gravitas published from 1994 to 1997 but folded after losing its funding from the Donner Canadian Foundation.

Given the poor success rate of most alternative political periodicals, This magazine's most impressive feat so far may be its 35-year life span. Constantly strapped for cash, it has nevertheless been successful of late by sticking to a simple formula: hiring a steady stream of young and talented editors; finding and developing the best young writers first; and staying relevant to the left.

In the past 10 years, the magazine's editors-with the exception of Moira Farr, who was 34 when she took over-have been younger than 30. Still, the long hours and meagre annual salary of roughly $20,000 have almost inevitably ensured burnout within 18 months or so. "You couldn't survive on that salary," says Thompson. Besides, with a stint at such a well-respected bastion of the literate left under their belts-connections established and alliances formed-all the editors had bright futures. Farr freelanced and wrote an acclaimed book called After Daniel: A Suicide Survivor's Tale. Naomi Klein soon gained international stardom with No Logo. Thompson went to Shift, and is now in New York, freelancing for a number of different publications. Andrea Curtis left to be a freelancer and a mom; Sarmishta Subramanian went to Saturday Night, and currently works on the Saturday Post section of the National Post.

The rapid changeover of editors has meant lots of fresh ideas. Hoping to reach younger readers, Klein pushed pop culture, identity politics, and globalization-often to the dismay of older readers, who also sent letters complaining that the print was too small. "It was a bit paradoxical," says Doug Saunders, who worked at the magazine during Klein's tenure as editor, "because at the same time that Naomi was making an effort to make it more youthful, we were realizing just how old our readers were." Thompson devoted a lot of coverage to technology, which raised a few eyebrows on the editorial board and also raised hackles with various union members who saw technology as a job killer. Curtis and Subramanian zeroed in on labour issues, which weren't covered much in the mainstream media. And Crysler, who took over in November 2000, has broadened the focus of the magazine with her introduction of theme issues on topics such as education, local politics, travel, and insanity.

While it is true that constantly adding and deleting names from the masthead may cause instability in a publication, the flux has also kept This from going stale. "Canadian Forum had the same people for the last 15 or 20 years and it became like a group of friends writing. This is a magazine that introduces new people," says Jeet Heer, a culture reporter at the National Post, former contributor to Gravitas, and also an occasional writer for This. Saunders says one of the goals they had was to look for new writers, and This soon became known as a welcoming place for the young and hopeful. Hal Niedzviecki, for example, wrote his first article for This in 1998 and now appears regularly as the magazine's culture columnist.

In addition to Niedzviecki, This has helped launch the careers of many of Canada's best writers. Rick Salutin, who is now a columnist at The Globe and Mail, first appeared in This Magazine Is About Schools in 1966. Margaret Atwood wrote about Canadian humour in 1974. John Ralston Saul wrote and served on the editorial board in the '70s. Dennis Lee, Michael Ondaatje, Dan David, Kim Pittaway, R.M. Vaughan, and Linda McQuaig are just a few of the magazine's usual suspects past and present, and most of the recent editors-including Farr, Klein, and Thompson-wrote for This before becoming editor.

Rather than nurturing new talent only to see it move away from the magazine, the editors have tried to maintain an "alumni system," something Klein began to establish. "We did a lot of work to set it up so it's almost like a fraternity in that people don't just disappear from the magazine," says Saunders. "They stay in orbit." Those still involved include Vaughan, McQuaig, Sarah Elton, Sam Gindin, Mel Watkins, Jason Sherman, Gordon Laird, and many former editors.

As convenient as it sounds, the alumni system depends on the editor being able to find good writers who will work cheap. Sometimes the editor gets lucky and picks up an article originally destined for another magazine. In 1997, Saturday Night axed an article about prostitution by National Magazine Award-winner Gerald Hannon. Although he took a huge pay cut, Hannon was delighted to have his piece published in This. Most of the time, though, the editor has to convince writers to work for little money. When Boyd Bell agreed to write a piece on the drugging of patients in mental hospitals, he knew the money was small, but he liked the fact that Crysler trusted him and gave him a lot of freedom. "It doesn't pay very well, but there are other publications that pay better money and extract far more aggravation," he says.

While This treats its writers fairly well, it continues to dole out chump change for stories. Niedzviecki likes having the opportunity to write things his way-with his personality-but his first piece, "Stupid Jobs Are Good to Relax With," generated more money in second rights fees from Utne Reader and a U.S. anthology than This originally paid him. Niedzviecki jokes that if he were paid more, he could write better articles. He says, "It's a question of...see, I have to make a living."

Low pay for freelance work is one of the magazine's shortcomings, according to contributor James MacKinnon, who is also managing editor at Adbusters. He knew This was the only publication that would print his "I Am Anti-Canadian" essay, but he got just $150 for the piece, which later earned him an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards. He spent countless hours reviewing about 15 books, interviewing sources, and writing more than 2,500 words-and then had to pay his own entry fee to the awards. "Now I don't even ask about the rate because it's essentially insignificant," says MacKinnon. The first time he wrote for This, Subramanian's tone was apologetic about how much he would receive. After that, it was understood. "I never felt like anybody was misleading me and I've never done any work for them unwillingly," he says. "But what those kinds of rates represent is a significant problem for This magazine. It's an indicator that they aren't taking that side of the business seriously enough."

But associate publisher Joyce Byrne says the magazine is serious about the business side. "We've eradicated our historical debt and are now running like a well-oiled machine," she says. Although every dollar that Byrne is responsible for is well spent, everyone involved with the magazine must accept the low rates-Byrne and Crysler included. Grants and donations help, but the shortage of funds comes from the lack of advertising and a relatively low subscriber base. Each issue contains roughly 15 percent ads, compared to at least 40 percent in mainstream magazines. Subscriptions are also a concern of Byrne's, as she believes This hasn't expanded its readership to its full potential yet.

In the magazine's office, several subscription cards are stuck to a wall. Five of the cards have been filled out with "Legaliza Dopa Nowa! Doa it!," and several others are obviously bogus as well. Byrne suggests with a laugh that it might be culture jamming. She may laugh about it, but targeting younger readers may be difficult for the magazine. "It's very frustrating marketing the magazine," says Judith Parker, Byrne's predecessor. "You're marketing anti-marketing stuff to people who don't want to be marketed to."

The new generation of readers is a tough audience, even for a magazine that prides itself on being able to stay relevant to the left. According to This, the right wing is on drugs, work sucks, and culture is for sale. The magazine blasts and condemns a lot of what is important to the establishment-the government, the police, the World Bank, Nike. On trade, for example, This has consistently stayed ahead of left-wing thought. Mel Watkins first mentioned the perils of free trade in a 1979 column-almost a decade before politicians fought an election over the issue. In April 1986, Watkins returned with a cover story called "Ten Good Reasons to Oppose Free Trade." The issue was definitely the magazine's hot topic during the late '80s, making the cover several times. While Watkins and Salutin kept writing about North American free trade, This began covering globalization in 1994, long before it became a fashionable subject. Trade coverage in This has also included pieces on how Canada sold arms to Third World countries and continued to maintain good trade relations with Indonesia, despite that country's oppression of East Timor.

In its efforts to raise issues left untouched or forgotten by others, as well as provoke and challenge its audience, This has given much broader meaning to the words "left wing." When unions disapproved of the magazine's coverage of technology in the mid-'90s, This tried to show what good technology could bring to the workplace. "Funny Money" by Bret Dawson, for example, questioned whether digital money would start an underground economy, and "Keeping Score" by Andrew Struthers and Simon Archer discussed how technology changed the job market. In the '70s, This had a revolutionary image; some covers even bore a resemblance to movement posters. The September/October 1981 cover recently won an award in the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association's Great Newsstand Contest, now part of a travelling exhibition called "On the Cover: A Nation as Seen Through Its Magazine Covers." It featured a man with a black bag over his head, holding a folder with a protruding issue of This Magazine. The coverline, promoting Ian Adams' national security column, read: "Introducing the Igor Gouzenko Look-alike Contest."

Although a small magazine with limited resources, This has managed to break stories for mainstream media. Thompson recalls, "This would publish features, and the CBC would call writers and get them on for interviews, and we'd have TV pieces done on stuff." Thompson himself appeared on TVO and CBC for pieces he wrote about the Internet and its relation to the right wing. But while the magazine can be successful in bringing important issues to the mainstream, it isn't always well read in mainstream media circles. John Fraser, until recently the media columnist for the National Post, says it's been a long time since he's looked at This seriously. Edward Greenspon, political editor of the Globe, says he hasn't looked at it enough to comment. David Beers, a longtime subscriber, appreciative reader, and former editor of Mother Jones, who only discovered This when he moved to Canada from the U.S. in 1991, says that it wasn't influential in The Vancouver Sun newsroom when he was there. He doesn't think the media looks to it because of the magazine's overall style. "It obeys a completely different rhythm. A little magazine filled with creative non-fiction writers coming out once every two months is not news," explains Beers. "They're not making news, they're conversing about general ideas usually."

To some extent This preaches to the converted, but it gets its message across. Beers says that unlike American counterparts such as The Nation and Mother Jones, This doesn't try to be what it's not. "It didn't make the mistake of being a boring bulletin board for activist events and causes," he says. "You could tell that there were living, breathing people there." Although the look of the magazine is "text-driven and not pretty," Beers explains that This is "truth in advertising. It's got a two-colour cover, small format, and doesn't have many ads, so you can understand that right away they're not trying to be commercial." Mother Jones, on the other hand, "makes the mistake of trying to look all glossy, like it's trying to muscle Vanity Fair aside on the newsstand."

Because it will never sell out its content, This may forever be forced to grapple with financial uncertainty. "The economics of it never did work," says Farr, "and perhaps never will unless one of us wins the lottery and decides to form a rich, philanthropic, charitable organization where we'd put a lot of money into the magazine." Until then, Crysler may have to keep dancing for writers-but that's about all she'll dance for. "What's the fun of having a small magazine if you can't push the envelope?" she asks.

Against long odds, This has been in business for 35 years. The frequent turnover of staff, the bargain basement rates, and the constant worries over budgeting would be enough to sink most magazines. But This seems to hold an ace card: its reputation for publishing strong features with a left-wing sensibility has exacted a certain loyalty from various contributors over the years. And though it doesn't appear that these dedicated scribes will be enjoying a rate increase any time soon, it is also the case that they don't mind being exploited for a good cause. After all, as the magazine's tagline says, everything is political.

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