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So What Do You Do, Ken Alexander?

The Walrus is Canada's homegrown, much-hyped new alternative to The New Yorker, and its publisher is the man behind its creation.

- April 13, 2004

Launching a new publication is always a risky proposition, and the odds are even tougher when you set out to create a monthly magazine on an intellectual par with The New Yorker. And—oh yeah—when it's supposed to be a Canadian New Yorker. But that's just what The Walrus, the smart monthly launched from Toronto last September, is trying to do. With international correspondents filing from around the globe and a stable of established journalists on the masthead, the mag has taken off with a bang, featuring lengthy, distinctly Canadian-flavored articles on all kinds of topics. Reviews for the first issue, back in the fall, were appreciative. "While The Walrus sometimes stumbles," a critic wrote in Canada's National Post, "its mistakes don't begin to offset the pleasures it offers." Other Canadians clearly feel likewise: As the next issue works its way to newsstands in mid-May—plans are to take the mag monthly, it's been bimonthly thus far—Ken Alexander, the magazine's publisher, reports that paid circulation has already reached 50,000, far beyond pre-launch projections. Alexander founded the magazine along with editor-in-chief David Berlin (who has since stepped down for health reasons), and he spoke to mediabistro.com recently, discussing where the magazine came from, why Canadians need it, and how it got its interesting name.

So where did the idea for The Walrus start?
A number of years ago I was doing a current-affairs TV show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and I was talking to Dalton Camp, who's a columnist here. Our conversation turned toward investigative journalism, and I asked him why it was that, in terms of investigative journalism, print in Canada seems to be lagging behind both television and radio. And so we started rattling off names of people who can do print investigative stuff, and I started talking to different writers as a result. But I was getting a lot of, "Sure, if you can do it." The difficulty seemed to be—from the perspective of many in the industry—"Nice idea, but not in Canada," for various reasons. The population is strung out across a long border, the market is taken up by American periodicals. But we persevered and put together a really great team, and there we are.

You see your competition, obviously, as American magazines like Harper's and The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. Did that kind of magazine—smart, friendly to long journalism—not exist before in Canada?
I think we're definitely in that family of magazines. In Canada, the mandate—and it's not a bad mandate—is often to reflect Canada back to Canadians. That seems to be what the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation does, for instance, and it is the mandate of a lot of periodicals here—to define the country and get into questions of national identity and that sort of thing.

I think that that's fine, but it's a bit parochial in the world of today. We really have to be outward-looking and think of ourselves as a nation among many, to thrust ourself out into the world and to bring the world into our borders as well. You'll notice, for instance, that not all of the contributors are Canadian. A good number of them are, but a good number of them aren't, and that's fine because the magazine has an international mandate. We will certainly cover Canadian content, but we will cover other content as well.

What have been some of the most difficult parts of starting the magazine?
It's like an octopus. It really is. You're working around the clock, all the time, just establishing credibility. We did something quite unheard of for a long time in Canadian magazine publishing by coming up with a 12,000-word piece in the inaugural issue—the piece by Marci McDonald—and just getting known and building up your subscriber base takes time and effort. But we're way ahead of projections so I'm very pleased with that.

You don't know anything until subscription renewals start hitting, so it's best to be really cautious. But I'm thrilled with the amount of support that we're getting. The magazine is a nonprofit, no-share capital corporation anyway, so, in the event that we make money, it just gets plugged back in. It's too early to tell what's going to happen, but I do know that we're going to be around for a long time.

I'll admit I was surprised in reading the first few issues at how may of your correspondents are in different parts of the globe. How did you connect with them?
We definitely have editors with good Rolodexes. We know a lot of people, but we also ask for submissions from all over the place, and part of the idea there is to cover important things, sometimes quirky, that are generally falling under the radar, or that require further amplification.

Does the magazine have a particular political slant?
No. I suppose some would say we're pretty "progressive," but it's really about depth and good writing.

What did you do before starting The Walrus?
I spent a couple of years doing current-affairs TV, but really I was a book guy. I wrote a book, and I used to be a teacher. It was my belief that Canada absolutely needed a vehicle like this, and that's why I really pursued with everything I had.

What's with the name The Walrus?
A lot of late night drinking. No, coming up with a name was a actually a pretty vexing problem. We had a guy, a real magazine historian, Fraser Sutherland, come up with a thousand names for us and all sorts of obscure names way up north and east and elsewhere, and none of them stuck. The thing is, the walrus is a very interesting animal, different on land than he or she is under water, a bit of an unmovable beast, not easily pushed around. It has more to do with that than, "The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things," though it has those literary overtones obviously. Also, "I am the Walrus."

We think that it's just a quintessentially Canadian animal, a lot more interesting than the over-industrious beaver which is really a bit of a rodent, knocking down good trees and damning up perfectly good waterways.

I think there's probably already a magazine called The Beaver—which probably isn't about international politics.
There is. The other thing, as a name, The Walrus really started to stick with people and resonate with people, if not on first blush then certainly on second blush. Many people came back to us and said, "The Walrus is really good; you should go with it." Not that we did any focus groups or anything. Ian Brown, one of our better writers, said he loved it because "it could never have come from a focus group."

Obviously your main audience is Canadian, but do you have larger ambitions, internationally?
Absolutely. We are distributing in the States in a limited way, and we have subscribers from all over the world. I think a Canadian sensibility or point of view has a lot to offer the world, so we should be out there. We shouldn't be shrinking violets and servile. We should be out there without question.

A lot of people stateside have the impression Canada defines itself against the United States. As an explicitly Canadian magazine, how do you have to deal with that?
I think that that is much less true now than it may have been in periods of our past. It's sometimes hard to come out from under the shadow of the United States. Sharing this long and once-undefended-but-now-more-defended border with the U.S., of course we're tied at the hip, and I think that the antagonism is really overplayed in the press.

I think there is a separate and quite distinct Canadian way of looking at the world and understanding the world and I think you're going to see more and more evidence of it. One of the things that we don't do well, in my view, is support our own. We tend to believe that our talent has to get this sort of nod of approval elsewhere before we sign on, and that has a lot to do with confidence and a herd mentality and not really knowing who you are and what you believe. But I think that is dwindling away as well.

David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and editor and the news editor of mediabistro.com.



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