The Nation’s Business

Magazines define the country

Peter C. Newman May 24 1999
The Nation’s Business

Magazines define the country

Peter C. Newman May 24 1999

Magazines define the country

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

At a time when the future of Canadian magazines still seems up in the air, with Heritage Minister Sheila Copps having difficulty persuading Washington that it’s a defining issue for this country, I want to take a moment to write about Maclean's. Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves what magazines in general and this one in particular mean to the nation at large.

What has changed most of all during the four decades I’ve been involved with Macleans is how Canadians have perceived their homeland. We have gained the self-confidence of moving into the 21st century as citizens of one of the world’s more sophisticated and industrially mature countries, the best place to live in the universe, according to the UN surveys.

As Canada’s self-anointed Weekly Newsmagazine, Macleans has played a not inconsiderable part in the process of refining the country’s image of itself. From its precarious birth as a business digest with 5,000 subscribers in 1905, to its current incarnation as a newsweekly with a readership of two million, it has documented Canadas never-ending struggle for nationhood. These pages have carefully recorded the tumble of small incidents and large events that marked the country’s passage through a difficult, occasionally inspiring and always fascinating time. At its best, Macleans has been a mirror in which Canadians glimpsed each other and recognized themselves. It is a magazine woven into the dreams and memories of this country—providing a loose but valid definition of who we are and why we are here.

Magazines have always managed to stir up special excitement. Unlike newspapers, which are bound by their mandate to deal with immediate events, or books, in which writers address readers as an audience of one, magazines owe their genesis to a different ancestry: the lively debates of the Forum of Rome and the village fairs of medieval Europe. Keith Davey caught that truth when, as chairman of the 1969 Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, he concluded that “magazines add a journalistic dimension which no other media can provide—depth and wholeness and texture. . . . They could potentially be as important as railroads, airlines, national broadcasting networks and national hockey leagues.”

By stalking the unknown heroes and closet villains who populate these northern latitudes, by exploring that handful of metaphors that cut across private and regional interests, the magazine has created and sustained a family of readers united by common concerns and shared commitments. Macleans basic purpose has never changed: to chronicle and authenticate the Canadian experience. It hunts for talent beyond the editors’ own literary family compacts. Covering

all of the country has always been Macleans mission, trying to appeal to the majority of Canadians who live beyond the introspective boundaries ofToronto’s Humber and Don rivers.

Editing a magazine is a mad profession, depending as it does on a mixture of luck, timing, intuitions and difficult to prove assumptions. It’s easy enough to create a false sense of excitement by magnifying fleeting fads and glorifying the prophets of joy or disaster. The real trick is to echo and articulate the half-formed—but no less deeply felt—intuitions of a magazine’s readers, giving voice to the underlying themes and concerns of their lives.

Running Macleans is an experimental craft at best. Its editors must think nationally. As they electronically file their dispatches from the brawling outbacks, Macleans staff and contributors find themselves writing about a country of the mind—or just as often a country of the spirit.

I have been particularly impressed by the current crew in charge of the magazine. They understand their mandate and fulfil it with grace and authority. They are well aware that this country is caught between two incarnations—the old political and business dynasties seeking to perpetuate their power, and an exciting new order led by society’s outsiders. Canadian history has turned on the unresolved struggle between these two groups. As in the past, Macleans champions the new crowd, hungry for change.

Reading Macleans is a way of looking at the world. Its appeal is based on the slightly heretical notion that the magazine has had the time, space and talent to pull together for a national audience the essential weekly interpretations of a country and its many cultures in motion. A great magazine issue has an element of surprise—neither its readers nor its editors are quite sure in advance exactly what it will contain. The guiding principle is to capture the mood and significance of the week’s events rather than merely summarize their details.

Macleans has been political in the best sense, seldom taking partisan shots, but always offering a platform that helps set the national agenda. The magazine’s editorial stance has been politically neutral only in the sense that the magazine chooses no favourites. It has never been shy of defending the realm against French-Canadian separatists and English-Canadian continentalists, quitters all, echoing the mute shout: Listen, there are too many of us who care about this country. We won’t let Canada go!

That’s the only message that counts, and I subscribe to it as passionately now as I did 40-odd years ago, when I first climbed aboard this express train in print.