MEDIA WATCH

Telling tales on Saturday Night

George Bain July 27 1987
MEDIA WATCH

Telling tales on Saturday Night

George Bain July 27 1987

Telling tales on Saturday Night

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

Saturday Night, Canada’s oldest magazine, 100 years old this year, is a number of things. It is the country’s prime award-winner of recent years—probably ever, recognizing that annual festivals at which the media award themselves prizes remain a relatively new phenomenon. It is also the magazine that many more Canadians than buy it point to and say, “Now this is class journalism.” Then again, it is a magazine that bores some people—including, unfortunately, advertisers, as Robert Fulford, the recently resigned editor, ruefully acknowledges. “They didn’t like us,” he says. “[The magazine] didn’t impress them.” But what Saturday Night absolutely, positively, definitely is not—and never has been—is a barrel of laughs.

That is not likely to change under John Fraser, the new editor, although Fraser has a taste for entertaining gossip, with just a light dusting of malice, as reflected in his 1986 book, Telling Tales; he may find further room to exercise that in Saturday Night. Meanwhile, we are left to marvel at the fact that two old privateschool pillars of the Toronto community could have managed the transfer of so sober an institution as to produce a boffo performance. Pierre Berton equated it with the satiric work of Second City. The accomplishment was particularly remarkable in light of the fact that both parties are, in their different ways, media people, who supposedly know something about the dissemination of information: Norman Webster, the seller, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail; and Conrad Black, the buyer, financier, budding media tycoon and semipro journalist (as commentator in the Globe’s Report on Business Magazine, mainly on Conrad Black).

Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger, who almost single-handedly represents humor in Canadian daily journalism, found the performance so strange as to almost—Slinger is a generous soulcause him to lose faith in tycoons. But, for the insertion of the greatest number of needles with the least number of words, the palm must go to Berton, whose letter to the Star began in wonderment at the fact that the deal-makers had arrived at a price—$250,000— but seemed uncertain who was supposed to pay it to whom, and ended in greater wonderment that The Globe and Mail,

with the editor-in-chief as one party to the sale and a retained columnist as the other, turned first to Fulford to try to find out what was going on. Fulford suggested the inquiries be readdressed closer to home.

But the comedy does not end there. Webster, as point man for Dascon Investments Inc., a family company, had on offer the whole of what is called Saturday Night Group, including the magazine—which has been a chronic moneyloser—and Saturday Night Publishing Services, a publisher of other people’s magazines. The latter, if it doesn’t make money (different people say different things), doesn’t lose as much as the magazine. Black wanted the magazine but not the publishing services—which, in the circumstances, was akin to buying the front end of the cow, the part that eats, but passing up the other end, the part that may (or may not) give milk.

Black wanted the magazine not the publishing services—which is akin to buging the part of the cow that eats

Webster, for his part, was giving up the magazine, which has been a failure only at paying for itself—you can’t have everything—and having still on his hands the part he may have been most keen to be rid of.

Clients of Saturday Night Publishing Services, called simply Publishing Services since the sale, include The Globe and Mail. When the newspaper launched its Report on Business Magazine, Saturday Night Publishing got the contract for the physical production. The magazine is now published inhouse, but Publishing Services still does the art and editorial content for the Globe’s quarterly travel magazine, Destinations. Some other clients of Publishing Services are the CBC (Radio Guide), the Royal Bank (a quarterly called The Royal Bank Reporter), the Ontario ministry of natural resources (Landmarks) and the Ontario ministry of tourism and recreation, for various publications, all institutions on which Webster, as editor-in-chief of the Globe, may be called at any time to comment. It is evident in the Globe’s own magazines that Publishing Services does fine work, but the relationship is scarcely one the

newspaper, with its fierce interest in appearances of possible conflicts of interest, could not be expected to pass over without comment if duplicated in the political realm.

Also among the antic aspects of the affair is that even before the deal was sealed, Conrad Black (Upper Canada College, Car letón University, Laval, McGill) stole from Webster (Bishop’s College School, Bishop’s University, St. John’s College, Oxford), his European correspondent, John Fraser (Upper Canada College, Memorial University), to be his editor. The story came out not via Webster nor correspondent Fraser nor even semipro Black, but Richard Gwyn, London correspondent of The Toronto Star. Fraser has been the Globe’s London-based correspondent since June, 1984; he will almost certainly be succeeded by foreign editor John Gray.

Fraser, who will be taking over on Oct. 1, arrived at Upper Canada College at the same time as Black—they were great friends in the prep school—and he has told the story of their leaving the senior school at the same time under their separate black clouds, he with a seven in physics and Black over some celebrated hanky-panky involving examination papers. Fraser says that he is under no pressure to show an early profit—his hand, generally, is strengthened by a contract that delineates the roles of the editor and proprietor to his satisfaction—but he comes with some ideas, which he is not prepared to divulge yet. It is evident that he intends to try to do something about the magazine’s narrow geographical base; market studies he has been looking at show more than 65 per cent of its buyers are in southern Ontario, which he interprets as mainly Toronto. He wants to see it assert more strongly its claim to be a national magazine, while maintaining what he calls its natural boundaries of politics and the arts.

As a theatre of the arts itself, Saturday Night has staged its own dramas, especially in the 1970s, when its head kept sinking below the waves, to be dragged up again by Fulford, finding backers, getting loans, playing the businessman—a role in which, he says laughing, his brilliance has been rewarded by massive silence. Fraser has the good fortune to come in as theatre manager with secured financial backing and a national audience warmed to his coming by the previously unexploited talents for diversion of his old and new employers.