The New York Review of Magazines

The Walrus

By Tim Kiladze

Circulation: 52,000
Date of Birth: 2003
Frequency: 10 times a year
Price: $6.95 CAD

In a short online video that first surfaced last year, a number of Canadian cultural icons — including author Margaret Atwood and filmmaker Atom Egoyan — coalesce to promote The Walrus. Together they declare: “We need The Walrus because some events cannot be understood the day they happen, because often there’s more to a story than just a few hundred words.”

The Walrus is a smart, long-form Canadian general interest magazine published 10 times a year. It is part The New Yorker, part Atlantic, and 100 percent Canadian — a vision shared by its founders, television producer Ken Alexander and Literary Review of Canada owner David Berlin. Both men dreamed of producing a world-class magazine and they pitched this concept to financial backers, ultimately earning grants from Canadian foundations. With this money, they launched in September 2003.

Unlike Time and its Canadian counterpart, Maclean’s, The Walrus does not summarize current events; instead, it takes the long view. Its January 2010 cover story profiles former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, the unpopular Liberal Party leader whose party has lost two consecutive elections after 13 years in power. Author Ron Graham highlights Ignatieff’s own leadership problems, but he also analyzes the Liberal Party over 30 years, attributing its weakness to a succession of events. (This angle would be unusual in U.S. media, which pounces on President Obama for seemingly all of the Democrats’ problems.) Fleshing out this context required length, but Graham had ample room — 7,517 words — because The Walrus gives its writers space to breathe.

While The Walrus is unabashedly a magazine about Canada and its place in the world, Americans can relate to many of its stories; the January 2010 issue has a feature on freedom of information and October 2009 has a story on the future of Al Jazeera’s English-language news channel. Yet The Walrus offers something unique to this audience: Because most of its writers are Canadian, its stories are not written to fit an American paradigm, nor are they censored for fear of American backlash. The freedom of information piece explores a Canadian government cover-up of Afghan prisoner abuse, and the magazine does not dilute its vocabulary to omit the word “torture,” a common act in many mainstream American publications.

Aesthetically, The Walrus may look like The New Yorker at first glance, because its layout, font and illustrations are so similar, but the magazine is also rich with photography. A December 2009 story about walking Spain’s pilgrim trail includes two arresting across-the-spread images that cover four pages, a rarity in magazines that pride themselves on their prose. The Walrus also runs short fiction and poetry, because at its core, it is rooted in Canada’s literary and art world. This foundation initially cultivated a liberal following, but The Walrus today is not overly left wing — a categorization that consistently dogs The New Yorker — or anti-business. For instance, Ian Delaney, C.E.O. of the Canadian company Sherritt International, was profiled in a December 2009 feature as “Castro’s favourite capitalist.”

The public has responded well to this vision. Canadians appreciate that The Walrus promotes investigative reporting over ideology, and circulation remains strong near 52,000 (Canada’s population is slightly more than one-tenth that of the United States). Still, the magazine is struggling to make ends meet because its grants won’t last forever. It has supplanted some of the foundation money with charitable donations (it is part of the nonprofit Walrus Foundation), but its board does not hide the need for capital. To raise it, The Walrus has extended its reach into new areas, running fundraising events at which contributors read their stories aloud, and experimenting with “The Walrus Eats,” a fundraising dinner prepared by renowned Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy.

Canadians should hope The Walrus is propped up by donations long enough to develop a workable business model, because it would be a shame if it folds. The magazine is a reminder of the beauty of prose and the strength of long-form features, something Canadians should be proud to be known for. At the very least, it beats being remembered for beer drinking or beavers.

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