Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ken Alexander resigns as editor
of The Walrus

[THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED]It was announced today that one of the founders of The Walrus, its editor for most of its almost five years of existence and the controller of a major source of its funding, Ken Alexander, has resigned, effective with the September issue (which is put to bed by July 4).

Sources familiar with the magazine say that Alexander submitted his resignation to the board of the Walrus Foundation last week, some time before the National Magazine Awards gala, and it was accepted. The board, which is chaired by pollster Allan Gregg, had instructed publisher Shelley Ambrose to make sweeping cuts in the magazine's budget ($1 million is mentioned) and that Alexander was not willing to comply. (Similar intervention by the board has been tried before but came to nothing.)
[UPDATE]: In an interview with Masthead (which seems to be conducting reality checks on this blog), Alexander denied budget cuts had anything to do with his resignation: "" I’m only the editor—I’m an employee. So what budget we have is not part of my purview. I don’t set budgets." And publisher Ambrose denied that the board had instructed her to make drastic budget cuts: "“The board has made no demands… We are budgeting constantly. This year we have a 12.5% increase in paper, a 20% increase in rent and a 10% increase in shipping because of oil and gas prices. All of those things mean I have to budget constantly. We’re constantly finding ways to do it as cheaply as we can, maintain the quality [of the magazine] and raise more money.”
Open to question now is what will happen to funding from the Chawkers Foundation, Alexander's family trust that had guaranteed $1 million a year to bridge the difference between what the magazine could earn from circulation and advertising and what it cost to publish. That guaranteed $5 million over five years is coming to an end as of November and the magazine is awaiting word on the fate of a $400,000 installment that was expected, but not yet received. Ken Alexander is the main point of contact between Chawkers and the Walrus Foundation.

The magazine has been involved in serious, cross-country fundraising events (*see item below) ever since Shelley Ambrose, executive director of the non-profit Walrus Foundation and publisher of the magazine came aboard. It's not known what the net results are of that fundraising, but it is certain that it comes nowhere near providing enough to replace the Chawkers money.

Alexander was becoming more and more of a liability with his erratic behaviour, his abuse of staff, his reputation for heavy drinking and the inability to keep highly qualified people in his orbit. (Certainly there were people who were surprised at the wickedly cutting joke that host Adam Sterbergh made at the National Magazine Awards gala last Friday about Alexander's drinking and weird ways with staff.)

Alexander has ruled single-handedly and erratically at the magazine almost from the first. Quite recently, the former managing editor Jeremy Keehn, who had stepped down in March to become senior editor, threatened to resign after a typical run-in with Alexander. Previously, both senior editors, Marni Jackson and Nora Underwood had taken leaves, ostensibly to work on book projects.
  • Co-founding editor David Berlin left after the first four issues, it was said because of health problems, but had progressively disagreed with Alexander about the magazine's direction .
  • The next editor Paul Wilson, lasted only two issues and left after fundamental disagreements with Alexander.
  • Alexander then stepped in as editor, relinquishing his role as publisher; but there was no question who got to make the final decisions. The magazine has had more ruction and turnover in its ranks than most publications of its size.
  • The first publisher and chair of the Walrus Foundation, Bernard Schiff, and many of the board members, resigned September 2006. This was shortly after deputy editor Tom Fennell quit.
  • A key funder, the Metcalfe Foundation, pulled its support, effectively ending what had been one of the highest-paying internship programs in Canadian magazines.
  • There have been frequent and growing complaints from freelancers about the magazine's contract and that it was glacially slow or late in paying; a far cry from its early clarion call that it would pay at the top of the market and treat writers with respect.
If you're interested in the background (or have forgotten it), we would recommend an excellent investigative story done for the Ryerson Review of Journalism by Lauren McKeon and published in the summer of 2007.

Meanwhile, the board of the Walrus Foundation has struck a search committee to seek a new editor.

In a statement that probably can cut both ways, Ambrose said in the press release: "The mandate of the Walrus Foundation is to extend public discourse on matters vital to Canadians. As editor, Ken succeeded in doing exactly that — and more. He will be an extremely hard act to follow."
*[UPDATE] One way for people to help The Walrus is to support the Walrus Foundation, says Shelley Ambrose, the publisher. And one of the ways of doing that is to support the "Dark City" fundraiser, (part of the Luminato festival) sponsored by The Walrus at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre on Thursday (June 12). 7 p.m. reception, 8 p.m. curtain. The show is hosted by Nicholas Campbell, with music by Molly Johnson and readings ("noir sketches") by Austin Clarke, Heather O'Neill and Greg Hollingshead. Tickets, available through Ticketmaster (discount code WALSUB) or at the door and are $150 for non-subscribers, $125 for subscribers. further information can be found at walrusmagazine.com/luminato.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So...what was the joke?

11:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Ken drinks. Horror of horrors! And, lordy, he apparently isn't a saint? Who is? And he fired people or they left. I'm shocked, just shocked. Forget this drivel and give the man his due and a nod. Ken is a fine editor who put a lot of money where his mouth is. It's easy, particularly in Canada, for people to bemoan the state of the country's magazine industry. But Alexander didn't moan. He did something about it, not just through words and deeds but with a hell of a lot of his money: nearly $3 million to be precise. How many other members of this country's petty, parochial intellgentsia would be willing to cough up that kind of cash for writers and a magazine? Well, to date, the answer is simple and instructive: one. And that person's name is Ken Alexander. So, before any of you anonymous cowards cast stones his way, give it a try and see how you fare. To my way of thinking he did a great job. But, of course, I'm biased. I'm one of his contributing editors. And yes, I had to wait for my dough sometimes but Ken always gave me his word that I would get paid. He always kept his word. As far as I'm concerned, Ken Alexander is a man of his word who produced a fine magazine. And finally, if he did quit because he balked at slashing $1 million that his board demanded, then that just confirms all that I've written.

Andrew Mitrovica

12:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

millions of dollars+trust funds+
raging editors/publishers

seems to me the Walrus has washed up on one helluva an ugly beach

it seems to me the Walrus has won a lot of awards...too bad they don't make awards for mags that have:

the happiest staff

are the quickest to pay freelancers

the least number of meglomaniacs in management positions

good luck with that "bridge strategy"

8:20 am  
Blogger D. B. Scott said...

Andrew Mitrovica makes a point that others will make, that Ken Alexander's behaviour and habits are a sideshow and that what should be emphasized is his generosity and vision. Fair enough. He is a rare individual who did put his money where his mouth was. I think he will get credit for all the good he has done and the risks he took. What supporters of The Walrus have to do now is to see that the magazine outlasts his mercurial reign.

A great many people, besides Ken, put a great deal into the magazine and have had huge hopes for it. I count myself among them. How people were treated and how the enterprise was managed are not as easily dismissed as Mitrovica does.

The financial pickle the magazine is in now, with the board needing to cut $1 million is a direct result of decisions going back to the beginning, decisions that rest almost entirely with Ken Alexander. The previous board tried to bring in a more realistic plan to sustain the magazine two years ago, but he rejected it. As a result, things are much more difficult now and the remedy is likely to be much more painful.

Alexander's departure opens up possibilities, however, that the magazine in which so much hope has been invested can survive. A great deal of credit for whatever equilibrium it has today should go to publisher Shelley Ambrose. The current board has a huge and difficult job replacing the editor and giving him or her something with which to work.

What remains to be seen is whether the magazine community will step up and try to help save the magazine. And whether there is someone out there who has the skills, vision and courage -- and, yes, people skills -- to become the editor.

9:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spending money is easy. Making a business of it is quite a bit harder.

As commendable as The Walrus is for its quality content it must find a way to succeed as a business to be a legitimate addition to the Canadian magazine landscape.

Alexander should have been the first to want to trim the budget in order to keep The Walrus around. I'd rather have a refined Walrus that's a viable business than none at all. I'm sure many of the people that depend on it for their living would agree.

1:10 pm  
Blogger Paul Wells said...

Other members of this country's petty, parochial intelligentsia who coughed up that kind of cash for writers and a magazine: Norman Webster, for Saturday Night, in 1979; Conrad Black, for Saturday Night, in 1987. I'm quite sure there have been others. But Andrew Mitrovica makes two excellent points: that we should all thank Ken Alexander for working so hard on such an ambitious enterprise, and that it will always be remarkable how many anonymous carpers there will be.

2:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

since when is an editor in chief not responsible for budget?

8:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See Don Gillmor on Ken's resignation: http://www.walrusmagazine.com/blogs/2008/06/11/re-the-resignation-of-ken-alexander/

9:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of which, I wonder if Don Gillmor is in the running to replace Ken. I think that'd make a wonderful Walrus.

11:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...To Paul's list, I'd add Norman Webster's son Derek, who produces Maisonneuve out of Montreal.

11:18 am  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home