Digital future for venerable magazine
The venerable Maclean’s magazine moves into the digital era.
In September, Maclean’s announced it would cease publishing the print edition of its weekly newsmagazine early in 2017. Only an online edition and a monthly print edition now survive.
Could this be the end of the century-long story of “Canada’s magazine?”
John Bayne Maclean, a southern Ontario preacher’s kid, got into journalism in Toronto in the 1880s. Canadian industries and commerce were booming, and Maclean launched his publishing empire with Canadian Grocer. In 1905 he began the businessman’s magazine that became Maclean’s. He dropped the capital L from the magazine’s name and also from his own.
Aside from publishing, Maclean’s great love was the Canadian militia. As Colonel Maclean, a lifelong weekend soldier, he was often photographed in lavish military uniforms. Yet in February 1918, in the darkest days of the First World War, he wrote a Maclean’s story with a shocking headline: “Why We are Losing the War.” His blunt opinion must have come like a punch in the stomach to tens of thousands of grieving Canadians yearning for eventual victory.
The Canadian government quickly issued an order-in-council forbidding any “adverse or unfavourable statement, report, or opinion, concerning the action of Canada … in prosecuting the war.” But Maclean was hardly deterred. He had been a proud imperialist, dedicated to Crown and Empire. Now he concluded that Britain’s mismanagement of the war meant Canada was “more likely to drift into independence after the war than into closer relations with the Mother Country.”
Maclean and his magazine were like that: feisty and opinionated but growing steadily more attuned to the Canadian readers and consumers who supported Maclean’s as a general-interest magazine. Maclean was a Conservative, but he turned against Prime Minister R.B. Bennett as the Depression took hold. With the 1935 federal election looming, his sales staff decided to sell the Liberal Party on a lavish ad in Maclean’s. Party HQ was doubtful. To convince them, the ad men mocked up an ad with the slogan “It’s King or Chaos!”
The Liberals bought the ad — and adopted the slogan, too. William Lyon Mackenzie King swept back into power, and Maclean donated the price of the ad back to the party coffers.
Maclean died in 1950. Led by editors Arthur Irwin and Ralph Allen, both passionately committed to telling Canadian stories to Canadian readers, Maclean’s continued to thrive. It became home to talented artists, photographers, cartoonists, and such writers as Pierre Berton, June Callwood, Clyde Gilmour, Christina McCall, Peter Newman, and W.O. Mitchell.
In the 1970s, as the day of the generalinterest magazine faded, Newman, by then Maclean’s editor, launched the long fight to create Canada’s first weekly newsmagazine, despite the power of foreign rivals led by the “Canadian” edition of Time. Finally, in 1978, the now-familiar weekly edition of Maclean’s the newsmagazine debuted.
Time’s Canadian edition ceased publication in 2008, beaten less by Maclean’s than by the digital transformation that was challenging all the old giants of print media. Now Maclean’s itself is embracing digital. Will its bet on remaining “Canada’s magazine” in digital form pay off? Old magazine hands gloomily joke that digital subscriptions are like gym memberships. Everybody has one — but nobody goes.
But perhaps old media are going to solve the puzzles of the digital universe, and Maclean’s, since 1994 a branch of Rogers Communications, will find new success in its new form. No doubt Colonel Maclean would be there in the thick of the fight.
Maclean’s, founded in 1905, is increasingly focused on digital publishing.