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The Ken Whyte Effect
He's the most powerful man in Canadian magazines. The numbers, however, tell a different story.

What’s the Ken Whyte effect? There must be one. How else to explain the 51-year-old journalist’s bullet to the top of every publication he works for, and his recent vertiginous ascent up through the echelons of Rogers management, putting him in charge of most of their consumer magazines? Whatever it is, it’s clearly not higher circulation. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which tracks such things, Maclean‘s numbers have dropped 16 per cent since Whyte took over as editor-in-chief and publisher. That’s less a drop than a plunge, and one that far outstrips even the troubled magazine industry’s norm. His work in Maclean‘s is obvious, but he was, according to insiders (no one wanted to be quoted for this column, whether they still worked for Whyte or not, and most wouldn’t even speak off the record), a very hands-on publisher during the lead-up to the Chatelaine re-launch last year. He gave the magazine what one editor calls its new “architecture”: how many pages for features, how many for front-of-book, etc., For months, every page not only went to new editor-in-chief Jane Francisco, but to his desk as well for approval. He has immersed himself enough in the numbers and culture of Canada’s most iconic women’s magazine to have been able to take an early look at the March, 2010 cover, featuring up-and-coming Canadian actresses, and say, “It’s good, but it’ll never sell.” People on the cover don’t sell women’s magazines, apparently; food does. But in the year since he took over as publisher at Chatelaine, the magazine dipped below its main competitor, Canadian Living, for the first time ever, with a single year drop in circulation of 5 per cent, which translates into more than 26,000 unsold copies. But it’s not just a nasty case of the Peter Principle. Though he started the high-profile part of his career as a sort of a Whyte knight, a great right hope for a left-leaning media industry who rode in to hamburgify sacred cows and get everyone exercised and talking about his effrontery – remember his Absolut Mordecai sell-off of Barney’s Version in Saturday Night? – Whyte’s never done much to actually increase the number of copies sold. In 1993, the year before he took over at Saturday Night magazine, paid circulation was a little over 76,000. A year later, it was under 72,000, and though it blipped upwards, by the time he left, it was down to under 70,000, and continued to fall. Contrast these numbers with 1981, for example, at the height of editor Robert Fulford’s storied reign, when the paid circulation was more than 125,000. And although Whyte’s numbers at the National Post seem downright magisterial compared to today’s, an initial bump upwards of 13,000 in average paid circulation between 2000 and 2001 was followed by a drop of almost 70,000 the next year, another drop the year after that. In fact, paid circulation only started rising again after he left in 2003. And both with the Post and his previous gig at Saturday Night, he left his publications limping. Saturday Night, 107 years old when he took the reins, survived as a standalone magazine for only two years after he left. And the Post‘s been on the fringes of numerical relevance for years nows; the paper that was founded expressly to topple the Globe and Mail now sells an average of less than 150,000 copies a day, not even half its erstwhile opponent’s sales. But numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Foreign Policy‘s numbers don’t compare to Reader’s Digest, for instance, and The Paris Review and Granta, for instance, have always had influence and various forms of success that far outstrip the number of people who buy each issue. So is it influence, then? Though it’s possible that Conrad Black, Whyte’s employer at both Saturday Night and the Post, might have been satisfied with prestige and influence, with people talking about his publications more than reading them, it’s likely his new bosses and serial promoters at Rogers are interested in more traditional forms of success. But as Whyte’s numbers keep dropping, Rogers keeps promoting him. I wonder if Don Obe doesn’t have it right. Obe’s a former Maclean’s editor, former editor-in-chief of Toronto Life, and the founder of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. He thinks it’s simple: Ken Whyte’s a company man “with a brilliance for putting himself into positions of power.” You can ascribe that brand of brilliance to the most obvious of psychological or perhaps pseudo-psychological issues if you like, pointing out that Ken never went far in formal education, got started in journalism at a very young age, and has taken on a series of father figures, from Ted Byfield at the Christian conservative toss cloth called The Alberta Report, where he started his career, through to Conrad Black and Ted Rogers. As with many people in search of a father, he excels trying to win approval and prove he’s worthy of his father’s faith in him, and is especially good at ingratiating himself with new daddies as the need arises. You could even say that he’s gone most seriously awry since that last daddy died two years after bringing him on at Rogers, where Whyte is now attempting to make the difficult transition from son to father. But you don’t have to. And Obe doesn’t. He just figures that Whyte’s a corporate wheeler and dealer, and as such, represents a turning point in Canadian journalism. “This is only a theory,” he says, “but it’s based on a hell of a lot of experience.” Obe remembers a time, including what he considers the two golden ages of Canadian journalism, in the 1950’s and the 1970’s, when editors-in-chief were not considered management, but part of the same team as the writers and other editors, who all hung out together at the appropriately named Caf des Copains on Front Street across from the Toronto Life offices. Whyte, with his well-known downward reticence – “He’s not real feedback-y,” in the words of one current senior-level employee – is perhaps a man for our times, someone who realizes that in these days of constricted circulations and a culture that isn’t even sure print has a future, print publications exist at the pleasure of their owners, who often keep them going in spite of their losing money, whether as very expensive broaches they can wear to parties, or as anchors to less glamorous but more practical business. In this world, what daddy wants, daddy gets. He has his fans, people who, like Rebecca Eckler, read that lack of feedback as a positive thing. “I never really knew if he liked a story I wrote or not,” she says in an email from the middle of a tour for her most recent book, How to Raise a Boyfriend. “I never got a pat on the back. Which, actually, taught me a good lesson. Which is if you believe the good, then you have to believe the bad. And, also, again, it made me work harder than I think I would have with any other boss. I always felt like I was coming home with a report card with an ‘A’ and he was wondering why I didn’t get an ‘A plus.’ Of course, that’s me projecting, but you get the point.” Eckler, who’s got some openly acknowledged daddy issues of her own with Whyte, sees his as “probably the smartest person you’ll ever meet,” “charming,” and, with his record for giving more column inches than anyone else would to talented but often offbeat people like herself – Paul Wells, Mitchel Raphael, Andrew Potter – like “the Simon Cowell of the print world.” And he was, when he used to write, damn good at it, once describing in one of his Saturday Night letters-from-the-editor, for instance, a lawyer who lost an important case as having been “impaled on his own spine.” He may be quite smart, but those smarts these days seem more aimed upwards to his bosses than outwards to his readers. Maybe he does see the future of Canadian journalism in a way no one else does, and is working quietly towards a model the rest of us can’t yet envision. Whatever the subtleties of that model might be, the broad strokes of it obviously include what are sometimes referred to in the corporate world as efficiencies. Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Canadian Business, Profit and MoneySense all once had their own, separate publishers. Now they have one, drawing one salary. And Whyte’s not the only one pulling double-, triple or quadruple duty. Jason Logan is cover designer for Maclean’s and Canadian Business; Una Janicijevic art directs Canadian Business, MoneySense and Profit, etc. So, instead of beating back the waves and finding ways to increase readership, which might have been the sign of success in a position like his in previous eras, he seems to be taking the losses as inevitable, and focusing his talents on making his publications cost as little money as possible as they hobble off into some as yet undetermined webological sunset. Looking back over his career thus far, it seems like its best summation might come from Whyte himself, who though he decided not to talk to the Standard for this story, did recently write about another young, talented, ambitious journalist, whom he obviously admired and may even have modeled his career on. If you leave out the word “owner,” and maybe add “shareholders” to “advertisers,” this might be just about right. “The aggressive, crusading, politically charged, self-promoting, polarizing, audience-building antics of the old warrior owner-editors,” he writes in his 2008 biography, Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, ultimately “gave way to the relatively bland consensual habits of the business manager who wanted only as many readers as would keep his advertisers happy.”  

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