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The battle of the Standard

The Western Standard, R.I.P.

I suppose it behooves me to comment on the demise of the Western Standard, the plucky little Calgary-based magazine that has been a second home for my writing over the last couple of years. The Standard was founded in the spring of 2004 in the hopes of replacing the defunct Alberta Report as the independent voice of Western conservatism. Publisher and impresario Ezra Levant obtained AR’s legacy subscriber data, put together an ambitious business plan, worked with talented designers to create a classy, distinctive look for the magazine, obtained the services of Mark Steyn and other top columnists, and set out confidently toward profitability. Unfortunately, despite some impressive advertiser support, he never got there. I have always been pretty far out of the loop on financials, and over the past year I have been hearing less and less from Ezra personally—it was an early and obvious sign of trouble when he stopped phoning all the time to share the latest good news—so I don’t know exactly what went wrong. According to the rumour mill, the major cause of death was investor fatigue and a subsequent shortage of white knights. There were other problems; the magazine lost two editors-in-chief within six months at one point, although you would have had to look hard to perceive any precipitious decline in quality resulting from that alone. It’s possible everybody just realized more or less simultaneously that print is a bad business to be in right now. The Shotgun weblog may end up being a going concern long after the death of the Standard itself.

It has to be admitted that the shutdown was poorly handled from the standpoint of the editorial employees and contributors. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I got the news the same way the public did, from Ezra’s announcement on the Shotgun. I was mere hours away from leaving town for Thanksgiving, and those who depended more heavily on the Standard for their income must have been in the same rather awkward situation. (Cook a bigger turkey, Grandma, I’m out of work!) After the summer break the magazine started experiencing delays with each new issue; these were attributed to vague logistical problems at Quebecor, though anyone with experience of the invariably dreadful relationship between a small publication and its printer could read the writing on the wall. Paycheques were delayed, too, but at the moment I personally am in arrears for only one issue, and if I never see the final payment that makes me even-steven with the magazine (no one has officially told me it is not in the mail), I will still have been treated more fairly than I was by my longtime employers at Alberta Report, who owed me thousands of dollars in back pay and statutory severance and failed to follow up on repeated verbal promises to send at least some meagre crust. (I’m grateful that the Standard did not attempt some preposterous strategy like converting the magazine to a non-profit while everyone was still employed and then claiming that the old obligations of the for-profit company had been mystically liquidated by the changeover. Such are the disgraceful hazards of life in small-market journalism.) There is also the matter of the 2008 Western Standard Cruise, which Ezra “postponed” a few months ago on the pretext that the original date was likely to coincide with the birth of his first child. I hope it doesn’t sound ungrateful if I note that some new official statement on this matter would probably be welcome; it struck me at the time that the ship could have sailed easily enough without Ezra being aboard, though if you know Ezra, you know it would have broken his heart to miss out on another chance to play “skipper.” It now seems more likely that the real reason for the postponement was that the magazine itself was headed for a fatal shoal.

It is worth noting that the WS Cruise, which was widely derided in its first incarnation (and thoroughly enjoyed by those of us who were actually on it), is now being imitated by no less than the Globe and Mail, though the Globe has had the good sense to realize that it cannot advertise a roster of celebrity guests owing to its cultivated lack of personality. One hopes that Ezra, his founding editor Kevin Libin, and the other creators of the Standard will get credit for innovation as others follow up on this marketing idea. (I expect the first Maclean’s cruise to set sail no later than 2010.) Perhaps some will remember the personal courage that Ezra, Kevin, and others displayed in printing the controversial Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons when no one else in Canada had the guts. Others may recall that the magazine paid real dollar costs for its independence and refusal to cater to political correctness; while other publications quietly pay abusers of human rights law to disappear, and live in fear of legal and economic terrorism from certain interest groups, the Standard always chose, perhaps suicidally, to fight for free speech out in the open.

And still others may regret that no one else will step in quickly to replace some of the Standard’s greatest strengths as a news publication. It kept Mark Steyn in front of a Canadian audience (more as a favour to the latter than the former) after he left the National Post. It gave the vastly underrated Ric Dolphin a platform after he was dropped in a remarkable display of cowardice by the Calgary Herald. It showcased the tireless West Coast reporting of Terry O’Neill and the dynamic descriptive prose of Kevin Steel. It gave valuable amplification to radical libertarian voices like mine and Karen Selick’s, thus taking seriously a philosophy that is still given less weight in the mainstream media than it has in the real world amongst younger generations cheated by confiscatory taxes, government monopolies, and Ponzi-scheme public pensions. It took agriculture seriously as a business in the era of mad-cow disease, and it did serious reporting on aboriginal issues of a species that is simply impossible if you have never lived in the West. It chronicled the strange, almost surreal pressures that the energy boom is imposing on communities from Fort St. John to Prince Albert.

In Jon Kay’s otherwise dead-on and superbly informed tribute to the deceased magazine, he says that the Standard provided an “awkward mix” of “regional news stories” and polemical content. Well, Jon and I both work awfully hard to make sure that the National Post deserves its adjective, and he is conscientious about it, and after all, we do ultimately answer to Winnipeg. But all the same, if someone wants to write for our Post comment pages about the stupidity of Toronto’s city government or the plight of the Oakville auto worker, hardly anyone at our editorial meetings will complain that it is “regional” content. The Western Standard was one more small step toward a Canada in which the parts of the map west of the Sault are no longer branded Terra Incognita. Then again, maybe it’s truly no longer necessary for the West to have its own independent (segregated?) media; maybe it doesn’t even help. We do, after all, live in a world where the oilpatch was left alone for years by a Liberal federal government only to be bushwhacked by Alberta’s own Conservatives. (Ten years ago, would you have believed such a sequence of events possible?)

A few of you have written to offer personal condolences over the death of the Standard. They are appreciated, but unnecessary. As a reader, I mourn, but as a worker, I am past having to rely on the extra income. Indeed, I was really ready for a break from the pressure of having to produce so many different kinds of column material; for the past year or so I’ve been working from a multi-tiered spreadsheet of pitch ideas whose intricacies and colour codes are almost too complicated for me to understand. It will be nice to be able to concentrate a little harder on my key responsibilities at the Post, to have more time to think and absorb news in between deadlines, and who knows?—maybe even blog a little more.


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Comments (2)

I was shocked when I heard the news about WS -- and not just because I am a current subscriber (Ezra can keep the balance of my subscription money; he's earned it).

But its demise doesn't bode well for the media, in particular that segment that's not afraid to speak the truth and even be politically incorrect.

I have suggested that the WS should be turned into a monthly magazine and distributed as a supplement inside, say, The National Post. This would boost circulation and get Ezra the necessary advertising revenue to stay in business.

But all the same, if someone wants to write for our Post comment pages about the stupidity of Toronto’s city government or the plight of the Oakville auto worker, hardly anyone at our editorial meetings will complain that it is “regional” content.

And then look at which story was not only front page news yesterday at the Globe & Mail, but led news.google.ca's "Canadian Top Stories" for most of the afternoon:

Toronto library branches to reopen on Sundays

Regional news? What are you talking about?


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