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The crusading Ryerson Review

Canada’s ultimate crash course in magazine journalism

BY SHELDON GORDON | SEP 08 2008

Carla Wintersgill is upset, but trying not to show it. A tall, poised young woman from Victoria, B.C., she sits impatiently in the conference room of the former building of the Anglican Archdiocese of Toronto, just east of Yonge Street. It’s now the hub of Ryerson University’s school of journalism, and on a brisk March morning, the journalism students in the fourth-year Magazine Masthead course are supposed to be assembling the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Ms. Wintersgill, who is the editor of the Spring issue, has called a 9:30 a.m. production meeting, but only a few of the young women (all 10 of the students working on the Spring issue are female) have arrived.

They’re behind schedule, and now Rebecca Rose, the production editor, reads a text message from one of the absentee student editors saying she won’t be coming in. “She says she’s sleep-deprived,” reports Ms. Rose to hoots of derision from the three others present. “Tell her to get her clothes on and come down here!” snaps Ms. Wintersgill.

This, after all, is no time for the Review to slacken. It wouldn’t do, on this, its 25th anniversary, for the Review to be late reaching its loyal tribe of 4,500 readers. Hanging on the wall behind the editor’s desk are 24 awards. Coincidentally, that’s one for each year the Review has been publishing its twice-yearly critique of Canadian journalism. (Last year, for example, its piece about a Tamil-Canadian journalist who refused to be cowed by extremists won first prize from the North American-wide Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication.) “I’m not thinking about awards,” says Ms. Wintersgill. “I’m just trying to get the Review out the door.”

Throughout its quarter-century, the Review has faced the challenge of producing a magazine of professional quality using, for the most part, journalism students who are still learning their craft. Other similar publications, such as the Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review, rely on professional writers and editors. Ryerson is unique in readying its students to be the editors of tomorrow by making them editors today. “It’s the ultimate crash course in magazine journalism,” says Ms. Wintersgill.

The crash course begins in mid-summer, when Review adviser and Ryerson faculty member Bill Reynolds asks the 20 to 30 students who’ve enrolled in the magazine course for the fall term to bring three ideas each for a 2,500-word feature article to their first class in September. In a one-day marathon, he interviews the students, assigns them to the Spring or Summer issue and assigns them editorial positions. The first six weeks are heavy on instruction, but by November the students are beginning to submit the first drafts of their articles.

As for the finished product, it’s not only the wall full of awards that testifies to its value. “If the Review disappeared, I would miss it,” says Robert Fulford, doyen of Canadian magazine columnists. “It’s the only magazine that looks at Canadian media coverage. I spend longer with it than with a lot of magazines put together by professionals. It’s pretty damn good.”

When the Review profiled Mr. Fulford in its Spring 2007 issue, he respected the result. “I found it quite intelligent. The writer understood what I was talking about.” Tony Keller, editor of Maclean’s annual university rankings issue, had the same reaction after being interviewed for a piece that ran in the Summer 2007 issue: “It was definitely a better article than you would have found in mainstream media coverage. The author took the time and effort to genuinely understand the issue. It shows why it’s a good thing there’s a Ryerson Review.”

Mr. Keller, in his previous role as editor of the National Post Business Magazine, hired two Ryerson grads based on their articles in the Review. In fact, Review alumni are sprinkled throughout Canada’s editorial offices. Two alumnae launched an alternative magazine, Shameless, aimed at teen girls “who know there’s more to life than makeup and diet tips.”

While it’s probably through its graduates that the Review has most affected media practices, its founder Don Obe insists the magazine’s hard-hitting stories have also been influential. He recalls that when the Spring 1992 issue flayed Maclean’s for its insipid prose, four angry editors from the news weekly descended on his office to complain.

“Every reform the Review called for at the time has been implemented at Maclean’s since then,” says Mr. Obe. He notes that prominent journalists such as Patrick Watson, Michael Enright and the late Pierre Berton befriended the Review and “touted it as making an overall difference in the thinking of magazines. It has had an effect on the culture of magazine publishing.”

That’s exactly what Mr. Obe hoped would happen when, as the chair of the journalism school in 1983, he “scraped together a little bit of money here and there” to launch the Review on a shoestring. “There was no guarantee we could even pull it off,” he recalls. “But the idea, from the beginning, was to do a professional magazine of a crusading nature.”

That meant students with no real-world experience were encouraged by Professor Obe and his colleagues to challenge the practices and ethics of industry veterans. “Some of the stories come off as preachy,” says Joanna Pachner, a former managing editor of the Review who later became managing editor of Shift magazine. “The students chastise journalists for even minor infractions of professional ethics. They tend to be very idealistic. But there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good for them to hear why editorial changes are sometimes made for business reasons.”

Mr. Obe’s take-no-prisoners approach was evident right from the first issue, Spring 1984. A student journalist wrote a feature story about the Globe and Mail having passed over its most senior newswoman for the job of managing editor. As the student did her interviews, she fretted about biting the hand that she hoped would eventually hire her. As it turned out, the newspaper was impressed by her work and did hire her.

In addition to absorbing the nuts and bolts of magazine writing and editing from experienced editors, the students work with a professional art director. Using a design pro has disqualified the Review from contention for a prestigious student magazine prize. The collaboration, however, has produced a string of memorable covers. Perhaps the most arresting was a text-only cover that blared: “I never knew what an asshole I was until I became a journalist” – a quote from an article inside on police reporting.

Lynn Cunningham, a Ryerson faculty member and an instructor for the Review from the outset, succeeded Mr. Obe as adviser in the 1993-94 academic year. Whereas under her predecessor, the decision to publish or “kill” an article was based on the first draft, Professor Cunningham vowed to publish all articles that could be raised to a professional standard. One student wrote 12 drafts. “I could recite large passages of that article from memory,” she quips. “The writer was in a state of contained hysteria, and I was trying to keep her spirits up to get the piece completed.” Eventually, the article did run, and the student went on to become a staff writer at a major newspaper.

Since the late 1980s, the Review has settled into a twice-a-year consistency. But unlike most twice-yearly periodicals, this one can’t space its issues six months apart because all the students involved start and finish the school year at the same time. “We’re just happy that the two issues don’t come out on the same day,” says Ms. Cunningham.

Advertising, sold by a sales professional, made its debut in the Review as early as the second issue, but didn’t become crucial until the ’90s, after Maclean-Hunter Ltd., an early benefactor, discontinued its $30,000-a-year corporate grant. Despite the greater dependency on ads, Ms. Cunningham maintained the Review’s tradition of “writing about advertisers and pissing them off.”

After a negative cover story about then-publisher John Honderich’s leadership of the Toronto Star in the Spring 1994 issue, the daily stopped advertising in the Review for several years, says Ms. Cunningham. “Our personal relationship was a little frosty for some time, too.”

But Ms. Cunningham, like Mr. Obe, insisted that the student journalists refuse to be intimidated. When Richard Addis, the former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, seemed to be dodging an interview for a Review feature, Ms. Cunningham put the student journalist on a bus to Ottawa so she could intercept him at a conference where he was a guest speaker. (He finally relented and sat for an interview.)

Some students absorbed a more sombre lesson – the need to face up to errors – when Lorrie Goldstein, the senior associate editor of the Toronto Sun, was misquoted in a Review article (it had him saying that factual accuracy in a story didn’t matter). Mr. Goldstein threatened to sue, but settled for an apology and a correction.

Bill Reynolds, who became the Review’s adviser in 2003, has made accuracy a priority, hiring the senior researcher at Toronto Life to work with the students. “Now, we beat up the students on fact-checking right from the get-go,” he says. “In 2007, we had only one error of fact.”

Like his predecessors, Mr. Reynolds struggles with the magazine’s shaky finances. The Review spends about $80,000 annually to produce its two issues. Ad sales cover about $30,000, with modest revenues coming from subscription and newsstand sales. Fundraising nets up to $20,000 annually from more than 45 individual and institutional donors (including Mr. Honderich, who contributed $5,000 last year). But that still leaves an annual deficit of at least $30,000. With no endowment fund, “the journalism school has to cover the shortfall,” says Mr. Reynolds.

Back in the conference room on Yonge Street, eight of the 10 editors have finally gathered and are mulling the status of articles and photos while munching on apple turnovers. “Are the Wendy Mesley pics in?” asks one editor. “Yes,” replies Ms. Wintersgill, adding, “She’s got a killer smile.” Another editor warns that the article on Toronto Star editor-in-chief Fred Kuntz has to be vetted by lawyers. The Ryerson Review of Journalism is once again taking shape, its masthead in motion.

PUBLISHED BY
Sheldon Gordon
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