FFWD RIP and Saturday Night Elegy Redux

Posted by on Feb 20, 2015 in Brian's Blog, Newspapers and Magazines | 0 comments


Calgary’s lively arts and entertainment weekly Fast Forward will cease print publication after its last issue appears on March 5, 2015. To read today’s sad announcement from Editor/Publisher Drew Anderson, please click HERE. There is perhaps a possibility that FFWD may continue to exist as an online venture, but it will no longer be found in coffee shops and newspaper boxes around town.

I didn’t shed any tears when the sun set earlier this month on the Sun News network – which I rarely watched anyhow. But I will miss Fast Forward. I wrote for it very occasionally after I left the employ of the Calgary Herald in 2000. Copied below is a piece I wrote about the death of another beloved Canadian publication, Saturday Night magazine, in September 2001. My story is no longer on the FFWD website, so I’m pleased to reproduce it here:

Let’s put this in perspective, in light of what happened on 9-11: Saturday Night was only a magazine. Its death hardly warrants lamenting today, especially since it died — not on September 17 when CanWest Global Communications announced its demise as part of a house-cleaning exercise at the National Post — but on Labour Day 1987 when editor Robert Fulford quit the magazine.

Yet it’s for Saturday Night I mourn because — even though it had been recreated and had evolved over the years into a visually splendid magazine with great photos and lively, edgy writing — it still held the promise of something better. As long as it breathed, Saturday Night carried the hope that one day it might again become the deep and serious read that it was during the 19 years when Fulford was at the helm.

Saturday Night during the Fulford era — when it was a stand-alone monthly, not a weekly insert in a national newspaper — was the best-written general-interest magazine in Canada. The reason: Fulford allowed his writers to take as much time as they wanted to produce the definitive story on a given subject, and he gave them as much space as they needed to tell the story. In the process, he gave such wonderful writers as Christina McCall, David Macfarlane, Doug Fetherling and Charlotte Gray the freedom to produce some of the best journalistic prose ever published in a Canadian mass-market publication. This was literary journalism of the very highest order, much like what you would expect to read in Harper’s or The New Yorker.

Bu it was the kind of journalism that made no sense from a business point of view. In fact, for all of Fulford’s 19 years, and for 20 years before that, Saturday Night never made money. Media buyers and ad agency account executives never liked or understood the magazine. It depended for its survival on benevolent owners who were prepared to let it continually pass through pockets of economic turbulence without ever changing the flight plan.

Because it didn’t rely on advertisers for life-support, Saturday Night afforded Fulford a wonderful freedom to run the magazine as he pleased. No wonder he called his influential Notebook column the best pulpit in Canadian journalism. He didn’t have to furtively look over his shoulder as he wrote. The advertisers were in absentia and the owners didn’t care.

Or at least they didn’t care until financier Conrad Black took over in the summer of 1987. He met with Fulford in early September, told him what his expectations were, and Fulford immediately resigned. “To stay for even a week, I would have had to lie copiously,” Fulford said afterwards, at a journalism workshop in Banff. “And I didn’t have that many lies in me.”

Fulford’s successor was John Fraser, a former theatre critic and China correspondent for the Globe and Mail. Under his leadership, commercial viability became the guiding ethic of Saturday Night. When the magazine finally turned its first monthly profit in November 1992, Fraser called it “the greatest miracle since the early days of Lourdes.” A financial miracle, perhaps, but hardly a miracle of journalistic achievement. Saturday Night was still producing good journalism — award-winning journalism, even — but not the kind of definitive journalism that once made it stand out from the crowd.

“That was what we specialized in,” Fulford said in Banff. “The article that nobody else has, because nobody else has the patience to get it. That’s a very hard process. It’s not like phoning up X and saying do Y by Nov. 10. That will produce publishable material, but it may be very much like the material appearing in other journals.”

The novelist Morley Callaghan, damning with faint praise, once described Fulford as “the best in his business, so long as he doesn’t try to write more than 2,000 words. After 2,000 words, he sort of gets lost.” By this, Callaghan meant that Fulford lacked the ability to go beyond the “mundane” world of journalism into the “real” world of literature.

But that is precisely what Fulford was and is: a journalist. His job at Saturday Night was to be a witness, no more no less, and the journalists who worked for him — many who did go beyond 2,000 words without getting lost — were witnesses too. They proved that great journalism could be about something more than big bucks and front pages.

Good night, Saturday Night, I’ll miss you. You always had something worth reading, even after Fulford left. And that’s something I can’t say about many national magazines.


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Copyright 2015 Brian Brennan - Author

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