Saturday's Child

Paul Tough is young, smart, and worked hard for a living in U.S. journalism. Now he's come home with a new vision for Saturday Night: fine writing combined with a 'zine sensibility

Phillipe Devos
March , 1999 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

Two people arrived at their new jobs at Saturday Night magazine last September. Both wore a tie and a dress shirt tucked into chinos. Both looked like recent university graduates although both were a few credits short of a BA. Twenty-nine-year-old Duff Wallis walked to Saturday Night's downtown Toronto office carrying an attaché case. He sat behind a fabric divider with the other intern. The other person rode his bicycle to the office with a Wired magazine bag tugging at his shoulder and, after locking his bike to a signpost, rode the elevator to the fourth floor to take his seat behind a dark wood desk next to a large window. He's Paul Tough, now 31, and Saturday Night's new editor.

When John Fraser was hired as Saturday Night editor, Conrad Black treated him to a new Volvo. Tough bought himself a new $379 Norco bicycle after taking the job and he bikes to the office. His new office is spartan. Old Harper's issues sit on the crowded bookshelf. Behind the desk is the lean, fresh-faced young editor turning a tiny leather day book between his fingers. His curly hair is cut as often by a barber as by his girlfriend of six years, Deirdre Dolan, former television and film columnist at The New York Observer who now covers the same beat at the National Post Tough's ears and nose look slightly too big for his face. It's as if he's still growing.

Tough, who turned 31 not long after that first day at work, wasn't the obvious choice for the editorship of Saturday Night magazine. Past editors Robert Fulford, John Fraser, and Ken Whyte all began as Canadian newspaper reporters and wrote for Saturday Night long before editing the magazine. Tough's been out of Canada for 10 years and has never worked in Canadian journalism. Since age 20 he has lived in New York, where he spent eight years editing at Harper's magazine and contributed to This American Life, a radio show broadcast on Public Radio International.

While Canada was dealing with Meech Lake, the Charlottetown Accord, the 1995 Quebec referendum, the tainted blood scandal, the emergence of the Reform Party, and other major issues, Tough was helping shape Harper's commentary on U.S. issues such the Gulf War and the status of the Republican Party. He has never managed a staff before or worked on a magazine as important to a country as Saturday Night is to Canada. Saturday Night attracts about 700,000 Canadian readers each issue compared to Harper's 426,000 readers in all of North America (41,500 of them in Canada). While neither magazine is profitable, Harper's is maintained by a nonprofit foundation and doesn't face the same expectations of eventually turning a profit as Saturday Night, which is owned by Conrad Black. Now this unlikely, unknown editor has the responsibility to run one of Canada's oldest and most-read magazines. Yet Tough's youth and eclectic approach to journalism may suit a reformatted Saturday Night as it greets the 21st century. He's won high praise from some impressive people. "I think he's going to be terrific," says Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. "He has a very innate sense of what is fresh and his ideas tend to be ahead of the curve. He may be talking about something that Time magazine won't be talking about for another year."

Now Tough is wrestling with what Saturday Night should be talking about and how to express that in the overhauled magazine, which first hit newsstands at the end of February. "I hope when you read it, it will feel like it's telling a unified and yet varied story about Canada-to try to say, This is what Canada feels like this month at this moment. I don't think that's what the magazine's trying to do right now," he said, explaining his hopes for the new Saturday Night shortly after becoming editor. "There are all these interesting conflicts and dilemmas in Canada-from language debates to trying to figure out a way natives and everyone else are going to interact. There are all these flash points and intersections of different cultures. At those intersections there are interesting stories."

Tough's Saturday Night has been completely rethought and redesigned, from the cover logo to the back page. As the February 5 deadline for the first new issue approached, Tough refused to talk to me about the relaunch, saying he was too busy. Instead, his close friend Joel Lovell ( who helped recreate Saturday Night while on two months' leave from editing Harper's Readings section) relates the motives behind the changes. "I hope people will think this is a magazine that's simultaneous ly serious, intellectual but also irreverent and funny, but not in an adolescent way," says Lovell. "I think people who look to magazines like The New Yorker or Harper's will realize there's a magazine here in their own country that achieves the same level of quality."

Canadian Letters is the centrepiece of the new Saturday Night. It's a series of personal stories from ordinary Canadians across the country. "If there's an individual section that's attached to Paul's larger vision of the magazine, this might be it," Lovell says. "It will be people telling personal stories from all over Canada. Sometimes those stories will be very specific responses to things in the news; others are going to be more like memoirs. It might be a guy in a punk band in Edmonton writing about what it means to be working as the manager of the Pizza Hut but also playing in this band in a place where there's essentially no punk music scene. It might be someone writing from Peggy's Cove or the town right next to it saying, This is what it feels like right now living in the wake of the Swissair crash. Hopefully, a lot of correspondents will write in a serial fashion so readers will get used to literally receiving letters from these people in different parts of the country."

Tough brought Lovell to Saturday Night for only a couple months but he has quickly made permanent additions to the staff. He hired Paul Wilson (who used to be an editor at The Idler) away from CBC Radio, where he was a producer on This Morning, to edit Canadian Letters and feature stories. He plucked Adam Sternbergh away from Toronto Life to edit Saturday Night's front-of-the-book with Gillian Burnett, who started at the magazine as Whyte's assistant. Tough has also scouted for new writers in Vancouver, Alberta, Ottawa, and Montreal. In Winnipeg he found Miriam Toews, assigning her first piece for Saturday Night about growing up in a Mennonite community in southeastern Manitoba.

Tough's a specialist at finding unknown, idiosyncratic writers and coaxing them into contributing. These include a guy who calls himself "Dishwasher Pete" and travels from state to state in the U.S., washing dishing in restaurants and recording his experiences in a 'zine called Dishwasher. But Tough found in his writings a commentary on work and money in America. Although Tough didn't think Pete's work fit with Harper's, he maintained their relationship and the dishwasher eventually read stories on air for This American Life.

Since returning to Canada, Tough has also been reconnecting with some of Saturday Night's best writers from the past. Several contributors left Saturday Night when Conrad Black bought it. Fraser was burdened with being Black's first editor and many writers stopped writing for the magazine when Fulford resigned. Whyte was viewed as a neo-con ideologue and an extension of Black's editorial reach. For Tough, being unknown is an asset. "He's helped by the fact that he comes as a relative outsider and therefore hasn't got a lot of baggage," says Ron Graham, who hasn't written for Saturday Night since Black bought it in 1987 but is talking to Tough about writing again. "He doesn't come with a lot of people either loving or hating him. He's not seen as a particular ideologue or part of any particular group. There are a lot of people who weren't courted by Ken Whyte and they're now being courted by Paul Tough."

While courting writers, Tough must also woo a new audience at the same time appeasing the loyal readers of Canada's first consumer magazine. Saturday Night began as a 12-page Toronto weekly in 1887 but didn't become a national treasure until the 1930s and forties under Bernard (B.K.) Sandwell (who shares the honour of longest-running editor with Robert Fulford, who ran Saturday Night for 19 years until 1987, when it was 100 years old and Canada's premier general-interest monthly). That's when Conrad Black's Hollinger Inc. bought Saturday Night and Fulford quit, believing his editorial autonomy would be jeopardized under the new ownership.

Fulford's replacement, John Fraser, made the magazine more exciting and radically altered the financial structure. He infused the magazine with his mischievous nature, publishing pieces like James Bacque's controversial article accusing Dwight Eisenhower of deliberately starving German prisoners of war. In 1989, Fraser and publisher Jeff Shearer may have saved the magazine by making the bold move to distribute Saturday Night free in select markets through Southam newspapers in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver and through The Globe and Mail in Toronto, nearly tripling circulation. However, the magazine was still losing money.

When Fraser left in 1994, pundits suspected new editor Ken Whyte would drag the magazine further to the right. While it didn't happen to the degree people expected, his magazine did favour articles that attacked feminism, welfare, and other left-wing causes. He also continued Fraser's mischievousness, bringing a mean edge to it by calling Farley Mowat a liar and picking on young child labour activist Craig Kielburger. But his style won readers and the magazine was also inching toward profitability. "It's as close to profitable as it's been in all of the time that Conrad's owned it," Whyte says of the ledger books when he left the magazine and Tough took over. "I really think we were one year away from breaking even."


Paul Tough was born in Toronto in 1967. His mother, Anne, a schoolteacher, and his father Allen, an education professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, raised him in a modest semidetached home on a tree-lined street just off of Bloor Street West in the Annex. He began school younger than most when his parents enrolled him at the Institute of Child Studies (a progressive school run by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), two months before his third birthday. They separated when he was 8 years old and he continued to live with his mother.

After he finished Grade 6 at ICS, he was accepted into the University of Toronto Schools (UTS), a downtown semiprivate school, and he started reading magazines. "I had a subscription to Mad, I read the science-fiction stories in Omni, and I'd briefly been obsessed with The Toronto Star's Sunday magazine, The City, but I'd never before thought about magazines as something you could really interact with, as something more than just a disposable read," he said in a speech to the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors last fall. Then a friend introduced him to Harper's magazine, which had just been saved from the brink of extinction after editor Lewis Lapham's famous 1984 overhaul. "I was hooked. I bought every issue, kept them on my shelf, and consulted them. I got to know the magazine's writers, its sense of humour, its point of view. I think it was in those pages that I got my first glimpse into what a magazine editor was. I got a sense of the idea that collecting information and rearranging it could be a creative act."

So enlightened, Tough continued studying at UTS. When he was 13, he got a job cohosting Anybody Home?, a Saturday morning current affairs program for kids on CBC Radio. He acted in a production of On Golden Pond at the Red Barn in Whitby one summer, banking the money he would later use to help pay for university and survive during an unpaid Harper's internship.

Then, at age 17, he went to New York's Columbia University with a modest scholarship, the money he'd saved working and a small amount willed to him by a relative, but dropped out after one semester studying general arts. "It was really expensive and I was paying for most of it myself so that made me question how worthwhile an education it was for me." Despite hesitations about school, Tough applied to McGill University before taking off on a bicycle trip from Atlanta, Georgia, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He returned to Toronto to work as a bike courier for the summer before beginning at McGill, studying religion and English. After a year and a half in Montreal, Tough felt he had to get back to New York and a Harper's internship helped make it happen. "It seemed to give me all the things that I wanted from a university education," says Tough, "a view of the world, information, and intellectual stimulation."

Tough was assigned to work with Michael Pollan, then executive editor in charge of the Readings section of the magazine, the front-of-the-book section devoted to found bits culled from just about anywhere. "If you look at the Readings section from that period, it was really good and he deserves a large part of the credit for that," Pollan says "He had a wonderful eye for finding these things in obscure places. He made a habit of reading all sorts of 'zines and paid attention to computer networks before anybody was much paying attention to that."

When the five-month internship was over there wasn't a job for Tough at Harper's. But after working eight months as an assistant editor at Savvy Woman, a now-defunct New York?based woman's business magazine, he was back despite being the person with the worst credentials on paper. "He didn't go to Harvard, he didn't get a degree in English literature, he didn't know half the people in the publishing industry," says Jack Hitt, former Harper's senior editor, now a freelance writer and one of Tough's closest friends. "He violated both the overt and covert canon of intern networking but he was definitely a guy known for his work."

Arguably, Tough's greatest contribution to Harper's was to bring obscure new writers into the magazine. These new writers often came from 'zines he found scouring counterculture book stores in New York's East Village where he lived in a tiny bachelor apartment. But Tough wasn't mired in the ghetto of the eccentric and obscure. He also turned up Readings from traditional sources. "He would work hard on finding Washington documents," says Pollan. "From an amazingly early time he had an excellent news judgment. He had a real sense of what was a story-what was the fresh wrinkle in the conversation. Those are journalistic skills that ordinarily take a very long time to acquire."

On Pollan's recommendation, Harper's editor Lewis Lapham promoted Tough to Readings editor. Tough also moderated many of Harper's more memorable Forums, an occasional section bringing disparate experts to discuss a topical issue. He and Hitt brought together computer specialists and techno-geeks to a computer bulletin board to discuss the dangers hackers posed to the world. That Forum spawned an article on hackers Tough cowrote with Hitt for Esquire in 1990 which won them the U.S. $10,000 national reporting prize at the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, one of three prizes given yearly by the Mollie Parnis Livingston Foundation in the U.S. to deserving journalists under 35. The 1995 movie Hackers was partially based on that article and Tough and Hitt served as "hacker consultants" for the production. Another Forum, "The New Auteurs," brought together movie marketers to discover how Hollywood spins a terrible film into a box office hit.

Much of Harper's Canadian content came to the magazine through Tough. He commissioned Guy Lawson, former host of TVO's Imprint and now a writer who lives in Tough's old East Village apartment, to write "No Canada?" about Montreal and the Quebec referendum for the April 1996 issue. Then Tough assigned him to follow Flin Flon, Manitoba's junior team for a story. "Hockey Nights," in the January 1998 issue. The article revealed Canadian hockey's emphasis on size and hitting over skating, passing, and shooting skills long before Canadian sports journalists were decrying the demise of hockey in Canada following our recent Olympic and World Cup debacles.

Harper's suited Tough well, and Tough suited Harper's. "He got very much ensconced at Harper's-very much protected by the other editors, who adored him," says Patricia Pearson, who interned at Harper's when Tough was assistant editor and is now a freelance writer for Saturday Night and other publications.

At 25, Tough was a senior editor at Harper's, but even that job didn't fully exploit his talent. In 1995, Tough began as a contributor to This American Life, a Peabody award-winning show broadcast on 300 U.S. stations. "When I met him I was shocked at how young he was," the show's Chicago-based creator, Ira Glass, recalls. "On the telephone I thought he was probably a good 10 years older than me, and then he turns out to be 10 years younger." For the first year Tough contributed ideas to the program, did some reporting, and cohosted shows while still at Harper's. At the same time he was putting out an occasional 'zine of unintentionally funny bits photocopied from the Times.

But Tough, now an editor of a writer's magazine, has done little writing of his own. What he has written, including pieces for the Shouts & Murmurs back page of The New Yorker, the back page of GQ, and the op-ed page of the Times, are darkly humourous smart-bombs cowritten with friend and former Harper's intern Stephen Sherrill and aimed to explode journalism clichés. In an August 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called "Khmer Roué", Tough and Sherrill mock the ubiquitous come-back celebrity profile with a facetious report on Pol Pot living out his retirement in California. They have the genocidal dictator going from a poolside breakfast of Belgian waffles to a workout with his personal trainer. As he steps off a Lifecycle, Pol Pot says: "Don't get me wrong. I'm still a big fan of radical primitivist agrarian reform. But one morning I woke up and it hit me: I'd been so busy thinking about the masses that I hadn't been taking very good care of Pol Pot."

Just one year before Conrad Black came calling, Tough was ready to give up on magazines. After nine years at Harper's, he left in 1997 and devoted more energy to the radio show, but he didn't work full time. "I think I was burned out a little bit on magazines as a concept," he says now. "The process of editing and writing had become kind of cramped. There was a clichéd style for a lot of magazines and it was hard to get beyond that and hard to really get the essence of the story across. I just felt uninspired by magazines."

Meanwhile, the Whyte era at Saturday Night was fading as he planned the launch of Conrad Black's National Post. Saturday Night publisher Maureen Cavan, honorary publisher Allan Gotlieb, Conrad Black and his wife Barbara Amiel Black began searching for a new editor in May 1998. They drew up a list of about 19 candidates (including several Canadian journalists working in the U.S. such as New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, Bruce Headlam, a Times editor, and former Newsweek writer Rick Marin) but none was interested enough to sit down for an interview. Then Ken Whyte suggested Paul Tough after hearing good things about him from Marin and Leanne Shapton-whom Whyte hired away from Harper's to design the Post's Avenue spread.

After meeting with Whyte and Gotlieb in Toronto, Tough was asked to meet Conrad and Barbara at Hollinger's New York office. "We talked about Canadian journalism. I think I was talking more than they did," Tough recalls. "I talked about how the radio show found stories in places where a lot of other journalists hadn't thought there were stories. I thought that same thing could be true with Saturday Night." He realized he wasn't quite so weary of magazines after all when he was offered the editorship of Saturday Night in mid-August. "The magazines I had worked for felt static and limiting but I felt there were things a magazine could do that no magazine was doing. A magazine like Saturday Night, with such a wide focus where you can consider so many different things, was a great opportunity. On the other side, I was happy with what I was doing. I had been living in New York for 10 years and that felt like home. I had friends there and I knew this would be an incredible amount of work," he said. "It seemed like an opportunity I would never get again and it was just too good to turn down."

 

Some people are surprised Tough got the opportunity at all. Although he's accomplished more than most 31-year-old editors, he hasn't yet amassed the wisdom that comes from years of writing and editing for several publications. Harper's gloomy outlook and narrow focus on political and social decline may not translate well at a mainstream publication here in Canada, a country he's just come back to.

His return to Canada surprised many of his New York friends and colleagues who expect he'll be back in New York before too long. Although Tough closely followed happenings in his home country while in New York, reading about Canada in the Times is not the same as living here. "I'm glad he has roots in Canada but I think it's ironic that we're hiring somebody who has largely American work experience to edit Canada's oldest magazine," says former Saturday Night publisher Jeff Shearer, who is now the Star's vice president of marketing. "I don't think it's flattering to editors in Canada that they went south of the border."

Flattering or not, Paul Tough has the potential to be a great editor. His age can help him bring younger readers to the magazine. Tough has never lost touch with his homeland. Like a son who can't understand and appreciate his parents until he's moved out, Tough has had time away to contemplate Canada, something he's done with a This American Life show called "Who's Canadian?" about Canadian influences and personalities in American culture.

Now, as a Canadian magazine editor, Paul Tough must constantly examine Canadian culture. Just 15 days after becoming the editor of Saturday Night, Tough hinted at his plans for the magazine in an address to the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors, where he impressed some magazine veterans there, like Toronto Life copy chief Cynthia Brouse, who was once Fulford's assistant at Saturday Night. "What struck me most was that he had very strong views on what a magazine is and should be and seemed to want to get away from the superficiality that afflicts magazines," she said. "That, and the fact that he looked as if he was 12 years old."

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