So long, Saturday Night, for now: It has not made money since '48, but magazine has perfected Lazarus act
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 October 2005)

Most of the newspapers that published in 1887, when Saturday Night was founded, have expired. So have all the other weeklies and monthlies of that era. But Saturday Night, having lived through several generations of readers and writers, long ago established itself as the oldest continuing (more or less) title in the periodical press of Canada.

This history may be fairly well known, but how many of us are aware of the more remarkable fact that Saturday Night has also been declared dead more often than any other journal?

In the last 60 years, to my certain knowledge, the coroner has signed its death certificate three times -- and that's not counting the announcement yesterday by its owner, St. Joseph Media, that Saturday Night will suspend publication following the Winter 2005 issue, the one that appears in the National Post on Nov. 26.

In economic terms, Saturday Night has been a recurrent miracle, a phenomenon worthy of close study in business schools. It has not shown a profit since 1948, yet has mysteriously persisted, a possibly unique triumph of hope over experience. Among backers and readers it inspires a peculiar loyalty. Its publishers have set world records for optimism.

Every one of them since the 1960s has been able to explain in detail that the magazine is on the brink of profits. "We're turning the corner," they like to say.

Over the years a pattern formed. (1) Saturday Night goes broke and closes. (2) Respectful obituaries appear and a few tears are shed. (3) Someone comes along and revives it, always with a new and unimpeachable "business plan" for success.

That's what happened in the 1960s, when Arnold Edinborough went from editor to owner and heroically dragged it back from the grave. It happened again in 1974-75, when Murray Frum, as chairman of the board, directed a revival. And it happened once more when CanWest closed it down in 2001, and Multi-Vision Publishing took over and rebooted it. When Multi-Vision was absorbed by St. Joseph Media, Saturday Night changed hands again.

Over 118 years it has been a fortnightly, a weekly, a monthly and a now-and-then. Its design has ranged from wretched to beautiful and its writing from mediocre to terrific.

It published the first comic pieces by Stephen Leacock, the early poems of Pauline Johnson, scores of brilliant book reviews by Robertson Davies and the most famous photographic portrait of the 20th century, Yousuf Karsh's bulldog picture of Winston Churchill, which Karsh took in Ottawa on assignment from Saturday Night. Karsh was the discovery of B.K. Sandwell, the editor from 1932 to 1951, who presided over its most influential and prosperous years. Gary Stephen Ross, who was editor until yesterday, gave the magazine a high professionalism that should have led to success but turned out to be one more honourable failure.

The man who started Saturday Night, Edmund E. Sheppard, was a daily newspaperman of dubious reputation whose troubles with the law (something about libelling the performance of a whole Montreal regiment in the Riel rebellion) had left him with a misguided belief that he should seek a quieter life in a paper directed at the gentry. He started Saturday Night on, literally, a Saturday night, December 3, 1887.

His strategy was a gentle fraud. In those days newspapers were illegal on Sunday in Toronto (like everything else) so Sheppard produced a paper to be sold on Saturday, then read on Sunday -- presumably in private.

The first issue, on the streets as the offices let out late Saturday afternoon, sold out every one of the 10,000 copies printed, at 5 cents apiece.

Enemies called his paper snobbish; friends said it was high-toned.

Alongside politics and business he paid attention to the theatre and music, arts not much covered in the daily papers. His Saturday Night became the place where photos of the most elegant weddings appeared. Religion was a staple. At one point Saturday Night did profiles of every choir leader in the city. Sheppard himself covered the sermons of leading clergymen, reviewing them as if they were performances.

The magazine's relations with the business community were uneven. In the 1920s, it campaigned against the rogues of Bay Street but a generation later it made a speciality of stock-market tips and in the 1960s became itself part of a stock promotion. An owner who briefly controlled it sold stock to members of the Social Credit Party on the promise that he would give them a national voice for their opinions. For at least a moment, Social Credit dogma filled the pages.

Suspension of publication usually means the end. But, as a Toronto journalist put it yesterday, "the Lazarus act" has always been a major item in Saturday Night's bag of tricks. The future? Jimmy Breslin, the American writer, once said of New York magazine, during a painful down period, that "You can't kill it with an axe." On past performance, Saturday Night falls into the same category.

Robert Fulford was editor of Saturday Night from 1968 to 1987, except for a brief interruption in 1974-75.

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