Meltdown at the Walrus

Meltdown at the Walrus

By Jane Lytvynenko

DISCLOSURE: One of the authors of this piece, Jesse Brown, once wrote an article for the Walrus. He experienced no professional conflict with any of the people mentioned in this piece.

A public dispute between a freelance writer and a recently terminated managing editor at the Walrus has motivated a series of allegations and revelations about the chaotic inner workings of the national literary magazine. Employees past and present described an organization in disarray. As Walrus publisher Shelley Ambrose herself put it in an internal email sent to editor-in-chief Jon Kay last month and provided to CANADALAND, “we have never been this disorganized,” and “we are in a bit of a melt down.”

CANADALAND spoke with 19 current and former Walrus employees, ranging from unpaid interns to former editor-in-chief John Macfarlane. Our discussions reveal allegations of workplace bullying and verbal abuse, an accusation of editorial theft, a rash of exits from the magazine by a trio of senior editors and others, controversial firings, and a widely felt “toxic” work environment known to management who disregarded frequent pleas for an end to an intimidating and exploitative office culture.

THE FACT-CHECKER

Sarah Taggart was supposed to work at the Walrus until April 17, 2015. But, she was fired. Kyle Wyatt, her supervisor and managing editor of the Walrus, told her she “just wasn’t a good fit,” and “wasn’t working out.” Taggart was never given more concrete reasons for her dismissal, but she thinks she knows why she was let go.

Taggart was hired into the competitive Chawkers Fellowship program, created to provide junior-level, fixed-term fact-checking jobs at a rate of a bit more than $11/hour. The Chawkers Fellowship was initiated in 2014 to replace the Walrus’ unpaid internship program, which was abolished after a labour board crackdown.

She said her first couple of weeks, while Wyatt was away, were like “a vacation” compared to the rest of her tenure. She had a good team of three other fellows led by former copy editor Carol Hilton and she enjoyed the job. But when Wyatt returned to the office, Taggart said “it got scary.”

As a fact-checker, Taggart had to make sure every detail in an article was correct before it was sent to the printer. It’s meticulous work which got more demanding when Wyatt came back to the leading role. Taggart said Wyatt’s expectations went beyond reasonable. Because the Walrus wouldn’t pay Chawkers fellows for more than 35 hours work per week, Wyatt berated the young fact-checkers if they were in the office too early or too late, and berated them again if they failed to complete their tasks. According to Taggart, his demands were impossible to meet.

She saw herself and her colleagues being bullied and victimised. There were yelling, lecturing, and intimidation, she said. Eight of CANADALAND’s sources for this story said the words “verbally abusive” and “bullying” are accurate descriptions of Kyle Wyatt’s behaviour. Four sources say they cried at the office because of him. A different former employee tells CANADALAND “I felt personally bullied by [Wyatt]” and that “I heard him say rude, insulting, threatening things to unpaid interns,” including a threat to one intern that he would disparage her to her future employers if her work did not improve.

When another Fellow came to work a few hours early to finish a demanding assignment from the day before, Wyatt yelled at her. Taggart found her co-worker at a nearby cafe, in tears and ready to quit.

When later that day, at a team meeting, there was an invitation for discussion on how the workplace can be improved, Taggart took the opportunity to stand up for herself and the other Fellows. She told Wyatt “We can’t work with this kind of treatment and if you’re nicer we’d probably produce better work.” Taggart said Wyatt’s response was, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to change but if you have a problem with the way things are around here you’re going to have to think about that.”

That was on October 10, 2014. On October 14, Wyatt called Taggart into his office, told her she wasn’t “working out,” and terminated her contract. She never received an explanation.

Kyle Wyatt was fired last Thursday, October 22. No official reason was provided and the Walrus management did not respond to the question why he was fired. In an interview with CANADALAND, Wyatt said “the position changed,” but did not give concrete grounds for his dismissal. He said the managing editor position was different going forward and the editor-in-chief is free to reimagine it as he sees fit. Jon Kay declined to comment for legal reasons.

Including Sarah Taggart, eight of Wyatt’s former co-workers have described him as abusive and a bully. Long-term colleagues say they have approached management about Wyatt’s behaviour on multiple occasions, including publisher Shelley Ambrose, then-publisher and editor-in-chief John Macfarlane and current editor in chief Jon Kay. Four sources said Wyatt treated women more harshly than men. It is unclear whether the Walrus management spoke to Wyatt about his behaviour, but they were aware of the complaints.

Taggart informed Jon Kay of Wyatt’s behaviour at a lunch meeting on December 7, 2014, and another source tells CANADALAND that several employees complained to Macfarlane about Wyatt years ago. Others still told CANADALAND management learned during exit interviews that Kyle Wyatt was a motivating factor in some employee’s departures.

Wyatt himself denied the allegations. He doesn’t think he treats women differently than men and describes himself as a tough but fair boss. He provided CANADALAND with names of former colleagues he feels he got along with.

Three of these former Walrus employees do indeed speak well of Wyatt. Michael Strizic, a former intern and now a marketing professional, said he was a “fair, capable, and competent boss” and two female former interns said he took on a mentorship role. They do not deny he was tough, but said as their superior he took their education seriously.

THE WRITER

Trouble at the Walrus wasn’t isolated to Taggart’s story. Over the course of the last year, at least 10 people left from both the editorial and foundation sides. The words “toxic work environment” came up in many interviews CANADALAND conducted. It’s not just employees who complained, but writers too.

Alex Gillis, a seasoned journalist and a university instructor, is one of those writers. He worked with the Walrus on an investigative 6,000-word cover story about cheating in Canadian universities. Gillis said the first draft was well-received but after submitting the second draft he got an ultimatum, “They’d kill the story unless I let them rewrite the piece.” According to Gillis there was no explanation of why the story was killed or what was wrong with the draft.

Gillis was told that Wyatt and Kay wanted to turn the article into an essay and reluctantly agreed. This investigation took months and Gillis didn’t want his work wasted, “but Wyatt said that he and his colleagues would completely rewrite my story, turning it into an essay from start to finish, with no input from me, even though my name would be on it. It was hands-down the weirdest experience I’ve had with an editor in 20 years of writing,” Gillis told CANADALAND.

During the kill fee negotiations, Wyatt asked whether the Walrus can retain research done for the story for an extra 25 per cent on the kill fee for a total of 75 per cent of the price of the article. Gillis provided CANADALAND with a part of the phone call discussing the article.

This is the transcription:

Alex Gillis: I don’t know, it sounds kinda weird, but if that’s how you guys do it, then that’s fine.
Kyle Wyatt: Yeah, I mean, it’s–
AG: I’ll sell it somewhere else. I mean, it’s my material. I’m gonna write a book about it. I’m assuming you’re not gonna publish a story like this in the next nine months or twelve months? I mean, it’s my story, so. I mean, are you guys writing a story like this, or running something?
KW: Uh… I mean, as I said, if you were interested in a slightly higher kill fee, we would retain your research and–
AG: Well no, that’s not worth it. I can– I’m have to– I’m gonna retain my material cause I have to resell it.
KW: Sure
AG: I’m taking a huge loss– I mean, the $6,000 wasn’t even covering my time. I put more time in than that. So, yeah, I’ll take the kill fee and keep my material and publish it somewhere else in some form.
KW: Sure.
AG: But I’m asking you, are you gonna take my idea and write your own story? Assign it to someone else?
KW: Uh, that’s not our plan.
AG: No? Okay, thanks.

“Six weeks later,” recalled Gillis, “the Walrus comes in my mailbox. I open it up, and there’s my story on the cover, but Kyle Wyatt wrote it… They cheated on a story about cheating.”

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“Instead, I chose the harder path: honesty. … Upholding a time-honoured scholars’ code filled me with pride.”

– from “Busted” by Kyle Wyatt, Walrus magazine, November 2015 issue. 

Frustrated by his experience, Gillis posted about it on a Toronto writer’s forum where others weighed in. At least three writers responded with complaints about the Walrus’ kill fee — an issue then picked up by writer advocacy groups and on Twitter.

The following is a part Kay’s response to Gillis’ concerns (you can read the full response here):

“Hi everyone. Walrus editor Jonathan Kay here. I am the fellow whom David Hayes (our moderator, yes?) seems to have been referring to when he alluded to “people who aren’t magazine professionals run magazines.” Guilty as charged, alas. I was a newspaper guy for 16 years before I got picked to run the Walrus. It has been a steep learning curve for me. But thanks to the efforts of seasoned colleagues such as my friend Matt McKinnon (hi Matt!), I like to think I am getting up to speed.

Mr. Gillis — I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. My understanding of events is different than yours. But I have been reporting on news long enough to know that people of good faith often see and remember things in a different way. (Moreover, I was one editor removed in the process, since your point of contact was my then-colleague Kyle Wyatt.) If you have the time and inclination to meet, I’m guessing we can address your concerns in a less adversarial way. I’m sure I have plenty to learn from the episode. The world of magazines and newspapers have different unwritten rules governing the interaction between writers and editors. I need to make sure I know them.”

One thing I would like to add: Whatever may have been the role of the handling editor in this episode (who parted ways with the Walrus as of yesterday), 100% of the responsibility for what happened lies with me. I was the EIC who okayed the decisions at play here.

Alex Gillis has spoken to both Wyatt and Kay since posting to the forum on October 23. He said Kay admitted to “unethical” behaviour by the Walrus in the handling of his story, and reiterated his apology. CANADALAND asked Gillis whether he felt satisfied by Kay’s response.

“I sort of don’t, actually,” he replied.

THE EDITOR IN CHIEF

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Jon Kay was a controversial hire for the Walrus. His politics veered to the right, and many staffers worried that he would impose them on the magazine. But many expressed relief about Kay to CANADALAND, recalling that once he was established, he proved himself to be an open and friendly manager. He is well-regarded for seeking input broadly and breaking down the internal elitism that excluded many employees from story meetings. He encouraged new ideas and pitches from all employees, and was humble about the challenge he faced as a newspaper editor learning how to edit a magazine.

In an interview Kay conducted with CANADALAND in January 2015 at the Walrus’ offices, shortly after assuming his post as editor in chief, Kay described his priorities as increasing the online presence and bringing to the magazine a more personal, ironic tone, to counter the conception of a dull periodical. Most staffers welcomed the changes.

Yet Kay’s tenure has been a rocky one. According to Kyle Wyatt, Kay killed more stories in the last ten months than his predecessor killed in four years prior, a claim that jibes with what CANADALAND has learned from other sources. All three of the magazine’s senior editors left since Kay joined, along with at least eight other employees from various departments. In addition to Alex Gillis, other freelance writers and one writer’s agent have expressed frustration and concern with how the magazine has been dealing with external journalists. Staffers told CANADALAND their eyebrows were raised over how many pieces ended up being written by Jon Kay and Kyle Wyatt themselves, and how these decisions made everyone’s work more difficult.

Last month, Walrus publisher Shelley Ambrose sent Kay the following stern email about his performance. CANADALAND was provided this document by recently terminated Managing Editor Kyle Wyatt:

Editor’s note: “Shipping” a magazine means sending it to the printer. 

On Thu, Sep 10, 2015 at 3:06 PM, Shelley Ambrose <*********@walrusmagazine.com> wrote:

Dear Jon – I hate to do this by email instead of in person but we are in a bit of a melt down here…we have never been this disorganized and late shipping……at least half the mag should have shipped by now – and the art department and editors are melting down. It is just not possible to ship everything at the last minute. All kinds of deadlines are being missed and we are lacking in forward planning – which means this is likely to happen again for the next issue. Half the magazine should have shipped by now (which allows us to deal with last minute stuff…like a whole new cover story). I know the sced has been thrown out the window…but the result is no one – from the fact-checkers to the art department – knows what is coming down the pipe when…and the pipe is only so wide – it simply cannot accommodate everything at once. And, we cannot tax people (unless it is you and Kyle) so much that they are working nights and weekends…only to wake up next Wednesday and be behind on the next issue…..and do it all again.

Kyle is, of course, confident that we can get this done but this cannot be the new normal. We’ve got to get back on track for assigning out early and often, getting the pieces in on time and early enough to move through the pipe. It is fine to have one late breaking piece – or maybe even two…but not the whole issue. It just won’t work – we don’t have enough hands on deck to do it all in five days. We have to keep our standards very high – and that takes time during production. Careful editing (much more careful than newspapers – plus tighten and polish – we are the best magazine in the country so the quality for the writing and editing must be superb and that takes time and talent), careful design and a lot of advance planning time for art is necessary for a magazine like The Walrus. Kyle can get us back on track but we’re going to have to have a proper production schedule with enough lead time – on the assignment front and on the production front – or the whole thing will derail and fast. We cannot be late shipping. And we can’t edit everything at one, fact-check everything at once, ship everything at once. And we can’t ship second rate stuff…….

And, sorry to repeat, you need to be here during production week (which goes from Wed to Wed). It is not possible to do this remotely…..

I know this is a big learning curve but my bells are ringing. We are short staffed as it is – and some of the editorial staff is new so slow – so the pressure – as I know you know – is enormous……..but we need to make this work….yes, we’ve been turning our head to the website (which is great) but we need to turn our head back to print.

And we can’t have the managing editor writing the cover piece in five days while also shipping…even if he says he can do it…it is not a good plan.

The next one cannot be like this……I understand you are trying to build in flexibility and also to be as current as possible …but we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

Meantime, we need all hands on deck.

THE PUBLISHER

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Shelley Ambrose is herself a controversial figure among Walrus employees past and present. According to former copy editor Pamela Capraru, the forceful Ambrose is “like a bull in a china shop” among the mild personalities on staff at a literary magazine. Two former employees say Ambrose is prone to irrational fits of yelling and blame when stressed. She is accused by one former employee of interfering in editorial matters, in one instance overruling fact-checkers and inserting a correction when an influential contact of Ambrose’s called her to demand one.

Yet Ambrose is regarded by employees past and present as the Walrus’ saviour. When she joined in 2006, the magazine was in dire financial shape. As a registered charity, the Walrus Foundation had but one donor: the Chawkers Foundation, the philanthropic organization run by the wealthy family of Walrus co-founder Ken Alexander.

Ambrose, a dynamic and forceful personality, expanded that donor list to include Enbridge, SunCor, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, RBC and other major corporate players.

She evolved the Walrus into a multi-platform brand encompassing online content, Walrus TV and the Walrus Talks event series.  According to the alumni magazine of Ambrose’s alma matter, Western University, “she is the Walrus. Really.”

Ambrose has reportedly been rewarded accordingly. Two former Walrus employees with credible knowledge of internal budgets tell CANADALAND that when John Macfarlane left the Walrus in 2014, Shelley Ambrose went from co-publisher to sole publisher and gave herself a raise of at least $70,000, bringing her total compensation to over $200,000 per year. In an organization that was fined by the Ontario government for exploiting unpaid interns, and where the staff increasingly under resourced and underpaid, this disparity has bred resentment.

Shelley Ambrose did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

THE EDITOR EMERITUS

Kyle Wyatt was hired by John Macfarlane, a magazine industry veteran and former Walrus editor and co-publisher who, since retiring, is now listed as the Walrus’ “Editor Emeritus.”  Multiple sources tell CANADALAND that Wyatt was a protégé of Macfarlane’s.

We approached him for comment. Here are those emails:

Jesse Brown <jesse@canadalandshow.com> wrote:

Hi John,

Two questions I must ask you on the record:

When you were with the Walrus, did you at any point learn that Kyle Wyatt was considered abusive by any employee?

When Chawkers fellow Sarah Taggart was fired and asked to meet with you, why did you decline?

Thanks,

Jesse

John Macfarlane <**********@gmail.com> wrote:

I’m not going to be dragged into this ,Jesse. But, off the record, it’s my experience that the word “abusive” is thrown around rather carelessly these days. John

John Macfarlane

Editor Emeritus

The Walrus

Jesse Brown <jesse@canadalandshow.com> wrote:

As you must know John, off-the-record status is something that must be agreed to by both source and reporter.

I asked you a question and explicitly specified that it was an on-the-record inquiry. You answered, but asserted that your answer be left off-the-record.

I did not and would not agree to this, and I consider your answer to be publishable and attributable to you.

That said, if you would like to add-to or revise your reply, you certainly have an opportunity to do so.

Best,

Jesse

John Macfarlane <**********@gmail.com> wrote:

As you wish, Jesse.

FUTURE ISSUES

Whatever complaints Walrus staffers have about Jon Kay, many expressed relief and admiration that he accomplished one thing his predecessor could (or would) not: parting ways with Kyle Wyatt.

Others worry about the repercussions of a possible scandal — donors and corporate partners fund the Walrus in order to benefit from the association with a perceived intellectual brand, a worthy forum for arts and letters. How will banks and oil companies feel if the Walrus instead becomes synonymous with workplace abuse of underpaid grad students and theft of intellectual property?

One former employee expressed uncertainty.

“Either Shelley and Jon are both in big trouble,” they said, “or nobody’s going to care. I can see it going either way.”

***

Our coverage of the Walrus continues in the Monday, Nov.2nd episode of CANADALAND, where Sarah Taggart, Alex Gillis and Kyle Wyatt will be interviewed. 

jesse@canadalandshow.com and jane@canadalandshow.com

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