The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: December 2008

In Conversation: Ken Whyte on Journalism

An interview with Maclean’s editor-in-chief Ken Whyte about his new book on William Hearst

Of all the non-fiction titles I’ve read this year, few have surprised and delighted me more than Maclean’s editor-in-chief and publisher Ken Whyte’s new account of the rise of William Randolph Hearst, The Uncrowned King. While the book focuses on the struggle for marketplace dominance between Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, it is, at heart, a history of America at the dawn of the twentieth century, densely packed with research, anecdote, and analysis. (It also offers a fantastic epigraph, worth repeating, from the inimitable Randall Jarrell: “The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”)

I spoke with Whyte last week, amidst a grim season for the print media in general, but before this week’s even grimmer news of the bankruptcy of the Tribune group and the New York Timesnew mortgage. As Whyte explains below, his critical reconsideration of Hearst’s early New York success has convinced him that a serious reimagining of what newspapers do is necessary should they hope to survive in the twenty-first century.

* * *

You note that you first read about Hearst while preparing for the launch of the National Post, but that you didn’t see enough there to convince you that the stereotypes about him were inaccurate. What about your experience in newspapers made want to return to study him five years later?

When I returned to it, I still hadn’t changed my mind about Hearst. I’d always had suspicions that something wasn’t right in the way the story was told, because I didn’t believe that Hearst could go from such a low circulation to a high circulation in such a competitive market unless there was something interesting, compelling about his newspaper. So I suspected that people who had written about this episode were missing some of the qualities or appeal of it, otherwise he couldn’t have had that kind of success. (more…)

Posted in The Shelf  •  1 Comment

Big Brother is Watching Them. OK?

Crime is a big problem in the developing world. Take it from me: just last week I got mugged at gunpoint in Mexico City’s almost comically crime-ridden district of Tepito, infamous for its huge flea market full of incredibly cheap goods of incredibly dubious provenance. (I was there to research a novel. Honest.) According to Tepito’s Wikipedia entry, “popular stories tell of people buying these products and being robbed some streets later by the sellers themselves.” Now that’s a business model!

I’d like to show you some pictures of the market, but the muggers stole my camera, so here’s a Mexican security vehicle instead:


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Posted in World Fast Forward  •  33 Comments


I volunteer as a costumed interpreter at a living history* museum. The 1865 Prince of Wales woodstove in the kitchen was roaring so it became the center of attention:

Ohhh. What is that big thing?

Why is it so big? Seven burners!

What did they burn?

These are but a sampling of the most common questions asked by adult Canadians. I repeatedly explained that wood was indeed what was burned in a woodstove and that it was the only source of heat, hot water and cooked food so it needed to be big. The technologies of the past are, I have discovered, as elusive and confusing to people as emerging present day ones can be. (more…)

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Posted in Web 2.0 Museum  •  No Comments

To Beard or not to Beard?

Joel McConvey and beard

One of my Korean students’ favourite pastimes is pulling on my beard. These days, I can’t blame them — circumstances having forced me into (temporary) bachelordom for the first time in years, I’ve made it a project to accumulate as much hair on my face as possible, and even I will admit that the resulting thicket is eminently tuggable. (It’s when the kids figure they can swing from it that problems arise.)

There’s a lurking belief that Koreans can’t grow facial hair. This is profoundly untrue, as anyone who’s familiar with Korean money can tell you; each of the three denominations of Korean won (the 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000) boasts a likeness of an eminent figure from Korean history, and all of them are rocking killer beards. The most impressive is surely the white mop cascading from the chin of Confucian scholar Yi Hwang on the 1,000, but neither fellow Confucian Yi I on the five nor King Sejong the Great (arguably the most famous Korean of all time, at least within Korea) on the ten have anything to be ashamed of — each sports a missile-shaped goatee and full moustache that would make Tom Selleck’s nose pillow bristle with envy.

It is true, however, that in contemporary South Korea, prominent facial hair is a rare sight. (more…)

Posted in World Famous in Korea  •  7 Comments

Q&A: Taras Grescoe

Taras Grescoe’s excellent book Bottomfeeder is now out in paperback, and recently won the prestigious Writers Trust Award for best non-fiction book of the year…

Taras Grescoe’s excellent book Bottomfeeder is now out in paperback, and recently won the prestigious Writers Trust Award for best non-fiction book of the year. I reviewed Taras’s book in our June issue. He was kind enough to answer my questions about fish, food writing, and fans.

* * * * *

The book’s main argument—that we should stop eating large, predatory fish and instead consume the more sustainable bottomfeeders—requires an adjustment in our attitudes toward dinner. In researching and adopting the ideas in the book, what has been the single biggest adjustment you’ve made?

I’ve completely adjusted my eating habits when it comes to seafood.

Before I started researching and writing Bottomfeeder, I figured that getting my protein in the form of seafood, from the oceans, was smarter than getting it in the form of chicken, poultry, or beef, from industrial abbatoirs and factory farms. It was a fairly straightforward decision, one I made in the early 90s: fish was clearly more sustainable, and healthier, than meat. At the time, it seemed to me the oceans were inexhaustible as a food source. (more…)

Posted in The Shelf  •  No Comments

Dinosaur Bones and Brothels

I recently travelled north to the Mongolian border and south to Guangzhou and Macao, working on separate stories about human trafficking and China’s African population. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing some short postcards from each of the cities, since I think they provide interesting snapshots of China today. This one is about Erlian, a Gobi desert boomtown straddling the China-Mongolia border, known for dinosaur bones and brothels.

* * *

ERLIAN, CHINA—In the city’s centre square is a statue of a naked woman with flowing hair holding a globe in an extended palm, the paint chipped and yellowing. It’s the kind of kitsch one expects to find in China’s myriad of forgotten cities, but this one stands apart from the statues of Mao and other Chinese heroes. Locals say it’s meant to symbolize the beauty of Mongolian woman, and in Erlian, there’s no shortage of Mongolian women.

I came to Erlian with a fellow journalist, a photographer, and a Mongolian translator to work on a feature about the trafficking of Mongolian women to China to work as prostitutes. The story idea came to us through simple observation. In Beijing there are several bars that are frequented by Mongolian working girls and the mostly middle-aged foreign businessmen that solicit their services. Last spring, the best known of these clubs, Maggie’s, was abruptly closed and rumours surfaced about murdered Mongolian women. (more…)

Posted in Letter from China  •  4 Comments

Some Goodbyes

They said they would come by my place yesterday afternoon and they did. Out of a small and very used Japanese sedan came a Rasta, a fashion designer, and an entourage.

Our conservative Indian neighbors glared from the protection of their balconies. At my apartment, we prepared for the sudden influx of fashionable-ness by putting peanuts in a bowl, spreading jam on crackers, and breaking out a new box of juice.

The entourage was coming to see us off. After more than two years in Uganda, my boyfriend and I are leaving – we’ll spend a month in the USA and then move onto West Africa. It’s hard to say goodbye to place that’s been home for so long – with all the connotations of comfort and frustration that any place which is truly home necessarily has. (more…)

Posted in This Is Not A Safari  •  No Comments

India, Terror, and Human Unity

AUROVILLE, INDIA — Forty years ago, this was desert. The topsoil had been stripped and washed by the monsoon rains into barren ravines; livestock had consumed the greenery; and the villages could grow little else but millet. Yet in 1968, this site in Tamil Nadu was chosen for a new township. Called Auroville (meaning “the city of dawn”) and founded by Mirra Alfassa, known as “The Mother,” it would be an experiment in human unity. And it would be green, sustainable, and open to all who were seriously interested in such an experiment.

As explained by the Aurovilians:

The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity – in diversity. Today Auroville is recognised as the first and only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness, also concerned with – and practically researching into – sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind.

Today, the experiment continues: about 2,000 Aurovilians from over forty nations are living on the land they have greened. What have they learned about sustainable living? What challenges do they face today? (more…)

Posted in Shades of Green  •  4 Comments
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