Editor’s Note

Illustration by Sara Guindon

• 863 words

Illustration by Sara Guindon

The editorial interns at The Walrus are for the most part better educated than I am. I went to university but didn’t graduate, having discovered my calling in the sandbox that was the student newspaper. Most of our interns are similarly inclined toward careers in journalism, but unlike me they have wisely chosen to educate themselves first. Many arrive at 19 Duncan Street with newly minted degrees from universities across the country and around the world. What they’ve studied—English, philosophy, political science, history, environmental studies—is beside the point. The knowledge they’ve acquired, however obscure, will make them better journalists, if that’s what they decide to become, because they’ll bring something to the job beyond mere competence in the mechanics.

Our interns, four or five at a time, stay with us for six months—long enough for us to show them the ins and outs of magazine publishing. We invite them to story conferences and production meetings. We offer them seminars in substantive editing, copy editing, art direction, and freelance writing. We find them mentors at other news organizations. What they do for us in return is check facts. (It’s worth noting that what they don’t do is fetch coffee—or anything else, come to that.) By the time they leave, they understand that fact checking, while far from glamorous, is crucial in the making of quality magazines, even if it goes largely unnoticed; corrected errors are, after all, undetectable. They leave knowing that they’ve gained a skill—the resourcefulness and intuition necessary to measure the credibility of sources—they can put to good use in whatever field they choose.

Fact checking as a part of the editorial process originated at Time in the 1920s. By the standards of the day, the magazine’s co-founders, Henry Luce and Briton Hadden (its first editor), were almost fetishistic about accuracy. But The New Yorker, launched at about the same time by Harold Ross, took the practice to new heights. Ross, too, was obsessed, and over the years he and his successors created the Vienna Philharmonic of fact checking departments, which not surprisingly was much larger than most. Where fact checkers at other magazines were regarded as editorial coolies, at The New Yorker they were highly esteemed. At other magazines, fact checking was an entry-level job. At The New Yorker, where smart, well-educated checkers got to pore over articles by the likes of Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, Roger Angell, Janet Malcolm, and John McPhee, it was a career.

Why, you ask, would journalists of that calibre require fact checking in the first place? Couldn’t they verify their facts themselves? But in fact, even the most conscientious writers make mistakes, and even the most insignificant errors undermine a magazine’s credibility. That’s why every word in every issue of The Walrus is scrutinized for factual accuracy—and not just once. Was Briton Hadden really Time’s first editor? Is The New Yorker’s checking department really larger than most? And how do we know? Most newspapers aren’t fact checked, so they’re considered unreliable when it comes to corroboration. The same holds true for other daily media, most websites, and the average blog. This means the checker must often seek out primary sources. To verify that Briton Hadden was Time’s first editor, the intern assigned to check this column consulted a biography; and an email to The New Yorker’s head of fact checking confirmed that yes, it still employs more checkers (sixteen) than most magazines.

Since The Walrus was founded ten years ago, hundreds of thousands of such emails have been sent by more than seventy-five editorial interns (the magazine trains young art, digital, and publishing professionals as well). After they leave, we think of them as our alumni. Some go on to continue their educations: Christopher Flavelle (’04) went to Columbia for a master’s degree in international affairs and is now an editorial writer with Bloomberg News. Patrick White (’05) went to Columbia for a graduate degree in journalism and is now a reporter at the Globe and Mail. Others leap immediately into journalism, many—like Simon Lewsen (’11), whose piece on the depiction of poverty in Canadian film appears in this issue—as freelance writers. Still others choose the course I took: editing. Jeremy Keehn (’04) now works as an associate editor at Harper’s. Jared Bland (’07) is a books editor at the Globe and Mail. Natalie Matutschovsky (’03) is a senior photo editor at Time. And Jordan Timm (’07) is the city editor at the Ottawa Citizen.

When we can, we hire former interns ourselves, although only Amy Macfarlane (’06), the senior editor who handled Drew Nelles’s moving memoir about a disabled friend in this issue, is still with us. But in a sense, they never really leave. Having enriched the magazine’s gene pool, they become part of its DNA.

This appeared in the September 2013 issue.

John Macfarlane is the editor and co-publisher of The Walrus.

Sara Guindon has contributed to Worn Fashion Journal and Frankie magazine.

  • Sare Kumagai

    So people work for you, to help you make money by checking your facts…and you don’t pay them.

    That’s what this comes down to.

    I’m sure your justifications make you feel better about the exploitation of your young workforce.

    Have you considered you might get better fact checkers if you aren’t limited to people who can afford to work for free for you for six months?

    • angus

      >Have you considered you might get better fact checkers if you aren’t
      limited to people who can afford to work for free for you for six

      Not to mention the fact that you wouldn’t have to keep training people to fill that position twice a year if you had a full-time salaried employee for the position.

  • Jebus

    So instead of exposure, you hire them to be DNA creators.

    Shameful. The whole industry has been ruined by the culture of working for exposure.

  • angus

    It’s pretty sickening to hear you try to justify your exploitation of vulnerable young people for unpaid labour.

    If you can’t afford to run your company on paid labour, you can’t afford to run your company.

    You do, of course, realize that if you derive any benefit from the labour of an unpaid intern, then that person is an employee, and all of the usual labour laws (including minimum wage) apply? Not paying employees (and your fact-checkers meet the definition of employees) is, quite simply, not legal.

    I’d love to open my news feed next week and see a story about how you got slammed by a bunch of lawsuits for your illegal work practices.

  • Changoose

    If people work for your company and provide value, pay them with money.

    Just because many of your unpaid interns went on to fulfilling positions with other organizations doesn’t validate your slave labour. It just means that they had the good sense to somewhere that values them enough to slip them a working wage.

  • oejit

    The conversation is about the morality and legality of not paying your fact checkers (“interns”) – not the value of fact checkers to the industry or the value of fact-checking to wannabe writers.

    • angus

      Exactly. I think most people would agree that it’s important to have skilled fact-checkers working on articles, and that working directly with skilled writers is invaluable experience for aspiring journalists. We don’t need articles about stuff so bland and uncontroversial.

      Let’s talk about why the Walrus feels like it doesn’t need to obey the labour laws, and why it’s OK to have what is tantamount to slave labour in a first-world country.

  • Sheila Sampath

    What, exactly, is the point of this editor’s note? Is it to talk about the importance of fact-checking in publishing? Or is it to talk about what a good relationship you have with the people you exploit?

    Nowhere in this article is it made explicit or transparent that The Walrus is running an illegal internship scam. But that’s exactly what’s happening. Instead, all I see is that your interns add incredible value to your publication, yet you choose not to recognize that in a meaningful way. Instead of a paycheque, you give them, what, your friendship, networks, an in-group? This perpetuates a culture of classist and racist elitism in the publishing world that seriously needs to be challenged more often, and dismantled. If you take home a salary, so should they.

    Labour that adds value is valuable labour. It’s time to recognize that — and an editor’s note is not enough.

  • bethanyyvonnelyons

    Ah, can I get some context for the use of the term “editorial coolie” in the 3rd paragraph? I can’t help but read that as hella racist language.

    • angus

      That’s because it is. Coolie is not really a word for polite company.

  • Liam

    As journalists you should know any article written in defence of something, especially something being done by the same publisher, is usually an indirect admission of wrongdoing. If you have to defend it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

    The Pyramids of Giza were built with unpaid labour. They didn’t have minimum wage legislation. You’re fact checking and have labour laws, just pay people. Otherwise shutdown this boondoggle of an internship and hire one of your so called alumni full time to do your fact checking. Paying that one person has an oddly legal air about it compared to not paying a bunch of other people.

    • salvagesalvage

      > The Pyramids of Giza were built with unpaid labour.

      False. They were highly paid artisans who were proud to be working on the structure that would enable their leaders to assume the place amongst the gods.

      They had slaves no doubt but they would be doing far more physical labours like mining ores or rowing boats or being domestics. The Pyramids were done by professionals with a passion.

      • Liam

        Ohhhhhh mea culpa, they were built *in part* by unpaid labour. Doesn’t change the fact it’s wrong, hate to break it to ya.

  • okdrew

    Wow… are you bragging about exploitation? I don’t doubt that your interns are awesome people, and that they do an awesome job. It makes it all the more sad, though, that in the very editorial that lauds their value and work ethic you flaunt their non-payment. Such blatant disregard for human rights, let alone labour law, is just plain wrong.

  • Mark

    The Walrus should fact check the Employment Standards Act!

  • scarboroughresident

    You write at the new yorker fact checking was an esteemed career, then go on to explain that the role at walrus is filled with free temporary Labour. So you are trying to say you’re not the new yorker and should not be compared to them?

  • Guest

    How does the snoop in the illustration afford such a nice fedora if he’s working for free? :(

  • Tara Cracknell

    Glad this editorial is here. I had no idea this was your magazine’s practice until I rad about how your whole sham intern scam got slammed by the Ministry of Labour today. I just saved myself some money by cancelling my subscription. I will never buy this magazine again until there is some sort of culture change there. Shame on you guys, I’m appalled.

    • L T

      It’s interesting that the only intern who still has (or maybe ever got) a paid job at The Walrus is this editor’s daughter, Amy Macfarlaine.

  • TariAkpodiete

    A six month internship is quite long. And unpaid? Ridiculous! Ok, maybe if it was once a week for a few hours, but full-time or close to it? That’s sounds exploitative. Who can afford to 20 to 40 hours work for free for six months? Not many people.

    Internships for students should probably be 4 to 6 weeks. And only 4 to 12 hours a week. And they should be paid at least minimum wage. At the VERY most, for a graduating student, it could be 2 months during the summer, perhaps 20 to 25 hours a week with an honorarium of say $1000/month.