When I was 18 years old, I accidentally crashed the first story meeting of Atlantic Insight magazine.
It was 1979, a late winter night before the melt, and I had wandered over to my parents’ house on York Street in central Halifax, from my spartan digs across from the grain silos down by the port, to watch cable TV. I had already seen the first of a two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, about which my father had commented, “Well, I’m guessing no one on that program ever got invited to the Algonquin Round Table.”
I was expecting to view the finale, in which the titular hero Steve Austin meets his match in a race car driver who was having trouble keeping his bionic legs from kicking the crap out of anybody who walked by.
Instead, I found the set turned off and my father and four other writerly wags sitting around his kitchen table, puffing Rothmans, quaffing generous quantities of amber liquid, and rifling through inch-thick reams of soft, yellow paper displaying what looked, from a distance, like the cuneiform of a Dead Sea language.
“Well,” I smirked, “I can see everyone here got invited to the Algonquin Round Table.” My father smiled, but no one laughed.
I didn’t know then, but this was a formative moment in what would become the most influential magazine in the Atlantic Provinces. And I certainly know now, just after the 40th anniversary of the monthly’s birth, how this sleek, delightful periodical saved me from the cultural captivity that was 1970s Halifax, when the highlight of the week was a bionic man who used to be a cowboy in another TV show.
Over the years, until its demise in 1989, Atlantic Insight would win 13 regional and national journalism awards for its reporting and writing, routinely trouncing its richer and more established counterparts (Macleans, Toronto Life, Saturday Night, among others) in the central Canadian media mafia. It wasn’t ever easy.
The founding editor was my father Harry Bruce, who hailed from Toronto’s journalistic hot houses. He recalls fighting members of his own staff to keep a picture of a fire box from becoming the cover of the inaugural, April 1979, issue.
“We had a story about wood burning stoves and a photograph of some guy in a checked shirt looking very rural,” he recounts. “I objected because, I said, this was supposed to be, in essence, a kind of news magazine. If you put this on the cover, it looks like you’re selling stoves. I said it’s a good idea to run the piece, but not on the cover of your first issue.”
He prevailed and the cover featured a dramatic picture of Frank Moores, then premier of Newfoundland, with outstretched arms. It set the magazine’s tone. Still, not everyone outside the office applauded or even accepted the editorial sensibility. Charlie Lynch, a New Brunswick political columnist for Southam Press, for example, said it was “too slick for Maritimers.”
But readers responded immediately. Within eight months of its launch, Insight had 50,000 paid subscribers. The magazine was different and, yet, utterly familiar. Next to an in-depth piece about federal cabinet minister Flora MacDonald, they’d find items about marine blacksmiths and corner fish stores. In one section, they’d read about “apples and eggheads” in Wolfville. In another, they’d peruse the pages for news of “strippers” in Gander.
It was also thick and beautiful. Graced with colour (at a time when many magazines weren’t) and a relentlessly clean design, a single issue in the early years could run as many as 112 pages, neatly segmented into: Sports, Science, Medicine, Politics, Opinion, Small Business, Small Towns, Media, Nightlife, Movies, Books, and more.
And then there were the columns. Ray Guy in Newfoundland, Alden Nowlan in New Brunswick, Ralph Surette in Nova Scotia, the pseudonymous “Fat City Phantom” in Ottawa.
At the helm was a terrifically dedicated and talented crew of professionals: founding publisher Bill Belliveau and his circulation guru, Neville Gilfoy (later publisher of Progress), to Bruce, managing editor Marilyn MacDonald (later editor), and contributor Steve Kimber (later managing editor). For the rest who aspired, or had begun, to become “real magazine men and women,” Insight was a proving ground of the highest and toughest order. It was for me.
I sold my first piece to the magazine in 1983, long after my father had left the editor’s chair. It was about a local radio executive and it wasn’t anything special. But the joke around the family “Algonquin Round Table” was that I was clearly an overnight success, given that my best job to that point was emptying rubbish bins and polishing ashtrays at the magazine’s Halifax headquarters.
Like everyone else, I moved on. Insight remained, though not in the brave, robust condition of its youth. What does? Plagued by falling advertising and bad management choices, it finally died a decade after its founding.
Still, its influence persists. You can see it in the pages of this periodical and in those of Saltscapes magazine, whose founding editor Jim Gourlay was an Insight alumnus. Today he’s a consultant with Advocate Media, which owns Saltscapes and Halifax Magazine. He affectionately remembers those heady days.
“That was the first serious attempt at a regional magazine,” he says, “And, despite the fact no expertise existed here at the time, it showered a whole lot of sparks, a lot of bright and talented people, around.”
Most of them are still around, including me. I’m no longer 18, of course, but when, on spring nights after the melt, I’m tempted to surf the channels of my TV in my house across from the container terminal down by the port, I remember Insight.