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'Smart on the page, smart on the screen': Canada’s Walrus moves into new digital digs

'Smart on the page, smart on the screen': Canada’s Walrus moves into new digital digs

The Walrus is a Canadian magazine. Published by the non-profit Walrus Foundation, it specialises in words and images capable of making you shake your fist, nod, chortle, feel smarter, and want to eat macaroni and cheese from a box, all at the same time. It's is a bit like a monthly, northern version of the New Yorker, with a twist of Harper’s.

The tusked emblem was selected as an antidote to the tired reign of Canada’s national animal – the beaver – in all its “log-chomping” and “earnestness.” Way back in 2003, the publication’s founders were attracted to the “curmudgeonly but clever, bulky but agile (if only in water)” walrus, not least for its ability to swim “with unexpected grace,” much as the magazine “thrives in its niche environment” – that is, on the coffee tables of Canada’s culturally-inclined, and at the top of the country's list of award-winning magazines. 

Today, the tusked mammal has glided into a new digital ecosystem: TheWalrus.ca. Built to work equally well on any device (five style sheets have desktop browsers, tablets and smartphones covered), and to replace the creaking, seven-year old infrastructure of the old site (WalrusMagazine.com, which won the gold medal for digital design at Canada’s National Magazine Awards this year and last), the new space integrates the magazine’s mix of long-form, fiction, poetry and art with digital extras like Walrus TV, a stream of original mini-docs produced with cable channel eqhd that elaborate upon and add depth to the magazine’s feature content.

Drawing inspiration from Boston Magazine and The New Yorker, the new site is more streamlined than its predecessor. Online Editor and Designer Matthew McKinnon, with the help of freelance developer John Piasetzki, constructed it on WordPress, pulling in elements from Twitter Bootstrap, HTML5 Boilerplate and LESS Framework. Its agility is noteworthy (the video player shrinks or grows proportionately as you resize your window, even while a doc is playing), the revised grey, blue and red colour scheme is subtle, and web aesthetes will rejoice at the retreat of the banner ad.

The decision to nix the banner, according to Nic Boshart, Manager of Digital Initiatives at the Walrus Foundation, had to do with its inflexibility. “The problem with web banners is that they don’t do well on a responsive screen,” he explained while walking me through the new site in an early morning Google hangout. It has been replaced by a unique “Half Page Sticky Box” ad on the right-hand side bar that a reader will only reach if she makes it a certain distance down the page (but which will then stay put as she scrolls on, for maximal eye contact) along with two side bar ads, and three small ones in the footer. These are all designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, to fit in with the site’s reader-centricity.

TheWalrus.ca has made reading long-form on a screen of any size into an art form: subsequent paragraphs materialize without having to load a new page, it is simple to turn an 8,000-word article into a distraction-free PDF, and you can even edit passages out before you print (although some authors may hope you don’t).

Impressive as the carpentry may be, though, the most enticing thing about The Walrus' new habitat is the content it houses. In the time I spent comparing the old and new sites (both sites are still running because the links on TheWalrus.ca are not all working just yet), I learned a great deal about my native Canada. I learned that my countrymen on average eat 3.2 boxes of Kraft Dinner (the aforementioned boxed mac n' cheese) apiece each year, which is around 55 percent more than our neighbours to the south. Flipping on the TV, I climbed inside the brains of two of Canada’s London 2012 marathon runners, and then became re-acquainted with “That Time We Beat the Americans” 200 years ago, also known as the war of 1812. Who would have guessed that Thomas Jefferson had once declared: “the acquisition of Canada… will be a matter of mere marching”?

At least culturally speaking, The Walrus’ new ecosystem is evidence to the contrary. TheWalrus.ca is Canada at its brightest and most charged – a browsable aurora borealis.

Yet in the same way that The New Yorker is relevant to readers far beyond the boroughs, the Walrus focuses its fearless, witty, thoughtful, and, yes, Canadian lens on matters of universal import. Elegant, integrated and immersive, its new digital habitat is perfectly suited to the tusk (sorry) of making whiskers twitch worldwide.


Emma Knight


2012-09-13 15:04

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