The Ontario band’s T-shirt-based news offer had media makers singing their praises

By matching year-long news subscriptions with exclusive merch, Canadian rock band Arkells is playing to the need to recognize journalism as a vital civic service that requires reader support. 

“When a band with thousands and thousands of Twitter followers and a great presence on the scene decide to use their influence to bring to light the challenges that journalism faces in 2020, it’s a real boon for us,” Dave Bidini, founder and editor-in-chief of Toronto’s West End Phoenix, told J-Source. 

With the Toronto Star recently slashing its local arts coverage with the cut or reassignment of seven arts staff by the summertime, “all of that (arts coverage) falls to publications like ourselves.” 

“When there are creative voices of support from other members of the artistic family — like the Arkells — it really means a lot for us.” 

Bidini was not alone in appreciating the Juno-award winning band’s offer. Media makers from Canada and beyond took to Twitter to praise the move: 

Print advertising at for-profit publications accounted for 92 per cent of advertising revenue for community papers in 2018, according to News Media Canada. Yet only 22 per cent of Canadians had print or digital news subscriptions as of 2017, according to the  Local News Research Project.  

An estimated 297 local news outlets closed between 2008 and 2017, according to data from the LNRP, owing largely to the decline in revenues at papers relying on digital advertising. 

As a response to the threats to local news, the Hamilton-based band, whose local paper the Spectator was recently affected by cuts as Torstar laid off more than 100 workers in the fall and shuttered the Spec’s copy editing centre, will provide an exclusive T-shirt with proof of purchase of a year-long subscription to any news publication.

“If you’re an engaged member of your community, you’re probably thankful for the people who report the news. And even if you’re not, you’re probably still reassured to know that someone is keeping tabs,” reads the band’s website. “Somewhere along the way, we took this for granted. We forgot that we have to pay for this vital service, and that reporting the news isn’t free.”

In an interview with the HuffPost Canada, frontman Max Kerman mentioned the staggering number of newspaper closures across the country. “And it got us thinking if there was a way that we can kind of nudge people and encourage better habits. And that’s where the idea came from.”

The band tweeted just a few hours after the initial announcement that they were seeing results.

Paul Berton, editor-in-chief of the Spectator, said he believes “people appreciate the fact that we do good work — not just good work, and not just compelling work, but important work.” He cited the Spectator’s leading coverage surrounding a December scandal where 24 billion litres of raw sewage leaked in Chedoke Creek as an example. Without coverage from a robust news community, people “wouldn’t know what they don’t know,” said Berton.

However, the public at large hasn’t yet come around to the need to pay for journalism as a public service, he said. “The media is important to democracy and we should support it — whether we like it or not. Really, that’s what’s driving this particular effort by Arkells.”

The Arkells’ initiative is heartwarming, said Berton. “They care about the work that journalists do,” he said. “They recognize how important it is for democracy, and that they’re willing to take a stand to do something – I think it bodes well for the future.”