The long goodbye to Canadian alt-weeklies
On Mar. 5 Calgary’s FFWD Weekly published its last issue, the latest in a string of alt-weekly closures since 2011. As some titles fold—and others move online—what does an urban landscape lose?
In the late morning on Wednesday, Feb. 18, FFWD Weekly editor and publisher Drew Anderson received a conference call request from senior management at Great West Newspapers, the alt-weekly’s owner. “I’d just hired someone on Monday with their approval,” said Anderson, “so I thought, ‘They can’t be closing the paper.’ But there were definitely a bit of heart palpitations.”
Those flutters proved right. Over the call, Anderson was told the ad revenue issues not unfamiliar to weeklies across the country had led Great West to decide to shutter the 19-year-old paper. The Mar. 5 issue of FFWD would be its last.
“Those first five minutes were rotten,” said Anderson. “I couldn’t tell the staff right away, and not everyone was in the office.” Anderson finished off the day, had another call with Great West the next morning and at 1 p.m. on Thursday called in FFWD’s eight full-time editorial staff for a meeting. Over bottles of locally brewed Wild Rose Electric Avenue beer, Anderson broke the news. “It wasn’t long before the gallows humour came out.”
Before Thursday’s last issue, FFWD was the last weekly distributed city newspaper of its kind in Calgary—a situation that’s currently the case for Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Toronto’s NOW magazine, Halifax’s The Coast, View Magazine in Hamilton, Ont. and Vue in Edmonton.
The decline of alt-weekly newspapers over the past 10 years is, of course, not news in an industry with a wider-spread issue of revenue problems and it’s certainly not a trend specific to Canada. Membership for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia in the U.S. has dropped 13 per cent since 2009, and combined circulation of alt-weeklies in the country declined in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
As alt-weeklies such as Montreal’s Mirror and The Hour shut down completely while others, such as the Xtra! chain of bi-weeklies in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, move entirely online in a bid to evolve and survive, is something other than paper lost with the decline of these titles?
There are some aspects of the alt-weekly spirit that, according Montreal writer and columnist Richard Burnett, are simply print-specific.
“What’s sad about trying to replicate the alt-weekly experience online is it can’t be done,” he said. “It was serendipity. Everywhere you went in a day—to the restaurant, the laundromat, on your way to work—the cover would stare you in the face. It would look at you for the whole week.”
The cover’s value, he said, also extended to editorial. A columnist and editor-at-large for Montreal’s The Hour for 15 years until 2011, Burnett said he was afforded better sit-down interviews with artists such as Cher, B.B. King and James Brown in no small part because their PR teams fought for cover status when their tours came through town. “When I say I interviewed everybody, I really did.”
The loss of that “serendipity” effect also has impacts beyond of the experience of simply being outside in the city, said Burnett. In 2014, he led a Canada Council for the Arts-funded project for Quebec’s English Language Arts Network that surveyed the issues English-language artists and organizations have had in switching from old to new media platforms for promotion.
“A lot of these artists and arts companies were not adapting well,” Burnett said. “With the folding of The Mirror [in 2012] and The Hour [in 2011], a lot of them found they were unable to reach sizeable portions of their audience.”[node:related]
Nearly 200 pink and purple Xtra! newspaper boxes currently dot street corners across Toronto. They’ll soon be gone once the Feb. 19 issue, the 31-year-old Toronto edition’s last, leaves stands as the national chain of LGBTQ papers heads entirely online. On Feb. 12, Ottawa and Vancouver published their respective last issues as well.
“Those [boxes] were physical signs of the presence of the LGBTQ community in Toronto,” said Brandon Matheson, editor and publisher of Pink Triangle Press. “Over the years, a lot of people would talk about the first time they picked up this paper in Ottawa, Toronto or when we had Fab magazine. That’s where they discovered their community.”
“However, we also know that there are lots of people who will discover us online.”
PTP closed its biweekly magazine, Fab, in 2013. After spending the spring and summer of 2014 looking at the company’s print and digital properties and planning the next four years of operation, Matheson said the company identified a need to “slowly turn the ship around.”
“Pickup was never a problem. It was always actually quite strong,” said Matheson. Of the 70,000 copies distributed between the three Xtra! cities, nearly 89 per cent were picked up by readers. Despite this, only 10 per cent of the company’s ad revenue came from print operations. What sets PTP apart from most other independent media circumstances is the property that makes up the bulk of that other 90 per cent: subscription fees to Squirt, the company’s online hookup site.
This spring, DailyXtra, PTP’s online property, will launch a new version of the desktop site. “DailyXtra still had a website that belonged to newspapers,” said Matheson. “The new site will be more visual, with larger uses of graphics, and a little less text-heavy when you look at the pages.”
“We’ll also have better video prominence,” he said, referring to DailyXtra’s YouTube channel of 42,000 subscribers.
Like Xtra!, Toronto’s The Grid had no problems with reader uptake. “The Grid was distributed on Thursdays, and the copies were almost always gone by the weekend,” then-editorial director Lianne George wrote in an email. Though The Grid consistently differentiated itself from alt-media as a weekly city magazine, its reason for folding in July 2014—insufficient ad revenue—was consistent with nearly every weekly that had gone before it.
The Grid’s launch as a new iteration of Eye Weekly in 2011 was “a pretty risky time to start a print-based brand,” wrote George. “I’d say our sales team won a lot of business considering all of the forces they had working against them, but it wasn’t enough for us to be able to see a long-term path forward.”
Though George “would have been thrilled to see The Grid continue to exist as a web presence,” it’s hard to say if such a move would have been possible.
“I think Torstar’s vision for The Grid would have required a radical overhaul if it was ever going to be profitable—and then it might have turned into something else altogether, so it’s hard to say if that would’ve been a good thing.”
On Mar. 5, FFWD Weekly published its final print issue. Later that evening, FFWD’s editorial staff and small army of freelancers commemorated the occasion with a trip to the Ship and Anchor pub—“a Calgary institution for 25 years.”
The finishing touches on the final issue. Going to the press at noon. pic.twitter.com/HYGygr0nUO
— Fast Forward Weekly (@FFWDWeekly) March 4, 2015
Until then, Anderson and his team had been busy taking care of a long list tasks involved in wrapping up a print operation: physically carting boxes of paper, supplies and old copies of FFWD out of its southeast Calgary office space; talking to the landlord; cancelling print subscriptions and “figuring out who owns the fire extinguisher that’s hanging on the wall.” Then, once the Mar. 5 issue is off the stands, there’s the work of getting a distribution team to pick up the 1,500 racks and newspaper boxes across the city.
There still aren’t plans on whether it might continue to publish online. “There have people getting in touch to at least make sure the archives are protected, to have that historical resource of an alternative Calgary, as it were,” said Anderson.
This article has been updated to include Vue among a list of alt-weeklies currently publishing in major Canadian cities.