With his newspaper facing an uncertain future, Toronto-based publisher Dave Bidini is determined to get the next issue of the West End Phoenix out to subscribers by the Easter long weekend.
Plans after that are up in the air due to COVID-19 developments. Community newspapers like Bidini’s along with their print cousins in alt-weeklies, often steeped in the now-shuttered local arts and cultural scene, have been dealt a major blow by the pandemic.
Question marks involving funding, staffing and production have grown larger for publishers. When Halifax-based alt-weekly “The Coast” announced last week that it would indefinitely stop publishing its free newspaper, existential questions moved to the forefront for the format and the print medium.
“They were one of the great shining examples of long-standing strong independent media,” Bidini said. “When that domino falls you worry about all the rest, that’s for sure.”
Alt-weeklies, often a gateway to a city or town’s local scene, have been dealing with a double-whammy.
Core content and ad revenue are often generated from local sources including restaurants, music, art, festivals, and theatre. In addition, the newspaper is usually available in places where traffic is now minimal if not non-existent: bars, retail outlets, transit stations, eateries and venues.
“I think if you’re only subsisting on advertising revenue, it’s really tough,” Bidini said. “It’s hitting hard now because businesses just don’t have the money to spend, unfortunately, on advertising.
“I think looking at newer ways of supporting alt-weeklies and independent media has to be part of the landscape going forward.”
The alt-weekly/community newspaper challenges are just the latest blow for print in general, a medium that has been in steady decline for years.
“People’s habits have changed,” said Alfred Hermida, a director and associate professor at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism. “The society has changed and the technology has changed. It’s not that journalism is dying. It’s just one way we’ve traditionally done journalism is dying.
“And very much the economic engine behind it has been so tied to print and display advertising and classifieds.”
The constant wave of pandemic news is tailor-made for mobile devices, television, radio and online. They are go-to options for those seeking immediacy.
Many traditional newspapers, however, remain mired in a struggle to stay relevant with day-after content. They often run the same copy that appeared online, making the format seem even more aged.
“The newspaper is a great invention: you had this thing delivered to your door every morning that told you everything you need to know,” Hermida said from Vancouver. ”(It was) amazing in the ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s. But of course as we then moved to 24-7 news and online news and mobile, then suddenly that need isn’t quite there.
“I think that’s part of the challenge here that in some ways the change is happening so rapidly that the re-imagining of that newspaper doesn’t work fast enough. The need for a paper product that you get in the morning perhaps isn’t there anymore because we all have mobiles.”
The Coast, which is in its 27th year, said it “pared down our staff to just a minimal editorial department” but will still be offering online content.
Vancouver’s Georgia Straight and Toronto’s Now Magazine are two other well-regarded, long-running Canadian publications in a similar alternative urban media vein.
While regional/local in nature, all three have been able to build somewhat of a national presence with solid content online and in print.
COVID-19-related stories held the top five spots on the Georgia Straight’s list of popular online stories Monday afternoon. Pandemic news was also heavily featured on Now’s website.
Both outlets are now showcasing online and virtual events on their music pages, which are loaded with details on the various event and concert cancellations and postponements.
Jeremy Copeland, chair of the master of media in journalism and communication program at Western University, said he’s a newspaper subscriber but his students — mostly aged 17 to 25 — rarely stray from their phones or computers.
“They’re not interested in it,” he said from London, Ont. “It gets ink on your hands, it’s big, it takes up a lot of space, there’s a limited amount of stories you can read, there’s no video. It’s not something I think they will ever get into consuming.
“That said, do they want local news, do they want news from smaller communities, do they want news in the things they’re interested in? Absolutely. But a printed edition, it’s just not something that I think young people are ever going to develop a habit of reading.”
Bidini, meanwhile, was working to clear several hurdles in time for the mid-April issue of his product, which he calls a “universal community newspaper.”
However, he wasn’t sure if the printing press he uses would remain fully operational and his office space in a west-end Toronto building has been closed.
Social distancing has forced him to look at alternate assembly and delivery methods for the newspaper, normally published eight to 10 times a year.
“I think people really need to have something to hold in their hands to read in these times,” he said from Toronto. “Partly as a diversion, partly as a reminder that art and journalism and literature can still be made.”
Significant monetary challenges remain. Bidini said the bulk of the West End Phoenix’s revenue comes from subscribers, donors and sponsors, with about 20 per cent coming from advertising.
With two fundraising events planned for May on “life support right now,” Bidini is considering pay-what-you-can writers’ workshops and courses — online or via the phone — to help fill the void.
“I don’t know if we’ll survive the summer,” he said. “I think the only way for us to really do it, if we’re not able to continue to grow our revenue, is shut it down for a bit and just make sure we have some money in the bank if the skies should clear and we’re able to get up again in the fall.
“We might just have to shut down as an act of self-preservation.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2020.