End of the line

It’s a news story that’s only slightly less popular than the rise of boutique coffee shops and the resurgence of vinyl.

The death of print publications. Specifically alt-weeklies. Not entirely unfair either: over the past decade the alternative media’s suffered what many regard as a death blow. Prime example: in 2008 the legendary Village Voice was purchased and subsequently gutted by New Times Media a company headquartered in Phoenix Arizona — almost 4000 kilometres away from where the Greenwich Village-based publication was birthed in 1955.

Such a model — buy and slash — was mirrored in the years that followed. Winnipeg’s Uptown scooped up by the Winnipeg Free Press’ parent company in 2005 was fully absorbed into the daily paper in 2012; five jobs were lost as a result. Similarly the San Francisco Bay Guardian was grounded in 2014 after being bought a few years prior by the same company that owns SF Weekly. The Chicago Reader serves as a rare anomaly: purchased by Wrapports LLC in 2012 (which also owns the Chicago Sun-Times) the paper’s still growing in circulation.

They’re one of the lucky ones. Here’s only a few obituaries: Montreal Mirror (opened in 1985 closed in 2012) Boston Phoenix (founded in 1965 shuttered in 2013) Victoria’s Monday Magazine (kicked off in 1975 ground to a halt in 2013) Toronto’s The Grid (replaced Eye 2011 cut in 2014) Knoxville’s Metro Pulse (from 1991 to 2014). Now after very close to two decades (1995 – 2015) it’s Fast Forward Weekly’s turn to join the list. It’s also time to talk about what this means for Calgary.


“We’re feeling the sadness.”

It’s the first and last thing Alice Klein — editor co-founder and CEO of Toronto’s NOW Magazine — says in conversation. Don’t take it as contrived. Even though NOW serves as the largest alt-weekly on the continent (attracting almost 400000 readers a week) Klein somberly remarks that “we’re having a hard time.” The lack of ad dollars is a crippling reality as is the threat of legal action for continuing to run ads for sex workers. But they’re still okay for now.

“Local indie publications are a window into the soul of the city” says Klein. “They feed the creativity and culture and connectivity and sense of community in a way that national and more corporate products just don’t do. For that reason I feel really sad to see your publication go down. The city really needed the work that you were doing.”

Such a perspective appears to be shared by many Calgarians: hundreds — if not thousands (it was tough to keep track) — of mournful tweets and posts were aired following the announcement on February 20 that Fast Forward Weekly was closing up shop (although to be fair and balanced the most liked comment on the Calgary Sun article about the paper’s demise included the quip “Good to see this monstrosity get flushed”). Even the mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi had thoughts on the closure.

“As much as I’m sometimes critical of the media it’s really really important to have diverse views” he says. “The thing about Fast Forward is that you have been incredibly courageous in going after stories and writing long-form stuff that other media outlets have not been able to do. We’re all so much poorer without that fearlessness in your reporting.”

It’s no secret that the alternative press tends to represent a more left-leaning perspective than mainstream publications; the trend’s first wave emerged soon after the climax of the Second Red Scare. Its glory years as Tom Carson — former staff writer at LA Weekly and Village Voice — once put it to Al Jazeera were in the Reagan years when “we knew we were playing an adversary role.” It’s been no different for Canadian examples (many of which were inaugurated in the Mulroney era). But many contend that alt-weeklies helped move the mainstream to the left essentially working themselves out of a job in the process.

“Certainly the city loses something when a paper closes” says Patrick Lejtenyi who worked as news editor at the Montreal Mirror for 11 years. “It always does. But I don’t think alt-weeklies are quite as vital to supplying the kind of exposure that weird acts or alternative news relied on. Everybody’s got an opinion on whatever: the status of women rape culture transgender rights. The stuff that was the wheelhouse of alternative media have become more mainstream.”

Others suggest that times are just as dire as the Reagan years at least in Canada. Pick a terrifying topic: the infamous “anti-terrorism” bill being pushed through the House of Commons Alberta’s stalled climate change legislation the lack of funding to municipalities from higher levels of government the widening gap between the rich and poor. Add in the rapid amalgamation of mainstream publications — often resulting in drastic reductions in staff — and coverage can begin to wane in quantity (and arguably quality).

The Calgary Herald’s newsroom for instance has faced many layoffs and outsourced jobs over the past few years. Earlier this year Postmedia — the company that owns almost all the major city dailies including the Herald National Post and soon all English-language Quebecor companies — committed to heavily slashing operating costs. Tiffany Shackelford executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) notes the situation’s no better in the United States: many daily newsrooms are operating on skeleton crews she says forfeiting local and state coverage.

“In the last election all the major media except for the Toronto Star endorsed Harper” says David Beers founding editor of The Tyee and adjunct professor at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. “You’ve got Postmedia making PowerPoint presentations to the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers (CAPP) saying ‘how can we help you win?’ At this point we’re pretty much a petrostate and petrostate advertising drives a lot of our corporate media.”

Of course alternative media has occupied a significant spot in the digital realm. There’s The Tyee for one an independent online progressive news site. Think of the Vancouver Observer or DeSmog Canada or rabble.ca or the Broadbent Institute’s Press Progress website. All entities contributing under-reported news and left-leaning commentary to the blogosphere. All attracting significant journalistic talents.

But for some there’s something strangely significant about the alt-weekly occupying a physical space. Chris Turner Calgary-based essayist and sustainability lecturer says “it felt like part of the fabric of the city was those boxes on the corner.” Shackelford notes that the process of being able to walk out of a cafe or pub with the paper tucked under one’s arm rendered the alt-weekly the “original hyper-local and mobile product.”

Sean Holman journalism professor at Mount Royal University (MRU) concurs: “Print publications to a certain extent act as a kind of visible totem for the values of a community. They’re an expression of the various constituent parts in a way that a website can never be.”

Holman also notes that alt-weeklies have long served as a valuable training ground for up-and-coming journalists. As these venues fall aspiring writers move on to other sectors. The freelance pool dries up. Beers says that he often worries “about where our next generation of sharp smart feisty journalistic voices are going to come from” later adding that it’s crucial there’s an assortment of venues for writers to tap into.

“If this infrastructure dries up and becomes just a few low-paying websites scattered around the country it’s too thin” says Beers. “You’re not going to support this crucial layer of our public conversation which is our at-large freelancer following their own stubborn nose and coming to editors of various publications saying ‘boy do I have a good story for you you’re lucky enough I’m pitching it to you.’”

The list of excellent writers who got their start via alt-weeklies is absurdly long (and impressive): since 1995 Fast Forward produced the likes of Trevor Scott Howell Mike Bell Tom Babin and Jeremy Klaszus. The late great David Carr of New York Times fame came through the ranks of Minnesota’s Twin Cities Reader and Washington City Paper both exceptional alt-weeklies. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates — easily one of the most renowned essayists in the United States — apprenticed under Carr at the D.C. paper.

One of the more prominent themes in Coates’ stunning eulogy for Carr published in The Atlantic under the very appropriate title of “King David” was the importance of a gentle yet firm editor: “… every single time some editor shoved me down David picked me back up” wrote Coates. Beers echoes the same mentality emphasizing that alt-weeklies often feature a friendly and equipped editor at the helm one who respects the writer and their work.

Lejtenyi who spent six months freelancing for Vice before landing a full-time reporter job at a radio station following the closure of the Mirror agrees. “I do think there is something special about a really well put together paper that makes it a joy to pick up” he says. “I think information’s become cheaper and shoddier without a good team of editors and experienced writers. I think editors are some of the most underappreciated people.

“There’s an appetite for good journalism” he adds. “It’s just not as easy as people think it is to produce it.”


Fast Forward’s readership remained consistent in the 19 years of its existence: last year over 23000 issues were distributed throughout Calgary Banff and Canmore every Thursday. Almost 80000 people read the paper weekly. There were approximately 150000 website views each month. Unfortunately readership doesn’t always translate into advertising revenue. Obviously that can become an issue especially for larger companies that are required to focus on short-term profits.

There’s many theories as to why dollars have moved elsewhere. Skim any article from the past decade and it’ll recite the same offenders: the Internet a lack of reader willingness to pay for news a shift from conventional marketing to viral and word-of-mouth strategies. Whatever the reason it’s resulted in only four English-language alt-weeklies continuing to exist in Canada: Vancouver’s Georgia Straight Edmonton’s Vue Weekly Toronto’s NOW and Halifax’s The Coast. Times are indeed tough.

“We’re going to need to do many things” says Klein of NOW. “Publications across the continent are initiating and devising different attempts to meet the times that we live in and continue to be able to offer independent journalism. It is very threatened. There is no one model.”

Some media entities are displaying exceptional dexterity in the face of such challenges says Shackelford of AAN. Innovation is especially possible in small- and medium-sized markets she says as many dailies in such environments are crumbling and alt-weeklies have the chance to snag some of the advertising revenue and coverage opportunities; Shackelford points to alts in California’s Chico and Sacramento as prime examples in addition to publications in Colorado Springs and Syracuse.

Not every paper has the benefit of securing a monopoly of sorts on the news. That’s where real innovation has to happen Shackelford says and technological advances might play to the advantage of alt-weeklies: while they didn’t have the research and development budget to be on the cutting edge of the Internet age recent progress in the realm of mobile and tablet apps has resulted in affordable opportunities for alt-weeklies to diversity their models.

“No one knows what’s going to shake out” says Shackelford. “We’re all in a crazy lifeboat where we’re throwing shit up against the wall to see what sticks. I’ll go head to head with any suit any daily any time and tell you that tit for tat we’re going to survive. History will be kinder to us than some of the Poynter articles have been.”

Other models are being toyed with. The Tyee relies mostly on two angel investors for funding with an assortment of ad revenue donations and masters classes to fill the remainder. Beers says “Internet advertising is a fraction of what you get from print” and that the hyper-local market alt-weeklies serve — usually picking up ads from pubs and venues — isn’t accessible to his organization (“you wouldn’t go to The Tyee to see who was playing at the Commodore” he quips).

Klein of NOW notes that the social enterprise model’s something worth looking at. Recent examples — namely the patronage program for Jesse Brown’s CANADALAND podcast — may serve to validate that. But Holman who founded and ran the British Columbia-based investigative news site Public Eye between 2003 and 2012 notes that the donation model can be a difficult one to pull off especially when the reporting’s of a political nature.

“It was a difficult pitch to make to people: ‘hey support this website that does journalism but by the way we may go after the political side that you like’” he says. “Especially when the most likely people to read your website are political partisans.”

Turner also acknowledges the tricky nature of the endeavour pointing to the example of the neighborhood bookstore: “everyone likes it to be there but how often do you go and drop down some money?” Shackelford concedes that times are beyond uncertain. Some alt-weeklies will remain strong. New models will also pop up; Shackelford notes that she had three phone calls in a week with people who are either starting up new alt-weeklies or tweaking old ideas.

Despite the news about Fast Forward Holman’s just as optimistic: “There’s still business to be had. Unequivocally. We are fumbling our way towards that. The tragedy is that major corporations who have the resources to experiment with various business models have proven completely unwilling to do that. That is the real reason why the industry is in trouble.”