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July 12, 2017, 10:40 a.m.

This Canadian rock star and author is starting a monthly print paper for his Toronto neighborhood

Launched by Dave Bidini, the nonprofit West End Phoenix has attracted support from its community — and Margaret Atwood.

The West End Phoenix is a new community newspaper launching this fall in Toronto’s West End. While the paper will cover a diverse but gentrifying area in Canada’s largest city, its origins can be traced 3,000 km (1,900 miles) away to Yellowknife, the only city in the Northwest Territories.

Dave Bidini, a Canadian author and rock star (best known as a member of Rheostatics), traveled to Yellowknife in 2015 to write a book on the city. While there, he got to know the staff of the Yellowknifer, the city’s paywalled newspaper that published no wire copy and only local coverage.

“When I came back to Toronto and finished the book…I thought, I’m 53, how can I challenge myself? What can I do differently that I haven’t done before? Then I thought: What about a newspaper?” Bidini told me via phone recently as he biked into the Phoenix’s office.

“I’d also had difficult experiences with the mainstream press here,” he said. “I had a column for the National Post, one of our ailing national newspapers. The space got tighter and tighter and tighter and the money got smaller and smaller and smaller and then eventually I was forced out. So I thought: Let’s create an entity where we can all work and where we all can write. Sometimes you have to reach out and grab it with your own two hands. That’s the force behind us coming up with the idea to do The West End Phoenix.”

With four major English-language dailies and a vibrant ethnic press, Toronto is one of the most competitive media markets in North America. But Bidini said he’s confident there will be a market for a monthly, broadsheet, nonprofit, ad-free newspaper. The Phoenix will have a modest web presence, where it plans to publish a few stories after they run in the print paper and maybe a little video as well.

The Phoenix is scheduled to publish its first issue in October. It’s supported by subscribers and patrons, who contributed upwards of $500 Canadian (US$385). The newspaper’s supporters include notable Canadian authors Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel, among others.

A subscription costs $56.50 Canadian ($43.50 U.S.) for readers in Toronto, $100 Canadian for those outside Toronto, and $100 U.S. for readers south of the border.

Bidini wouldn’t share how much the paper has raised, but he said it needed 2,000 subscribers to become sustainable. Between the high-dollar funders and subscriptions, he said the Phoenix was about one-third of the way to its goal. The paper has a full-time staff of five. Bidini said the paper could ultimately apply for Canadian government support.

Writer Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is a West End resident and a Phoenix patron. She told me she’s known Bidini for years and decided to support the paper because she’s hopeful the paper will give work to local writers and artists and also bring the community together.

“Dave thinks about it in terms of ‘slow journalism’ in the way that we’ve got slow food,” she said. “The way I think about it is more as sustainability. We’ve got sustainable food, sustainable agriculture, sustainable water systems, this nearly global shift toward putting systems in place that are going to work in the long run. This, to me, feels like sustainable journalism. I think it’s going to end up being a model for part of how we build sustainable communities that have sustainable work for artists in it.”

The Phoenix is planning to publish longform profiles and features, investigative stories, and photo essays, along with some of the more traditional elements of local news. “We’re also really excited about taking time-honoured community newspaper conventions and amplifying them to the max: want ads, crime roundups, pet of the month,” deputy editor Melanie Morassutti, a former Globe and Mail editor, told me in an email. “All can be exquisite if you assign them right.”

The paper’s print focus and subscriber-driven business model will allow it to try and stay away from the digital churn. “We don’t plan to break a ton of news or offer hot takes,” Morassutti said via email. “Plenty of organizations are already doing that well. Instead, by sidestepping the digital clamour, we free ourselves up to plan and execute stories that are designed to delight and inform and galvanize a geographically specific group of engaged readers. We’re aiming for a very different experience than smartphone reading offers. And the broadsheet retains relevance because there is enduring value in knowing who the heck the people around you are. That’s got a very long shelf life.”

There’s been a resurgence of late around this type of approach to print. The New York Times, for instance, has begun publishing print-only supplements such as an excerpt of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a special kids edition, or, most recently, an annotated version of the U.S. Constitution. In the U.K., the anti-Brexit newspaper The New European has lasted well past its initially scheduled four-week print run.

Earlier this year, New European editor Matt Kelly told me that focusing on print allowed the paper to attract a higher caliber of writer and also drive subscriptions because readers were more willing to pay for a tangible product. He also said the print newspaper allowed readers to make a statement.

“You can’t visibly demonstrate a website,” he said. “You can’t carry a laptop around and show people what you’re reading, what you’re interested in. But a newspaper is a very visible demonstration of your beliefs, your passion, and what you’re interested in.”

Bidini is well known across in Canada and a fixture in the West End. His personality has been a big driver of what has attracted people to support the paper thus far, said Morassutti, who said she’s known him since she was eight. (He’s married to her sister.)

“I’ve been to dozens and dozens of music and reading events he’s organized where the feeling of community is off the charts,” Morassutti said. “He has artistic integrity and a really big heart, and it brings people together. That’s what a community paper really should do. And that’s also why so many early supporters have said yes to the Phoenix — they believe in print, but they also believe in Dave and know he can take a big-hearted, quasi-nutty idea and turn it into something unforgettable.”

The Phoenix’s staff is working out of the Gladstone Hotel, a boutique hotel, events space, and art gallery in the West End.

Bidini said the paper plans to use the hotel — and possibly other locations in the neighborhood — to hold events, such as literary talks, performances, and even a rock opera.

“The whole idea of the rock opera is that it’s a little bit of a thing that is out of time — like the print newspaper — there are ideas like that that we hope to align with,” he said.

Though the paper doesn’t publish its first issue until the fall, the editorial staff is working with writers to produce stories for the first few issues of the paper. Bidini, meanwhile, has been seeking out potential patrons and trying to attract subscribers.

“For me, every day is spent trying to elucidate the dream and get people interested,” he said. “And also work with editorial and conceive ideas and come up with crazy pages to look at. It’s a whole different game for in terms of chasing down that money and trying to figure out how to make it work.”

He said he’ll be out this month going door-to-door around the West End trying to sell subscriptions, and he plans to also then distribute the paper himself this fall. “I’ll try not to knock over your potted plants,” he said.

But the whole idea of the paper is to unite the community, and already he said there are people in the West End who have already volunteered to help distribute the paper.

“You can do it on bike, and that’s the idea: An army of people within the community delivering the paper,” Bidini said. “Honestly, that’s been one of the easiest pieces. It’s struck a chord with a lot of freaks wanting to get on their bikes, get their flatbeds out, and deliver the paper. It’s resonated somehow.”

Photo of the Toronto skyline taken from the West End’s High Park by Kenn Chaplin used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 12, 2017, 10:40 a.m.
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