On the October 14, 2005 cover, a fried chicken leg sits on a pea-green plate. The cover line reads: “You can’t get it from fried chicken – and other truths about bird flu.” Kitschy covers beckon passersby from inside newspaper boxes with come-hither cover lines such as, “Clicking to Climax,” or “Is There a Place for White Kids in Hip Hop?” On one of its television spots, the voiceover says, “We cover what you care about – unless you care about crap.” It’s free and it’s been available weekdays in paper and online since April 4, 2005. But… what is it? “It’s whatever you want it to be,” says Noah Godfrey, the 29- year-old publisher of Dose.

Dose, a CanWest Global Communications, Inc.?owned product, is distributed in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa. Its only permanent office is stationed inside the CanWest building in Don Mills, but there are one or two reporters in the other cities working on “local teams.” The twenty-four-page publication is aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds. It’s printed on newsprint and looks like a tabloid, but 28-year-old editor Pema Hegan calls it a daily magazine because, he says, “We want to break some of the misconceptions about what a newspaper is.”

Dose’s packaging may look different, but this kind of delivery system isn’t new. Free dailies, or commuter papers, began in 1995 with the arrival of Swedish-based Modern Times Group’s free weekday newspaper, Metro. Since launching its first edition in Stockholm, Metro International S.A. has developed more or less identical products in seventy-eight cities and seventeen countries. In 2000, the free dailies arrived in Canada. Metro, Torstar Corp.’s GTA Today and Sun Media Corp.’s FYI Toronto all launched on, or near, the same day in Toronto. This sudden breakout was a skirmish in the city’s newspaper battle – the National Post had invaded an already crowded market in the fall of 1998, starting a war that continues to this day – but the sideshow quickly became a nuisance. Reports of fiscal hemorrhaging just one year later suggested the offspring were costing their elders millions of dollars. In spring 2001, Torstar Corp. and Metro International S.A. merged GTA Today and Metro into Metro Today. FYI Toronto was a tepid effort and folded in October 2001 after reporting more than $1 million in losses. Then Sun Media went to bat again, launching 24 hours in 2004, with recent editions added in Ottawa and Vancouver, the latter in partnership with the Jim Pattison Group. In between, Modern Times partnered with CanWest in Ottawa and Vancouver and Transcontinental Inc. in Montreal to publish versions of Metro in those cities. Quebecor’s Metropolitain competed against Metro in Montreal until Sun Media launched 24 heures in 2003 as a revamped Metropolitain.

Given the plethora of freebies and the ongoing boardroom vexations over them, it’s hard to fathom the corporate impulse to launch yet another – especially one going to such great lengths to avoid maturity. Keith Damsell, a reporter at The Globe and Mail, covered media from 2000 to 2003, when the free dailies first popped up. He says Dose and competing free tabloids are about building newspaper readership. The idea is to draw in younger readers who will graduate to the Post. “This is the theory,” he says, “but it has yet to be proven.” Damsell also says that although the free dailies don’t cost nearly as much to produce as their paid counterparts, he’d be surprised if any of them made money. He says advertisements are often sold as packages combining several publications owned by the same company. “Actual paper costs and distribution are the big-ticket items for free papers,” he says. “Advertising offsets costs, but the ad market is still skeptical of the viability of the freebies.”

If Damsell is pessimistic, Bay Street is even more so. In mid-January, the Globe’s Grant Robertson reported that BMO Nesbitt Burns analyst Tim Casey, in a study conducted for customers, hadn’t exactly been bullish about Dose’s prospect either. Robertson quotes Casey as saying, “We would not be surprised to see the Post and Dose publications close down in this fiscal year.” Strong words, but it might come back to the editorial fuzziness of the Dose concept itself. The brain trust calls it fresh air for a generation tired of being patronized, while critics allege that it’s a cynical corporate play for advertising dollars. Whichever the case, the publisher and editor don’t have any journalism backgrounds – and don’t care. In fact, to them, nothing could be more irrelevant.

Dose got as far away as possible from team leaders with journalism experience. Godfrey, the son of former Toronto Sun publisher Paul Godfrey, graduated from Harvard with an MBA in 2004 and worked for MTV in New York City. He submitted his resumé to CanWest, and Rick Camilleri, then-president of CanWest MediaWorks, offered him the position in mid-October 2004. Godfrey turned around and hired Hegan, whose background included a stint in England working for a media company that created concepts and content for newspaper, television, radio and the Web. The pair met when Hegan came to the project as part of Rethink Advertising, a Vancouver-based advertising company hired to help name and design the incubating youth-oriented publication. In December 2004, three months into his Dose assignment, Hegan accepted the position of editor-in-chief. Godfrey says, “He understood the lifestyle and perspective of young Canadians.”

The publisher then asked Mark Shedletsky, 31, a friend from his undergraduate days at McGill University and MTV, to become Dose’s marketing director. In addition to the top three positions, many Dose staff are in their twenties and thirties. The idea is that to reach the target demographic the paper should be created by the demographic. And this specific age group, 18- to 34-year-olds, appeals to marketers because they believe these emerging adults, with few bills and fewer mortgages, have the greatest amount of disposable income. Neville Pokroy, president of Toronto’s Stantech Marketing, says that this age group is also open to new ideas and products.

Dose itself isn’t open to journalists poking around. Hegan is one of only three representatives allowed by their employer to be interviewed for this story. When he arrives ten minutes late at the Beaver Cafe on Toronto’s Queen Street West, he apologizes profusely. He’s a trim man of average height with dark hair spiked almost into a faux-hawk – a fake mohawk. With his Kiwi accent and soft voice, it’s difficult to hear him over the din. He tells me he doesn’t like to define his target market by age. “Why don’t you call it a psychographic?” he suggests, saying the term means “certain people with certain mindsets.” The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines psychographics as “the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations, etc., [especially] in market research.” Hegan says content is tailored to “smart, questioning, engaged, savvy and generally urban people,” and that Dose was created because that psychographic was largely ignored. Previous papers designed for them, he says, were created by another generation second-guessing their needs.

Editorial space normally comes at a premium in most newspapers and magazines that accept advertising, but Dose’s pages are unusually crammed with copy and visuals. Short articles, often under one hundred words, leave no place on the page to rest weary eyes. The reader starts at the Home section, with a handful of news blurbs, a blend of weather, a fact, a fortune (“If a strange child insults you today, you will be lucky for the next six months”) and a “future,” such as the November 8, 2005 morsel about a Russian hovercraft arriving in South Korea as partial loan payment. Six pages in the News section supply local, national and international stories, including both original reporting and wire sources. Rub spills celebrity scoop, and the Spread’s double page is reserved for whimsical features. Over the next three pages, Fix dishes on music, books and other entertainment, Go lists local events and Play chronicles sports. Hey asks the question of the day, Covet showcases consumer products and OverDose provides “Sex Advice From Strangers,” a crossword puzzle and nonsensical horoscopes.

It’s taken me a month, but I’m finally inside the Dose fortress. Three weeks after meeting Hegan off-site, I’m scheduled to interview marketing director Shedletsky and publisher Godfrey. “It’s crunch time,” Shedletsky says, but it doesn’t look like anything’s happening. Dose sits on the second floor of the CanWest building, awash in pale purple and an almost-ripe banana colour. Once up the stairs, Dose is right there – no door, not even a wall. Dark pink cubicles compartmentalize the left side; the rest of the large space is open concept. Desks for the approximately sixty-five Toronto employees (about seventy-five are employed by Dose nationally) organize advertising, editors, reporters and designers. At the back of the space – roughly ten times the size of a typical Toronto two-bedroom apartment – is a desk that stretches perhaps six metres in length supporting twenty-four flat-screen computers. This is where Dose staff discuss content without walls interfering.

My first interview with Godfrey was cut short, but a few days earlier I had talked to a part-time copy editor. “Sometimes you have no idea who’s above you and who’s below you,” says Kristen Gordon, 26, who drops stories into ready-made layouts. That’s because, she says, employees “are all the same age.” Everyone meets regularly, though, at something called “Harmony Park,” where the staff discuss what they like about the magazine. “There’s no crying in Harmony Park!” Gordon jokes. “It’s really easy to make fun of,” she adds, though she doesn’t write off the meetings. She thinks there’s something to be said for positive feedback, and overall feels comfortable at Dose: “It’s like a cool newspaper company would be on television. Everybody wears blue jeans and they look like people you just know.” Gordon adds, “It’s pretty open, you can ask questions and not feel like an idiot.” Unfortunately, she discovered after our interview that employees aren’t supposed to speak to the press about Dose.

Talking to Dose’s competition is almost as frustrating. Jodi Isenberg, 37, Metro Toronto’s editor-in-chief, isn’t sure if Dose can be called competition because its industry readership numbers aren’t available. “I don’t want to say no and have my foot in my mouth later,” she admits. Ted Rath, 37, managing editor of 24 hours in Toronto, says Dose is not its direct competition. “The writing is fun, the stories are quirky,” he says, “but a daily newspaper it’s not.” Isenberg and Rath think Dose might be competing with weeklies such as Toronto’s Now Magazine and Eye Weekly, or Vancouver’s Georgia Straight and WestEnder.

Edward Keenan, 33, Eye’s city editor, says no, Dose competes with 24 hours and Metro. In any case, he adds, it’s “a crappy paper, virtually content-free, a marketing trick masquerading as a magazine.” Now editor and publisher Michael Hollett, 50, sees every publication as competition, but confidently says, “We kill them head to head.” Hollett thinks Dose has no voice, no identity. “It’s not Godfrey’s paper,” he says. “Saying it’s cotton candy is generous.”

Competitors in Vancouver aren’t any more charitable. Charlie Smith, editor of the weekly Georgia Straight, declined to be interviewed because he didn’t think Dose was even worth mentioning in connection his paper. “It’s all part of a CanWest spin campaign,” he scoffs. James Craig, publisher of the WestEnder, says Dose is “not on the radar whatsoever” in his city.

Even media critics are frustrated by Dose. Rick Salutin, a Globe columnist who often writes about media matters, has trouble believing the freebie is anything at all. He leafs through a few copies, but has trouble formulating an opinion. Finally, he says, “It’s achieving effortless blandness while trying to look perky and electric.” Frustrated he can’t come up with anything beyond that, he concludes, “They think you can be media savvy without paying much attention to content.”

The Toronto Star media columnist Antonia Zerbisias bears no such frustration. In late January, she posted on her blog that – contrary to most everyone else – she actually likes Dose. “It’s lively, well-designed and always imaginative,” she writes in a follow-up email. “It has so much original content and, unlike Metro and 24 hours, isn’t just a pre-digested version of grown-up papers. While I don’t take Dose very seriously, it doesn’t take itself too seriously either.”

After hearing conflicting views from critics and competitors, I’m not surprised to hear Shedletsky say Dose’s competition is both everyone and no one. Promoting his paper, he says, “We don’t feel like anybody has the same offering of a daily magazine with news and entertainment information, a web that offers breaking news and entertainment interactivity and mobile text messaging.” The day after our interview, Shedletsky leaves Dose to take a new position: marketing director for the relaunched MTV Canada. He says he can’t ignore the opportunity.

A couple of weeks after talking to Shedletsky, I’m back in. This time Godfrey’s assistant meets me and walks me to his office. Godfrey is one of the few at Dose who has an office with walls, painted that same banana colour. He offers a bottle of water from his mini-fridge, which I accept, and a multivitamin from a container on his desk, which I decline. A whiteboard is attached to the right wall and a small map of Canada is stuck to the wall behind his desk. A tube of hand moisturizer sits near his computer keyboard next to a small white tin of Dose mints. Lanky, with ear-length straight brown hair and an alto voice, Godfrey says his day has been busy. I suggest it’s because former prime minister Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government was defeated the night before.

“I guess we were busy with that too,” he laughs. “I meant with the business side.”

I ask about Dose’s logo, which, after much consideration, I’ve decided looks like a pill. “It looks like what you want it to look like,” he answers. Godfrey places a ten-centimetre-long sticker of the logo in front of me. Apparently, I’m not to leave empty-handed. Before departing, I’ll have my own Dose sticker, my own tin of Dose mints and my own Dose promotional CD, boasting Canadian acts including Alexisonfire and Tegan & Sara.

Dose was just one of several names considered for the magazine. “We did a ton of market research,” says Godfrey. They narrowed it down to names like Dash, Lunchbox, Underdog and Grape.

“Grape, as in the fruit?” I ask.

“As in whatever you want it to be – just Grape,” he laughs.

The short list was presented to 18- to 34-year-old focus groups recruited by Youthography, a Toronto-based marketing firm. The focus groups took place in Toronto, but Godfrey says online data was compiled from across Canada as well. “When you’re doing that, it doesn’t really matter where you’re getting them,” and age was the focus anyway. After the short list was tested, “Dose was the clear winner.” Focus groups were also asked how they consumed media. What was missing in media? What would they create? Godfrey estimates two thousand people participated in surveys and focus groups.

It sounds like Dose was built by focus groups but Godfrey retorts quickly, “No way, no way, no way!” Much of the design was based on data compiled by Ipsos Reid Market Research. “We learned that we needed young people to speak to young people, so we pursued the strategy of hiring people who are truly plugged in.” And those who are truly “plugged in” understand that anything competing for eyeballs – newspapers, TV, the Internet, even “a lost-dog poster on a lamp post” – is content.

Results from the Ipsos Reid fall survey conducted on behalf of Dose, posted online November 22, 2005, say the freebie’s readership is 249,000 daily, based on 140,000 daily pick-ups and roughly two people reading each issue. Given that the paper is distributed in five cities with a total population of ten million, many more aren’t reading.

Whether this kind of publication plugs into its niche remains to be seen. Stock analysts say $7.5 million in cumulative losses is not an unreasonable estimate, which falls within the $6 million to $8 million originally calculated for start-up costs. But in January, CanWest announced it would be cutting back both the size and distribution of the publication. The marketers who have brought you Dose are right – younger readers are embracing the technological changes contrived to make our lives easier. And it’s true, they’ve tapped into the younger crowd that takes text messaging and intravenous Internet for granted. But Dose is not – not yet, anyway – whatever its owner wants it to be. If it were, its pick-up rate would be higher and its competition might actually be worried.