Ron Garth wasn’t going to sell out just to keep his paper afloat. He needed to find another way.

As the publisher and owner of Vue Weekly, an alternative paper in Edmonton, he had watched the publication struggle financially since its inception in 1995. Dan McLeod, owner of Vancouver’s The Georgia Straight, had owned part of the venture since 1998 and wanted out. Garth had arranged a deal with an owner of several small publications in B.C., but Garth didn’t want to lose control of his paper to a corporate partner.

So on a Saturday night in April 2000, Garth climbed into his old beater and started the arduous 12-hour haul through the mountains to Vancouver.

As he drove, he hoped his impromptu visit would show McLeod that he was determined to keep Vue alive, and prove that, in time, he was set on buying McLeod out.

By Monday they’d agreed to a deal and Garth had his paper.

Nine years later and still at the helm, Garth has no regrets about paying for McLeod’s half rather than giving it up to a bigger investor. “Was it better to survive under those conditions or to just let it go?” he recollects. “I wasn’t prepared to just let it go. It wouldn’t be what it needed to be.”

Independent alt-weeklies once thrived, or at least survived, in cities across the country. But in the late 1990s, they started selling out to corporate owners: the Montreal Mirror to Quebecor Inc., Winnipeg’s Uptownto FP Newspapers and Victoria’s Monday Magazine to Black Press. In 2002, The Calgary Straight, in the same market as corporately owned Fast Forward, folded only four years after its first issue. In other cities, chains-such as Voir across Ottawa and Quebec-have cornered the market.

Big companies now publish alt-weeklies in most good-sized cities and the loss of fellow independents disappoints Garth, who sees no point in offering a corporate alternative to mainstream views. And to him, that’s the reason for an alternative weekly: telling the story that the media giants can’t or won’t.

But Edward Keenan, senior editor at Eye Weekly, owned by TorStar in Toronto, argues that corporate papers like his have their own role to play. While he respects indie owners and what they have to contribute to the conversation, he’s convinced there’s also value in other voices. “When you are an employee at somebody else’s labour of love, everything you contribute is going to be vetted by them,” he says. “And I think a lot of the sort of angry, hectoring dogmatic tone that you see in a lot of alt-weeklies is a direct result of that.”

Even as the competitors snipe at each other, readers may find it difficult to spot major differences between the two breeds of paper. The corporate ones specialize in event listings as well as the coverage of local arts, indie music, film, fashion and some news-just like the independents they replaced or compete with. But there are distinctions. Corporate papers are usually more personality-driven and apolitical. And the indies are not so much labours of love as pure acts of will held together by shrewd owners with deep personal and financial interests in their papers.

While some indie publishers say their corporate cousins are just shallow imitations, tight budgets and harsh market conditions have diluted the journalism in both. And as the market closes in on them, indie alt-weeklies still struggle to keep their identity and independence.

Though Edmonton’s rather depressing downtown has enjoyed a minor resurgence in the past few years, the mini-boom bypassed the area’s west side. Once home to one of the city’s musical hot spots, the neighbourhood now boasts a community college, a Future Shop and parking lots-and one of the last independent alternative weeklies in Canada.

I rap on the window and see movement inside the building. Mike Garth, Vue‘s distribution manager, comes to the door. The 27-year-old tells me his dad, Ron, is across town, but that he’s hurrying to make it back in time for our appointment. He invites me inside to wait.

The office has character. It’s obviously the kind of space the employees have learned to make do with over the years, and through TLC, have turned it into something warm and workable. The walls are exposed brick, and the staffers have modified everything to fit their needs, including room for production and open areas to spin off the editorial talent in new directions, such as online videos featuring local bands and a pod-casting studio. They also converted a hallway into Arts and Film editor David Berry’s workspace, which seems to function, though his wall is a generic cheap bookshelf. But he’s expecting an upgrade: soon his office will be a concrete-walled vault left over from one of the building’s former tenants. To make it homier, his co-workers have given him a picture of a window to hang on his wall.

After a few minutes Garth appears at the door. The 65-year-old is casually dressed in jeans and a pullover, with longish white hair pulled back into a small ponytail. He looks tired as he takes a seat behind his cluttered desk, but snaps to life as soon as I ask: does it make any difference who owns an alt-weekly?

“I’ve heard people say that ownership doesn’t matter,” Garth tells me using a tone of someone who isn’t to be crossed lightly. “Of course ownership matters. How can it not? It’s really hard to be alternative to your own ownership. It becomes not a matter of what you print, but what you don’t print. What you avoid.”

Edmonton’s corporately owned alt-weekly, See Magazine, was once an independent controlled by Garth. But in 1995, the paper’s printer, Gazette (owned by Great West Newspapers, which publishes all 23 of its titles in Alberta), told Garth it was going to seize the paper’s assets. Undaunted, Garth quickly started Vue, and Edmonton is now one city-Toronto is another-where an independent alt-weekly and a corporate paper directly compete.

A comparison of the competitor’s news sections suggests Vue, which has a circulation of about 26,000, has a stronger commitment to reporting on traditional left-wing causes. For example, during one week this past December, See, which has a circulation of about 16,000, had three articles under the News & Opinion label: an editorial, an analysis piece and a feature based on the section’s only interview. Meanwhile, Vue had eight articles in its Front section: an editorial, four analysis pieces and two news features. The same week, Seeopted for an opinion piece on David Swann, who had just been elected leader of the Alberta Liberals, whileVue actually interviewed the politician for its 1,500-word Q&A. More telling is the tone of the pieces. In January, both publications featured articles about how food supplies have been affected by modern times, but sober pieces, including a first-hand account of the Israeli assault on Gaza, are more common in Vue.

See isn’t following any corporate directive to shrug off the serious stuff. However, it appears to prefer more personality-driven fare such as a primer on local vocabulary featuring made-up words and its City Life section. Here writers talk about Edmonton’s cultural scene, and it is usually fatter than News & Opinion. Then come the restaurant reviews and Q&As with people around town, including someone who racked up a $10,000 monthly power bill because he decorated with so many Christmas lights.

The cross-town rivals aren’t impressed. “That horseshit about ‘Oh, two of our writers are quitting smoking,’ or ‘Let’s give some person 50 bucks and see what they do on the weekend.’ I hate that. I hate that so much,” says Berry. “It’s actively lowering the intelligence level of their paper.”

Despite Berry’s disdain for what he considers See‘s lack of commitment to serious issues, he wonders if people recognize the difference between the two papers. “It feels like See is taking the easy way out and, to some degree, getting away with it. I don’t think the average person notices.”

Paul Matwychuck, a former Vue employee who’s now at rival See, says working for the two papers has changed his perspective on both independent and corporately owned weeklies. While Vue covers activist groups and rallies well, he admits, See does a better job covering events, and he cites the City Life section as one of his publication’s strong points.

Matwychuck, who worked for Vue from 1998 to 2006, went through tough times with Garth, at one point forgoing paycheques for several months (though, to his old boss’s credit, he did get paid in the end). After a year and a half at a city magazine in Florida, he returned to Edmonton and became Entertainment editor atSee in 2006.

Though he works for the corporate team, Matwychuck says he now has more latitude to write what he wants. At Vue, for example, editors had to run expansive Snow Zone ski-resort sections, which he considered glorified advertisements. “We would have to sacrifice stuff to run more Snow Zone. It’s just what you have to do to keep a publication alive. But it was just this kind of insistence that because Vue is independent, everything it does is okay. I don’t know,” he says. “It wasn’t that working at Vue was the ministry of information or anything.” But he says he has more freedom now.

TheVillage Voice pioneered the concept of the modern alternative newspaper in 1955. Founded by Dan Wolf, Edwin Fancher and Norman Mailer, after the success of Mailer’s first book, The Naked and the Dead, it provided an arts-focused take on urban life while giving young, talented writers a chance to be published. The Voice assumed there were a lot of people who wanted to be heard, but couldn’t get into any conventional publications. It usually paid little money, but writers kept coming back for a chance to write whatever they wanted. Several hallmarks of modern alt-weeklies-such as the abandonment of impartiality and objectivity as part of the journalistic identity-were born there. It also used the basic advertising model that modern alternatives still use. Ads made up two-thirds of the book, but editors worked hard to maintain the editorial quality of the third that wasn’t.

Of course, after ballooning into a chain of papers itself, the Voice sold out to New Times Media in 2005 and now sits at the head of a corporate-alt-weekly empire.

Michael Hollett, editor and publisher of Now magazine, says if you thought corporate concentration was bad then, it’s worse now. He and his partner Alice Klein launched Now in 1981, which has been an independent since. Now has been so successful that it provides inspiration to Garth, who often looks to the owners of the Toronto paper for guidance.

At Now‘s downtown headquarters, I have an experience completely unlike the one I had at Vue: Hollett’s assistant ushers me in after one of the building’s two receptionists buzz us through to his office. While Garth runs a more hand-to-mouth operation, Now‘s editor and publisher proudly mentions how happy he is to have retained some staff members for more than 15 years.

Now has a circulation of just over 100,000 each week in a city with more than five million people in its metropolitan area (in comparison, Edmonton has just over a million). In fact, it’s generally beefier than rivalEye, which has similar circulation numbers. Now boasts larger issues-often around 104 pages compared toEye, which typically publishes from 44 to 84.

Although Hollett’s paper does have a left-leaning slant, his competition aims to oppose the counterculture tradition of being against everything mainstream with a universal irreverence free of any political bent, according to Keenan. Both papers offer robust reporting on the city and its arts scene, though opinion, which is a lot cheaper than reporting, tends to be more prominent in the corporate paper. Of course, personality-driven content isn’t all about saving money. Keenan says that it’s also “how Eye develops a relationship with its readers. Whenever we’ve drifted away from that, we’ve immediately felt like it was a mistake.”

The real rift between the two papers, Hollett says, is that his competition doesn’t have a mandate. He honestly wonders why an alternative paper would be around if it doesn’t want to be alternative to mainstream views: “They simply have no reason for being.”

That may be a case of trying too hard to dis a rival. After all, Hollett says, “The nature of our kind of paper is many voices under one loose grouping.” But Keenan insists that his paper’s strength lies in its many viewpoints.

Dan McLeod sounds downtrodden and weather-worn on the phone from Vancouver. Although he’s owned The Georgia Straight for more than four decades, he’s far more glum on the future of alternative weeklies-and all old media for that matter-than anyone else I spoke with.

The Straight is not just an alternative to corporate ownership in general, but to a specific monolith: Canwest Global Communications Corp., which controls both major dailies in Vancouver, the Sun and TheProvince. The Straight has survived by keeping its content malleable to the marketplace. Started in 1967 as a part of the Underground Press Syndicate that developed as a more politically active parallel to the Voice, it immediately faced pressure to curb its radical views. In 1969 charges were laid against the Straight, including one for a cartoon of a character called Acidman showing his genitals. “In order to survive,” says McLeod, “we decided to go on an all-entertainment route for several years.”

The move away from politics wasn’t a choice he made happily, and McLeod wanted to get back to saying something as soon as it was financially viable. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1980s, when the Straight broke even, that he felt he could afford to publish political content again and move to an alt-weekly approach. Perhaps because of his stint away from activism, McLeod is wary of edging too close to a particular political ideology.

I return to Vue a few days after my initial visit to check on how things are going as the publication ramps up for press night. Garth is at his desk, looking over huge stacks of files, focused on getting the issue out the door. Over in the next room, the production schedule lists page breakdowns on a whiteboard. Writers and editors are at their desks, pounding away at copy. There’s a buzz in the office, common to most newsrooms, but while the staff can see the deadline in the distance, it isn’t close enough for anyone to freak out yet.

What’s striking is that the owner of the paper is involved and fully aware of everything going on in the next room. These days, Garth doesn’t have much to say about which stories run, but he does try to make sure every staff member fits into his vision for Vue. “I stay out of the way,” he says. “My editors are absolutely free to do whatever they want. But I know those people coming in. I know what their disposition is. That’s why I hired them. Maybe I’m editing people instead of editing copy.”

Garth says publishers can, and often do, hire people who put out a paper their corporate overlords may not agree with. As long as the owners collect money, they really don’t care. “There’s a certain hypocrisy there that’s inherent in a corporate alternative newspaper,” he says. “It’s not just an oxymoron. They tend to lose sight of the meaningfulness of all of this when the corporations want to own everything. I think it’s bullshit.”

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About the author

Janelle DaSilva-Rupchand was the Columns and Sidebars Editor for the Spring 2009 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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