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One evening last fall, staff members of Now, Toronto’s largest and most enduring alternative weekly, stood in the publication’s lounge armed with questions, comments, and drink tickets. But, compared to Now‘s boisterous 20th anniversary celebration in 2001, the mood at this gathering was restrained. If people seemed uneasy, even nervous, that’s because Michael Hollett, the paper’s publisher and editor, and Alice Klein, editor and CEO, were throwing a town hall meeting in the guise of a party.

Early in the evening, Hollett and Klein mounted the stage, microphones in hand. After some preliminary remarks, they began taking questions from the staff. The issues were clear enough: “Why is editorial staff lacking?” “Are there any plans for hiring?” “If so, when?” But Hollett and Klein’s evasive explanations?touching on the rigours of competition, the difficulty in finding the “right” people, and not making enough money in the last economic boom?were far from convincing. The pair only managed to confirm what was already suspected: they have consciously been making editorial cutbacks, and the news section has suffered the most.

“We’re forced to do more with less,” says Enzo Di Matteo, Now‘s news editor. “You don’t always get to do the stories you want to do because you don’t have someone there with a great amount of skill and expertise and experience. It’s made our mix a little less hardcore.”

Hollett and Klein’s actions run counter to a widely accepted convention in journalism. George Thurlow, former editor of the Chico News & Review, a successful alternative weekly in Chico Faze, California Faze, and current publisher of the Santa Barbara Independent, was quoted in a 1987 issue of Editor & Publisher saying “People who think they’ll be successful by cutting back on editorial are crazy, especially in a competitive situation.” That logic?”the more money you pump into editorial, the more successful you’re going to be”?may sound like a clich?, but by raising the Chico News & Review‘s editorial budget by 70 percent, Thurlow also significantly raised its ad sales and its profits.

This is a tactic that many American alternative weeklies use to compete with other papers, and they often win national newspaper awards as a result. New York City’s Village Voice, for example, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for its provocative series on the AIDS crisis in FazeAfrica. Willy Stern, the Nashville Scene‘s investigative reporter, has won his paper many national and international awards for stories on subjects such as airplane safety and crooked charities.

But this is a logic that Now‘s Hollett and Klein seem to have forgotten. In a city where Toronto’s major dailies (The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and The Toronto Sun) are locked in the biggest newspaper war on the continent, Now and its competitor, eye Weekly, are engaged in an equally fierce battle?against each other as well as the dailies, especially the Star, which has strengthened its liberal-left character and poured resources into editorial.

In its early years, Now wasn’t considered a strong news-gathering force, but eventually its reputation grew. “When I first went there they didn’t have very much money,” says Stephen Dale, a freelance writer who worked at Now from 1981 to 1990. “But I was impressed by the fact that they had pretty ambitious editorial designs.” According to Dale, Now‘s mission was to keep powerful people honest and to expose injustices, discrimination, and abuse. In the mid-’80s, investigative stories about the conflicts in Central America, Canadian support of a corrupt regime in Indonesia, and antimilitarist movements in Toronto began to appear in the weekly.

Over the years, Hollett and Klein hired?and supported?reporters like Dale and Howard Goldenthal, now at CBC-TV’s the fifth estate, who were committed to hard-hitting news and willing to undertake investigations. But today, Now‘s news department has only two full-time staff members and a couple of interns. The paper has become a commercial success, but it’s missing one primary ingredient for producing a truly successful alternative weekly: a mission to run muckraking investigative news.

When it launched in 1981, Now wasn’t much bigger than a campus newspaper. Hollett, then 24, along with 29-year-old Klein and three other full-time staff members, operated out of Hollett’s apartment, holding meetings around his kitchen table. An editorial mandate in the introductory issue stated: “Now‘s stories will be prepared by writers who’ll spend many days, sometimes weeks, researching, creating and polishing their work,” and promised to hire “writers who are specialists in the area they cover.” Now would expose “what’s really behind the headlines we see in the dailies.”

“We had a huge sense of our whole generation and our culture being underrepresented, and we were outrageous enough to think that we were the ones who were going to do it,” says Klein nostalgically. “We had that sort of blissful ignorance.”

The idea of an alternative weekly wasn’t new. Between 1960 and the early ’70s, today’s baby boomers made up a large group of young people actively participating in a cultural “youth revolution”?one that loosely coalesced around rock music, sexual freedom, opposition to the Vietnam War, and a mistrust of the mainstream media. At the same time, technological advances in the printing industry had lowered the cost of producing a modest tabloid paper. Conditions were ideal for an antiestablishment press?one that ran highly opinionated, shit-disturbing journalism meant to challenge the status quo?to emerge. Soon papers like The Los Angeles Free Press, founded in 1964 and considered the first underground newspaper, and Vancouver’sGeorgia Straight, launched a few years later, began to spring up all over FazeNorth America. By the early ’70s there would be an estimated 400 of them in the United States alone, including the Berkeley Barb, San Francisco Oracle, Chicago Seed, and the renowned and widely imitated Village Voice.

Today’s alternative publications, like Now, can hardly be called “underground” anymore. They are essentially city magazines in tabloid newsprint format, and they vary widely in journalistic quality and ideological orientation. “A lot of the alternative weeklies are cookie-cutter,” says Alastair Sutherland, editor of theMontreal Mirror. “You’ve got a few news stories, you’ve got ‘Life in Hell,’ astrology, music stories, listings, and there you go.”

Indeed, listings and sex ads are the bread and butter for many of them, while others, like The Boston Phoenix, Halifax’s Coast, and Victoria’s Monday Magazine, have exceptionally strong news sections and owners willing to commit resources to investigative journalism. Robert Cribb, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star, points out that this brings prestige to a newspaper, be it a weekly or a daily. “It’s exclusive, and it’s the kind of journalism that gives any media outlet an identity,” he says.

What most alternative weeklies share is a business strategy that appeals to hip, younger readers as well as baby boomers, making them gold mines for advertisers. But some are more commercially successful than others.

Now is independently owned by Now Communications Inc., which co-sponsors the North by Northeast music and film conference, and owns small chunks of other alternative weeklies across Ontario, like Vue in Hamilton and Niagara Falls. At about 120 pages a week, with a circulation of 110,000 and a readership of 369,000, Now employs more than 80 full-time staff. And unlike its competitor, the 11-year-old, Torstar-owned eye, which you can fold twice and slip under your arm, it’s bursting with advertisements, ranging from Future Shop and Player’s cigarettes to Telus Mobility and HMV.

A private company, Now isn’t required to disclose its revenues, but it’s possible to estimate its size. Richard Karpel is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), whose 118 publications across North America generate approximately U.S. $500 million annually. Karpel says Now sits between the 12th and 20th of the association’s top earners. Klein’s view is less modest: “I think Now is, in terms of size and revenue and readership, definitely well up in the top 10?maybe in the top five.”

In the days of the underground press, P & L statements, if they existed at all, represented a distraction from what was really important. Today, Hollett may not wear suits, but underneath his faded jeans and long, greying hair, he seems to be more interested in business than journalism. It wasn’t always so. Now’s relationship with its readers was built, in part, on running progressive news that Toronto’s dailies ignored?such as racial discrimination, affordable housing, and homelessness?as well as providing a uniquely left-of-centre angle on mainstream issues. Sure, the listings and sex ads were cash cows, but Now also broke stories.

For example, in the late ’80s, Now created a stir when it revealed that the federal government had created an unofficial detention centre in a hotel near Pearson International Airport to secretly hold refugee claimants from Iran. Another story, part of an investigative series on Central America, explored government-sanctioned death squads in Guatemala. Now was also a trailblazer when it came to racial issues, uncovering stories about First Nations’ land claim struggles and police corruption involving members of Toronto’s black community long before the mainstream media. And Now hired the likes of John Sewell, urban activist and former Toronto mayor, to provide incisive, behind-the-scenes commentary about Toronto’s municipal political world, and enterprising reporters such as Enzo Di Matteo, the current news editor, and Scott Anderson, a former senior writer.

But after eight years at Now, Anderson left in September 2002 to become associate producer at CBC-TV’s investigative program Disclosure. He says that although investigative journalism should be practised by all media, it’s especially important for alternative weeklies. While the big dailies sometimes get complacent or are compromised by corporate ownership, it’s imperative that alternative weeklies uncover wrongdoings and inform readers about the people behind the scenes?the wire-pullers, the fixers, the lobbyists. “That’s how I saw my role, anyway,” he says.

And that is exactly what Anderson did in 1999 when he exposed a scandal involving Wanda Liczyk, Toronto’s former chief financial officer and treasurer, and Beacon Software (currently the subject of a sweeping public inquiry). “For several weeks I’ve been tracking the history of a lucrative consulting contract between the city and an obscure U.S. computer software company,” wrote Anderson. “A contract that’s never been put to tender, and has remained largely invisible to city politicians.” In his story, Anderson asked tough questions nobody else seemed to be asking at the time, including the dailies.

Now was considered a credible voice on the local scene in terms of politics. “People looked to it to have a voice on a lot of issues in the city and when it didn’t, they let us know about it,” says Anderson.

But today, that credibility is strained. One story that appeared in a July 2002 issue investigated the potential rise of antiabortion demonstrations because of the arrival of thousands of Catholic pilgrims for World Youth Day. The headline alone, “Pushy Pilgrims,” made a sweeping generalization suggesting that all Catholics are antiabortionists, and the copy was severely unbalanced, the line between believer and activist blurred: “Clinic workers fear the more radical elements among the hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims who’ll be in town for World Youth Day…they believe some are planning to use the Pope’s visit to put the abortion issue front and centre.” A quote from Maria Corsillo of the Scott Clinic in Toronto called Catholics “like-minded people,” which caused the next issue of Now to be filled with letters to the editor questioning the research that was conducted for the piece.

“It may be worthy of Now to do some true investigative journalism,” wrote one reader, suggesting that the weekly might have contacted Catholics for Free Choice and pointing out that Quebec?the province with the largest Catholic population?was a leader in legalizing abortion in Canada. “With a little bit of research,” she continued, “you may discover that I would not be the only feminist Catholic out there who is a pro-choice pro-lifer.”

Treated as a quick-hit news story, the piece was an example of Now squandering an opportunity to explore an issue the mainstream press usually ignores or underplays, the story itself weakened by sloppiness or, perhaps, by a lack of the resources necessary to do thorough research.

Although implicit in its original mission statement, it’s been many years since investigative journalism has formally been a part of Now‘s budget. (Hollett and Klein will sometimes fund investigations if a reporter proposes a sufficiently compelling story.) When Anderson is asked about how the recent cutbacks might affect investigative journalism, he says: “You just have to look at the people who have moved on and the people who they have hired to replace them.” Many replacements are young, inexperienced, freelancers. So it’s no surprise that there has been little investigative journalism since Anderson’s departure.

John Sewell eventually left Now as well. In 1999, he took a pay cut to move to eye, where he continues to write his columns. Given Now‘s reputation as a lefty alternative weekly and Sewell’s background in left-wing politics, it would seem an odd move. But Sewell increasingly felt that Now‘s editors weren’t taking his copy seriously. “They do not treat their writers well,” he says. His view on the weekly’s journalism is equally grim: “It’s lost its focus in terms of news in the last year. It’s such a pity. One of my great disappointments aboutNow is that the paper makes a lot of money off of its ads but, unfortunately, they don’t put very much of it into investigative journalism. What an opportunity they’re throwing to the wind.”

In Now‘s defense, Alice Klein insists that investigative journalism is difficult to finance, even for a successful alternative weekly. It lowers productivity?writers often work on one story for a prolonged period?and it usually involves travel, research, and legal expenses. “It is, in its truest sense, a hugely expensive endeavour,” she says. “I love our reporters who have the nose for it and still manage to write a story every week, but we don’t stake our reputation on it.”

But these are the stories that promote a better way of living and initiate positive change. Isn’t that what the alternative press is for?

Clif Garboden, senior managing editor of the Phoenix Newspaper Group, which represents three alternative newsweeklies in the U.S., is also vice-president of the AAN and has sat on its admissions committee since 1995. He says there are a number of criteria that an alternative weekly must meet before being accepted into the association, but doing investigative journalism is not one of them. He does, however, recognize its importance: “Investigative journalism is one of the most valuable things that we do, and we should get more credit when we do it.”

His own Boston Phoenix?as well as some of the other most respected alternative weeklies, like theNashville Scene and Halifax’s Coast?make it part of their mandate. “I think it’s a way to show that we’re a good alternative to the daily newspapers,” says Kyle Shaw, editor of The Coast. “For the news sections, it’s absolutely vital.”

One criterion for acceptance into the AAN is that the applicant newspaper must be independent. “We’re an alternative press,” says Garboden. “What are we an alternative to? We’re an alternative to the dailies. Therefore, if you have a connection with the dailies you can’t belong.”

This is a distinction that long-time staff members at Now pride themselves on. “Independent ownership is a very rare thing in media culture,” says Ellie Kirzner, the paper’s senior news editor. “Our product comes from our relationship to our readers. It doesn’t come from a balance sheet that we have to meet higher up the rank.”

But for the last few years, eye has been challenging Now editorially. “I think Now makes too much of the fact that it’s not owned by a corporation,” says Bert Archer, production editor at eye and former books editor for Now. “On a day-to-day basis, ironically, we are much lighter on our feet because we are run by a big corporation?a corporation that is, in fact, so big that it doesn’t really pay attention to us.”

Even though eye is owned by a big, prosperous daily, its news budget is much smaller than Now‘s. Still, the paper manages to run some investigative journalism. In a series of stories that ran from July 2002 to January 2003, eye exposed a black market hotel operation in Toronto?a group of approximately 20 firms selling condos to people unaware that their investments were underwriting the operation of illegal hotels, which resulted in a provincial private member’s bill. Another example is a recent story that thoroughly explored the local environmental movement’s fears that an advisory group appointed by City Hall would recommend a return to incineration in Toronto without making the information available to the public. “Nobody else in the city touched this,” says Jennifer Prittie, eye‘s current news editor, proudly.

Despite evidence of a muckraking spirit at eye, Hollett, who claims not to read his competitor, is dismissive because of eye‘s corporate connection. “Now wouldn’t exist if it were owned by Rogers or Torstar,” he says. But if Hollett and Klein aren’t reading eye, they should at least pay attention to the Toronto Star, which has been doing a lot of spirited muckraking over the past couple of years. Although dailies often avoid shaking up the establishment, one of many examples of the Star poaching on Now‘s territory was a 2002 investigation of Toronto police officers targeting black motorists, a story that caused so much uproar that Julian Fantino, Toronto’s chief of police, pleaded with Torontonians to boycott the paper.

In this case, which involved extensive research and computer-assisted reporting, it’s obvious that the resources of a huge paper like the Star give it an advantage. But other examples, like a series in 2000 revealing that more than 750 downtown Toronto restaurants had at least one critical food safety violation, or the undercover story that appeared last fall documenting fraudulent activities in the city’s telemarketing operations, are not necessarily costly and would seem natural territory for an alternative newsweekly.

“Any kind of investigative journalism is resource-heavy relative to quick daily news hits,” says the Star‘s Cribb. “But not all of it is terribly expensive. What’s really important is hiring people who have news judgment and the knowledge of which topics need to be tackled and how to tackle them.”

The question remains: if Now isn’t hiring experienced journalists and doesn’t have a budget for investigative journalism, where are all those ad revenues going?

Three years ago, Hollett, Klein, and the rest of the staff at Now made the expensive move from their crowded headquarters on Danforth Avenue in Toronto’s east end to spacious new downtown offices on Church Street. According to Hollett, the move cost Now millions. The ground floor of the building is dominated by a combination restaurant and lounge equipped with a bar and a stage. The menu is health-conscious; the stereo plays tasteful jazz at a comfortable volume; and one wall sports a listening booth equipped with headphones. Copies of old Now covers are plastered above exposed brick. The reception area opens up, making the location a venue of choice for both aspiring musicians and established stars like Tori Amos, who played a private show there in September 2001. The lounge is strikingly reminiscent, in fact, of several bars and lounges on College Street, a strip favoured by the city’s yuppies.

The upper two floors house Now‘s marketing, advertising, editorial, and design departments, and are as silent as a public library (partly a result of the building’s past as a recording studio, Hollett explains). Staff members work quietly at their desks with little interaction?an atmosphere that is eerily reminiscent of the newsroom at most major dailies and contrasts with the lively, clubhouse atmosphere characteristic of Now‘s recent past. Perhaps one needs only look at the paper’s owners. Although Hollett still wears his hair in his trademark hippie fashion and Klein still finds a protest or two to write about, these aging baby boomers are scarcely the young active leftists they once were.

As far back as the 10th annual AAN convention in 1987, there was a spirited debate among the many owners and editors about whether successful alternatives had gone soft. Tom Winship, former editor of theBoston Globe, urged the crowd?a mixture of grey hair and business suits alongside long hair and blue jeans?to “get back into investigative reporting,” to continue going “after corruption the way it used to,” and “not to be afraid to be different.” Former Now writer Stephen Dale echoes this opinion: “There’s always something that the mainstream press is going to overlook, so that leaves an important role for the alternative press. There’s a lot to do and the more oppressive the times are, the more the alternative press has to stand up and do things that are courageous.” Dale says that if Now has drifted away from its crusading roots, “I’d encourage them to get back to it because they have a long and proud history of doing really good critical journalism.”

Although Utne Reader, the Reader’s Digest of alternative publishing, awarded Now its 2001 Readers Poll Award for local coverage, most of its awards are for its layout and website. In the process of making Nowone of Canada’s top alternative weeklies, Hollett and Klein’s company may have become what they’ve always said they despise: a corporate giant that doesn’t consider editorial quality a priority.

Now has the attitude, but whether it has the substance is a different matter. And what’s the point in picking up an alternative weekly if it doesn’t provide an alternative? Ask many disgruntled staffers after last fall’s town hall session about it. Hollett and Klein may proclaim their alternative bona fides, but they can’t disguise that their paper has gone from being a left-wing hippie rag to a slick corporate money-making machine.

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About the author

Kara Aaserud was the Copy Editor for the Summer 2003 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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