Every characteristic of the West End Phoenix suggests it shouldn’t exist as a viable business. The Phoenix is a not-for-profit, ad-free monthly community broadsheet about Toronto’s west end. It has little digital presence, and yet, it is thriving.
“Somebody said print is the new vinyl. I would never say that myself, but I think there is a kernel of truth in that,” said Dave Bidini, the publisher of the Phoenix, who said he believes the paper has a place in his community. “Unlikely reasons are sometimes the best reasons [to start a business], in a way. When you’re racing in the other direction, you have the lane to yourself.”
The Phoenix’s successful fundraising attempt in May meant the paper had enough funds to expand from a quarterly to a monthly when the paper first launched in October. The paper is financed through a combination of subscriptions—its patrons include authors Nino Ricci and Margaret Atwood—and through programs like a year-long artistic residency at the Gladstone Hotel.
“With Twitter and everything, we can know what Donald Trump is watching on TV at a given moment, but we don’t know as much about our own neighbourhoods anymore,” said Amer Diab, who donated to the Phoenix. “We lose sight of that. So, I thought it was important [to contribute] because the focus was on the community.”
The creators behind the Phoenix don’t allow “culture, the time we live in, or media trends” to push them around, Bidini said. He first voiced his idea to start a community paper last year, to a crowd of artists and writers gathered to celebrate his birthday. Soon, he consulted dozens of experts for advice on this new venture with Melanie Morassutti, the deputy editor of the Phoenix. One of these experts included April Lindgren, who researches the decline of local Canadian newspapers at Ryerson University.
Lindgren was supportive, but said she asked Bidini to be mindful of including a “diversity of voices of people who aren’t rich, famous and successful,” as some in Toronto’s west end can be. Lindgren’s research has shown that new local papers tend to be passion projects, executed by people with access to plenty of resources. “It does force us to ask tough questions about communities where there aren’t a lot of people running around with $25,000, $5,000, $2,500 or even $500 to contribute to a local news start-up.”
Printing the paper without ads wasn’t part of the original plan. Initially, the paper sought advertisements from local small businesses, but then media strategists recommended the Phoenix’s current model, Bidini said. This is where the Phoenix has found most of its success. For the following year, the broadsheet’s pages will be printed for free by a close friend who designed newspaper props for the movie Spotlight. “We had to have those happy accidents take place in order for us to really be what we have had to be,” Bidini said.
Many of the Phoenix’s early supporters and employees hail from Bidini’s inner circles. Julia Hambleton joined the Phoenix in the month before the first issue after the team realized it didn’t have anyone to handle distribution. “I was excited because I felt this was going to be a different kind of community newspaper than we’ve seen before knowing Dave [Bidini], Janet and Melanie [Morassutti] and how they’re connected,” Hambleton said. “That’s really why it’s amazing—because community is about connections, and knowing that, they are going to use all the connections they have available to make something really exciting.”
Plans are underway to introduce workshops to help build the paper’s community of photographers, writers and illustrators at public schools and a women’s shelter. “We can serve our community beyond presenting them with a paper,” managing editor Janet Morassutti said. “We’re really, really agile in that way; because we’re so small we can do what we want.”