The Voice of Another Village
How did Now show that an alternative weekly could survive and prosper in the Toronto of the '80s? By getting down to business
The Great American Newspaper, by Kevin Michael McAuliffe.
“We were convinced we could make it work as a business. It seems a bit ridiculous when we look back on it now.”
Alice Klein, executive editor, Now.
On a cold February day last year, Now magazine, “Toronto’s weekly news and entertainment voice,” provided some news (and entertainment) of its own. About a week after its Valentine’s Day issue was dropped off at Toronto’s city hall, (the bureaucracy grinds slowly), Now got itself yanked from the building’s newsstand. For the first, and so far the last, time Now had run an “obscene” photograph: on page 3, a Toronto poet who was known to make full frontal nudity a part of his readings, stood facing the camera wearing nothing but a herring-bone jacket.
Until that moment, the mainstream Toronto media had paid very little attention to Now and its steady rise to prominence among “alternative” publications. Now, however, Now was news. In search of a definition for Now, and an explanation for the offending photograph, The Globe and Mail described the tabloid as an “underground entertainment guide.” But whatever Now may be, one thing it is not is “underground.” Unlike, for instance, New York’s Village Voice, a model for Now during its inception back in 1981, Now has done very little to shake the walls of the establishment. Its success-a weekly circulation of 70,000 through 900 distribution points, and advertising revenues topping $1 million last year-has resulted from a series of sound, often innovative business decisions. Now has made it where other, similarly-intentioned publications have not because the people behind it, notably publisher Michael Hollett, directed it into just the right niche. What Hollett had, in the words of Toronto Life editor Marq de Villiers, was a “coherent plan.” What Hollett didn’t have, was the urge to do it all at once. In an office papered with both the famous and unfamiliar faces that have appeared on Now’s front page, Michael Hollett, at 30, provides some of the background to the Now success story. Hollett, incidentally, may be one of those people with printer’s ink in his blood. Both his parents, Patricia Adams and Fred Hollett, wrote for the old Toronto Telegram and his grandfather, Doug Steubing, was a longtime Tely reporter and senior editor. In the four years between York University and the founding of Now, Michael Hollett worked on newspapers in Orangeville and Georgetown before shifting into PR for a while. In founding Now, however, Hollett reached all the way back to York for people, friends like James Marck and Daryl Jung, currently associate editors. In the beginning, the plans were laid mostly by Hollett and Alice Klein, whom he had also met at York. For a year-and-a-half, Hollett and Klein, Now’s executive editor, formulated a detailed business plan-mostly over long lunches and in between public relations jobs. “There were many underground pap ers in the ’70s,” Klein observes. “Those that survived were the ones that figured out how to make the business end work.”
Hollett began to make the business end work by lining up investors. Money came from relatives, school friends and business acquaintances, many of whom remain among Now’s 20 shareholders. An Ontario government grant helped pay the staff. And finally, with a bank loan taken out in what Klein describes as “the worst year in 50 to take out a loan,” when interest rates were around 22 per cent, Now had its start-up capital. Hollett pegs the figure at “substantially less than $100,000.”
But if Hollett and his people were short on cash, they were not short on ideas. They looked long and hard at successful “news and entertainment weeklies” in the U.S., including the Village Voice and Boston’s Reel Paper and especially the Chicago Reader, which became Now’s closest model. They also looked at “alternative” press papers on the Canadian scene like Victoria’s Monday Magazine which began publication in 1975 and now has a stable circulation of 25,000. The success of Monday Magazine convinced Hollett that “small papers were not inherently doomed in Canada.” Out of this research, Now’s potential market was defined; the 18-to-35year-olds, the tail end of the baby boom. At the same time, Now’s focus was also defined: a particular, special community within the city.
That community was Queen Street West, likened by some to New York’s Greenwich Village, which was the Voice’s target community 30-odd years ago. While Queen West was never physically home to Now itself, it was the centre of New Wave activity in the city, a neighborhood where young artists lived, worked and played. It came complete with renovated lofts, trendy boutiques, galleries, little restaurants and a lively “alternative” bar scene. When Now’s first issue appeared in September of 198 I, to coincide with the opening of Toronto’s Festival of (film) Festivals, its cover story was on Queen Street West, signalling that Now was a publication for and about that community. Hollett’s long-term plans involved expansion of his audience-” As the interest grows you stop talking to just that community and start talking to others interested in it”-but for the moment, Now concentrated on the one culturally-defined constituency.
Until Now arrived on the Toronto scene, there really had been nothing quite like it. The Toronto Citizen, owned by former llayor (and now Globe columnist) John ~ewell was what Hollett describes as a ‘Nowish-type” publication, covering local Jolitics and entertainment on a weekly Jasis. The Citizen lasted five years, folding n 1975. There were a couple of monthlies, like Closeup and Limelight, but their entertainment coverage was generalized and focused.
The closest thing to Now was the Toronto Star’s Street Talk (Straight goods on the good things going on in Toronto). The supplement appeared in the Star every Thursday from 1979 to 1980. Mike Walton, editor of the section, says its editorial approach was dismissed as “fad journalism” and smacked of the ’60s more than the ’70s. Like Now, it was a fast-paced, stylish publication containing movie, record and club reviews with a listing section (an indispensable factor in Now’s success) called Stepping Out. For Now’s staff, Street Talk was an example of how not to fill the gap in Toronto’s entertainment coverage: attempting to do it all at once and doing none of it very well.
Another failure Now’s staff learned from was Fridays. It ran for a couple of years as an advertising sheet, sponsored by a group of uptown shopkeepers. Then in 1979, Greg Quill, now an entertainment writer at the Star, and Richard Flohill, editor of the Canadian Composer magazine, took it over and attempted to convert it into a community bi-weekly. It lasted ten issues before folding under the weight of an accumulated debt of more than $80,000.
Fridays failed, says Peter Lennon, one of Now’s advertising representatives, because of inconsistency and serious image problems. “People looked at it, didn’t want it and threw it away on the subways. So the people that went into the subway saw all this clutter and litter and said, ‘boy this must be a shitty publication’.”
Quill admits the paper died because of problems like weak distribution. However, he says, “We saw ourselves as a precursor to Now someone attempting to define the Toronto experience in a street-level giveaway.”
Now was not a give-away though, when the paper first came out. From September, 1981 to January, 1982, it carried a newsstand price of 50 cents. And some of the newsstands were found at subway stops, which wasn’t the best way to reach its target audience; Now didn’t want to reach only those who rode the subways. In December, 1981, Buzz Burza, the 44-year-old cofounder of The Toronto Clarion, arrived and took over as Hollett’s circulation manager. Burza convinced Hollett to make Now a free magazine. It was about that same time that Hollett fully adopted an important piece of advice taken from Bob Roth, publisher of the Chicago Reader. “He told us to go downtown and put ourselves in the most important places people move through.”
Among Now’s first free distribution points were places like record stores that flash their neon signs along the Yonge Street strip, places where different communities of young people are constantly lining up at the cash register. Now’s, stands were therefore set up next to the registers of selected commercial and entertainment establishments theatres, bars, restaurants and trendy fashion boutiques-the places “Toronto’s young, sophisticated adults,” frequented. Following Burza’s suggestions, the network of distribution points was expanded to include the city’s colleges and universities and even a few speakeasies.
By more closely defining its audience, Now did away with what is called “waste circulation” in advertising circles. “We just weren’t dumping it in hotel or apartment building lobbies where grannies and little kids could pick it up or the superintendent could throw it out,” Peter Lennon says. To further ensure that Now reached its target audience, Hollett phased out the service that had delivered the paper in its first four months; Now staffers started delivering it themselves. Aside from making sure the publication got to where it should be, self distribution provided a means of monitoring the retail distributors’ response to the paper. By reaching its target audience, Now was also reaching its potential advertisers. It’s a concept Burza sums up as “selling the readership to advertisers… potential advertisers could see the relationship between their cash registers and the paper,” It was a concept that worked, right from the beginning. “We used our potential advertisers as a sort of conduit to our readers,” says Lennon. By concentrating on this network of retailers to build up a strong advertising foundation, Now was able to establish its business legs. It was a grass roots type of marketing through which Now could establish both its readership and its viability. This made life much more pleasant for Now’s three-member sales team in the first year of operation. “It was much easier for me to go to some club and say you know who’s reading your publication because you distribute it,” says Lennon.
Joe Fried, manager of the Hotel Isabella, one of Now’s first and most loyal advertisers, watches the Now stand beside his cigarette machine quickly empty of its 400 copies every week. He’s advertised in The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun, but he gets the best response from Now. It’s proof enough for him and more than 100 other weekly advertisers that NOH) is reaching and influencing customers.
But if street-level decision-making was at work in achieving a retail base, that was not the case for the big, national advertisers. Raymond Young, the associate chairman of marketing at Ryerson Poly technical Institute, says retail advertisers can accept that a medium works by seeing if things like their Tuesday specials get a response. But, he adds, this immediate self-testing mechanism doesn’t work with the big advertisers. For magazines, convincing advertisers of the size and type of readership is achieved through Print Measurement Bureau (PMB) figures. Hollett realized that national advertisers, like the breweries, distilleries and cigarette manufacturers would demand similar proof that Now was actually reaching the market it claimed it had. He knew the significance advertisers and marketing experts placed on demographic studies: as Ben Bagdikian wrote in Media Monopoly, “It’s not how many people read your publication that matters. It’s who those people are.”
“We have been called punk, mega Queen Street and trendy. We touch all those bases but we don’t have 200,000 readers with spiked hair,” says Hollett. He says the readership has diversified and expanded; it now includes suburban professionals and executives who “think of the paper as a forbidden pleasure that they pick up every week and tuck away in their briefcases.”
Now has demonstrated its demographics to the larger advertisers through two readership surveys it commissioned in 1984 and 1985. The most recent survey, conducted by Kubas Consulting and Edwin Bolwell and Associates, presents a comparison between the habits and lifestyles of the typical Now reader and those of the average Toronto resident, as established by Statistics Canada. The study, which has become an integral part of Now’s sales kit, presents the average Now reader as a single, 28-yearold apartment dweller who spends more time and money on entertainment, liquor, food, grooming and fashion than the average Torontonian. The reader also tends to pick up Now in the same place every week (always prior to the weekend) and spends more than 15 minutes reading it, referring to it more than once, and describing it as “useful.” The survey was conducted through a sampling of 1,100 readers who returned a questionnaire carried in the publication. Given the reputation of the polling consultants, the legitimacy of the survey has not been questioned by the advertisers Now has approached.
Bob MacNelly, group product manager for Labatt’s Ontario Breweries, a Now advertiser, says the decision to advertise is based on the demographic and circulation information of different publications in a book compiled for them by Scali McCabe Sloves Ltd. The information, according to Craig Dawson of Scali McCabe Sloves Ltd., is provided by the publications themselves. The data is compiled by some of the same established firms that do surveys for the PMB.
Hiram Walker and Sons Ltd., another of Now’s bigger advertisers, had its own survey done to determine if Now was reaching the readership it sought for its schnapps. Jim Revell, account executive from Carder Gray Advertising Ltd., the research firm that handles schnapps, defined that target group as college and university students. The study was conducted at Ryerson, York, Seneca and University of Toronto bars, as well as other places frequented by these students. Now magazine was read by 82 per cent of those surveyed.
While retail advertising, street-level and national, produces the bulk of Now’s $1 million-a-year-plus ad revenue, the classifieds are a major contributor, generating more than $3,000 a week. Once again, Hollett took a bold and innovative approach in the early months. Following the advice of Leonard Kubas, the retail marketing expert whose firm does Now’s readership surveys, Hollett offered the classified section free to his readers. The experiment succeeded on two levels: first, as Kubas had suggested, the healthy classified section indicated to other potential advertisers that Now was indeed being read; and second, it created a habit among classified advertisers that carried over. Since the initial six-month free period, the publication’s classified section has doubled to about 400 items a week. (And Now’s classifieds, especially the often kinky or off-beat personals, have developed a following of their own. Buzz Burza knows “a guy who picks up Now every Thursday and takes it to a local bar, the Moon Cave, to read the classifieds aloud to the customers.”)
The major single source of ad revenue, however, is also one of its original sources-The Toronto Theatre Alliance, an umbrella organization for about 150 local theatre groups. The relationship between Now and the Alliance began in November of 1981, two months after Now began publication. Originally, the decision to advertise in Now was supported by an attractive contract that gave the Alliance a 40 per cent commission on the 700 column inches it agreed to provide. Cash benefits aside, the deal also helped establish Now with one of its most natural constituencies, the small-theatre community. “They [the Alliance] became cheerleaders for us,” says Lennon, who was saved the task of approaching each theatre group individually. The Alliance provided Now with more than $100,000 worth of ads last year. This year, the Alliance contracted for 3,500 column inches in return for a five per cent commission.
And for the Alliance’s part, it has never had any problem meeting its quotas because, as its administrative co-ordinator, Lisa Nabieszko says, the Alliance’s target audience is very much the same as Now’s. Members, like the small retailers, could see their customers-the audiences-picking up Now in their theatre lobbies.
But there was also one other important factor in the Alliance’s decision to go with the still un-established weekly. Jon Kaplan, a graduate of York University’s theatre arts program, was writing reviews for Now. And Kaplan tended to concentrate on productions at the small, experimental theatres that belong to the Alliance, where, he believes, the best work in the country is being done. “He’s a good critic and he gives us terrific coverage,” Nabieszko says. “Unlike some critics who destroy our productions, he finds the good and bad points.”
Kaplan is not in the least influenced by the huge contract Now has with the Alliance. He has never shown any favoritism toward any of its members’ productions. And Nabieszko’s only problem with Kaplan is that he, and theatre in general, are not getting enough editorial space. As of this past winter, there was also a bit of conflict rising over Now’s ad rates. Nabieszko questions the increases which range from 5 to 30 per cent but says they continue to advertise because it’s still the best deal in town.
There is not much question, however, that the Theatre Alliance deal in November of 1981 came along just at the right time. Through that winter the publication was operating out of a two-bedroom apartment on the Danforth. Hollett, and others, were searching for new investors to keep it afloat. The staff, for the most part, worked on partial salary deferrals and for shares in an enterprise they knew-much better than anyone else-was rarely more than a creditor’s phone call from extinction. One result is that they all got tougher-minded about the realities of the business. If Now couldn’t meet its printing bills, it was due in part to the fact that Now’s advertisers weren’t paying their bills. The staff began doing credit investigations and demanding prepayments from anybody whose previous cheques had bounced.
For two long years, Now merely survived. Then it began to prosper. Hollett’s ideas, original and borrowed, began to produce consistent results. And, as he had hoped, his community of readers expanded beyond Queen Street West. His weekly audience more than tripled to 70,000. The niche was filled and widened. And along the way, Now was named “best community paper of the year” (1985) by Marketing Canada, an industry bible of sorts.
Perhaps the greatest measure of Now’s success is the arrival of new competition. Rob Wilson, a columnist with Marketing Canada and an enthusiastic Now fan, believes the launch of the Star’s What’s On section last year, and the launch of the Globe’s new Toronto magazine this spring are directly attributable to Now’s rise to prominence and financial stability. Wilson does not think, however, that the new competition will hurt much. “The nature of Now,” he says, “a bit left wing, New Wave and rough around the edges, I expect will protect it from the competition, just as it has given it a dedicated audience.” Michael Hollett, sitting pretty for the moment in his new Danforth Avenue office, can’t help but agree. “They only make us look more clever and dynamic,” he says. And, having just confided that a French-language version of Now, called Ici, will begin publication in Montreal this August, a venture in which he and Now have interests, Hollett promises that Now will continue to evolve, to keep in touch with what he refers to as “the best readership in the city.”
“We are not finished yet,” he promises, “we’ve only scratched the surface.”
Vida Radovanovic was an Associate Editors for the Spring 1986 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.