Elephant in the Room
Metroland rolls over Toronto with bland community newspapers, but the independents fight on
A little newspaper turned up on my Toronto doorstep at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue in September 2004. It was only 16 pages long, scarcely bulky enough to contain the colour flyers tucked inside. Big corporate flyers, too, like Canadian Tire, No Frills, and Pharma Plus. The flyers outweighed the newspaper four to one.
The insignificant-looking paper, called The City Centre Moment, is the newest tentacle in a newspaper behemoth that has reached into every neighbourhood of Toronto except Parkdale, and the inside delivery to condominiums. The behemoth in question, Torstar Corp., owns the largest daily newspaper in Canada, The Toronto Star, and an ever-expanding community newspaper division called Metroland. The Moment is a Metroland paper, and its Toronto division is called Toronto Community News. The Moment is one of eight TCN papers in Toronto, most going by the name “Guardian” or “Mirror.” Most publish several sub-editions.
Deborah Bodine, the managing editor of TCN, says Metroland is committed to serving all areas of Toronto. Flyers are its largest source of revenue and the company bills itself on its website as providing one-stop shopping for multi-market advertisers. Metroland owns 65 papers and distributes 110 editions across Ontario and is the most profitable division of Torstar. Besides community newspapers, Metroland also distributes specialty publications – Forever Young for seniors, City Parent, Renters, an alternative weekly, eye, andMetro, the commuter daily.
Metroland has a reputation for being a category killer – gobbling up independent papers, scooping up ad revenue, and replacing independent editorial voices with its own bland, feel-good copy. That happened in Port Perry and Oakville.
Toronto, however, is the most competitive newspaper market in North America. Here, local community papers hold their own against the giant. Still, it’s hard to say what fresh local editorial points of view are not heard because of Metroland, especially in new neighbourhoods, or those without a strong sense of community. There is a finite amount of reading time and ad revenue in any city.
Despite its size, Metroland does not have a clear shot at overtaking all community voices in Toronto. Looking closely, I find a local paper in every community, whether or not it’s a Metroland product. There’s the St. Lawrence News Bulletin, the East Toronto Courier, the Annex Gleaner. Toronto is alive with newspaper activity, particularly in the older neighbourhoods. Hundreds of cultural, language, ethnic, and community enthusiasts define their interests with community papers. Even small chains that cater to local interests seem to find a home in Toronto neighbourhoods. It is impossible to tally all their numbers, as many independents do not join an association like the Ontario Community Newspaper Association.
Don Lamont, the executive director of the OCNA, says if there is a need, someone will fill it. “There’s a lot of room for good newspapers,” he says. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter who owns the paper – if it isn’t filling some need, it won’t last, he adds.
Just the same, Metroland can last a lot longer than any competitor. The Moment is an easy read. Its editorial hole is filled with full-colour, front-page pictures of children or school sports teams, two to four news stories, a sprinkling of features on local people and events, a few community briefs, and lots and lots of columns. I used to write one about general educational topics for the Scarborough Mirror for a short time. The content of the columns in The Moment is mostly local – a restaurant review, a gallery opening, a local house for sale, a review of local shops.
Bodine says effort was made recently to bring all TCN papers under one design format – except, it turns out, for The Moment. Since it serves an upscale demographic, it was given a more elegant treatment.
The diversity of Toronto’s population, says Bodine, makes it imperative that each of their papers focuses on the unique character of the neighbourhood it serves. That’s true, but only to a small extent. Forty per cent ofThe Moment is family-friendly editorial content, a scant half of which is local. Many stories could run anywhere in Toronto. Reporter Dave Nickle covers Toronto City Hall stories for all TCN papers. Editorials I found in The Moment are written on topics such as the importance of flu shots, the future of the Toronto waterfront, and how Torontonians can help tsunami victims. It’s a mini Toronto Star on a big ad day.
This is not true of the other two community papers in my area, both of which are also owned by smaller chains. The Forest Hill Village Crier is one of eight community Crier newspapers that, together, serve central Toronto residential areas. They’re owned by Multimedia Nova Corp., whose other community papers are in Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Managing-editor Eric McMillan says his papers average a 50/50 advertising/editorial ratio, and all editorial content is local. “We wouldn’t do a story about something that’s happening in Toronto general,” he says. Crier content is “local, local, local.”
The Crier papers don’t even bother to report from City Hall unless it concerns a local issue, like a recent tree-cutting bylaw that wasn’t passed soon enough to save some 150-year-old trees on Stayner Avenue. In a recent edition, the Forest Hill Village Crier‘s opinion page supported the St. Clair Avenue-transit-lane decision. In another, McMillan commented on how big developers usually get their way over the residents who want to preserve neighbourhoods. A close examination of several issues reveals some stories of Toronto-wide interest, but the large majority are “local, local, local.”
My other local paper, the monthly Village Post, one of six in a privately owned chain, calls itself a newspaper/magazine blend. It has a glossy celebrity cover and a sprinkling of local well-known columnists, like David Suzuki and Rebecca Eckler. Its content is local and offbeat. Heavy with columns and features on local residents like “How We Met” and “Post Graduates,” it also tells me which streets had break-ins in the past month and gives me thumbnail sketches of new business openings. The Post is currently adding new design features. “We are definitely flourishing,” says editor Ron Johnson. The editors of both publications claim a healthy bottom line.
So does Sheila Blinoff at the Beach Metro Community News – but she has the advantage of capitalizing on volunteer spirit. The Beach Metro is a thriving, old-fashioned, small-town paper. Edited by Blinoff since its inception 32 years ago, it’s a non-profit paper with seven full-time employees and one part-timer. It is very much tied into the community, with 350 delivery volunteers. The oldest, says Blinoff, is a 95-year-old gentleman who delivers to houses that don’t have steps. Blinoff limits the number of ad insertions for each advertiser so the paper can accommodate its waiting list. “We are a bit of an anomaly, a very successful anomaly,” she says. “Competition keeps us on our toes – we’re not complacent.”
The Beach Metro takes on local issues with glee. Blinoff is firmly behind the group of residents backing local heritage designation for a segment of Balmy Beach. Local pro development residents had to go to the Beach Riverdale Town Crier, a sister paper to the Forest Hill Village Crier, to get their views covered. A true community debate was played out in local papers.
So where did the local TCN franchise, the Beach/Riverdale Mirror, land on the discussion? They covered the issue “lightly,” says TCN-reporter Nickle. He points out that the paper covers a larger geographical area than the Beach Metro, and tends to stay away from very local disputes. The TCN is being watched very closely by its competitors. Blinoff says the chain tried to buy out the Beach Metro a few years ago. She acknowledges Metroland’s clout and says it could wipe her out in a flash if it went head to head with her paper by undercutting her ad rates. When she retires, someone will have to be found who is willing to put her life and heart into the paper. She worries the Beach/Riverdale Mirror will make its move then.
So far, The Moment hasn’t made much of a splash in my neighbourhood, averaging two letters to the editor per issue. Often the issues discussed aren’t even local. McMillan, editor of the Forest Hill Village Crier told me he’d heard so little from his newest competitor, he thought maybe they’d closed shop. Not likely. How else would I get my flyers?