Reflections on the Black Press
Left: After enduring six years as editor of the militant newspaper Contrast, Lorna Simms launched Dawn, a much softer, reassuring publication the staff of Contrast had just put the most recent issue of the weekly newspaper to bed. Editor Lorna Simms and production manager Paulette Grant completed the art boards and packed them into a cardboard box. As they waited for publisher Horace Gooden to take the flats to the printer, they began cleaning up the paper’s small, second-floor production room. Both women were dead tired; they had worked until midnight the previous night and nonstop most of this day. Although Contrast considered itself the leading newspaper in Toronto’s black community, it had only a full-time staff of five to produce its 32- to 40-page weekly edition.
Around 9:30, Simms heard noises in Gooden’s downstairs office. She looked out of the production room window and saw the publisher’s white Lincoln Continental parked outside. Simms and Grant took the box of flats downstairs and prepared to show the fruits of their labour to Gooden. The slim, bespectacled publisher greeted his employees and calmly announced that there wouldn’t be a paper this week. Contrast was closing for good.
Gooden explained he had spent too much money on the paper and wanted to cut his losses. Simms, the editor of Contrast since 1985, tried to persuade him to print the final issue. After 22 years of publication, she argued, the paper owed its 10,000 readers a farewell. Gooden refused. “I can’t be bothered with that nonsense,” he said. “This is my paper. Why should I have to explain anything?”
Gooden’s arrogance aside, the question was always whether Toronto blacks felt that Contrast was their paper. It was an outspoken advocate for black rights, and took radical positions on police and immigration issues that the mainstream press largely ignored. But the very partisanship that gave it its identity contributed heavily to its downfall. By the nineties, the black community had become more diverse and was more open to different points of view. In the wake of Contrast’s demise, the major papers in Toronto’s black press have started to reflect the different needs of the community.
The highest-circulation publication is now Share, a weekly that has transformed itself from a toothless, good-news paper into a hard-hitting journal. Dawn, a new biweekly tabloid edited and published by Simms, stays away from political issues in an attempt to celebrate black life in Toronto. And The Metro Word, a leftist entertainment monthly aimed at younger blacks, is trying to emulate NOW’s successful mix of culture and politics. The net result of these changes is an African-Canadian press that more accurately reflects the lives of the over 200,000 blacks who live in the greater Toronto area.
That population becomes more varied every year. Recent influxes of immigrants from East Africa have enhanced the multicultural mix of a community of predominantly Caribbean origin. The black press started in Toronto as a pipeline to life back home in the Caribbean. Today it concentrates on black life in Canada.
Contrast grew out of a paper called The West Indian News Observer which was published from 1967 to 1969. After it folded, the paper’s general manager, Alfred W. Hamilton, launched Contrast as a biweekly in 1969 and increased its frequency to weekly in 1972. Its circulation of around 10,000 was aimed at blacks of all backgrounds, not just West Indians. It was also intended to appeal to blacks across Canada.
Horace Gooden, who had made money from nursing homes and real estate, bought the paper in 1983 and brought Simms on board as editor. The paper eventually expanded from 12 pages a week to 36, but Gooden maintained the circulation at 10,000 to 15,000 copies, mostly given away in black businesses around Metro. “Gooden was always economizing,” says Simms, “even though readers were always complaining about the lack of papers.”
From its first issue, Contrast took a hard line on racism, policing, and immigration. The radicalism persisted throughout the paper’s life. “It is a fact that blacks do suffer great discrimination,” an editorial from early 1989 stated, “not just through racial thoughts or words, but through practice: in housing, employment, education, and civil rights.”
In fighting racism, however, Contrast was sometimes guilty of its own excesses. Simms remembers a morning in 1986 when a middle aged black man walked into the Contrast offices. He claimed that the police were harassing him. Simms asked him for his address and the names of the police officers. The man grew angry and retorted, “Why you asking me all these questions, and why you want to talk to the police? I was on the Contrast front page before, and they never asked me all that.”
About nine months later, Simms was reading through The Toronto Star and saw the story of a black man, with a history of assaulting his wife, who had murdered his wife and two children. She looked closely at the photograph and said “Oh God.” It was the same man. Soon after, Simms sent a reporter to the downtown women’s shelter that was holding a memorial for the slain woman. The workers at the shelter blamed Contrast for reporting that the man had been harassed by police. When the man beat his wife and police responded to the complaint, he would contact Contrast and say that officers had dragged him out of bed in the middle of the night for no reason. This kind of irresponsible journalism was common at Contrast, Simms says. She admits to going ahead with stories that had not been properly investigated because there was only one fulltime reporter on staff.
Contrast’s militancy was a product of the times, says Cecil Foster, editor of the paper from 1979 to 1981. Now a Financial Post reporter, Foster notes how the aggressive mood of the civil rights movement in the United States, especially Black Power, influenced Toronto’s black community. “Protest was the order of the day,” he says, citing the angry reactions to police harassment, immigration irregularities and wrongful deportations throughout the seventies.
By the eighties, however, the mood had changed. As disaffected, militant blacks grew older, many of them wanted to hear about their increasing success instead of their obstacles. Contrast did not grow or reflect these changing attitudes, remaining a soapbox for anyone with a charge of racism or police brutality. Typical headlines in a 1981 edition included: “Elderly Man ‘Mistreated at Mississauga Hospital'” and “‘Police Beat Me Up and I Get Put on Probation,’ Man Says.”
But the booming economy of the mid-eighties created an increasingly passive tone in the community, Foster says. And when the economy soured in 1991, so did the mood of the community. “After the downturn, we felt that we were the first to be dismissed from our jobs and that the few jobs that were open to anybody were in fact going to sons and daughters of people with connections,” he says. Contrast might have made strides in this climate of increasing discontent, but it wasn’t strong enough to survive the recession. Years of alienation from readers and advertisers led to the paper’s financial ruin and eventual collapse.
Contrast’s intransigence proved to be a boon to its main competitor, Share. During Contrast’s heyday, Share staked out a boosterish position to attract non-militant readers; its mandate was to cover “things worth celebrating.” The two weeklies were caught in a game of role-playing, which didn’t make for good journalism. Each paper seemed immovable in its views. When Contrast folded, it allowed Share to establish a new, tougher identity, and cleared the ground for other black voices to emerge.
Arnold Auguste, the forty-six-year-old avuncular publisher of Share, speaks softly in a halting, deliberate manner. He adjusts his square-framed glasses as he recounts his paper’s haphazard progress towards its present status as the black community’s leading newspaper.
Auguste came to Canada from Trinidad in 1970 with less than $150 in his pocket. He worked at Spear, a glossy magazine for blacks, and then at Contrast as a reporter. Publisher Alfred Hamilton fired Auguste in 1978 because of a disagreement over the radical tone of the paper. In April and May 1978, Auguste arranged two bank loans of$l,OOO each and put together the first 3,000 issues of Share in his tiny apartment. He distributed the fledgling paper himself. Share now bills itself as “Canada’s largest ethnic newspaper” with a weekly circulation of 40,200 free copies.
Auguste exudes the quiet pride of a self-made man. He does not easily admit that the paper’s boosterish attitude has changed, until the subject of police shootings of blacks arises. Then his Trinidadian accent thickens, a pained expression spreads over his face, and he finally concedes that the paper has “evolved.” This is apparent from the articles on racism and policing that have run in the past year. What the headlines promise are anything but feel-good stories: “Task Force Calls for Total Change in Policing Ontario” (November 19, 1992); “Police Made Racist Comments” (November 5, 1992); “Race, Status and Police Behaviour” (January 21, 1993). The reporting in recent issues of Share is tough, crusading, detailed and-perhaps most importantly-balanced by an editorial voice more reasonable than Contrast’s. The hard line on policing issues, for example, is tempered with a willingness to look for solutions instead of just reporting the problems. In a column from November 19, 1992, Auguste advocates negotiating with police over use-of-force legislation (which police were protesting because they didn’t want to file reports every time they took out their guns): “Can we compromise? Can we make a deal? What if we agree to give police officers the guns they feel they need. ..in exchange for their commitment to willingly accept the government’s legislation.”
Recognizing when the community itself is to blame is another part of Share’s new-found integrity. An editorial from early this year covering black-on-black nightclub violence notes: “Because of insensitivity, selfishness and lack of common sense by a few criminals, a viable black and West Indian entertainment industry is being severely damaged.”
The Share of yesterday rarely touched on these kinds of issues, focusing instead on what Auguste calls “things worth celebrating.” The May 5, 1982 issue gives an example of this Pollyannish perspective. The lead story, under the headline “Cooperation Needed,” states vaguely: “The chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Canon Borden Purcell, has called for cooperation from the community ‘to make Ontario a better place for all of us.'” Another article, from the February 16, 1982 edition, begins: “Jamaican Canadians have ‘a most admirable record’ in this country, Mayor Art Eggleton said last weekend. ..”
This obsequious approach was a reaction to Contrast, where Auguste began writing a column in 1972. Auguste had come to Canada for a better life, not to fight the system. “That kind of publication made us feel as if we were wrong for coming to Canada if all we do is whine and complain,” he says.
Auguste’s strong “immigrant mentality” was a large influence on his early publishing philosophy. It fueled an emphasis on positive news and influenced much of Share’s format, including a news-from-home section called “Around the Caribbean” which often formed the bulk of the paper. The typical Share from the early eighties also included an eight-page section called “Family,” featuring book reviews, community service messages, an evangelical column called “The Bible Speaks” and short pieces of fiction. One piece in the December 25, 1982 issue begins: “Midnight enfolds the hills and vales, towns and cities of 1982. Christ looks down upon the birthday celebration planned in his honour. ..” Dull, unchallenging writing like this gave the early Share the feel of a church newsletter.
Recently, Auguste has shed many of the sensitivities that made his writing and publishing so cautious. “I’m 22 years in Canada-almost half my life,” he says. “This is my country. I feel more Canadian than Trinidadian.” The changes in Share reflect this change in Auguste. Local news and opinion pieces now dominate the paper, and the Caribbean coverage has been scaled down. “Maybe I’m less cautious in some of the things I say,” he admits. “I’m a lot more comfortable financially. I’m a lot more secure in my position.” This also reflects the changing character of Share readers, most of whom are middle-aged, small-c conservative immigrants from the Caribbean.
“Share’s readers have also matured,” Auguste concludes. “The middle-class people who didn’t want to know about a black community 10 years I ago, who didn’t care about being black, these people are now calling us and thanking us for standing up for them.”
At the same time that Share was toughening its editorial policy, Lorna Simms launched a new biweekly named Dawn to provide some of the soft news that Share was abandoning. After her unpleasant experiences with militant journalism at Contrast, she felt there was a market for what she calls “positive news.”
Launched in July 1991, the 16-page tabloid currently has a circulation of 20,000 to 30,000. It is aimed at blacks aged twenty-five to fifty throughout the greater Toronto area, and is assembled by a staff of two full-time employees (including Simms’s former Contrast colleague Paulette Grant), two part-timers and a host of free-lancers. Dawn’s strong appeal to black and West Indian immigrants is evident in the prominent news-from-home sections entitled “Caribbean File” and “Out of Africa.”
Just as Arnold Auguste had reacted to Contrast by launching a paper emphasizing the positive black experience, Simms wanted to celebrate the achievements and upward mobility of blacks. The editorial content is as homespun as that in the early Share. Under the headline “Black Jewels,” a story from the fall of 1992 begins: “Once again the black community honoured 30 young members of the community in recognition of their outstanding academic performance in various high schools throughout Metro Toronto.”
While Dawn’s unambitious journalism may not have added strength to the black press, it does fulfill the needs of some members of the community. And by concentrating on fluff and community service pieces, Dawn may actually relieve Share of some of its perfunctory elements, giving it more latitude and editorial space to pursue harder news.
The difference between Toronto’s oldest and newest black newspapers is dramatically apparent on the walls of their respective headquarters. Share’s offices, in the heart of the Caribbean shopping district on Eglinton Avenue West, display, among other photos, a glossy, seventies print of black female models with big hair and European features-the images of an immigrant culture aspiring to adopt the norms of the dominant culture. The Metro Word’s walls are covered with Jamaican wood carvings and an Afro- Brazilian painting-the faces belong to the diaspora, the features are proudly African. Here, art imitates Phillip Vassell’s attitude to publishing. The paper’s thirty-one-year old publisher says, “Our different take on issues is a generational thing.”
Vassell is, quite literally, at home with his publication, which he produces in his mid- Toronto apartment. Dressed in a loose-fitting, deep green T-shirt,. he exudes an irreverent, in-your-face confidence. When asked why he decided to launch a new ethnic publication in a crowded, recessionary market, Vassell interrupts: “This is not an ethnic publication. We designed a publication that was accessible to the larger culture. Ethnic represents something substandard.”
Vassell launched “Toronto’s Black Culture Magazine” in March 1992, with the help of “family resources” and a new venture loan from the provincial government. He wanted “a voice for the people of my generation” (which may be Generation X twice over). A staff of three fulltimers and several part-timers puts out Word as a 2S-page tabloid with a free circulation of approximately 30,000. It is aimed primarily at the Canadian-born children of Share and Dawn readers.
Vassell is one of those children. “The other publications speak to my parents,” he says. “That generation is more willing to put up with things-they don’t rock the boat.” Although not afraid to make new waves, Word covers tough issues without going overboard editorially as Contrast did. “Strategies for defusing tensions between blacks and the police,” read one article in the May 1992 issue, “are as diverse as the opinions on the causes. But a nagging issue within the black community is the apparent lack of coordinated strategies among its ‘leaders’ to ensure that gains are made after the protesters leave the streets.”
The coverage in Word not only examines issues but challenges accepted ideas. In the June 1992 issue, Word examined the effects of maintaining strong ties with the home country: “Potential black leaders in Canada-unlike in the United States and especially those in the Caribbean-tend to maintain strong identification with their home islands. This is an understandable attitude but it leads to isolation and lack of unity.”
The most apparent distinction between Word and the other black papers is its entertainment slant. Vassell recognizes that the “entertainment publication” tag makes the Word attractive to advertisers without having to be editorially soft. Contrast didn’t have this advantage and scared off advertisers with its militancy. Word is seen as an entertainment paper that happens to have a political edge. An article on rap artist Sister Souljah in the November 1992 edition stated: “In a telephone interview, Sister Souljah renewed her commitment to empowering black youth and fighting institutionalized racism that prevents them from realizing their potential.” Such rhetoric appeals to a generation that is trying to strengthen its black identity. It is also a generation in touch with its African roots. This Afro-centricity is an important part of Word’s attitudes and is expressed in the paper’s use of iconography such as drums, spears and tribal designs. It is also evident in the language which employs pan-African expressions such as African-Canadian and black diaspora. “We recognize that there are a number of things that hold us together as a community-such as language, style and mannerisms,” says Vassell. “A black magazine should reflect who we are visually as well as journalistically.”
This reflection of a younger, more politically aware generation is the latest in a chain of events that started when Horace Gooden drove off in his Lincoln Continental on that last production night, leaving the completed final edition of Contrast in his office. At the time, Gooden’s decision appeared to be a wrecking ball to the dilapidated structure of the black press. As it turned out, he was clearing ground for mixed-use, new developments represented by the rising pillars of Share, Dawn and The Metro Word.