Spacing Magazine takes on a national edition and a new mayor
Graffiti Alley is one of Matthew Blackett’s favourite places in Toronto. Tucked behind a kilometre-long stretch of one of the city’s liveliest neighbourhoods, Queen Street West, the area is saturated with art. As he walks past the spray-painted brick walls, he comments on the stencils and scribbles that colour the laneway, identifying artists from their tags. Blackett explains what he likes about laneways while he turns down another corner. “They’re the opposite of what a nice, tidy street is about…It’s like chaos, an overload of senses.”
Although other urban dwellers may view alleys as dangerous and dirty, the publisher of Spacingmagazine is drawn to these hidden public spaces. Blackett believes sanctioning and even encouraging graffiti in designated areas will help make them safer by attracting thousands of visitors. But what he really loves about alleys, wedged behind storefronts and spacious sidewalks, is how they hold the city’s secrets. “If you compare alleys to dating, the front of your house is how you look when you first knock on the door, and the laneway is what you look like when you wake up next to that person.”
After eight years, the relationship between Toronto and Spacing has matured, for better and for worse. By exploring and celebrating Toronto’s urban environment, the magazine has evolved from a fearless advocate for a more livable city to an authoritative voice with connections at city hall—including contacts in the mayor’s office—despite a circulation of only 8,000. Spacing helped topple a proposed bylaw that would have severely restricted postering; convinced city council to reject advertising on garbage cans; and was a leading supporter of the progressive transportation plan, Transit City. The magazine has also won plenty of journalism awards, as well as the Jane Jacobs Prize. This award goes to Torontonians who contribute to the city in ways that exemplify the late urban planning guru’s ideas about enhancing city life.
Twenty issues later, and with a national edition coming out this spring, Spacing has come a long way from the days when its editorial office was a picnic table outside the Art Gallery of Ontario. But city council’s recent shift to the right may mean a loss of clout for the magazine, and a national issue is risky—especially for a publication that can barely afford to pay its writers. Canada is becoming a more urban nation, though, so expanding may be the best way for Spacing to maintain its influence—assuming, of course, the rest of the country is willing to listen to an indie magazine from Toronto.
Spacing’s inaugural issue in 2003 featured a bold statement across the cover: “The fight to save postering.” City council planned to curtail the display of posters on many utility poles in Toronto, a bylaw that community advocates argued would restrict freedom of expression, as well as a vital form of communication. Journalists, artists and activists discussed how to fight the proposed bylaw at meetings organized by the Toronto Public Space Committee, a grassroots group created in 2001 to protect public spaces from private interests. Blackett was an original member, and at the group’s gatherings he met Todd Harrison, Dale Duncan, Dylan Reid, Todd Irvine and Lindsay Gibb, all of whom would later become the magazine’s founding editors. Determined to speak for the city’s neglected spaces—the forgotten bike lanes, the abandoned park, the poorly developed waterfront—they created Spacing.
Of the six editors, Blackett had the most experience in the magazine industry. He studied journalism at Carleton University for a year before transferring to Humber College in Toronto’s west end. While he always had a penchant for city life—as a suburban teenager, he liked to browse through the cycling shops in downtown Toronto—he wanted to be a sports reporter in his post-secondary days. “I thought I could cover hockey because I knew a lot about it. Then I realized there were five other guys just in my year alone who wanted to be a sports reporter too.” At the same time, he was drawing comic strips under the pen name “m@b.” Printed inEye Weekly, an alternative publication based in Toronto, m@b featured snippets of conversation that Blackett overheard in the city. He later collected the strips and created self-published booklets, which he launched at fundraising parties—a strategy he repeated successfully with Spacing.
Although some people questioned the magazine’s decision to start with print, blogs were not yet an established medium for journalism and the editors believed a slick and sexy magazine was the only way city hall would take them seriously. After all, they were a bunch of twenty-and thirtysomethings touting more radical ideas than the press gallery. Following a year of story meetings, kitchen-table editing sessions and a fundraising party, they had their first issue: 40 glossy black-and-white pages in landscape format, a symbol that Spacing was going to be different.
The magazine is published three times a year, and each issue has a different theme: examples include water, city hall, the car and the city, pedestrians and urban wildlife. The content ranges from short, whimsical pieces about the mundane (manhole covers, power lines, street signs) to full-length features on the future of transit, or the evolution of the suburbs. The hodgepodge of contributors includes respected journalists and first-time writers, professors and experts, and unpaid but faithful interns. The magazine avoids appearing too political or too fluffy, too technical or too “urban planning for dummies.”
Other news organizations cover municipal issues once they’re brought up in city hall, but “Spacing’s activism didn’t come from academia or a professional perspective,” says Councillor Adam Vaughan. “It came from the street up, and it came from young people who were living in the conditions they were talking about.” When the magazine began, it wasn’t afraid to wage war against city hall, lambaste politicians, and offer thoughtful solutions. Senior editor Shawn Micallef says getting interviews with councillors or city staff wasn’t easy at first, but “after a while, the phone calls and e-mails got returned rather quickly and other folks started referring to Spacing. That’s when it felt like this thing was starting to have an impact.”
Spacing hasn’t been the only publication to influence city hall. Novae Res Urbis, a weekly electronic publication that focuses on urban planning and municipal issues, was also once well read by those at city hall. Urban affairs writer Jonathan Goldsbie says that when the publication’s co-founder Bruce Davis left in 2004, Novae Res Urbis’s presence began to dwindle. “I feel like Spacing’s rise is partially due to the decline of the nru and that it was filling this gap,” says Goldsbie. City Magazine—founded in 1974—thrived a few years after the height of civic activism in Toronto, when citizens stopped the Spadina Expressway and plans for other inner-city highways. “[City Magazine] was really hard-hitting, biting, certainly left of centre,” says Mitchell Kosny, an urban planning professor at Ryerson University. “Now it had an impact.“ But when founding editor Kent Gerecke died, the magazine’s influence faded.
Some of Spacing’s initial success was due to a resurgence of interest in urban activism, as if the beast that halted the project for Spadina Avenue had risen from a deep sleep. “There seemed to be this growing wave of reawakening, a renaissance of Toronto-ness,” says Micallef.Toronto Star urban affairs writer Christopher Hume, who has also written for Spacing, says the magazine captured the reinvigorated energy. “The timing was great because there was a new interest in the public realm and the city as a place rather than a corporation, so it was very much a product of the times.” The launch also coincided with the beginning of David Miller’s first term as mayor, and a swing to the left on council, so it’s no surprise that Blackett keeps a finger puppet of the former mayor on his desk.
Miller’s office looks bare as he prepares to leave. In mere weeks, Rob Ford—the red-faced and rotund suburban councillor who won over voters with a platform that was the antithesis of Miller’s—will move into city hall as mayor. The bookcases are empty and most of the art that decorated the walls is already packed away. “I made a point of just going out and chatting with people,” Miller says, “and Spacing was in a way a shortcut for that because of the youth, energy and thoughtfulness of the editors.” On his desk, which is still covered in papers and family photos, are one-inch buttons featuring different neighbourhoods in Toronto. Spacingdesigns and sells the buttons to raise money, and Miller was quick to adopt them as a staple fashion accessory. He begins examining his collection, momentarily distracted from the conversation. “I am sorry. I was just looking for the Parkdale button. I want to wear it.” He tries to find his other pins—the ones of subway station tile designs—heads over to his large storage closet to look, and then realizes the buttons are gone. The city archives requested them as a part of the mayor’s legacy. Miller gushes that he previously had them all carefully arranged to mimic the city’s subway lines.
Spacing and Miller had a good rapport. Blackett could reach Miller through texts or would send direct messages on Twitter. Miller even invited Blackett to sit on one of the mayor’s citizen committees. A month into Rob Ford’s term, Blackett still referred to Miller as “the mayor.” Goldsbie says, “Spacing became ridiculously influential within the mayor’s office and within that entire sphere.”
Indeed, city councillors paid attention to the magazine. Spacing’s journalists are urban geeks with niche specialties—street furniture, cycling, laneways—and thoughts on policy that are invaluable to likeminded councillors. “They like Toronto for all the finicky, quirky, nerdy details and there was nobody doing that,” says urban affairs journalist and Spacing contributor John Lorinc. Vaughan even hired then-executive editor Dale Duncan to be one of his constituency assistants.
While the magazine provides the context, Spacing’s blog covers the breaking news. Goldsbie says it acts as a news wire for the rest of the media. “Putting something up on the Spacing blog is kind of like putting out a press release. When something was published, it was freaking everywhere. Stuff got passed around city council.” And councillors would often engage with readers and writers in the comment threads.
Despite their close ties, the magazine wasn’t afraid to criticize Miller. “There’s an iron-clad rule in politics that politicians are much more willing to do stuff if someone else is pushing them,” says Lorinc. “Spacing’s role was to push the former mayor and the former council.” It pushed hard in 2006 when council and the marketing company EUCAN proposed attaching eight-foot-tall illuminated billboards to new garbage bins. Spacing argued that the plan not only gave advertisers too much prominence in public spaces, but the poor design also compromised the bins’ very function. The magazine began campaigning heavily against the proposal with stories in print and online. Miller now admits, “Their thinking about all of this was very influential on how I thought about the contract and how it ended up.”
Spacing also wrote about the need to expand transit for years before Miller proposed Transit City, a European-inspired light rail network that would connect the downtown core to the inner suburbs. Spacing’s already done the legwork out in the community by the time an issue the magazine’s concerned about gets to city hall, says Vaughan. “Showing up at city hall is almost like an afterthought.” Ford, however, cancelled the project soon after becoming mayor.
But Blackett wasn’t just a journalist covering Transit City: he also designed the marketing materials, including the logo and route map. He confesses he blurred the ethical line as a journalist, but says his role is to advocate for a better city, even if that means working for an institution he’s supposed to hold accountable.
“I’m wearing pink for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything,” barked Don Cherry, clad in a bright fuchsia suit at Ford’s inauguration in December. By the next day,Spacing had designed “left-wing pinko” and “bike-riding pinko” buttons and magnets. Within five days, the memorabilia had generated $16,000 in revenue, and by the end of the month, the take had climbed to over $30,000—about the cost of putting out an issue. Blackett has embossed other historic moments on buttons too. Just two hours after a mild earthquake in June 2010, he designed and produced 400 “I survived the quake!” pins. They sold out in two hours. Spacing’s subway buttons are so common in Toronto that many people wear them without realizing the connection to the magazine. “We thought they would give us a few hundred dollars each issue,” says Blackett. “In reality, they gave us thousands of dollars to supplement advertising.”
A magazine cannot survive on one-inch buttons, though. The looming malady Spacing faces is a problem that affects the whole print industry: fewer subscribers and fewer advertisers. Magazine consultant D.B. Scott says that despite good single-issue sales on newsstands,Spacing doesn’t have a strong subscriber base. Since industry-wide single-copy sales have been steadily declining for 30 years, it’s hard for a magazine to financially sustain itself using this business model. One possible solution is teaming up with interest groups or associations willing to buy the magazine in bulk. But, says Scott, “If you’re a feisty publication, being in an alliance with someone can blunt your edge. You have to pull your punch a little because you don’t want to offend the people you’re aligned with.” He warns there’s a big gulf between being highly regarded and being profitable. “The graveyard is full of magazines that have lots of awards but haven’t been able to sustain themselves as businesses.” Advertising is another problem for Spacing, as ad revenue only covers around 60 percent of production costs.
The magazine stays alive because of the dedicated volunteers who stuff envelopes and work the launch parties, and the journalists who write for a pittance. “Matt pays $150 for [one of my] columns,” says Lorinc. “I could make $1,000 for the same amount of writing in a different publication.” This side of the business—the part that doesn’t include making witty buttons and canoodling with politicians—deeply concerns Blackett. He wishes he could afford to assign writers more in-depth, investigative pieces—as well as pay his staff and himself more. “I have to worry about my future and that I can retain Todd [as managing editor] even though I pay him shitty wages. I am paying myself a shitty wage.”
Working full-time for the magazine plus freelancing on the side, Blackett just scrapes by. He realizes the business model has to improve. “That’s how I’ve felt like I’ve failed as a publisher.” For the past 10 years, he has put his entire life into the magazine, so leaving would be a difficult decision. The 37-year-old says he wants to own a house and have kids one day, but with his current income, it’s unrealistic. “It would take something significant to get me away from it, but at the same time, it’s hard to separate the hard facts from the heart,” he says. “Spacing is deep inside me. It’s my baby…but when do you let go?”
At Spacing’s headquarters—an open-concept office that has timber posts and hardwood floors, is decorated with vintage Toronto street signs—Blackett prepares for the first editorial meeting about the upcoming national issue. He’s wearing a T-shirt with a graphic of a Toronto streetcar. Transit-related garb is commonplace in Blackett’s wardrobe: another shirt features the world’s subway routes, and the New York City metro line is printed on his wallet.
The editorial meeting falls on Ford’s first day as mayor, but none of the editors present (Harrison, Micallef, Reid, Duncan and Mike Bulko) acknowledges this. The upcoming issue won’t stray far from the established formula: an editor’s note written by Blackett; a front-of-book section comparing infrastructure items such as fire hydrants, benches and bus shelters across the country; longer features by regular writers; and the cover story, which will list the top 100 public spaces in Canada. They talk about getting an editorial from Douglas Coupland, and joke that if he declines, maybe Margaret Atwood could do it. Not many small magazines would consider Atwood a backup.
Blackett, who’s been thinking about the issue for over a year, has applied for grants, contacted advertisers, generated story ideas and laid out several pages. He’s even designed mock covers with potential headlines. As he flips through layouts projected on a large screen, some of the editors speak up.
“My only concern is that it feels a little shapeless,” says Reid. “It’s just a lot of text pages that feels the same.”
Later in the meeting, Duncan adds, “When you’re flipping through the pages, it seems like a lot of writing.”
The conversation bounces back and forth. Reid says it’s too chunky. Harrison argues that it’s similar to the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section.
Blackett listens attentively and holds back. Like a boxer weaving around his opponent, he waits for the chance to pounce. When the others finish their critiques, he defends his layouts. Later, Blackett points out that he’s not averse to criticism, but he gets attached to his ideas. “A lot ofSpacing exists in my head or in this ideas pad. When I go to these meetings, everyone likes them but they want to tweak them in a way that I wasn’t thinking.” But when he returns home and settles in for a couple more hours of work, he often realizes the other editors are right.
A national issue is a gamble, and Kosny questions if the magazine’s success so far is because of the dedication of the founders, particularly Blackett, or because people are genuinely interested in public spaces. But Miller argues there is a growing interest in urban ideas across Canada.Spacing caught on to this movement and expanded its brand with its blog network, which includes Ottawa, Montreal, the Atlantic, and soon Vancouver. Evan Thornton, the editor ofSpacing’s Ottawa blog, says people in his city were so impressed by the magazine that they wanted to create their own edition. “I think it was inspiring to urbanists across the country, the idea that someone had finally named that discourse…you just had to say ‘Spacing’ and people got it.”
It’s the launch party for the magazine’s Fall 2010 issue, and Blackett stands onstage looking relaxed. After eight years, he knows his audience of photographers, writers, urban planners, architects, students, activists—and politicians. Miller is surrounded by a swarm of people looking to catch a minute of his time. Mayoral hopefuls George Smitherman and Joe Pantalone are present too, flashing smiles and shaking hands—a last-minute attempt to align themselves with the youthful crowd. The Courthouse, a swanky downtown bar with crimson velvet curtains, plush leather couches, four fireplaces and $6.50 bottles of Heineken, is a departure from the magazine’s usual party venues.
But Spacing is leaving its rebellious teen years behind and moving into adulthood. Still, life as an adult isn’t easy. Blackett doesn’t text Ford, and the mayor’s press releases don’t come directly from Ford’s staff either. Former deputy mayor Pantalone attended the launch parties; new deputy mayor Doug Holyday hadn’t even heard of the magazine. On the new council’s second day, budget chief Mike Del Grande scolded Lorinc for an article he posted a year prior on Spacing’s blog. The councillor was still bitter because he felt like he was misrepresented. Many of the councillors have been targets of the magazine.
And as Spacing ages, it risks sacrificing the activist roots that put it on the map. “This is when it starts to get tough for them to maintain their critical spirit and objectivity,” says Hume. “The body language of the magazine has changed—it’s a little more confident, a little less edgy and a little more commercial.” Kosny says that although he loves the magazine, he worries that its reach is only so wide and those reading it don’t need to have their views changed.
Compared to earlier issues, sure, the magazine may have toned down its criticism, but not substantially. Although Public Enemies, a section that often highlighted the councillors whoSpacing considered to have the worst views on public spaces, was prominent in the first few years, the section has since dwindled. But Shauna Brail, an urban planning academic at the University of Toronto, says Spacing’s voice is judgmental in a civil way and that it has learned to be critical, “yet work in an environment where they’re invited into the conversation, where they’re seen as insiders, not outsiders.” Duncan argues that Spacing still plays its advocate role, but in a smarter way. “If you want to reach a broader audience and get people thinking about these issues, then you can’t be angry. You have to be accessible to lots of different people.”
At Spacing’s first fundraiser Naomi Klein, a Canadian activist writer with anti-corporate views, was the guest speaker. Now, leftist politicians rush to make an appearance at the launches. And Kosny wonders, “Is it going to stay cool, trendy and edgy?” Some doubt it was ever cool or influential. Joe Clark, a journalist with an outspoken disdain for Spacing, posted on his blog that “the existence of Rob Ford as a credible candidate for mayor further demonstrates that Spacers [a term Clark uses on his blog]…have not budged the meter one notch.”
“Who reads Spacing magazine? Not opponents of bike lanes and car-free days,” says Clark. John Sewell, former mayor of Toronto and a dedicated urban activist since the 1960s, is also skeptical. “I don’t think anything it’s written has any influence on anything. It hasn’t managed to crystallize issues, which is one function of people writing things.” When he reads the magazine, he doesn’t feel like he’s learning very much. “Good journalists need to be paid money so they have time to write articles and research them and do really interesting things.Spacing doesn’t have that kind of money.”
Even with more resources, though, it’s difficult for journalists to effect change, says Sewell. He says being directly involved in politics is a good way to make a difference because “just telling stories doesn’t seem to have an impact.” Running for office isn’t completely out of the question for Blackett, who understands, “There might be a point where I realize I can’t just shout from the sidelines.”
On a warm January afternoon, Blackett walks through the Annex, which he calls a quintessential Toronto neighbourhood. This is where Blackett moved to when he left suburban North York; these are the streets he strolled to learn about pedestrian issues, the alleyways he first explored. On Albany Avenue, Blackett stops and points to a quaint three-storey house with a large front porch and white columns—a common characteristic on these streets. It was the home of Jane Jacobs, the woman who wrote the bible of urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She also helped save Toronto from a devastating inner-city highway more than 40 years ago and changed the way Toronto thought about its neighbourhoods. In his fall 2010 editorial, Blackett describes a time when he was biking up Albany Avenue and saw Jacobs slowly making her way down the sidewalk. He stopped and told her he’d just started a magazine firmly rooted in her ideas. Blackett jokes that when the editors debated an issue in the magazine’s early days, there were times they would all stop and think, “What would Jane Jacobs do?”
Thinking back, he says, “If there is any one year that I should be walking up this street it would be now, after we won the Jane Jacobs Prize.”
When Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968, she led and inspired a group of fellow citizens to fight for what they loved about the city. Now, with Ford as mayor, Spacing has the opportunity—and maybe even the responsibility—to play a similar role. And, according to Micallef, it’s not a new challenge: “In the ‘80s, Britain had good music and good art underneath Margaret Thatcher. Maybe we’ll have the great Toronto movement….”
Samantha Edwards was the Online Editor for the Summer 2011 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.