Read all about the newspaper that works for Toronto's gay community
When the intellectual and controversial gay magazine, The Body Politic, folded in 1987, a part of it would not give up. Xtra!, the magazine’s gay entertainment supplement, has grown into Toronto’s most popular gay newspaper. Its readership and revenue have far surpassed TBP’s, and Xtra! is now the largest gay publication in the country.
When TBP folded, it left behind a whopping debt of nearly $80,000. Xtra! not only paid off those bills, it now has a substantial surplus. Ken Popert, publisher and editor of Xtra!, estimated the gross revenue of the paper would top $1 million for 1992. Not bad for a publication that some staff members call “really fluffy” and has been labelled “a crass bar rag” by a few disgruntled critics.
Xtra! began as a four-page tabloid folded into a pocket sized paper, designed as an entertainment guide and a promotional publication to attract new readers for TBP. While TBP focused more on national and international news, Xtra! reported on events happening locally in the gay community. It was chock full of bar ads, mostly from around Toronto’s “gay ghetto”-the Church and Wellesley Street area. Many of these bars cater exclusively to gays and lesbians. They continue to advertise in Xtra! and serve as a crucial part of the paper’s distribution network by supplying the free newspaper to patrons.
Xtra! currently puts out about 50 pages every second Thursday. There are still a lot of bar ads, but now they sit alongside ads for car dealerships and stereo stores. In tough economic times, businesses are beginning to see the merit in cultivating new customers and no longer shun the gay market. Xtra! is a not-for-profit paper and depends in part on this revenue. Still, it maintains 36 per cent editorial content.
Like any community newspaper, Xtra! contains several news pages, features and regular columns. One of its sections is called “Proud Lives.” Every two weeks, there are at least half-a dozen photographs, usually of young, smiling men alongside written goodbyes from loved ones. They are all dead, most of them the victims of AIDS. In a community that has been devastated by the disease, this touching tribute is just one of the reasons Xtra! is so popular.
Xtra! provides gays and lesbians with information they simply don’t get in other papers. Its coverage ranges from arts and entertainment reviews to a media column that examines everything from popular sitcoms to larger mainstream media. Gay bashings and health issues are often news topics, along with items on same-sex spousal benefits, gay rights and censorship.
Despite its popularity, Xtra! has its critics. Some readers complain that the paper avoids controversy, lacks depth in dealing with complex issues and can be rather juvenile. Managing Editor Dayne Ogilvie is frustrated with such accusations. “Xtra! is constantly being criticized,” he says. “What I have discovered is there is a kind of rigidity and people want to attribute evil motives to us. The fact is that Xtra! is thriving and continuing.”
Not surprisingly, critics hold up TBP as an example of intelligent journalism. Its existence had become a cause as much as a news journal. In its glory days, it was one of the strongest tools in the fight for gay liberation in Canada. But TBP could never get its circulation above 7,000. Xtra! doubled that figure within the first three years of publication. Currently, Xtra! has a circulation of 24,500, about 2,000 of which are distributed outside the Toronto area.
Xtra!has consciously tried to make its articles short and easy to understand, and some staff members feel this is a large part of the paper’s success. Staff reporter Eleanor Brown believes the strength of Xtra! is that it is straightforward and crosses class boundaries. “In fact,” she says, “Xtra! does what a lot of mainstream papers are trying to do. It has its audience. And it has a great, readable mixture of total fluff and hard news.”
The driving force behind all of this is Ken Popert. His involvement began with TBP in 1974. After working and living through the financial woes and political disputes of TBP, he decided Xtra!would not suffer a similar fate. Paced with massive debt, Po pert decided he needed someone who understood how to make money. Colin Brownlee, a young, animated man, was hired and taught the Xtra! staff a lot about basic business skills.
Brownlee not only helped organize the finances, he also began one of the biggest financial boons for Xtra! with the “infamous cruise line:’ The telephone service is a computer-assisted information system receiving up to 2,000 calls a day. Most people use it as a dating service to connect them to other callers. The system also offers current community information.
Xtra! was the first newspaper in Canada to experiment with this type of phone service and it has paid off. In the last quarter of 1992, the cruise line averaged about $50,000 a month in revenue.
After nearly a decade, Xtra! is still going through growing pains as it tries to define itself. Many of its readers are active members of Toronto’s gay community, but the paper is taking a poll to better determine the demographics of this audience. The results should help decide changes for the ambitious paper.
One of Xtra!’s earlier changes almost looked like history was repeating itself. The paper developed its own monthly supplement in 1989 called XS. Unlike Xtra!, though, the headlines were toned down and the design was less cluttered. Covering international news with more analysis of issues like censorship and pornography, XS looked quite mature.
Plans to launch XS as a supplement in gay publications across the country, were recently scuttled. XS has now become part of Xtra!’s regular news section.
There is a feeling of familiarity about this development, too. Xtra! is beginning to look like the first in the line, TBP. Whatever the similarities, though, Xtra! has proven that it has a lot more business savvy.
Joanie Veitch was a Changes Editor for the Spring 1993 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism