With a print-first focus, The West End Phoenix is trying to fill a local news gap in Toronto
Last month, about 60 volunteer newspaper delivery people spread out across Toronto’s West dropping off copies of The West End Phoenix.
This mobilization is a monthly effort to support the nonprofit community newspaper, which was founded by musician and author Dave Bidini to try and fill gaps in local news coverage.
“As that vacuum becomes a little bit wider, we see the potential of filling it,” Bidini told me.
This week in Solution Set we’re going to dig into The West End Phoenix to learn more about how it has leveraged support in its community, the thinking behind its print-first approach, and how it is working toward sustainability.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday (or increasingly on Fridays), we take an in-depth look at one interesting thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
Here’s the TLDR:
• The Challenge: Like everywhere, Toronto was seeing a drop in neighborhood news due to the challenges facing the news industry.
• The Strategy: Launched in 2017, The West End Phoenix is a monthly print newspaper covering a handful of Toronto neighborhoods. It relies on a network of freelancers for coverage and a volunteer army to deliver the newspaper door-to-door.
• The Numbers: The Phoenix has about 2,000 subscribers, and it’s aiming to reach 10,000 in the next three years. It also relies on a key group of high-dollar funders.
• The Lessons: Even in a digital news world, there is still value and lessons to be learned by print. The Phoenix is led by Dave Bidini, a well-known Canadian author and musician, and he has been able to lean on his network to support the paper.
• The Future: The Phoenix is thinking through whether it should expand its coverage and distribution areas as well as how it can increase its digital output.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down for more on how print thinking can influence digital news as well as some updates from The Lenfest Institute’s Business Model Challenge grantees. (And sign up for our new pop-up newsletter!)
The West End Phoenix is a bit of an anomaly. In an era of always connected, mobile-first news, the Toronto community newspaper has taken a different tack since its launch in fall 2017 as a monthly print newspaper.
Created by Dave Bidini, a Canadian author and musician — he is most well known as a member of the Rheostatics — the Phoenix covers Toronto’s West End, a historically diverse, working class area of the city that is quickly gentrifying. (Meghan Markle lived in the catchment when she first started dating Prince Harry.)
Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and it has a hyper competitive media market, but Bidini felt there was a dearth of neighborhood news. So Bidini, together with managing editor Janet Morassutti (his wife) and deputy editor Melanie Morassutti (his sister-in-law) decided to create a paper to try and fill that gap with locally reported stories.
The first issue was published in October 2017, and prior to publication Bidini and the team barnstormed across the West End fundraising and attracting subscribers to finance the paper’s launch. They sold 800 subscriptions before publishing the first issue and also raised from high-dollar “patrons” who contributed at least $500 Canadian.
Initial patrons included West End resident Margaret Atwood. (Bidini is well known in Canada, and as a result it helps to have connections to draw on. I’ll talk more about this in The Lessons.)
But even as the Phoenix began publishing its first issues, it knew it had work to do to reach sustainability.
“When we started, it was hard for us to see past the first year,” Bidini said. “Even though we were committing with all of our heart and soul to the project, we were grounded in the reality of what it would take to make a print newspaper. So here we are in the middle of year three, feeling pretty good about how the team grows, how the patron support has grown, how the corporate support has grown, and now the subscriptions have fallen into place.”
A monthly print broadsheet is at the heart of The West End Phoenix’s offerings.
Each issue includes feature stories covering the people and narratives of the neighborhoods in the West End. There are also recurring features such as a pet of the month and interviews with notable residents conducted in their kitchen, which include a recipe.
In addition to the print paper, The Phoenix publishes about three stories online per month. And while it’d like to do more online, its audience surveys show that the print product is its main subscription driver.
“People are drawn to us because we create the print edition,” Bidini said. “That was good to remind ourselves. We have people telling us all the time that you have to go online to get more readers, and we worry in the middle of the night whether we’re doing enough online, but really what drives us is the beauty and the depth of the newspaper itself.”
The Phoenix has a core team six people who are responsible for operating and producing the paper. The positions, Bidini said, are “part-time in name only” — while Phoenix staffers have other gigs elsewhere, the paper is in many ways a labor of love.
Most of the stories the Phoenix publishes are written by freelancers, and Bidini says they pay writers “industry standard” freelance rates.
The Phoenix also relies on a group of high school interns who help with reporting and create a regular Young Phoenix page in the paper. A group of 60 to 80 volunteers also help the Phoenix team deliver papers each month to subscribers in the West End.
Beyond the journalism though, Bidini, as publisher, focuses on the business side of the operation. I’ll get into the details in The Numbers, but over the past few years, the Phoenix has held a series of events that double as fundraisers for the paper.
In December, the Phoenix held a fundraiser that featured Atwood in conversation with Canadian author Claudia Dey. It sold 100 tickets, each for $330 Canadian. (The event was originally scheduled for September, but was postponed after Atwood’s partner died. “That was an exercise in how to disassemble events in less than two days,” Bidini said.)
The Phoenix has also held a series of concert fundraisers over the years, and in June 2018 it even held a telethon, which it broadcast live online from the boutique hotel where the paper’s offices are located. This year, it’s planning to do a benefit concert called NewsAid, which will be a recreation of the set from the famous LiveAid fundraiser.
“These events lead to greater encouragement to come on board, and the longer you’re around the less cynical people are about what you do,” he said. “There were so many people who rolled their eyes when we started — and why wouldn’t they? I would probably roll my eyes too. Then they realized that we can make a good paper for a sustained amount of time.”
An annual subscription to The Phoenix costs $75 Canadian ($57 USD) for local delivery or pickup. Prices increase to $110 Canadian annually for mailed papers within Canada and $150 Canadian for subscriptions outside the country.
The paper has about 2,000 subscribers, but it also supplements its subscriptions with revenue from events, donations, and corporate support. With those sources included, it could “be in good shape” with 3,500 subscribers. The Phoenix’s stretch goal is 10,000 subscribers within the next three years.
The Phoenix is a nonprofit, and Canadian nonprofit news outlets can now accept tax-free donations as part of a controversial series of laws that is offering increased government support for news.
The paper’s website lists 40 “patrons” who have made contributions of $300 or more. The Phoenix also sells advertising in the paper. The Phoenix additionally receives support from Toronto-area businesses.
It’s also begun to market itself, taking out a billboard in the West End as well as placing an advertisement on the boards of a local hockey rink.
The Phoenix currently is run by a core staff of six people, and with added revenue it would like to add to the staff.
It also relies on interns from local high schools who help out and even produce a Young Phoenix page in the paper. Every month, a group of 60 to 80 volunteers help distribute the paper to homes around the West End.
• Print lives: Since its debut, The West End Phoenix has been intentional about prioritizing its print product. It only publishes three stories online per month.
News consumption has understandably moved mostly online — just look at the print circulation figures for most metro newspapers — but print certainly still has a role to play. Especially for a monthly paper such as the Phoenix, people value a well produced package of stories that they can spend time with.
But just because most news is online now, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any lessons to learn from print.
University of Missouri professor Damon Kiesow last year launched a research effort looking at how print newspaper design can inform digital product creation. For example, in a Medium post he published last week, Kiesow highlighted the clear differentiation in print of an opinion story — it’s located on the dedicated opinion page, and has a photo of a columnist — that is often lost online where the context is collapsed to just look like another link that someone clicked on from Google.
“The goal is not to create print replicas in digital— but to better understand how print ‘works’ and if there are lessons we can abstract away from design and format and apply to make digital news better,” Kiesow wrote.
So no matter if you’re producing a monthly print newspaper, like The West End Phoenix, or reinventing digital news, there is a lot to learn about what readers value from the print experience.
• Don’t be afraid to ask: Let me get this out of the way at the top: Bidini is famous and well-connected. Very few local news organizations will host fundraisers with Margaret Atwood, put on telethons, or hold meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Yes, it helps to have the privilege of knowing lots of people, but you have to be willing to ask for help.
“In the beginning I basically called everyone I’ve met over the past 40 years,” Bidini said. “I’ve found now that having been an artist and a musician in the city and country for a long time, I can turn that key a little bit to get into places that might not be accessible to me otherwise, but I think even with the paper it’s easier to talk to partners or draw certain patrons because they know what we do is real and we’re committed to it. It was probably a little harder at the beginning, and people had to take more of a leap.”
He continued: “As a figurehead or hood ornament, I’m comfortable with that, and it certainly has proven effective. It’s a great way of being able to use that profile to stand out for something that’s valuable. I’m not out there selling cars. I’m trying to make sure journalism can remain healthy in our city and our country.”
Journalists must get more comfortable asking for money and they have to understand that their work has value that is worth paying for. If you value it and demand that readers support it, they will.
For example, the Phoenix did its first subscription drive late last year. It generated about 250 new subscriptions over three weeks. Staffers stood outside subway stations handing out copies of the paper, they launched a concerted effort on social media, and created value-added gift subscriptions.
“We attacked it on a lot of fronts, and it was really productive,” Bidini said. “You want to toggle somewhere between beating the drum and not the point where people’s ears bleed.”
• Representation matters: Local publishers have a valuable platform, and it’s important that they use their editorial space to elevate community voices that could be marginalized.
The West End Phoenix did this well recently. Its December issue focused on covering the West End’s indigenous community. To that end, it turned to a Canadian journalism nonprofit, Journalists for Human Rights, and three indigenous journalists — Oscar Baker III, Charnel Anderson, and Alex Jacobs Blum — to guest edit the issue.
They published stories on topics such as a group of women combatting racism in medicine and the first indigenous woman to play hockey in the Olympics.
“It’s nice to have more voices at the table,” Bidini said.
Journalists should do more to share their power with community members to make sure the stories of their community are adequately represented.
Like every news organization, the Phoenix has limited resources, and as a result it’s working through how best to think about continuing to grow.
Bidini said he’d like the Phoenix to grow its digital presence a bit, but “part of that is finding the money to support that and do it right,” he said. “That hasn’t landed yet.”
It’s also thinking about whether it makes sense to expand the paper beyond The West End. Bidini said he’d most likely want to expand the realm of coverage without expanding to other parts of Toronto.
“We haven’t really landed on whether we will or not,” Bidini said. “Personally, I want to do one thing really well. I do think there is capacity for us to grow in the catchment where we publish. There’s thoughts of becoming the Toronto Phoenix or having satellite issues elsewhere, but I often turn to the Village Voice as the shining model. They were published out of a neighborhood, and the writing and the work became so formidable that people wanted to read them no matter where they lived.” (Though, he surely hopes the Phoenix doesn’t meet the same fate as the Voice.)
Want to know more?
• I first wrote about The West End Phoenix for Nieman Lab prior to its 2017 launch.
• Here’s Damon Kiesow’s post: The Future of Digital is Print-Like. Lots to learn there.
• Oh, Canada! There is a lot of news innovation happening north of the border, and we’ve written a bunch about it here in Solution Set: We’ve covered The Sprawl, a pop-up newspaper in Calgrary; We wrote about The Discourse’s fundraising campaign; and we also covered a newsletter experiment from the CBC, the Canadian public broadcaster.
• We had a big week here at the Lenfest Institute. My colleague Cheryl Thompson-Morton published a story sharing what we learned from our most recent round of grants. You can also sign-up to get a short-run newsletter with more detailed updates on the grantees. Sign up!
Anything to add?
Last year, I led a Solution Set Live! Session at the Hearken Innovation Summit. Here’s a short note from Hearken’s Bridget Thoreson on some new resources they’re sharing from the summit:
“Following Hearken’s Engagement Innovation Summit, the engagement consultancy is sharing out lessons from engagement practitioners in a new Engagement Innovation email series.
The series includes downloadable guides from sessions in each of their three summit tracks: what journalists can learn from adjacent industries, the art of listening, and engaged elections. You’ll receive the guides in an easy-to-follow email series – just one article on weekdays for 10 days, plus the downloadable guides as you complete each track. Sign up here.”
Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any other questions or story ideas, and I’ll see you next week!