Print publications the world over are struggling to survive. So, it wasn’t shocking last November when Alice Klein, co-founder, editor and publisher of scrappy Toronto free alternative newsweekly NOW, personally published an appeal for readers to help subsidize operations.
“We will always be free and think free,” Klein wrote in the appeal which has reappeared in various forms in the paper subsequently. “But if you like what we do, consider sending us a little love, 10 or 20 bucks, or whatever your budget allows.”
That move put NOW squarely alongside luminaries like Britain’s The Guardian and the New York Times, to name just two, that have aggressively sought reader support as advertising revenues have dwindled and migrated webward.
The appeal also confirmed suspicions that the seemingly indomitable NOW was facing hard times, fears fanned by worryingly slight weekly page counts (48 now seems to be average; bygone years were routinely north of 100) and some dubious editorial moves, such as devoting one 2017 issue’s entire food section to promoting the NOW Access restaurant membership program.
That kind of shameless hard sell would likely not have happened under co-founder and former editor/publisher Michael Hollett — the creative yin to Klein’s fiscally oriented yang — who left the publication in 2016 to focus on the North by Northeast music festival, which Hollett co-founded in 1995. (Disclosure: that statement reflects my experience as a long-time former NOW writer and editor).
A sign of the times evidently. Alt-weekly granddaddy the Village Voice ceased print operations last fall, mirroring the San Francisco Bay Guardian which relaunched as an online publication in 2016 after shutting down two years prior. The Boston Phoenix fell completely in 2013, ceasing publication after 47 years. Meanwhile, countless other publications like the Globe & Mail have erected paywalls to halt the flow of free online content.
Yet Toronto would be notably less entertaining without the staunchly left-wing, pro-pot tabloid, which launched in 1981. Consider the April 2011 cover featuring a nude Woody Harrelson (a pal of Hollett’s), his nether regions concealed by a previous issue of NOW featuring a doctored image of then-mayor Rob Ford appearing fat and half-nude in boxer shorts. And those notorious adult classifieds have always been (c’mon, admit it) a saucy thrill to troll through though Klein admits they are not an area of growth even though online listings can contain multiple racy pictures of sex workers seeking clients.
There’s been serious and game-changing stuff in NOW’s editorial arsenal, too, such as championing local musicians, actors, and activists before they were famous. See also their historically police-averse stance which predates Black Lives Matter by decades and their thoughtful and compassionate LGBTQ+ coverage since before the T, Q or a plus sign were an accepted part of the acronym.
So, how is NOW doing in 2018? FYI spoke with Klein about that. First thing to know: she is adamant that NOW will continue as a print publication even as it grows its online presence and notwithstanding unremitting fiscal hardships inflicted by the digital age.
“I don’t foresee a time when we will only exist online,” she says. “I feel like we are very, very far from having run our course. For me, leaving something to the next generation and for the next 35 years, is very much the mandate at this time. We have been hugely responsible for helping build a progressive, indie arts and culture economy and cultural life for the city of Toronto and it’s going to be needed more than ever into the future.
“I feel very strongly that it’s time for us to reinvent and redevelop ourselves for the future. And our print publication is actually very popular, and the numbers are great.”
NOW’s combined total weekly print and digital footprint is nearly 500,000, according to Vividata, with weekly print readership at 390,000 and weekly digital readership at 110,000. An email from Klein says the latest Vividata numbers are in (2017 Q3) with total footprint of 474,000 up from 471,000 (2016 Q4).
A median reader age of 42, according to NOW’s online advertising materials, may not be the most coveted for advertisers but Klein says the two main buckets of readership are aged 25 to 40 and then 18 to 25. And their website also notes that NOW distributes 95,000 print copies weekly to 2,000 outlets in the Greater Toronto Area including subway stations, nightclubs, bars, libraries, retailers, restaurants, coffee shops and via those vivid green street boxes.
As for potential mergers with other media properties, such as one daydreamed by FYI’s own David Farrell earlier this year, Klein says, “That might be sensible if you thought of NOW only as a business without a social mandate. But I have no interest in doing anything like that. That’s not what the NOW brand is all about.”
Klein declines to say exactly how well the crowdfunding appeal has gone, or whether the outcome met expectation, saying there was no concrete expectation going in, though she adds, “It was beautiful to receive the goodwill and kind messages that came along with those financial donations.
“Frankly, for many newspapers now, consumer funding is just as big a part of financial funding as advertising. That’s not the case for us. We are one of the few indie, progressive publications that has made our way in the marketplace and we’re proud of that entrepreneurial edge. But we also live in the world as it is and so, it’s really important to develop new revenue streams. We will probably be testing out other campaigns along similar lines [to the crowdfunding appeal] in future.”
And while she admits that the beforementioned NOW Access and NOW Tickets programs have room for improvement, Klein appears to be looking long-term. “We have developed a whole new suite of digital products for our advertisers and we are pioneers in the digital marketplace from both an editorial and business perspective. So many of the things we’ve tried have landed really well. Others aren’t that great. But we are reinventing all the time and that will include the Access and Tickets platforms.
“Independent journalism is so important and it’s such an endangered species,” Klein says. “It’s never been easy to be independent media but at this time, when all media is imperilled, it’s really a razor’s edge. It’s also a really exciting time because the transformation into digital presents new opportunities in terms of communications as well.”