Alt-weeklies Now Magazine and The Georgia Straight merging editorial and sales teams

The owner of two iconic alternative weeklies, Now Magazine in Toronto and The Georgia Strait in Vancouver, is merging its editorial, marketing and sales teams as part of what it describes as an “omnichannel” approach to publishing.

It is the most significant in a series of strategic initiatives outlined by MediaCentral Corp. CEO Brian Kalish in an open letter to shareholders, part of the company’s attempts at tackling what he described as a “unique set of challenges and opportunities” created by the coronavirus and, more broadly, declining readership and falling advertising revenue.

The company is also pivoting to a renewed focus on health, education and finance. It has launched a new psychedelics category at its cannabis hub, which it intends to spin off as a standalone title. And in May it launched an e-sports platform called ECentralSports, which Kalish said is establishing “lucrative affiliate partnerships.”

In a follow-up letter to readers posted on the Now and Straight websites, Kalish addressed the inevitable question about merging editorial and sales: “While our content is not or ever will be for sale, our new approach to publishing was created to triangulate the discussion between news and marketing, to better understand potential and previously unidentified readership and publication growth opportunities.”

Kalish did not respond to interview requests from The Message, but said in his shareholder note that the company has lost up to 80% of its revenue during the pandemic. MediaCentral was forecasting annual revenue of $7 million prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in March, although it’s unclear how much those projections will be impacted.

The strategy changes come as traditional print media companies of all kinds look for ways to replace the now lost advertising that supported their business for decades. A quick scroll through Now‘s own archives provide a clear picture of the enormous revenue challenges faced by alternative weeklies as readers (and advertisers) migrate online.

Now‘s current issue, it’s annual “Hot summer guide,” is 32 pages and has little advertising with the exception of a double-page spread promoting indie book publishers, a full page ad for the Georgian Bay Spirit Co. and some Ontario government advertising around COVID-19.

A corresponding issue from a decade earlier (June 17, 2010), meanwhile, was 136 pages and stuffed with ads from major national advertisers including Air Canada, IKEA, Motorola, Rexall, Rogers, Bell and the now defunct music retailer HMV, not to mention a robust 12-page classified section.

The most recent issue of the Straight, meanwhile, is 20 pages with a full-page ad for Georgian Bay Spirit Co. and a smattering of local advertisers. Now‘s June 20, 2019 issue was a relatively meagre 48 pages.

The path forward for legacy titles such as Now and the Straight appears to be monetizing their online audience. MediaCentral, which claims more than 6.5 million monthly readers, recently introduced a new DSP called AdCentralDirect that it says will bring in more than $5 million in digital advertising revenues between 2020 and 2021.

The company also said that it would look to unite additional independent alternative publications under its umbrella, “creating an attractive solution for advertisers looking to connect to influential consumers across the country.”

In his letter to shareholders, Kalish described the two alt-weekly titles in his letter as “legacy publications that operated on outdated business models,” noting that the company is “briskly introducing” them to the 21st century even during the midst of a pandemic.

MediaCentral Corp. acquired Now, which was started by Michael Hollett and Alice Klein in 1981, for $2 million in November, and followed that by acquiring the Straight. According to media reports, MediaCentral, which describes itself as “an independent and alternative media company that unifies those who choose to reinvent the status quo,” has a stated ambition to buy up more than 100 alternative publications in Canada and the U.S.

The company describes its “omnichannel” approach as a “fundamental change in how the legacy titles we purchased had been operating for the past 40 to 50 years,” although it’s not clear what it means for the two titles’ editorial product.

One possible indicator might be more deals like MediaCentral’s recent partnership with iMD HealthGlobal, which promised to provide Now and Straight readers with access to the “largest library of reliable, trusted and up-to-date clinical health information.”

In a release announcing that partnership, MediaCentral said that it had identified health as “a leading content vertical that will contribute to the Company’s audience growth strategy.” What’s less clear is just how much of that kind of information are seeking from alt-weeklies, which have traditionally oriented their coverage around social issues and the arts.

Some media pundits, not surprisingly, took Kalish’s words in his letter (“eliminating a focus on venues and arts”) to mean abandoning arts and culture entirely, although Kalish and Kirk MacDonald, Media Central’s senior vice-president of revenue and operations, shot down their suggestions.

In a June 10 tweet, MacDonald said there was “not a chance” there would be no arts and culture in the two alternative weeklies, before adding “I took our CEO to the woodshed earlier today over comments in a shareholder letter.”

However, arts and events have also been brought to a standstill by the global pandemic—depriving publications like Now and the Straight not just coverage material, but also revenue sources like club listings.

In the follow-up to readers, Kalish stated that arts and culture was personally important to him. “To suggest that I would somehow allow the elimination of the heart and soul of our storied publications is simply folly,” he said.

At the same time, he delivered a blistering rebuke to a letter sent by Phil Rickaby, a member of Toronto’s theatre community, which he characterized as a “stylized if not grammatically imperfect diatribe.” Kalish later apologized, saying that he had been upset by “too many misinterpretations (benign or otherwise) making me crazy.”

While the global pandemic has exacerbated their problems, pondering the fate of alternative weeklies is nothing new.

Across North America, once proud titles have either closed (most notably New York’s iconic Village Voice, which shut down in 2018 after 63 years of operation, but also Philadephia’s City Paper and Baltimore’s City Paper) or have been left a shadow of their former selves after being acquired by what Vox writer Alissa Wilkinson described as “shadowy groups of investors.”

But a March article by Nieman Lab described the coronavirus as a “nearly perfect weapon” against alt-weeklies, which it said have been in “some version of crisis mode” for much of the past decade. One doom-laden description in that article: “total annihilation.”


Chris Powell