An alternative, independent eulogy

By James Keller

It’s been four years since Vancouver-based publisher Dan McLeod came to Calgary looking to expand the successful Georgia Straight franchise over the Rockies. Until then, Calgary had one alternative entertainment weekly, Fast Forward. On October 28, Calgary Straight employees were given their walking papers without notice, ending production of what was once a joint venture between McLeod and University of Calgary campus radio station CJSW, and returning Calgary’s independent, alternative press to its former state.

In July 1998, McLeod acquired the rights to CJSW’s Vox, a monthly entertainment magazine priding itself on highlighting local talent and representing the mandate of the station. Even though the Calgary Straight was born out of an existing, relatively familiar publication, the weekly arts and entertainment venue faced financial difficulties since its onset, and unfortunately, those troubles never subsided. Even in the last few months, with changes in their advertising structure and the technical production of the paper moving to the Georgia Straight’s Vancouver offices, nothing was working.

“It was a money losing operation since the beginning,” said McLeod, whose Georgia Straight has become a mini-empire, with the Vancouver flagship even challenging the city’s major daily newspapers. “We’ve been trying to do everything to increase sales, and sales were still falling. We just couldn’t see that turning around.”

CJSW and the demise of Vox

The closure sees CJSW in an awkward position. Since CJSW’s own publication was replaced by the Calgary Straight, the self-proclaimed “Campus-Community Radio Station” is now without a print-medium to publish their programming guide, charts or CJSW-related content.

“In 1998, CJSW made a deal with the Georgia Straight to purchase the rights of the name Vox and for us to cease publication of Vox magazine. At the time, we realized that CJSW is a radio station and we needed to focus on being a radio station,” said CJSW Station Manager Chad Saunders. “Here we are four years later with no print outlet, which is a bit of a concern for us.”

McLeod isn’t worried about the obligations the Straight made to CJSW in a five-year contract as part of the acquisition. These included printing the monthly program guide, the weekly CJSW charts, editorial content reflecting CJSW’s mandate and editorial support for CJSW’s annual funding drive.

“Our side of the agreement was to provide a certain number of pages of CJSW material and we’ve over-delivered by a wide margin in the past four years. If you add it all up, we’ve delivered more than the commitment would have offered,” said McLeod. “I don’t think we owe CJSW anything.”

Saunders disagrees. While the guide and charts were printed as required, funding drive support rapidly decreased over the past two years. Until 2001, CJSW had full Vox and Calgary Straight covers featuring the funding drive. Two years ago, it was reduced to a CJSW logo on the front with one story inside. This year, there was no funding drive coverage at all.

“It was never in the contract to get the cover, but with no funding drive coverage, the contract was definitely violated,” said Saunders.

McLeod pointed the finger back at CJSW, claiming CJSW favoured Fast Forward over the Straight with sponsorships and on-air mentions.

“As far as CJSW delivering for us, I think they’ve delivered a lot more support to our competitors over that time period,” said McLeod. “We brought this up from time to time, but it was clear we weren’t going to get anything.”

This was not under CJSW’s control, nor was it something they were obligated to do, said Saunders.

“Event organizers choose their sponsors and CJSW doesn’t have the right to say ‘you have to use this print media.’ Decisions on print or television are completely out of our realm. I don’t recall the phone ringing off the hook for sponsorship deals, and to be fair, I saw a lot of Calgary Straight logos paired with CJAY 92, Peak and Country 105. What does that say about their organization?”

From here, Saunders isn’t sure what the future holds for CJSW in print, although they are looking at other options.

“Do we start a weekly? I doubt it. Do we go to a monthly? That’s not the best bet either. The biggest thing we need to focus on is how to get our program guide and charts out,” he said. “But CJSW is not to blame for the closing of the Calgary Straight.”

The Fake Alternative

The Calgary Straight’s difficulties were magnified, according to McLeod, by the presence of Fast Forward, what he calls a “fake alternative.”

“I call it a ‘fake alternative’ because it’s owned by a mega-conglomerate–Conrad Black, who owns Southam,” said McLeod. Hollinger Canadian Publishing Holdings jointly controls Fast Forward owners Great West Newspaper Group. “Part of their success is that Hollinger owned both the Calgary Herald and Fast Forward at the same time. They were able to capture advertisers and shut us out while they were trying to get exclusivity.”

Great West President Duff Jamison disagrees that this relationship, which he points out is over two years removed, had anything to do with the Calgary Straight’s closure.

“Hollinger sold to CanWest Global their Southam newspaper assets and that included the Calgary Herald, but I don’t know where Dan’s going with that,” said Jamison. “I think Dan McLeod is grasping for straws to explain why the Straight didn’t succeed in Calgary. I don’t think it has anything to do with Fast Forward’s ownership. Not many people like to look in the mirror and admit that they failed at something.”

McLeod, however, insists that this relationship with the Herald still drives the production and success of Fast Forward, and conversely the demise of the Calgary Straight.

“Fast Forward will never grow to the point where it threatens any revenue from the Calgary Herald. They just won’t allow it,” McLeod argued, pointing to content as well. “You get the mainstream mentality, you get the Hollywood mentality, the big promoters or the touring groups. You don’t get the local independent arts scene; a damper is put on the whole thing.”

Fast Forward Publisher Ian Chiclo, who started the magazine with Jamison after leaving Vox in 1995, insists that the relationship McLeod points to is non-existent.

“First of all, we don’t have any connection to the Herald. There hasn’t been a connection for a number of years, and even when there was, it was pretty tenuous,” said Chiclo, also defending the quality of his publication. “I’d say, ‘read the paper;’ the proof is in the pudding. We haven’t held back on anything and we’ve been straight ahead with our editorial coverage from day one.”

The Calgary Straight officially declined comment at press time, citing financial disputes with McLeod and the Georgia Straight. Members of the Straight staff said that by the day following the closure, they had not been paid in accordance with the Alberta Labour Act, despite McLeod’s assertions to the contrary.

“They’ve all been given their final cheques. We’ve never not paid people, we’ve never paid people late,” said McLeod. “If that’s true, it’s an honest mistake, and if we’re wrong, it will be corrected.”

The future of alternative press

With the death of the Calgary Straight, the voice of Calgary’s local arts scene has been effectively cut in half. The benefits of having two weekly entertainment publications–increased sponsorship opportunities, multiple perspectives, broader ranges of coverage–are now lost. CJSW has all but ruled out resurrecting Vox, and there doesn’t seem to be another publication on the horizon, at least in the near future. Even Dan McLeod, who understandably looks at his position from both a business and an economic perspective, can see the city has suffered a cultural loss.

“In the long run, maybe something else will spring up,” said McLeod. “These kinds of papers go hand in hand with a thriving, independent music and arts scene.”

With Fast Forward now alone,

readers, advertisers and the arts community will look to them in greater numbers. However, regardless of how well Fast Forward steps up to this challenge, it will still only be one voice.

“It increases [Fast Forward’s] responsibility to the community, providing an alternative voice to the mainstream dailies and TV coverage,” said Chiclo. “We’re taking it as a real challenge to continue to provide comprehensive viewpoints on everything we write about.

“The more media coverage people can get the better. In that case, there is some harm done, but from our perspective, we’re just going to continue on.”

While the closing of the Straight came as a surprise to most, it wasn’t an impossible scenario for anyone to imagine. Chiclo admits that the advertising in the Straight was telling that their revenue wasn’t as healthy as it could have been. Others have brought up the possibility that this has been in the works for some time, that McLeod didn’t have enough faith in the Straight to rebuild–something Dan McLeod hinted at during an interview with Masthead magazine earlier this year.

“[The Calgary Straight is] possibly my greatest mistake. I don’t think it will ever make money.”

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