March 28, 2018

Almost six months ago, a Canadian rock star started a community paper. Amazingly, that’s the least interesting thing about West End Phoenix.

It’s non-profit and ad-free. It comes out every five weeks. It’s created by a staff of six. Subscriptions cost $75 for the year. It covers Toronto’s West End. And it’s not online. (At least not really. There is a website and a healthy social media presence, but the stories online are a curated few.)

It’s been almost a year since Dave Bidini, the rocker/author/founder, first decided to start a print-only community newspaper. On Thursday, the West End Phoenix is putting on a fundraising concert.

Now, it feels like they’re just far along enough to start thinking about what comes next, Bidini said.

“It’s part celebration but also part cold splash of reality.”

He’s learned a lot in the past year about the power of patronage (ahem Margaret Atwood), how hard it is to get to subscription goals (they’re at 2,100 and figure 3,200 gets them to sustainability) and what’s possible when people believe in what you’re doing.

West End Phoenix offers home delivery thanks to 50 volunteers. Among them are three journalists who don’t work as journalists for West End Phoenix.

Instead, they’re paper … men.

Brendan Kennedy is an investigative reporter for the Toronto Star. Josh Visser is managing editor of Vice Canada. And Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter at The Globe and Mail. All three know Bidini.

Visser worked with him at the National Post, he said in an email, “and felt guilted into helping him. That's the truth, but I also live in the community, work in journalism and think the Phoenix is a really cool initiative and wanted to help out. I could also use the exercise.”

He now delivers in Toronto’s midtown, including the neighborhoods of Humewood-Cedarvale, Oakwood Village and a bit of Forest Hill.

Wheeler was an early subscriber, and when his copy wasn’t making it up to his second-floor apartment, he sent a complain-y email and asked if they needed people to help deliver.

After he sent that email, Wheeler worried that he sounded snarky, “but sure enough, they did need people and they gave me a route that was fairly near my place.”

He now delivers in the Riverdale neighborhood.

And Kennedy, a fan of Bidini’s band, Rheostatics, interviewed Bidini as a college journalist. They stayed in touch, and when the call went out for people willing to deliver papers, Kennedy signed up.

“I didn’t feel like I had any desire to take on any additional freelance journalism work,” he said, “but the idea of riding around my neighborhood on my bike and delivering this paper, it just felt kind of romantic to me.”

He delivers what he calls the celebrity route of Toronto’s The Annex.

“Margaret Atwood is on my route. Molly Johnson is on my route.”

The Toronto Star's Brendan Kennedy on his delivery route. (Submitted photo)

That sense of nostalgia appealed to Wheeler, too. He was a paperboy and said that his first delivery day felt like Christmas morning.

“And then that first hill took all the romance out of it.”

Wheeler thinks the Phoenix’s appeal has something to do with a yearning for things that are more tangible and less corporate.  

“Quaint isn’t the right word, he’s putting out a good product, it’s always got to come down to that,” he said. People want something real and honest, he added. “Honest’s a good word for what Dave’s doing.”

But honest does not pay salaries. Newspapers in Canada, like the U.S., are evaporating. West End Phoenix is the only newspaper to have started in the country last year, Bidini said.

People have responded to the physicalness of it, but it’s not meant as a nostalgic gag.

“Our job and the parlor trick is to continue to make it good enough that people continue to want to go to it beyond the novelty of having a newspaper in their homes.”

Kennedy, who’s happy he doesn’t have to figure the business stuff out, thinks it’s the work itself that makes the West End Phoenix. He feels like he’s getting more than what he’s paying for.

“It’s a pretty hilarious thing that there are successful novelists and poets in the city who are writing for this community newspaper,” he said. “When you take a step back, it’s wild. You’re getting community sized news, but it’s being written by someone with a national profile who is a professional writer. If the West End Phoenix is going to have a chance, it’s going to be because of the quality of the writing.”

And the art, said Visser, “which is big and bold and really pops given the size of the paper itself. Dave and his team have assembled a really diverse set of writers and it's full of hyperlocal stories that I know I'd never find anywhere else. It's only a few issues in, so lots will change, but I think they've already gotten a handle on a quirky personality for the paper.”

Growing subscribers will be key, he said, along with support from patrons.

“The Liberal government has promised $50 million over five years (which is shit all, really) for local journalism in Canada, and hopefully the Phoenix would be able to dip into that.”

The West End Phoenix is planning a subscriber drive in the spring, and Bidini hopes to get both renewals and new customers. His journalist/papermen will continue their monthly volunteer delivery routes, in one case, despite the route itself.

“It’s all uphill,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know what I got myself in for here.”

Correction: We misspelled Dave Bidini's name about every way possible. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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