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Toronto’s West End Phoenix: A local newspaper rising from the news industry’s ashes

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

If you ever find yourself driving west down Toronto’s bustling Bloor Street and make a right-hand turn at Bartlett Avenue, you’ll find the small unassuming office of the West End Phoenix. Nestled behind a pharmacy and a parking lot, the graffiti-laden newspaper headquarters can be hard to miss. But the Phoenix is anything but for those living in the city’s west-end neighbourhood. 

Founded in 2017 by writer and musician Dave Bidini, the Phoenix has become a monthly fixture in Toronto’s west end. At a time when community newspapers are folding and larger print publications are in decline, how has this relatively new print paper managed to thrive in Canada’s largest city? 

A non-profit model of funding involving a variety of donors and patrons, door-to-door advertising to local residents, and the founder’s reputation have helped make the Phoenix a success. A subscription for home delivery of the paper costs $85 per year. At the end of the day, however, Bidini says the quality and focus of the Phoenix’s journalism is what convinced west-end residents to buy pre-print subscriptions when the paper began seven years ago.

“I found out that if something arrived on your porch that had really good writing, that looked beautiful and told stories from the neighbourhood, people would want to read it and would pay 70 bucks for it,” he says in an interview with The Hub.

The viability of the non-profit model

In 2023 alone, at least 36 local news outlets shut down across Canada, with 29 being community newspapers. In total, 516 Canadian print, local radio, TV, and online news outlets have closed since 2008.

The Pheonix’s name comes from the idea that it is a paper rising from the ashes of those outlets we have lost. At a time when major for-profit newspapers such as the Toronto Star and the National Post are even experiencing big yearly losses, laying off staff, and abandoning physical offices, the Phoenix is taking a different approach.

“We started as a non-profit. We started like every other newspaper in the sense of there being no profit,” says Bidini. “It’s a popular model, and not just popular here. There are a lot of non-profit media organizations.”

Jon Willing, a professor of journalism at Algonquin College in Ottawa, agrees the non-profit model is becoming more and more common for Canadian journalistic outlets. For example, the Walrus magazine and the online outlet True North are both registered charities. 

“I think journalists are really interested in that model—not having one shareholder at the end of the day trying to make a great profit off of a news product,” says Willing. “Essentially, just having an organization paying their staff a good dollar to do great journalism. Paying for the overhead, and hopefully, you have the funders, or patrons, or subscribers, or even the ad revenue to sustain those operations.” 

The Phoenix began with 800 pre-publication subscriptions. Bidini believes part of its appeal to people in the community was actually its non-profit status.

“It’s easier to tie that to the greater good, right?” he says. “Nobody’s in it to make a ton of bucks. People have it because they love it.” 

Bidini’s profile helped attract donors and patrons

The Phoenix keeps its lights on by tapping a variety of funders. While the outlet, which actually prints a physical newspaper, does receive annual funding from the federal government, most of its money comes from patrons and donors. Local craft breweries have even chipped in. It also receives financial help from institutions including the Bank of Montreal. Surprisingly, it does not receive grants from arts bodies.

Bidini acknowledges his career as a well-known musician and a writer—he was a founding member of the indie rock band Rheostatics and has written more than 10 books—helped him tap into a network of Toronto artists who he could call upon for help. 

Supporters have included some of Canada’s most well-known writers, including Margaret Atwood and Life of Pi author Yann Martel.

Five years ago, Prime Minister Trudeau even visited them.

Cover of an edition of the West End Phoenix. Artist credit: Erik Kostiuk Williams

“The story of local journalism that is resonating and that people are appreciating, and is not just reflecting a vibrant culture in the neighbourhood, but contributing to it is really really important,” he told Phoenix staff. “I know you like being unique but I hope there’s going to be a lot of copycats…in neighbourhoods like this across the country.”

Bidini points out that many Phoenix stories are funded with the direct support of non-government organizations and charities. 

A story called “Renters on the Brink”, about the struggles of renting in Canada’s most populated city, for instance, was made possible through a partnership and financial support of Maytree, an organization that tries to find solutions to alleviating poverty.

Another story, called “Punching Tomorrow” about a boxing gym that offers free lessons to people from underserved communities, was made possible by the Joe Burke Journalism Fund for Social Justice Reporting. 

Success is only sustained by quality journalism 

Willing says while Bidini’s profile is responsible for a fair amount of the paper’s initial success, at the end of the day it is only quality journalism that will guarantee its success and the success of similar outlets going forward.

“My hope is other community-like news sources will be able to attract attention from an audience and hopefully from funders through the good journalism that they’re doing,” he explains. “I think good journalism is the thing that’s going to win over readers at the end of the day.”

Bidini is committed to providing the good journalism that his readers are craving. The Phoenix’s writers range from local west-end poets and illustrators to artists around the world. Writer and poet Michael Ondaatje recently gifted a poem to the Phoenix for publication in a future edition. 

“There are allies everywhere who are great artists,” the Bidini explains.

The editor-in-chief notes that although they are a local paper covering Toronto’s eclectic west end, that doesn’t and shouldn’t limit them from shying away from tackling more wide-ranging subjects.

“We’ll write about the butcher. We’ll write about the person making chili in their garage,” he says. “But there are also much broader think pieces about democracy and housing and education and the police. And studying the way those issues are addressed.”

The growing mix of donations, subscriptions, and other funding sources enabled the Phoenix to open a physical office in March of last year. It has also hired new staff to manage its Instagram and X accounts. 

However, Bidini stresses that the newspaper will remain first and foremost focused on print journalism. 

The Phoenix’s slogan—“Slow print for fast times”—emerged during a casual conversation Bidini had over dinner. For the musician turned journalist, it reflects the belief that people should put their phones down once in a while, even for 20 or 30 minutes, pick up a real paper, focus their thoughts, and read a long-form story. And not be afraid to get their thumbs dirty with ink.

“We want to get people to dwell on [the content] a little bit more—the way you would study a painting or listen to a five-minute song—and engage with it on a level that draws you a bit deeper into it,” Bidini concludes.  

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.

Five Tweets on the government pausing mental health MAID expansion

News

This week, the federal government announced it will pause expanding MAID (medical assistance in dying) to cover Canadians suffering from mental illnesses. The expansion was supposed to take place this March. It is the second time the program has been paused, following a 2016 Superior Court of Quebec decision.

“It’s clear from the conversations we’ve had that the system is not ready and we need more time,” explained Health Minister Mark Holland.

The Toronto Star recently reported that the number of Canadians ending their lives through MAID has “grown at a speed that outpaces every other nation in the world.” In the last couple of years, more citizens have died in Canada using MAID than in any other country on Earth.

In 2022, MAID deaths reached a total of 13,000, which is four percent of all deaths in Canada. It represented a whopping 31 percent increase from the year before. If Canada continues at this rate, next year it will be the world leader in the percentage of deaths due to MAID. Eleven other countries worldwide offer end-of-life treatment.

When MAID was first introduced in Canada in 2016, some experts saw it as a human rights win, claiming it allowed citizens the right to choose how they wished to pass on; letting those who were suffering from physical illnesses die in a dignified way.

Others, including the Canadian Medical Association Journal, have since pointed out just how much our health-care system is saving due to MAID.

Those who support the expansion say people suffering from mental illness deserve to be treated the same under the law as those suffering from physical ailments.

But others say this potential new measure would harm vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Some religious groups are deeply opposed. Critics claim MAID’s growing use is due to a health-care system and social safety net that is failing to serve its citizens. For example, there have been reported instances of veterans being offered the option of ending their lives by Veterans Affairs caseworkers.

This week’s controversial announcement caused quite the stir online. Here are five tweets showing Canadians reacting to the government pausing mental health MAID expansion:

Dr. Sandy Simpson, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and a forensic psychiatry research chair at the University of Toronto, breathed a sigh of relief and called for the expansion to be entirely abandoned.

In fact, government officials from Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, B.C., New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan, along with all three territories are calling for an indefinite pause.

Inclusion Canada, an intellectual disability human rights organization pushed for the pause to become a rejection.

Others were very disappointed with the government’s decision. Dying with Dignity Canada, a charity that describes itself as an organization that advocates for end-of-life rights, tweeted that the decision meant a loss for “individuals who live with longstanding, treatment-resistant mental disorders.”

Last year, the federal government instructed a committee of 15 MPs and senators to determine whether the health-care system was ready for the expansion.

Their resulting report, which informed the government’s decision, said MAID for those with mental illnesses should be delayed until “it can be safely and adequately provided.”

Some on Parliament Hill wished MAID had been expanded. A group of Independent senators, who were part of the report, issued a joint press release stating, “The majority report…stigmatizes individuals with mental disorders, promoting the myth that individuals with mental disorders are incapable of making informed decisions about their end-of-life choices.” Two of the three lawmakers hold medical degrees.

The federal Conservatives want the MAID mental health plans scrapped. Meanwhile, the NDP are calling for more mental health support to be built before it’s introduced.

Interestingly, The Canadian Bar Association, which represents Canada’s lawyers and legal professionals, will be debating this issue of mental illness and MAID at their annual general meeting next week. One resolution seeks for the association to “withdraw” previous statements it made supporting MAID for the mentally ill.

A September 2023 Angus Reid survey shows while a majority (60 percent) of Canadians supported Canada’s previous rules governing MAID, only 28 percent say they support allowing those whose sole condition is mental illness to seek MAID.

As for what’s next, two government sources told Radio-Canada any expansion decision won’t happen before the next federal election.