Weekly keeps eye on arts, entertainment

It is a familiar complaint.Newspaper readers grow old. They die. Such is life.The good news is that there is always a new breed of young people born to replenish these thinning ranks.However, it is becoming harder and harder to attract the...

It is a familiar complaint.

Newspaper readers grow old. They die. Such is life.

The good news is that there is always a new breed of young people born to replenish these thinning ranks.

However, it is becoming harder and harder to attract the elusive, well-educated, highly active and mobile young adults, age 18-39, who are highly coveted by advertisers.

Nowhere in Canada is this more evident than in the towering media Babel that is Toronto.

Four daily newspapers, a host of suburban and community newspapers, a diverse and flourishing ethnic press, trade, professional, arts and entertainment periodicals and specialty magazines all compete for the print advertising dollar.

Looking at this overheated, overgrazed, overserviced market in late 1990, we at The Toronto Star came up with what we thought was a sensible solution.

We decided what was needed was yet another newspaper in the form of eye WEEKLY, a free-standing, giveaway tabloid concentrating primarily on the arts and entertainment scene in Toronto and environs.

Here is the thinking that led us to this action.

As the difficulties in attracting new, young readers became progressively more apparent during the early ’80s, the Star developed various strategies to conteract the trend.

The most successful of these was What’s On, a weekly entertainment broadsheet section of the Star that proved popular with our readers in the 18-39 age group.

The problem was, however, that as a section (initially Friday, now moved to Thursday) of the daily paper, it was not reaching young readers who were not already regular, or at least occasional, Star readers.

Our research indicated that there was still a significant number of potential readers who just were not looking at us as an option.

On top of that, the alternate arts and entertainment weekly in the market, Now, had experienced steady growth throughout its 10 years of existence.

Proof of that success was Now’s claimed free circulation in the 90,000 range, its estimated $6 million annual advertising revenue, and the proliferation of imitators it had attracted over the years.

Rumor had it that the publication, already selling some copies outside the centre core, was doing so well it was considering converting from a giveaway to paid circulation.

Although all of Now’s challengers had faded away, it was the demise of the most serious one to date, Metropolis, in 1990 that planted the seed for eye WEEKLY.

Metropolis had struggled for nearly two years before shutting down.

While our analysis of Metropolis’ demise revealed a number of hurdles to be overcome, its longevity indicated that the marketplace was receptive and supportive of another voice.

We decided to launch an alternative to the alternative.

Our objectives were simple: to create and launch a weekly alternate paper credible enough to attract the 18- to 39-year-old readership that is increasingly not subscribing to a mainstream daily newspaper; and to attract the smaller advertiser interested in reaching this demographic, but unable to afford the cost of a higher circulation, less targetted print medium.

To make a long story short, almost exactly one year after the initial thought, we launched eye WEEKLY on Oct. 10, 1991.

Focussing primarily on arts and entertainment, the core of the book was a comprehensive listings package.

In addition, the city’s flourishing live music scene, its huge film audience and dynamic live theatre community made these areas obvious centres of editorial attention.

Once fleshed out with a wider menu of cultural coverage, we introduced environmental, political, media and issues coverage to address the non-entertainment components that a paper must cover to be truly alternative.

One of the most critical decisions we made was to take the entire operation outside the main plant.

If it was to be a street paper, it had to have a real street voice. And there is nothing like cramped rental quarters and tight budgets to get you there.

Conscious effort was made to recruit and develop bright young writers from the very audience we were trying to attract.

The result has been a cheeky, often irreverent, but never irrelevant view of what is going on, and what it means to our audience.

As you can imagine, launching a project like this in the depths of a recession was a hell of a gamble.

Certainly the fact that economic recovery has been so slow has prompted a requisition for a new crystal ball. But despite tight money, it seems our market projections are beginning to come true.

The best proof of this is that, with our last two quarters, our audited circulation has overtaken our now 13-year-old competitor, Now.

We expect our current average to be certified in the 93,000 to 94,000 range, well beyond our original target of 75,000.

As well, despite the prevailing economic climate, it appears we will reach our breakeven point on target in 1994.

To paraphrase Sally Field’s Oscar-night gush, ‘They like us, they really do.’

Andrew V. Go is publisher of eye WEEKLY and group sales director at The Toronto Star.