Paper Chase

Monday is still out in front in the competitive Victoria market, but it's starting to slow its pace

Yette M. Brend
Spring, 1994 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

IT'S SUNDAY MORNING AND, AS USUAL, THERE'S A LINEUP FOR John's Place, a diner-style restaurant in downtown Victoria. Just inside the door is a box of free Monday Magazines...and most patrons pick one up as they go in. After they get a booth, they order brunch and read the alternative weekly. A couple clad in fisherman sweaters dig into home fries and debate this week's feature on a local politician. A young man in cycling gear pores over the personals. A waiter, absentmindedly swinging an empty coffee pot, flips through the magazine's calendar of events.

Monday rose to prominence outside B.C. for probably the first time one day this past January, when it unsuccessfully challenged the publication ban on the Homolka trial. But locally, the paper that Vancouver media critic Stan Persky calls a "hard-working, digging-for-the-story weekly mirror of Victoria" has a readership that its counterparts in other cities envy. Vancouver's alternative weekly The Georgia Straight, for example, reaches 23 per cent of the greater Vancouver market and only nine per cent of downtown readers, and while Toronto's NOW has a 30 per cent piece of the city-core market, in the Metro area the figure drops to four per cent. In contrast, Monday is read by 88,000 people each week-35 per cent of greater Victoria readers. That audience is older than those of most alternative weeklies: the average reader is 44, and the magazine is read by more than half of Victoria's 35- to 45-year-olds. Altogether, Monday bears up well in one of the smallest markets with an alternative publication in North America. It is, some joke, the best daily in Victoria-a telling comment on the grey and greying Thomson-owned TimesColonist. Monday's publisher, Andrew lynch, has some telling comments of his own. "We're trying to craft stories into something different at Monday, not just pump out copy."

That crafting happens at a squat, sky-blue building on Victoria's Blanshard Street. As you walk into lynch's office, there's a framed copy of Monday's 15th-anniversary cover featuring a shot of the bearded lynch leaning on two Monday boxes, a fist raised victoriously. His gesture seems even more apt now. last month lynch's magazine won a round with its principal competitor, Island Publishers, when it ceased to produce the directly competing Victoria News. Still, Lynch is worried that Island Publishers is just regrouping, not retreating. "They made themselves look like Monday, but they weren't Monday. They have not given up." The Island Publishers chain, owned by David Black, took over some flagging community weeklies and recast them as the Victoria News and the Oak Bay News in 1988, and now has six other weeklies, collectively making up The News Group, delivered directly to Victotia-area homes. In recent years, the Victoria News had been aggressively targeting Monday's advertisers and readers-in 1993 The News Group even painted Victoria News boxes the same canary yellow that Monday has used for years. And the News, while still giving lost cats as much playas local bands, had begun coveting the entertainment scene, traditionally Monday's turf.

However, in early March, Black retreated from the Victoria market when he combined the Victoria News with Island Publishers' existing regional insert. Black maintains that while his group is in a "growth period," redesigning the Victoria News did not sell the paper as well as he had hoped: "We tried it and gave it our best shot, and we may do it again, but we can't figure out how to do it well...yet."

If Black's company does come back into Monday's market, it has a size advantage. "It's an $8million company against an $80-million company," Lynch says. But for now, according to Lynch, his ad revenues are up 30 per cent over last year's. Black, meanwhile, disputes Lynch's estimate of his company's worth and says that Monday's problem, like that of all alternative weeklies, is its editorial stance: "If your editorial mission in life is to prick the egos of mainstream corporations, you are always annoying advertisers and you can only grow so big."

Big was part of what Monday's founder was looking to escape when he arrived in the province in 1974. Gene Miller rolled into B.C. on a freight train from New York City at 27, having left his job as a high-school teacher behind. He was living in a converted chicken coop and picking up a bit of work acting when he had the idea for Monday. He envisioned a community paper with the social conscience of The Village Voice that told stories in the style of The New Yorker. Although he had no publishing experience, he convinced five investors to put up $5,000 each, and the first issue of Monday came out on a Monday morning in July of 1975.

Miller's vision was of a paper that would reflect Victoria in a way the two local dailies then in existence did not. Neither took hard looks at prostitution or did critical pieces on MacMillan Bloedel's logging practices. Miller dreamed this paper would champion the underdog, scrutinize big-business interests, and cover the arts community. Since those early days, the paper's editorial focus has broadened from local to province-wide, but its signature stories are still ones like the piece on the relocation of a village of B.C. natives because of pulp-mill pollution and a series of articles untiringly defending Clayoquot Sound.

Bruce Grierson, Monday's City Life editor, is proud that his paper refuses to soft sell Victoria as a pretty vacation spot for high tea at the Empress. "A lot of Victorians don't like bad news.

So the other papers oblige with fluff pieces. There is a spirit of stubborn irreverence on this staff." Even advertisers who disagree with Monday's pro-environment, anti-fat-cat slant know that the weekly gets read. "I don't want to save the world and all the trees in it, but some of their stories are good," says Mark Herbert, president of the bike shop Pacific Cycle.

These days Miller, now a real-estate developer, isn't as happy with the paper he founded. In 1985, after Monday lost a libel suit launched by Peter Pollen, then mayor of the city-and one of the original investors-Miller started to become disheartened with his creation. Three years later he sold his one-third interest in the venture, then valued at approximately $2 million, to his business partners: Andrew Lynch, a former ad salesman and the son of the award-winning journalist and television commentator Charles B. Lynch, and chairman George Heffelfinger.

"My concern with Monday is that it hasn't grown up," Miller says. "It's a bunch of discontented shitheads, little snot-nosed fourth-year journalism students with bad attitudes tooting the same damn horn that I was 20 years ago." But some insiders feel that Lynch, at 52 hardly snot-nosed, has changed Monday's tune. They say his money-making focus may have even softened Monday's alternative punch.

Monday was born from leftist ideals, but it is a business, Lynch points out. He's proud of Monday's growing classified section. Ads from escorts like Misty, who says she's "hot, playful, and voluptuous," are big money-makers. "I have no ethical problem with printing these ads. They are part of our society, and I refuse to censor society," he says. On the other hand, he won't risk upsetting bigger advertisers with an unusual front page. Recently, for example, he demanded that a cover photo of two almost nude lesbians be replaced by a less in-your-face shot. Lynch's strategy is paying off. He speaks loudly of his $3 -million payroll and says, "Alternative press publishers wear three-piece suits now." Lynch, who nonetheless still prefers the crumpled-sports-jacket, red-suspender look, was perhaps referring to publisher and competitor David Black, four years Lynch's junior. Sipping tea from gold-rimmed china in his Beach Drive mansion, the tall, urbane Black looks like a man whose company's overall ad revenues are up 25 per cent, as he claims they are. Black lives well, because like Lynch he knows the earning power of a weekly that's not too alternative. His publishing experience dates back to the mid1970s, when he researched the weekly market for Torstar around the time it was launching community papers. "I began to appreciate the value and nature of the business so much that I wanted to get involved," he says. In 1975 he moved west and took over the Williams Lake Tribune from his father. By 1988, when he bought several existing weeklies and revamped them as the Victoria News and Oak Bay News, he had already started to cover B.C. like a patchwork quilt with his papers. Now, Island Publishers owns 35 papers in Canada and 10 in the U.S.

Even though from the start the Victoria News ad sales reps pushed their paper as "just like Monday," the real competition between Monday and Island Publishers dates back to the early nineties, when the News began to copy Monday's coverage of the alternative entertainment scene. Then last year the Victoria News boxes were repainted from their old grey to a yellow almost identical to the shade Monday has always used, a choice Black guilelessly maintains was "pure coincidence," the work of a hapless painter. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Monday was paying Island Publishers about $1 million yearly to print Monday's 41,000 copies each week, along with Monday Publications' two other titles-the weekly Real Estate Victoria and monthly Victoria Business Report.

"We were in competition on every front, so why should I wax his payroll?" asks Lynch. Late in 1993 he decided to spend about $1 million and buy his own press, which meant that Black's press lost its biggest client. Island Publishers retaliated. "There was a hole in my business when Monday stopped printing with us," says Black. "I warned Andrew." First, Island Publishers cloned Monday's real-estate directory, which Black estimates was bringing in more than $2 million a year until the fancy green Victoria Homes boxes started appearing last November. And though the Victoria News continued to define itself as mainstream, with its pictures of high-school soccer and its uncritical, boosterish coverage of local politics, it began to look more Mondayish than ever with its new full-cover photograph and jazzed-up banner. However, Lynch denies that Island Publishers hurt his company, despite flat ad revenues in 1991 and 1992. All Black's aggressive door-to-door ad sales attracted more attention to Monday, he says.

Some advertisers stood staunchly behind Monday. "Monday appeals to people who read, and it's part of the hip scene," says Jim Munro, owner of Munro's Books, who has advertised with the magazine since its inception. But other advertisers weren't as loyal. "I put more money into the Victoria News once the quality was jerked up," Joan Wellwood, advertising manager of the New Bastion Theatre, said in February.

But are Black and Monday's founder Gene Miller right about Monday's editorial content? Has the paper become its own biggest problem, full of what Miller calls "sneering condemnations of big business" Stan Persky doesn't think so. "The mainstream media, with their hundreds of slots to fill, become a kind of stew. In Monday, the lead article always stands out."

The lead story in Monday may look at steroid abuse among Victoria bodybuilders or present a doctor's-eye view of Bosnia, complete with frank pictures. The book reviews are always quirky and the softer features-on llama farming, for example-are surprisingly literary. The graphics are a little tired, but Monday offers the best guide to nightlife in the city-from acid jazz to Robert Munsch readings. Even Monday's office tells readers that this is a weekly with a difference. There is always a bowl of apples for couriers in the lobby, and one reporter even has a few apple peelings in his files from the desperate time when no paper was handy, so he took notes on the skin. Monday has changed with each editor, but never strayed into the mundane. Sid Tafler, 46, Monday's editor since 1988 and a former political reporter at the Calgary Herald and later in Victoria, believes the magazine needs to be more daring, not more restrained: "We sometimes need to get farther to the edge, more gonzo," he says. He laughs about the six potential libel suits sitting on his desk. He does not want Monday to get fusty, so he keeps the writers young, though he sits unabashedly middle-aged in his patterned socks. The average life expectancy of a Monday writer is under three years. Burnout is partly to blame- Tafler wants writers to "sweat it." So is the lousy pay: most Monday reporters make less than $27,000 for their up to 60-hour week, while a counterpart at the unionized TimesColonist starts at $37,000. Writers on the Monday masthead do it for love. Bruce Grierson is rumoured to work all night, pyjamaclad, to get a phrase to turn just right. Besides, if Monday died, The News Group pays less than $20,000 to start.

And Victoria would be poorly served by the remaining papers. They lack the main ingredient of an interesting read: opinion. Still, even Monday's gems-like John Hofsess' ground-breaking pieces on assisted suicide and Grierson's eloquent words on eating disorders-are getting rarer. And, historically, Monday has had few female voices, despite the recent addition of writer Lynda Cassels. Monday needs to preserve that opinionated edge and keep taking risks, no matter what advertisers think. That's how Monday survived this long. Miller mortgaged his house, nurtured his vision, and readers read it. Monday was never a safe business venture. Its insolence kept it alive. And despite Miller's reservations, he recognizes its importance. "Monday is still the strongest editorial voice in the city," he says.

And that says something for the little weekly that survives in the city of 1,000 tea cosies.

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