Certified B Corporations @GladstoneHotel and @RampAgencyTO launch an inspiring bi–weekly blog series #TorontoTheGood. The series sparks thoughtful conversations through interviews with influencers, social entrepreneurs, and innovators who are shining a light on the city’s toughest issues and championing change to make Toronto, and the world a better place.
Dave Bidini is a musician and author. He is the editor-in-chief and president of the West End Phoenix.
Have you always lived in Toronto, if not where are you from?
I was born and raised here before the ‘megacity’ was amalgamated. Etobicoke wasn’t considered part of Toronto, it was more of a suburb. I grew up 12 subway stops away from downtown Toronto.
What changed about the city since you grew up here?
Growing up, it seemed like people were terrified of each other and they spent a lot of time secluded at home. In the suburbs, people were afraid of the city. I started going downtown when I was 13 and Toronto was more of a shuttered place back then. It was hard to find things to do. There were no outdoor patios, only one 24-hour restaurant, and the city seemed to shut down on weekends. Things have changed because we’ve opened our borders to people from elsewhere. Waves of immigration and people from all over the world helped liberate Toronto, shifting it from a temperate place to a place of communities. Now the city is full of life and people who want to interact with each other. It’s important to remember where we came from as we think about our capacity for immigration and the future of the city.
What excites you most about Toronto?
I think it was Ryan McMahon who told me that we don’t really know what Canada is yet. I think that’s true. The way we’re federally governed and constructed is an experiment. We don’t know if it will succeed because as a country we’re still so young. The same is true of our city, it’s still emerging and trying to figure itself out. Toronto is a relatively young place and I think that’s exciting. There are many places at the margins that can continue to be molded and shaped. As Torontonians, it’s our hands and our work that will affect the way the city changes and moves. For it to be what we want, we have to use our imaginations and think beyond what exists. We should not be content with the status quo and instead, see the city as an ever-changing entity.
Tell me about your role.
I’m the publisher of the West End Phoenix newspaper. I’m also an author, my newest book, Midnight Light came out on Penguin Random House in the fall. I was inspired to write the book after spending time in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. I was working as a reporter for the Yellowknifer Newspaper. My job helped me learn a lot about the city, the Dene, and Indigenous life and culture. I spent about a year and a half up there, it was a fun and fascinating adventure. I’m also in a band called The Rheostatics and we have a new record coming out this year. In 2020, it will be our 40th year as a band.
What do you think can and should change in the city?
Housing and development are a big issue. As Torontonians, we need to make sure our city is a place where everyone can live. In New York and other great cities worldwide, developers are mandated to provide a certain percentage of affordable housing units for every new building. The fact we don’t have that here is preposterous. I look around my neighbourhood and only people with a certain capacity can afford to buy a house or rent a unit as opposed to people who are aspiring to.
The city’s biggest challenge will be to ensure that everyone can live here. Toronto should always strive to be more open, wild, progressive, and forward-thinking. One of the reasons we started the West End Phoenix was to nourish, sustain, and strengthen the artist class in our neighbourhood. We pay all of our contributors. Our subscribers support the paper, and by doing so, they support the ability for an artist to live in the city.
Did you always think you would be doing this?
Not at all. The idea for the West End Phoenix was inspired by my time up north working for the Yellowknifer. It’s a print newspaper with a very devoted readership and a vital, powerful bond with its city. We applied their model but became a nonprofit, ad-free version. Our focus is on local news, people, and stories from our neighbourhood. We try to stay on top of major issues but the real spirit is to reinvent and reimagine the community newspaper for modern times.
There are no independent community papers in our catchment. Everything has been bought up by Metroland which is owned by the Toronto Star. They gouge out all the content and there’s a real vacuum for local storytelling and local writing. This was something interesting, exciting, and different to take on.
What are your thoughts on the monopolization of media?
Independent media is so important because it allows us to tell stories without being beholden to a corporate master. We’re owned by our subscribers, we serve our neighbourhood, and our readers. We’re free to do and say whatever we want. We didn’t fall prey to the corporatization of media and we figured out a way to do this, be as bias-free as possible, and exist independently.
What approach do you take to producing the newspaper?
We started with a slow-print aesthetic and approach, using writing, photography, and illustration that’s meant to be read and viewed over a period of time instead of being blasted at you the way a lot of media is today. We wanted to produce media that you can hold and enjoy off screen, away from the technology that informs our daily lives and to which we are so attached. The paper allows people to carve out time in their day to sit and read, that’s the approach. It goes against prevailing conventional media wisdom and strategy and runs in the other direction.
There are people who want an alternative to digital media. There’s also a whole generation of kids who have never experienced analog technology. It’s still kind of exotic to them even though it’s old. It’s good to give people a broad choice. Something made analog media really great and to abandon that for something new isn’t the steadiest approach. Going back to paper has appeal to people.
How do you choose contributors for the West End Phoenix?
Dreaming up ideas and approaching contributors who wouldn’t normally be drawn to them is part of the fun. I’ve been writing since I was 15 and I’m a voracious reader so I’m always on the lookout for new writers. Growing up, I was into different sounds and I was always coming into the city to see weird bands. When people come up with new ideas instead of treading on what’s already been done, it excites me. We try to inspire people to do ‘out of the box’ work.
What did you learn in the process of developing the paper?
Above all, it’s about the relationships that evolved out of the paper. Our patrons, writers, photographers, our photo editor Jalani Morgan, all of whom I wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for the paper. I’ve met so many amazing people through putting the West End Phoenix together and I’ve made a lot of new friends along the way. In a lucky series of events, the team and I had the opportunity to visit with Justin Trudeau. He heard about the paper and he was curious about it. He talked to everyone about their roles and was very supportive. It was great to meet him, he gave us a lot of his time.
We don’t have a marketing or advertising budget so we get ourselves out there by word of mouth and ground-level guerilla marketing. We face the challenge of letting people know what we do. I didn’t know how hard it would be to spread the word and that’s where a lot of our work goes.
Has anyone influenced you on your journey?
Ron Gaskin, Christina Zeidler, and Mark Mattson. Ron started a school in the 1960s and promoted experimental music all his life. He didn’t observe the boundaries set out by others and moved past them to challenge conventional thinking. Christina rescued The Gladstone Hotel and turned it into an important cultural hub while it’s slowly being surrounded by condos on every side. Mark runs the Swim Drink Fish program and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.
What approach do you take to inclusivity?
Equity in media is important. We try to ensure we have fair and equal representation in every issue of the paper. It’s the city that we live in and we’d be ridiculous not to reflect that in what we do. We hope to become a model for inclusion, for men and women working together, Indigenous and LGBTQ representation. We host newspaper clubs and try to get into schools to encourage kids and at-risk-youth to read and write.
Do you have any tips or advice for others who want to follow their passion?
Listen to your gut and don’t be afraid to experiment. Try your wildest and most counterintuitive ideas to see if they work. Ultimately, you may fail but you have to try. Don’t be afraid of being judged. We need to be a city that harbours creative ideas and the kind of people that have them.
Thanks for continuing to inspire us, Dave! Keep up the GOOD work.