At Last You Have An Alternative TO The Establishment Press. And It Works
At Last You Have An Alternative TO The Establishment Press. And It Works
IN ALL THE earnest talk about the future of the media in Canada, nobody consulted Judy Pelletier. Too bad. Judy Pelletier’s experience with newspapers would have made her a telling witness for Senator Keith Davey. Mrs. Pelletier is a social worker in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, a specialist in learning disabilities. When her family moved there from Ottawa in 1963, they found it, she says, “a bit Rip Van Winkle.” When she became convinced that her children were victims of a “punitive atmosphere” in the school system, she formed a committee for reform. Canadian Press writer Brenda Large wrote a feature about the movement. Editors from Charlottetown to Victoria found that feature worth printing; Halifax editors did not.
Mrs. Pelletier felt “badly let down.” It was only after she contacted the Ombudsman, an action-line service in a new Halifax paper called The 4 th Estate, that her movement received serious local attention. “We’ve come to love the Maritimes now,” she says, “and things are changing. Young people see The 4th Estate opening cans of worms. We’d despair if it folded. I think we’d leave.”
The 4th Estate will not fold. On April 1, Nick Fillmore, its 26-year-old coowner and managing editor, lifted a pint of Oland’s Schooner ale and declared, “Now we’re sure we’re staying in business.” Beside him the co-owners (his mother and father) and his new wife
(the former Brenda Large) celebrated the first, successful year of terrier attacks on politicians, bureaucrats and slumlords. The biweekly, launched on $50 investments, now reports a press run of 11,600 copies, circulation of 9,600 and 190 sales outlets.
Fillmore’s celebration marked something else: a
year of unparalleled popular involvement in media. As the McLuhanite dogma of electronic primacy was seeping
into conventional wisdom and Davey’s Senate committee was questioning platoons of news executives in sharp suits, tiny groups of Canadian dissenters were turning to the photo-offset press as a means of self-expression. Some 100,000 of them were subscribing to more than 20 papers, mostly new, whose editors shared Nick Fillmore’s credo: “The day profit becomes a factor in our thinking is the day I pack up.”
An explosion of do-it-yourself journalism results in the publication of unfamiliar things. In the Georgia Straight, “man 30 good appearance” advertised his wish to “meet woman for that little extra age unimportant.” Montreal’s French-language Québec Presse kept score of old people’s homes built in comparable Liberal and Union Nationale ridings (Rouges 0: Bleus 15).
The Straight is part of Canada’s underground press, community newspapers of dropout society. They serve the taste for communal living and a philosophy of liberated individualism. They feature rock, largely American New Left politics and a distinctive style of Dada layout.
But the role of hippies’ house journal is limiting. And Stephen Brown, who gave up a $175-a-week job as education reporter on the Vancouver Sun for $75 and “freedom” on the Georgia Straight, feels “the drug thing is dying anyway.” Social and ecological stories — oil killing the ducks on Burnaby Lake, the Victoria tenants’
march — are claiming more of his time.
Most of the current expansion is “above ground.” Eight Montreal journalists last fall launched a muckraking magazine, The Last Post, to attack Canadian political issues from a radical viewpoint. “But we were determined,” says co-editor Drummond Burgess, “not to be an incestuous house organ for the radical or hippie communities.” With three issues well sold, the Post plans a regular seven a year.
In Winnipeg, Omphalos editor Erik Moore, a 19-yearold U.S. deserter, compiles at more or less 14-day intervals an unwieldy mixture of hippie news, Manitoba politics, American New Leftism and uncapitalized proletarian rhetoric (“workers — you remain dumb,” one editorial begins). In Regina, the socialist Prairie Fire broke the national story of an unemployed man who claimed four policemen took him outside city limits and beat him (they were acquitted).
Few of these new papers reflect their regions as surely as the Maritime publications. Like Judy Pelletier,. Donald Cameron, a 32-year-old English professor from Vancouver, is a newcomer to the Atlantic region. Though he emerged at the Davey committee as the most incisive critic of K. C. Irving’s New Brunswick media monopoly, Cameron and the monthly magazine he started with two associates, The Mysterious East, share Irving’s local patriotism. Facetiously,
DO-IT-YOURSELF PRESS continued
Cameron once told Irving he planned “branch-plant” publications in Toronto and the west — The Mysterious Middle and The Scrutable West. Irving liked that. “That’s right,” he said, “you run Toronto from here.”
Cameron defines the new opposition press as “journalism that will provide an outlet for the poor, the radical, the dispossessed and the powerless.” When his little group of academics planned their first issue on his diningroom table in Fredericton, “we thought there was a 90% chance we wouldn’t make it.” In fact, nearly 5,000 copies are regularly sold. The price is 35 cents, 10 cents more than production cost. It is displayed in Dominion stores. The Irving newspapers, not characterized by investigative zeal, leave it juicy pickings. The East’s April issue reports exhaustively on the serious consequences of a Spiroid drug raid in Sackville.
Essentially, though, one man personifies the dissenting press in confrontation with authority. He is Dan McLeod, 26-year-old founding editor of the psychedelic Georgia Straight. A babyfaced, long-haired former math instructor with thick spectacles and a posture of drooping quiescence, McLeod has demonstrated both editorial strength and intellectual tenacity. He launched the paper in May, 1967. Four months later the City of Vancouver canceled its license, charging it had been sold to children. It was reinstated after a month, but in January, 1969, a charge of criminal libel began a long sequence of prosecutions McLeod believes were “attempts by the authorities to suppress us.” By last February McLeod and his contributors had faced 21 charges, $4,100 in fines, $3,750 of them imposed on McLeod himself.
The Straight unquestionably jars conventional nerves. One charge stemmed from a guide to the cultivation of pot, another followed an article on “Penis de Milo.” But, in a powerful brief to Davey, McLeod detailed the
laying of unusual and archaic charges, the use of arrest instead of summons, frequent seizures and searches. The senators would find it hard not to sympathize with the provincial judge McLeod quoted as remarking that it was a mystery to him why the Straight was constantly “singled out for prosecution.”
If Canadian newspapers saw McLeod as someone defending their freedoms, they never acknowledged the debt. He survived anyway. When I talked to him during the Vancouver newspaper lockout, he reported advertising up 50%, circulation settling at 16,000. The new sale price of 25 cents was helping pay the fines. After McLeod’s brief it would not be surprising if the Davey committee were to recommend changes in the laws governing criminal libel and street vendors. It should.
Dissenting papers proliferate, some too hip to make sense, some sinking fast under their weight of jargon. Preponderantly, they are amateurish, socially committed, humane and influential among working and student journalists. And photooffset makes them easy to start. You use an electric typewriter to set your copy in columns, scissors and paste to put the columns on a layout sheet. Then, Herb Dempsey of Toronto’s Newsweb will print you 5,000 copies of an eight-page tabloid for $112. In Halifax, Fillmore gets 10,000 copies of a 20pager with color for $400.
For any opposition paper, says Fillmore, the decisive battle is to win acceptance as a credible source of news. For this reason, he sees little future for the “far-out” underground press. But he’s sure more good newspapermen, weary of working for “the manufactured product,” will start papers like The 4th Estate: “I think most cities in Canada will some day have one.” Visionary? Not really. Fillmore, after all, has done it. And, for Mrs. Judy Pelletier and 10,000 neighbors, the question of the media in Canada has already been solved. □
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