It’s not often you get to write a happy news story about struggling print media. Heck, the blog post just before this one is about hundreds of jobs being lost and big papers shutting down. But while other papers have decades of history and so-called “legacy costs” and are slashing their workforce to face the new industry reality, Cult MTL is building itself up slowly from the ground. And through a mixture of incremental steps and fuelled by a large amount of good-will unpaid or underpaid work, it’s establishing a future for itself and filling the hole that was left by the shut down of Hour and Mirror last year.
It was one year ago today that the cultmontreal.com website published its first articles. And in today’s Gazette, I talk to the brains behind the operation about their progress and future plans.
It’s during that meeting a little over week ago that they told me Cult was moving to a twice-monthly schedule (the next issue comes out starting on Thursday) and that they’re looking for permanent office space.
The three senior editorial staff were surprisingly open with me about how things are going there. Part of being so independent is not having to keep too many trade secrets. I didn’t ask them for their tax returns or anything, but they answered every question I asked as best they could.
Here’s a roundup of things they told me.
Cult MTL was never really supposed to be a print paper. It was supposed to be a website, focused on the city’s culture, that would survive mainly on advertising.
Last fall, though, they decided to follow one of Mirror’s traditions by publishing a Student Survival Guide special.
“Part of it was ‘yeah we should do it’,” Creative Director Brenden Fletcher said. “Part of it was this would make a great ad for our site. (Cult MTL) was 100% a digital project. If there was print content it would be in support of that.”
But things change.
“Ever since we launched our first print issue, I think the response was so encouraging that it’s hard not to be increasingly optimistic,” Managing Editor Lucas Wisenthal said.
“Conventional wisdom is that young people aren’t into print, but we found that wasn’t the case,” said Editor-in-chief Lorraine Carpenter. “That was surprising.”
So they came out with another print issue in October. And another in November. And they’ve been out every month since.
For the July issue, there was no big announcement about the change in schedule, but eagle-eyed readers might have noted that the date on the issue isn’t “July 2013” but rather “July 4-17”, and that the “to-do list” feature only lists two weeks of events instead of covering the entire month.
Fletcher said they’ve committed to publishing twice a month in July, August and September, and will see after that about continuing. Coming out more often in the summer is critical because it’s festival season, the height of Montreal’s cultural activity.
“We would love to see that happen (continuing the twice-monthly schedule),” Fletcher said. “Doing two issues a month is an experiment. It makes sense for content for these months. We’re hoping it gets supported from the business side as well.”
He added with a smirk: “It’s a good feeling to be publishing as many times a month as Voir is.”
But the success of the paper isn’t coming at the expense of the website. Much of their content is exclusive to each other, and that’s by design.
“A lot of the content is conceived with one or the other (medium) in mind,” Fletcher said.
At Mirror, Carpenter said, “the website was the newspaper online.” It was something they didn’t want to repeat with Cult MTL.
“We’ve talked about this,” Fletcher said. “But nothing here is set in stone. We can change at a whim, and we will change at a whim.”
One thing they’re rethinking is columnists, which weren’t part of the print edition when it was a monthly. “Previously we just had all the columnists all on the web,” Wisenthal said. “We realize that adding our rock columnist or rap columnist in the paper adds to our vitality.”
Looking for space
“We’re having weekly conversations about the need for more structure, the need to have more than a couple of meetings a week,” Carpenter told me. “It seems like the next logical step is to rent out an office space,” added Wisenthal.
They’re looking for something cheap and visible, Fletcher said, probably around Parc and Beaubien, in Mile End. “Our designers have a space there that we’re really envious of,” he said.
Though Cult MTL’s success so far has been heartwarming, it’s still struggling. Paying writers $20 an article only works for so long. And Carpenter, Fletcher and Wisenthal haven’t been paying themselves a salary yet. (Wisenthal has been doing other work to pay the bills, and Carpenter is still relying on unemployment insurance payouts from her job at Mirror.) They’re paying their listings editor and film editor/editorial assistant, but they need to start paying themselves too.
“Everybody’s gotta get paid,” Fletcher said. “Every freelancer is getting paid. We’re working towards moving pay rates up. And at the same time letting these guys pay their rent,” he added, pointing to Carpenter and Wisenthal.
“People think that we’re owned by Quebecor or that we have money,” Fletcher said when asked about people’s misconceptions about Cult MTL. “I think we put out a product that betrays the fact that we’re dirt poor and don’t have a clue what we’re doing.”
“Nobody’s backing up a money truck,” Wisenthal said. There was no big investment to get this off the ground, and many of the expenses are being paid by the senior staff themselves. Carpenter even handles much of the paper’s distribution herself.
“I paid for our web hosting last month from my Visa,” Fletcher said. “Everyone’s still picking stuff up on their own dime. And it’s hard, but we’re so committed to this.”
They’re not independently wealthy, Carpenter said. They’re making sacrifices to make this happen.
Even though they’re not getting paid, it’s a full-time job for all three. Heck, it’s even more than that.
“It’s a 24-hour gig,” Wisenthal said. “You’re always on call. You feel a deep sense of responsibility to the company.”
Need more ads, more readers
Advertising is still their primary source of revenue. An experiment of giving away an expanded version of the Best of Montreal issue as a pay-what-you-want download made it clear that people don’t want to pay for content like this, Fletcher said. (Though Carpenter noted that those who did pay gave the higher amount suggested.)
“I think the audience wants us to be ad-based,” Fletcher said. “It’s the Mirror model. It’s what everyone expects of us.”
But getting ads is tough. Many cultural organizations try to barter visibility swaps to get ads, proposing to put Cult MTL’s logo on their websites and print material. Cult’s not opposed to that, Fletcher said, but they need actual paid advertisements too, he said, or they won’t be able to survive.
And the guys with the big money aren’t sniffing around yet.
For national advertisers, like car companies, “I was told we’d have to grit our teeth and hold on for a year before anyone would pay attention to us,” Fletcher said. “We don’t have regular deals with (ad) agencies. We need regular deals with agencies.”
“We’re only scratching the surface,” he added. “We’ve had one guy struggling to make this happen. He’s been taking on the role of an entire team of people who were working for the Mirror. We’re trying to make a department of that right now.”
Being so involved with advertising is new for Fletcher, who was the assistant art director at Mirror when it folded, and whose only exposure to ads was seeing blocks on pages showing where they would go. “It’s sort of a weird thing to know even before we put the issue together that we’re going to have these ads,” he said.
Asked what they needed, Fletcher said money is a big thing, “to pay our own rents so we can focus on this.” They also need page views, people to click on articles on their website, share them with friends, look at the ads (and click them if they’re interested).
“We’re mom and popping it all the way,” Fletcher said. “It’s all just a hustle to get $100 here, $100 there. It’s all hustle. Nothing in this comes easy. Not the ads, not the layout, not the articles, not the decision making. We’ve put so much thought into every aspect of this thing. But I think it’s valuable.”
They also could use some tech nerds. “We don’t have the technical people or the money to make a great (smartphone) app,” Fletcher said. “This is all stuff we’re working towards.”
Carpenter said she handles a little less than half the distribution of the paper every month, enough to know how many issues can be loaded into the back of a van without the bottom of that van scraping the asphalt.
They distribute the paper themselves because they don’t have the money to hire professional distributors.
But doing it themselves also has its advantages. Carpenter said she hears from businesses that want to start new drop-off points or get more issues. She has a feel for how much demand there is for papers at each point, and can adjust the number of papers accordingly. They can stretch those 10,000 copies more, compared to Mirror that printed many times that and had many left over after a week.
“We’re trying to be smart about it,” she said. “Every month I think we get a little bit better and add locations. We’re conscious not to leave too many papers in a specific area. Every time we add about a dozen new spots.”
Like hospitals. Carpenter said she hadn’t considered how captive an audience people in hospitals can be, until someone suggested that Cult be distributed there.
Being smart about distribution is a way of stretching that dollar further.
“We could print 10 times what we’re printing and throwing issues all over the city,” Fletcher said. “We’re trying to just do it incrementally.”
Added Carpenter: “Mirror’s distribution strategy was based on where ICI worked best, and Mirror was just an afterthought.”
Though it’s up to about 200 spots, Cult’s distribution isn’t anywhere near what it should be. Unlike 24 Heures and Metro, it’s not being handed to you at metro stations. And it doesn’t have the bins that Voir has and Mirror had. I myself have trouble finding a copy sometimes.
But Fletcher said they’re already doing better than Mirror did, based on feedback. “I can easily say that I hear complaints about Cult (distribution) as much as or less than I would hear about Mirror,” he said.
“We’re open to hearing from anyone about places to drop or ways to improve,” he added. “If there was a better system of distribution for us we’d jump at it.”
Asked what motivates him to do this, work so long for free on this project, Fletcher had one word: Justice. Not revenge, he said, but justice, to prove that the downfall of Mirror wasn’t because of Montreal, but because of its management.
“It’s partially honouring 28 years of hard work that were just trashed, just completely trashed,” he said, referring to Mirror’s life, which began similarly as an independent newspaper built from the ground up and ended without even a proper goodbye after parent company Quebecor pulled the plug.
“I was at the Mirror for 12 years and a year before the paper folded I got the job I always wanted (as music editor),” Carpenter said. “I always felt like I didn’t get to do enough there.”
All three said they feel the city needs a publication like this.
“There’s an arts community that’s underserved as a result of there not being a weekly,” Wisenthal said.
“I really think it’s necessary for a city to have some kind of resource like this,” said Carpenter. “Even something as basic as music listings. It’s hard for people to find that anywhere.”
“That was a raison d’être of the Mirror when they launched in 1985, was ‘here’s your listings.'”
“That’s the reason I started picking up the mirror when I was 14 or 15 or something. Seeing how many shows I could sneak into with a fake ID.”
Music listings are the most popular part of the website (which is a humbling fact to some of its writers). But bringing them back in print form, though often requested, just isn’t feasible.
“I think putting that into print would be such a huge volume of stuff,” Carpenter said. Fletcher estimated it would take up about half the paper, leaving the rest with little more than ads.
“Especially in the latter days (of Mirror), we’d have one news story but pages and pages and pages of movie listings,” Fletcher said. “It just felt like such a waste.”
So instead, Cult leaves the listings online, where there is no limit on space, and proposes its “To-Do List” of highlights from those listings, the shows it feels people should see. “We would rather have a curated list of our recommendations,” Fletcher said. And the readership response has been very positive. “So many people have told us the to-do list is great,” Wisenthal said.
But, like everything else, “we’re always talking about this, we’re always open,” said Fletcher.
The differences between Cult MTL and Mirror go beyond the ownership and print schedule. Mirror always branded itself as an alternative news weekly. But Cult doesn’t try to be newsy.
“We don’t do a news section in the same way the Mirror did,” Wisenthal said. “I think we’ve made a choice that we’re not going to jump in that category.”
Instead, it has focused on areas that Mirror didn’t. “We’ve increased the amount of food content,” Carpenter said. “We have a food columnist in the paper.”
(And though its freelance rates are practically nominal, Cult MTL is reimbursing its food reviewers for their restaurant bills, Carpenter said.)
Cult MTL does have some remnants of the old Mirror. It produced a Best of Montreal readers’ poll, published in June, an issue that was highly in demand, both because of people interested in the best places to check out, and people interested in seeing where they or their business ranked in the annual popularity contest.
The print issue also includes the Rant Line, by former Mirror editor Alastair Sutherland. “It’s supporting an institution. We’re keeping the Rant Line going,” Fletcher said.
Carpenter said it was a bit weird cutting cheques, however small, to her former boss. “Almost my entire professional experience as an editor and reporter, I was side by side with him,” she said. “I feel like I owe him a lot and now I’m giving him money.”
Not everyone involved with Mirror is invested in Cult. Sutherland’s contribution doesn’t go beyond the Rant Line. Mirror news editor Patrick Lejtenyi, now a freelance writer and reporter at CJAD, also isn’t involved in the new project.
But there’s no animosity. Fletcher pointed out that other former Mirror staff have kids and other expenses or responsibilities that don’t allow them the freedom to spend time on a project that doesn’t bring them money. “We could do this,” Fletcher said. “It’s easier for us to make sacrifices.”
Hopefully before long the paper will be healthy enough that the sacrifices to be made won’t be so severe. (And let’s hope that if that happens, they won’t do what Mirror did and sell out to a big media company waving around some cash.)
Cult MTL publishes articles daily at cultmontreal.com, and in print twice a month. The next print issue hits the stands starting on Thursday. On Saturday’s it’s organizing an anniversary barbecue at SAT. Entry is free with reservation (firstname.lastname@example.org) or $5 at the door. Food (and Cult merch) is extra.