Most journalists are insatiably curious skeptics who easily become bored. They’re attracted to the craft, often, because every new story arc represents a new and stimulating adventure. One of the really great things about being a journalist today is that the job is changing so quickly. It’s anything but boring.
Every once in a while, a story comes along that redefines the entire process of news reportage. Those stories are usually few and far between, but in the last year, Xtra has seen a handful.
One Sunday morning last August, as I was checking my news feeds, I learned that a gunman had attacked a gathering of gay teens in Tel Aviv, killing two and wounding many more. I happened at the time to have recently returned from that city’s Pride celebration. While there, I had visited the place where the attack would shortly unfold. I had also recently familiarized myself with Twitter. Much more interesting than the BBC, AP and Al Jazeera accounts of the attack and subsequent protest vigil, were the footprints in the aftermath left on Twitter by the gay people living in Tel Aviv.
Along with heart-wrenching expressions of horror and grief, information about the gunman, who was hurt, who had died and what was going to happen next spread, one tweet at a time, from the moment the gunman fled. There was confusion and misinformation, early lack of clarity and knee-jerk expressions of irrational rage. There were also real-time accounts of gay people, groping for some action to take, moving en masse toward the scene. The work of the professional journalists covering the story for television simply couldn’t compare to the richness of unfolding events as related, a few tiny characters at a time, by those who were living it.
The next game changer was the story of Chris Skinner. Skinner, you’ll recall, was the gay man who, while walking home from a birthday celebration in Toronto’s entertainment district on the evening of Oct 18, was beaten to the ground by still-unidentified suspects who then crushed him to death under the wheels of their SUV.
The story is not unique for its horror. Toronto’s gay communities are too familiar with tragedy and violence. What made this story journalistically unique was the role played by social media and the web. Skinner’s story, as reported by Xtra, flashed within hours to gay people around the world. Rather than publishing whole new stories every few days, Xtra updated readers as each detail emerged. And the expressions of rage and grief on various social media were an overriding part of the tale. The story unfolded in real time before all our eyes, giving insight into police procedures and community activism, and acknowledging with every step which questions remained unasked.
But that was just the beginning. With a simple, single act, a few keystrokes spawned by an idea fleshed out in casual conversation among friends, two Toronto guys created a Facebook page calling for a candlelight vigil and march in Skinner’s memory.
Within a few days, more than 1,000 people, many of them no more than familiar strangers, would gather at Church and Wellesley in one of the most beautiful demonstrations of solidarity I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of.
This issue’s Pride Toronto coverage is another one of those redefining stories. And, from a journalistic perspective, it’s even more interesting. Our print coverage is informed almost completely by work that first appeared online at Xtra.ca. Not only did masses of people respond immediately to Xtra’s report of Pride Toronto’s new sign-vetting-by-ethics-committee policy, not only did a Facebook group spring up that would go on to attract more than 1,500 cogent dissenters, but those invested in the story began to engage in their own reportage. A flurry of meaningful and important questions and answers, formerly festering as idle gossip, have come roaring to the fore.
What does this say to me? That gay activists are using a whole new set of tools to effect positive change and that readers are, more than ever before, becoming active participants in telling the stories of our lives. It’s a wonderful and potentially very powerful evolution.
Matt Mills is editorial director of Pink Triangle Press