When I heard Xtra was shutting down its print operations, I instantly thought of my hometown paper, the Nelson Daily News.
The News published valiantly, if sloppily, for more than a century before it was bought out by a competitor in 2010 and promptly closed its doors. By that time, I was in journalism school, watching Halifax’s Daily News go down in flames. Everywhere, the story repeats: subscriptions dive, advertising evaporates, costs expand, and the web has no business model.
So when you, like me, heard on Jan 14 that Xtra will soon be taking its print papers off the streets, you probably felt you had heard this story before. I know I did. At the request of my editor, however, I spent the last two days talking to some of the top decision makers at Xtra and digging through all the documents they gave me. It left me more optimistic that Xtra’s story is not the story of the Nelson Daily News.
Take what I say with a grain of salt if you like; after all, I freelance for Xtra. Nevertheless, this is what I learned.
It’s not because the papers weren’t doing well. In fact, they were more popular than ever. As of today, Xtra prints about 70,000 copies between its three markets of Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa. According to an independent audit commissioned by Pink Triangle Press last year, an enviable 89 percent of those papers were picked up, a four-percent rise from 2013. And yes, publisher and editor-in-chief Brandon Matheson says that print ad revenues were slipping, but not at the precipitous rate of other newspapers.
If anything, Xtra’s papers were the victim of the web’s success. Xtra’s digital media head, David Walberg, told me that traffic to dailyxtra.com grew by about 30 percent in 2014, and the website’s readership is now estimated to be double that of the three print papers combined. In the same year, interest in Daily Xtra Travel doubled. It was clear, Matheson told me, that Xtra’s audience was migrating to the web in droves. Print was costing money and serving a rapidly narrowing slice of Xtra’s audience.
“This is the economic reality of newsprint. Xtra is not immune to all the negative factors that other print media have been encountering,” he says. “When we looked at the number side and the financial side, and when we looked at the human resources side, it became clear that our best strategy was to reach more people, to be more timely, to be able to do things online that you can’t do in print. It just made more sense to proceed with a digital-only strategy.”
If you want a good example of Xtra’s burgeoning web presence, take a look at its YouTube channel. At the beginning of 2012, it was pulling in a few hundred views a day. Then Xtra’s web team started to focus seriously on video content, and by the end of the year, 15,000 videos were being streamed daily. In 2014, the channel averaged nearly 40,000 views a day. To put that in perspective, for every person who picked up a copy of Xtra on the street, seven people watched a video on Xtra’s YouTube channel.
“We’re building a pretty incredible archive of what gay life is like in our times,” says Frank Prendergast, who runs Xtra’s video operations. “Also, video is an emotional medium. It’s able to transmit excitement, anger. All these emotions can be reported in print or online, but there’s something about video that’s well equipped for emotion.”
One of the most promising things about Xtra’s YouTube channel, he says, is how international it’s become. Canadian viewers come in only fourth on the source traffic charts, behind the United States, Brazil and the UK. Even Russia and the United Arab Emirates have racked up more than 100,000 views since Xtra hit YouTube in 2007.
As bullish as Daily Xtra’s prospects are, however, the real reason for hope in Xtra’s future is Squirt. According to Walberg, 90 percent of Pink Triangle Press’s revenue now comes from the web, and the bulk of that comes from Squirt membership fees. As Pink Triangle Press’s self-described “gay sex cruising hookup site,” Squirt gives Xtra a business model the envy of almost every newspaper struggling for life in today’s online news hunger games: revenue without advertising.
Squirt’s 700,000 active members make it a behemoth compared to Xtra’s readership, and its revenues subsidize Xtra’s news gathering, which in turn flows back into Squirt as shared content. It’s a little poetic, really: Xtra advocates for people’s freedom to have gay sex, and gay people’s desire to have sex keeps Xtra’s presses running.
Squirt’s success, in fact, was an inspiration for Xtra’s digital-only transformation, Matheson says. The press had had to go through one technological shift already, when phone hookup service Cruiseline was overtaken by Squirt.
“In some ways, what Squirt is to Cruiseline, Daily Xtra is to the print edition,” Matheson says.
So what now? In the following months, Xtra will roll out a new mobile site, followed by a revision to Daily Xtra in the spring. The new release will collapse the Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Canada and World pages into one customizable front page. Other improvements, like a makeover of the comments section, which Walberg admits is less than adequate, are in the pipes. Despite the disappearance of papers from the street, he promises that Daily Xtra will produce more local content than ever and stay true to its gay village roots.
The last issues of Xtra in print will appear in their purple boxes on Feb 12 in Vancouver and Ottawa and on Feb 19 in Toronto. At the same time, the press will cut 12 employees across Canada, two in editorial and the others in advertising and production. Five new digital positions will be filled.
I still don’t know whether Daily Xtra’s new model will work, whether Squirt’s revenues will continue to sufficiently sustain Daily Xtra’s storytelling, or whether a new generation of queer people will be interested in reading a website like dailyxtra.com. But, even as it changes, the new Xtra will still have something in common with its 1970s roots. Like its parent paper The Body Politic before it, Xtra has always been a proudly activist paper, and now, as always, it will be publishing in the same medium where activism is happening. The first gay activists in Canada handed out leaflets on courthouse steps. Today, protests are organized in Facebook groups.
“The two things that we do as an organization are to try to create debate in the community and to encourage activism,” Walberg says. “And debate and activism are two things that are predominantly happening online now. And I don’t mean activism in terms of clicktivism; I mean organizing real-world activism.”
“So that’s really a good space to be in if that’s what you’re trying to accomplish in the world.”