For Matthew Cutler, director of strategic initiatives at the 519 Church Street Community Centre, the end of Xtra marks a turning point for queer visibility.
“I used to travel out to Mississauga through Kipling Station and was always amazed to see the Xtra box there,” he says. “I think that sometimes folks in the neighbourhood take it for granted, [but] the presence of Xtra in physical form played a large part in telling that story to a community that otherwise wouldn’t have heard about it.”
Since Pink Triangle Press (PTP) announced that it would be shuttering its print division, not-for-profit organizations like The 519 have had to assess how the move will affect their ability to reach Toronto’s LGBT communities — especially people who live in outlying areas of the city.
“Although we have a geographic catchment that calls us to serve the Village and the broader lesbian, gay, bi and trans community in the city, the vast majority of our members don’t live here,” Cutler says. “[And] for many in poor and marginalized communities, they simply can’t afford to live in this neighbourhood. So Xtra being out in the space helped us to draw those people in and keep them up to date.”
Arti Mehta, LGBTQ coordinator at the Canadian Cancer Society, agrees. The biggest drawback of the paper’s demise is losing “the visibility of LGBTQ community issues in everyday environments,” she says. “It has been great to work with a publication that focuses on LGBTQ communities, as we know we are reaching the right target market.”
When PTP launched the paper in 1984, Xtra’s mandate offered many organizations a platform to discuss issues pertaining to LGBT people that were often ignored by mainstream media outlets. And at a time when the community was disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic, the paper acted as a valuable resource for those looking for programs and services that could improve their quality of life.
“One of the challenges throughout the HIV epidemic has been the under-representation of LGBTQ issues, and specifically health issues, in the mainstream media,” says Chris Thomas, communications coordinator at the AIDS Committee of Toronto. “Xtra’s audience is largely made up of folks from the LGBTQ community, so for us it has been a no-brainer” to use the paper for outreach.
Cutler agrees. The 519 “would often struggle to get mainstream media to cover us because we were often marginalized as an LGBT agency. Even as recently as five or six years ago, we would have to fight or really work hard to get coverage in other outlets, while we could reliably turn to Xtra to tell our story.”
And while the paper was helpful in supporting organizations and advancing their issues, it also played a key role in holding them accountable to the community at large.
“I often think about decisions we make or work we do in terms of how Xtra would cover it,” Cutler says. “And that, sometimes, is a measure for me of where we might need to do more work or something we’re doing needs a little bit more attention. Xtra helped to keep us honest and keep us thinking about how we’re intersecting with the broader community in the work that we do.”
According to the most recent study by research agency NADbank, newspaper readership remains strong across the country, with 15.8 million Canadians reading some form of newspaper content each week and six in 10 preferring to read their news in printed versus online editions. Still, NADbank notes that online readership is steadily gaining on print, with one in three Canadians reading at least a portion of their news content online from established publications.
“As much as I think we will all miss the print edition of Xtra, it is not a surprise that a shift to digital is in order,” Cutler says. “The web began to be more of a traffic point for us than print, and it gives us an even broader audience.”
He argues that while the physical paper extended the organization’s reach into the suburbs, the online version can get the word even further. “We know that even on our own website, we see a large number — not a majority, but certainly in the 30- to 40-percent range — of visitors from outside the GTA and outside Canada in some cases.”
Thomas sees similar trends at his agency. “A lot of people looking to have sex in the LGBTQ community are using online apps and other types of digital platforms to meet each other. Accordingly, [ACT has] been increasing our presence on many of these sites to promote safer-sex practices and strategies for reducing the risk of getting HIV and other STIs when having sex. Moving forward, we will continue to partner with Xtra digitally, should the opportunity present itself and the circumstances be mutually beneficial.”
Cutler is optimistic about the shift online and views it as an opportunity to increase the breadth of representation and to be more precise in targeting specific demographics. He hopes that it will allow people to find information that is specifically relevant to them.
“When you have a limited number of pages, you have to be selective about what ends up in a paper. And that’s not to say that you don’t curate an online environment, but that you can be broader because you’re not as limited in what you do. My hope is that as these conversations move more online, it will allow us to represent a greater diversity of our community and the people who are in it — because we have more bandwidth and space to play with.”