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Xtra pilots new sponsorship plan to support community groups

‘Social sponsorship’ program aims to connect artists and activists with resources

Shaira (SD) Holman, artistic director of Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival, says Xtra’s coverage over the last five years has been critical to the festival’s success. Credit: David P Ball

Community organizations are expressing some anxieties about the way forward as Xtra goes all-digital and ends its print edition.

Ray Lam, general manager of the Vancouver Pride Society, says the visibility of the purple boxes on the streets and the availability of hard-copy papers throughout the city have helped connect many to the community.

“I discovered Xtra because they were sent to my community centre,” he says. “Without that kind of ability to promote itself, you’re really just kind of catering to the same people, as opposed to exposing the LGBTQ message to younger queers or people who are not already engaged in the community.” Still, he says, it’s too soon to determine the impact of the change.

A “social sponsorship” program that Xtra is now piloting with its Toronto audience is intended to give a leg up to nonprofit organizations as they navigate the new landscape without print editions of Xtra.

Ken Popert, executive director and president of Xtra’s publisher, Pink Triangle Press, says the idea of the social sponsorship program is to create temporary partnerships between activists and people with resources to help empower organizations and causes. Xtra has always provided sponsored advertising to community agencies, and that will continue in the new digital format, he says. The social sponsorship program is intended to go beyond that, providing nonprofit organizations with a range of resources to meet their missions.

In discussions with stakeholders, Popert says, he was surprised that money was not the foremost concern.

“Quite surprisingly, and I was impressed by this, the thing that people mentioned the most was not actually money, which is what I was expecting to hear, but marketing skills and graphic design. What I found was that especially younger activists are very aware of the difficulty of making an impact on people and that you need professionally designed materials in order to get people’s attention,” he says.

That is an area where Pink Triangle Press can offer direct support, he says. But the long-range idea is to create a hub where community agencies can link with people who have the skills and resources they need to succeed.

“That’s why the internet is so crucial to us,” Popert adds. “Trying to do that in print would be hopelessly slow and difficult. We want to create a device that will allow people to ultimately make those connections themselves.”

Popert acknowledges the downsides of ceasing the print edition but stresses that decisions were made after long consideration.

“We are highly aware of the fact that the boxes, in particular, are territory markers. They send out a signal: everything is normal, all is well. They’re a source of information if you want to open the box,” he says. But municipalities are getting increasingly picky about such boxes, and, more importantly, the cost of printing has become prohibitive, and, like all print media, advertising revenue has slumped in recent years.

Popert welcomes the prospect of other print media picking up the slack. “We don’t want our community to be without a print resource as long as there are people reachable that way,” he says. “But the fact is, we can’t do it anymore.”

When the social-sponsorship-program testing in Toronto is completed, it will be rolled out in Vancouver. Lam says anything that provides smaller nonprofits with the ability to access a wider audience is definitely welcome.

“The challenge that I see with that is are the smaller organizations going to be able to leverage that?” he asks, wondering if such organizations have the means to maintain a digital presence of their own.

Wayne Campbell, chair of Positive Living BC, says his organization has depended on Xtra to inform members and the public of their services.

“There may be a slight drop-off as people learn about the online process and we try to find different ways of outreaching,” he says. The social sponsorship program could be good for smaller agencies, he adds, but the sorts of skills it is likely to offer are probably things his agency has in-house, though he hopes it will be of value. “I can see some potential that, once the program is up and going, we may be able to tap into.”

Shaira (SD) Holman, artistic director of the Queer Arts Festival, says her organization has received a front-page feature annually for the past five years, a level of exposure that has been critical to her small organization’s burgeoning success.

“It’s a hugely important way of getting our message out,” Holman says. “I don’t think I can stress enough how much their support has been.”

Holman looks forward to learning more about the social sponsorship program. “The more of that kind of stuff the better,” she says, though she’s still concerned that the loss of the purple street boxes will mean a reversal of visibility. “It’s kind of inning us in a way I really don’t like. I think it’s still important for us to be kind of screamers on the street.”