Wednesday's closure of the Grid brings a 23-year odyssey to an end.
Flipping through this week’s print edition of the Grid, one finds no signs the publication folded on Wednesday. There are no final reflections, no retrospectives, no goodbyes—just the usual suggestions about submitting feedback and dating stories. On its website, only comments mourning the loss of the award-winning paper reveal its fate.
The closure ended the combined 23-year, 1,176-issue run of the Grid and its predecessor, Eye Weekly. Though its tone shifted over the course of its existence, one element remained constant: a striving to be everything its weekly rival wasn’t, especially when it came to earnest preachiness.
“In the early days, the only thing we knew was: We do not want to be another Now magazine,” editor Bill Reynolds recalled in Eye’s final edition in 2011. “Meaning: no stolid, knee-jerk, unfunny, unswerving, lefty prose.” The rivalry began when Now took legal action over an Eye prototype distributed to potential advertisers and distributors in the summer of 1991 that included over 50 ads cribbed from its pages. Eye’s corporate parent Torstar agreed to pull the circulating copies after Now filed an injunction claiming $100,000 in damages.
This incident created some lingering bitterness: when Eye debuted on October 10, 1991, a fake letters page took potshots at Now publisher Michael Hollett, while a two-page article asking “Why Does Toronto Need Another Weekly?” attacked Now‘s management as “shiny, happy people, badly dressed—and making lots of money.” (The issue also included stories on artists General Idea and director Atom Egoyan, a survey of Hungarian restaurants, and a Dave Bidini piece on former Blue Jays designated hitter Cliff Johnson.)
Under the influence of original managing editor William Burrill, Eye adopted a boozy, gonzo-inspired, irreverent tone. Burrill’s “Naked Eye” and Donna Lypchuk’s “Necrofile” columns contained personal observations on culture and themselves. Burrill even ran for mayor in 1997, finishing fifth behind veteran busker Ben Kerr and white supremacist Don Andrews. Stunts were embraced: in response to the excessive media coverage of Madonna’s book Sex in 1992, Eye ran an issue in which every article mentioned the Material Girl. Once, blank tapes were sent to local A&R personnel to see if any feedback would be forthcoming. (It was.) Long-running photo features such as “Eye-Dentical Twins” (inspired by Spy’s “Separated at Birth”) and “Signs of Insanity” upped the yuks factor. Covers featured shots like one of author Paul Quarrington putting writer Jason Anderson (who contributed to the publication through its entire existence) in a headlock.
This tone occasionally irked its distributors. Famous Players pulled copies of Eye from its cinemas in April 1993 following the publication of two cartoons: one depicting an American senator having sex in his office, the other showing a man emerging from a bird’s posterior, and captioned “Tony Gets Laid.” Later stunts sparked ire: a 2009 issue themed around the movie Inglorious Basterds and featuring contributions from the film’s cast and crew irritated readers, who were convinced it was an advertorial.
As the 1990s ended, Eye, under Reynolds, increased its investigative reporting and featured columnists including former mayor John Sewell, environmentalist Bob Hunter, wine expert Konrad Ejbich, sex advisor Sasha, and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce. The content confused veteran media observer Robert Fulford. “The tone mingles a reflexive cynicism, an intense desire to be fashionable, a need to retain odd bits of high-school language, and trace elements of European social theory,” he observed in Toronto Life. “It’s hard to grasp what motivates this kind of journalism. Desperation? A simple desire to have fun? Perhaps…both.”
The paper’s next phase, under managing editor Catharine Tunnacliffe, embraced the emerging “Torontopia” movement. “Eye was one of the first to tap into the city’s early decade enthusiasm about itself,” noted Bert Archer in a 2011 Toronto Standard article. Contributors such as Edward Keenan, Matthew Blackett, Shawn Micallef, and Gord Perks “mapped the city culturally, politically and psychogeographically in a way that hadn’t been done before.” As Keenan put it in 2011, the end of the Mike Harris era provincially and the election of David Miller (depicted as a superhero on one cover) “saw us drop a bit of our jaundiced tone and start celebrating the dive bars, indie businesses and the earnest activists.” Musically, under writers like Stuart Berman and Denise Benson, the city’s indie and dance scenes were promoted, while the office provided an atmosphere where the Three Gut label was developed.
The paper’s circulation was never as strong as Now’s, and as the 2000s wore on, losses mounted. In May 2011, under publisher/editor-in-chief Laas Turnbull, Eye relaunched as the Grid. Turnbull promoted the new publication as a “younger, hipper, more provocative version of Toronto Life in a weekly guise,” and promised readers a street-level view of the city. Columnists like Anderson, Keenan, Kate Carraway, and Sarah Liss carried over, while expanded coverage was given to food, lifestyles, and real estate. Dumped were the escort ads that had filled the back pages for years.
The resulting package garnered numerous awards for content and design. For three years in a row, it was named one of the five best-designed newspapers in the world by the Society for News Design. “If the Grid were a friend,” the judges wrote in this year’s decision, “it would be the one who grabs this and that from their closet, adds a colorful scarf and a thrift shop bracelet to create a near perfect effect.”
But honours didn’t save the paper. The past year saw layoffs and a physical shrinking of the print version. Declining print and online revenue were cited as the reasons for its demise. Star Media Group president John Cruickshank offered his regrets over the financial losses, while Turnbull felt the publication should have been revamped much earlier.
The demise of the Grid demonstrates all too clearly and discouragingly the current volatility of Toronto’s media landscape. We’ll miss the paper’s insightful commentary on civic matters, its creative design, and the personality of its contributors. And we hope that lessons have been learned since the end of Eye—and that the Grid‘s digital legacy will be preserved.
As only tweets have provided theGrid’s official final words, we’ll look to Keenan’s closing editorial for Eye in 2011:
For years, I told people I had the best job in the city. That was never a lie. We never had much money, and we never had enough staff, and we had some spectacular failures to go along with our various successes, but at every step I was working with people who loved their jobs almost as much as they loved this city, which they loved almost as much as they loved beer.
Additional material from the October 10, 1991, April 15, 1993, and May 5, 2011 editions of Eye Weekly; the April 23, 1993 edition of the Globe and Mail; the September 12, 1991 edition of Now; the February 1999 edition of Toronto Life; and the September 10, 1991 edition of the Toronto Star.