“Free paper.” “Free evening newspaper.” “Free daily newspaper.” “Zero-zero cents.” “Great to read on the subway.”
More talked to passersby than shouted, it’s not quite “Extra, Extra!” But hey, it’s Yonge and College at 4:45 p.m. on September 8, the official first day of t.o.night, Toronto’s new free evening newspaper which we extensively profiled in July, and the carriers dressed as newsies are working on a slow news day: the three stories on the cover are “T.O. Drags Economy,” a Canadian Press story about how the value of building permits declined from June to July; “Canadian General to Lead Afghan Air Strike Investigation,” an Associated Press story about just that; and the lead item, a photo of young Avery Kelterborn on her way to her first day of school, with the headline “Summer’s Really Over.” Bummer.
SK and Agnes, the carriers on opposite corners of the intersection, are gimmicks with limbs, the living and breathing result of t.o.night‘s decision to be “retro” while simultaneously pitching itself—with its combination of wire stories and blog posts—as the future of newspapers, as John Cameron (then Managing Editor, now Publisher) told us was the case in July. But in spite of the incongruity of it all, the anachronistic but ultimately endearing newsies happen to be the best thing that t.o.night has going for it.
SK (above), 16, took the southwest corner. On a day that saw 24 Hours launch a new layout (more here), he anchored himself and his cart behind the streetcar stop and against the wall of the Tim Hortons on the corner, facing College, looking almost as though he could be waiting for the streetcar himself—if not for the frequently extended hand and gentle coaxing of hurried pedestrians to pay attention to him.
Agnes (above), 26, is a little older than the high school–aged students t.o.night originally said they’d use as newsies, but she’s also a little more extroverted: when one customer was reluctant to take a paper, she told us, she promised she’d dance a jig for him if he did. He did, and she obliged. She may have picked a corner with less foot traffic than SK, but while we’re there, she’s more active, moving from spot to spot every few seconds to cover as much ground as she can, her cart of papers and placard reading “T.O. DRAGS ECONOMY” resting near the stairs leading down into College Station.
Her mandatory uniform, she explains in between dolling out papers, is a white collared shirt, black pants, a t.o.night bag, and a poor boy cap. (The latter two covered by the company.) She’d been told to stay on public property, and to not block sidewalks. Like SK, she’s not selling t.o.night itself—we never hear her or SK mention its name—but rather the idea of t.o.night, a free daily newspaper perfect for the subway ride home.
So, is it?
The footer of the front page reminds readers that “We don’t recycle old news, but please recycled [sic] old papers.” t.o.night‘s attempt to avoid republishing news from the morning editions of its many competitors, especially Metro and 24 Hours, is admirable, but it also doesn’t work: t.o.night only has a narrow window of time in which to snap up the stories its competitors don’t get, and as a result simply doesn’t have much news, or big news, or interesting news, to publish. t.o.night‘s Tuesday edition had one-third the number of pages as Tuesday’s Metro.
And then there’s that whole internet thing. John Cameron’s introductory Publisher’s Note boasts: “All of our content is fresh….We’ll be the first with the big news of the day, so you’ll be the first to be informed.” As expected, the form and content belie that claim: the vast majority of the paper’s news content comes from the Canadian Press, the Associated Press, or—on the paper’s strongest page—BlogTO. The only stories that don’t are on the Entertainment page, and are written by “t.o.night staff” or “t.o.night News Services,” and all but one of those stories is simply a small summary of reporting done by other outlets: TMZ, Page Six, or empireonline.com. (The other story is about Melrose Place.) t.o.night can’t ever be the first to any news story, because every news story in it is published elsewhere hours before, readily accessible to anyone with internet access.
Right beside the publisher’s note, below a recipe for Citrus Chicken Stir Fry Wraps (“MAKE THIS t.o.night”), is “TODAY’S YOUTUBE OMG”: a screenshot of a YouTube video with a caption inviting readers to “Check it out as a baby alternates between fits of giggles and ‘the evil eye,’ to the delight of her audience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5ALIL7T764”. That whole URL is spelled out in print, spilling onto two lines, and that video is one you’ve probably already seen, given that it has twenty-six million views on YouTube and was uploaded in December 2007. It’s an excellent, if small, example of why t.o.night can’t and shouldn’t mimic—or attempt to complete with—the internet: its form won’t allow it to.
There’s little solace in the inconsistent-at-best layout, either. Some paragraphs have line breaks between them, some don’t; some paragraphs have their first lines indented, some don’t; some elements, like the credit for articles, change size and colour and relative position for no apparent reason, making prioritizing information difficult. For a paper where skimming is the intention, skimming shouldn’t be so difficult.
But it could be worse: Perez Hilton—pegged earlier as a desired source of “international news”—is, mercifully, nowhere to be found. As SK and Agnes and many others like them will remind you every weekday downtown for at least a while longer, it’s free, anyway. And you’ll get what you pay for.
All photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.