How the Coast creates its winning formula

Edge and innovation among factors making alt-weekly a lasting success.

By Mackenzie Scrimshaw

Editor Kyle Shaw stands in front of a mural at The Coast's office.
Kyle Shaw has been editor of the Coast since its founding in 1993. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)

A recipe for success: edge, innovation and Dan Savage

By Mackenzie Scrimshaw

A knock comes at the office door on an afternoon in October 2003. The receptionist answers. An officer from the Halifax Regional Police stands on the other side. He asks to speak with editor Kyle Shaw.

Shaw walks him into the Coast’s boardroom and closes the door. The policeman wants a copy of Savage Love, a sex column written by Dan Savage, which the newspaper has published for seven years. The mayor, the officer says, has asked police to investigate its content after receiving a phone call from a troubled citizen.

That was the third time Halifax police investigated the alt-weekly paper for running the column. And the Coast was no stranger to trouble. Its six founders had initially worked unpaid—juggling up to three other jobs—in a basement office no larger than 500 square feet. Christine Oreskovich, now publisher, remembers the view fondly: “It literally had pigeon shit all over the windows.”

All this for a paper they were printing for their friends.

In 2013 the Coast competed for a Michener Award, against finalists including the CBC, the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star. Yet despite earning national recognition, the paper remembers its roots. Savage Love still runs each week on its second-last page.

Appearing in the Coast for the first time in 1996, the column offended many readers. “In the early years, Halifax was particularly uptight about anal sex,” said editor Shaw, as he introduced the openly gay writer at a special event celebrating the Coast‘s 20th anniversary. Savage had become so identifiable with the Coast that the paper flew him to Halifax in October 2013 for the event, called Savage Love Live.

His column, Shaw continued, triggered “a flurry of complaints.” They went unheeded. “I would just tell people to piss off—politely.”

On stage at Citadel High School’s theatre, Shaw praised his guest: Savage is more than a sexpert. He’s an author, an activist, and the editorial director of Seattle’s alt-weekly, the Stranger, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012.

This guy’s a big deal.

Given the pair’s editor-writer relationship, “It’s great for me to see Dan’s progress in the world,” said Shaw. Locally, “he has changed Halifax for the better.”

Finally, Shaw—the first Canadian editor to buy rights to Savage Love—welcomed the author to the stage.

On cue, Savage stepped through the drawn red curtains and hugged Shaw. Then he pulled an iPhone from his pocket and took a photo of the audience. He said it was for his 16-year-old son, D.J.

Dan Savage stands on stage answering questions from the audience at Savage Love Live.
Dan Savage in Halifax. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)

At the end of the evening Savage closed the last books his fans had lined up for him to sign. Then he faced this question: what’s the value of an alternative press?

“To do a product that’s beautiful like the Coast does, like the Stranger does, with arresting images and good graphic layout, it has value that goes beyond a boutique interest in dying print,” he said. “’Cause I don’t think it’s dying.

“(TV) didn’t kill radio. Radio morphed into something different that still exists. I think that print publications are doing that and finessing it. And I think the Coast is doing that really well.”

Change for the better

It can be difficult making people understand paper still works, says Coast advertising director Bethany Stout. Increasing numbers of small businesses are advertising on social media. In 2013 the paper lost advertisers Alexander Keith’s and, to an extent, Molson.

But the Coast spends carefully, says publisher Oreskovich, and employs “the best sales reps.”

[pullquote]”We started to realize we were flirting with the world of advertorial.”
—Kyle Shaw, Coast editor [/pullquote]

For example, in the busy fall season, each of the paper’s five account executives must sell about $5,000 in print and online ads each week. Despite these targets, says Stout, “We’re not salespeople.” In other words, they only seek clients that appeal to their readers.

“We do not sacrifice everything to make the sale.”

Ads with guns or any submissive sexual connotations cross a line. Otherwise, the Coast isn’t fussy. “I’ve never said to anyone, ‘Dude, I have to make money’,” says Stout. But that’s the reality. Today the paper nets more than $2 million in annual sales.

In September 2013 the Coast published its first advertorial. These are sold to clients for about $16,000 and filled with an “advertorial feature” written about them — by a freelancer.

[pullquote]”I hope you don’t take for granted what it means to live in a city that has a paper like the Coast.”

—Dan Savage, author of Savage Love [/pullquote]

This differs from the Best of Halifax readers’ choice awards, an annual vote in which people vote for their favourite people, places, shops and services in the city. The shellacked plaques deliver an “economic punch” to their winners, but not directly to the Coast. “They aren’t our advertisers,” says Oreskovich.

Enter advertorials, which Shaw sees as being a solution to the paper’s eroding line between advertisements and editorials. “If they’re (businesses) supporting the publication, shouldn’t we support them?,” he says. “We started to realize we were flirting with the world of advertorial.” Rather than continue wrestling with this ethical dilemma, he decided just to make it explicit. The paper plans to run advertorials four times a year.

News editor Tim Bousquet returns from an assignment and immediately tweets about what he learned. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)
Tim Bousquet is news editor of the Coast. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)
Coast reader Jennifer Jacobson poses in front of a jewellery display at her store in the North End. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)
Jennifer Jacobson, the owner of Studio 14 Gifts & Gallery on Agricola Street, picks up the latest issue of the Coast each week on her walk to work. “I love the Coast,” she says. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)
Lauren MacDougall is a long-time reader of The Coast. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)
Lauren MacDougall reads the Coast in search of information on shows and art galleries. MacDougall, originally from Cape Breton, has been reading it for about a decade. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)
Colleen Austin, reader of The Coast and mortgage broker, sits at her desk in downtown Halifax.
Colleen Austin, mortgage broker and Coast reader. (Photo: Mackenzie Scrimshaw)

The future

Recently the Coast’s editorial team met to discuss the next 20 years. Increased coverage of minorities was identified as a priority.

Though its publisher says it is “here to make social change,” the Coast rarely covers minorities in Halifax. It’s an uncomfortable point for editor Shaw. “We totally suck at covering… We’re covering marginalized communities, but not so much…” he trails off.

“Halifax’s black community,” he says. “We do not cover it well at all.”

Yet ask news editor Tim Bousquet about the city’s flaws, and he’s quick to mention racism. “For me, the problems are always about social and economic equality,” he says.

Every Thursday morning, five distribution drivers deliver a total of  23,000 copies of the Coast to hundreds of locations in and around Halifax. According to Corporate Research Associates Inc. each week roughly 76,000 people read the print version of the paper—more than three readers to each copy. As for weekly web and mobile activity, Google Analytics found in February 2013 that there are average 53,000 hits.

Corporate Research learned millennials, aged 19 to 34, account for more than one-third of the total readership. What’s more, there are as many 35 to 54-year-olds reading the Coast. “I think our readership has grown older with us,” says advertising director Stout. “People who started reading us at 20 are still reading us at 40.”

This is true of Colleen Austin, mortgage broker at True North Mortgage. She started reading the Coast in 1998, in her early twenties. Though she moved to Calgary for six years, Austin started reading the paper again when she returned to the East Coast. “I’m a musician too, so I read for the live music (stories).”

Way back in ’93…

The first 10,000 copies of The Coast, then a bi-weekly, hit newsstands on June 17, 1993. With a meager $12,000 startup its founders were forced to skip an early issue in August 1993. Luckily, that didn’t kill the paper.

Instead, Shaw, Oreskovich and the four other founders hunkered down and focused on meeting each deadline every two weeks. “Really all we did was try to put out the next issue,” says Shaw. In 1997, The Coast became a weekly.

Originally the Coast’s founders wanted “a Village Voice for Halifax,” says Shaw.

Since then, the Washington-based Pew Research Center has found, alt-weekly papers have undergone significant changes. For example,  Village Voice circulation fell nearly 15 per cent in 2012, and alt-weekly circulation in general is down 7 per cent according to the centre’s study Alternative Weeklies: Rethinking Strategy in the Digital Age.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew’s Journalism Project, says the setbacks alt-weeklies have recently experienced are due to increased writing and arts coverage on the web. In other words, new media are tapping into the alt-weekly niche.

But not so fast, says Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. A former Pew employee, Shackelford says the  study wasn’t particularly scientific.

Websites like Gawker and BuzzFeed are borrowing from the “bombastic style” known to alt-weeklies. But, says Shackelford, “Looking at the Village Voice… is not at all going to give you the reality of the industry as a whole. In the small-to-medium markets our (alt-weekly) papers are flourishing.” That’s because “our papers are a beacon for progressive thinking.”

Consider the Coast, which creates a very different product than its main arts competitor, the broadsheet daily Chronicle Herald. The desire for this was why Shaw, Oreskovich and friends—then in their early twenties—wanted an alt-weekly. “We were part of this incredible youth culture that was just not represented in any other media,” Shaw says.

Today, like in 1993, Shaw says, the Chronicle Herald tends to report predominantly on well-established institutions. “Under that,” he says with a tone of excitement rising in his voice, “is a whole awesome, awesome, thriving city of creativity and culture.”

Sitting in the seventh-floor office of associate publisher Ian Thompson, with its floor-to-ceiling window view of the water, I ask if the Chronicle Herald would ever run the column. “Probably not,” he replies. Why? “Probably because we think it’s out of step with what average Nova Scotians think appropriate for our paper.”

Back at the theatre, Dan Savage congratulates the Coast on its anniversary. “I love the Coast,” he says.

He leaves the audience with a final thought: “I hope you don’t take for granted what it means to live in a city that has a paper like the Coast.”

Clarification: Paragraph 5 now says that the Coast in 2013 competed, rather than is currently competing, for a Michener Award. Dec. 19, 2013.

Edit/Layout by Ariane Hanlon.

King’s Journalism Review, November 2013.