Turmoil nothing new for storied Canadian paper
In its 35 years, no one has ever been allowed to get too complacent at The Georgia Straight, whether it be a writer, salesperson, manager or even the owner.
“I think we’re still scratching the surface of what we can do … I think our best work is ahead of us,” says Dan McLeod, who started the Straight amid the late 1960s hippie movement in Vancouver, B.C.
As if to prove the point, McLeod is making major changes in his sales department despite consistent growth and an ad/news ratio of 65/35. He’s shaken up the display and classified advertising hierarchy and fired James Craig, vice president of sales and marketing for seven years. AAN News could not reach Craig for comment.
“Sales of the paper had more than doubled since he started, and I decided it was time for less of a pyramid structure, with him at the top of the pyramid,” McLeod says.
Craig was primarily hired to implement a new management philosophy McLeod imposed about six years ago on the advice of Don Nilson, who has provided accounting and investment services and business advice to the Straight for 16 years. Nilson’s firm, Nilson & Company, will no longer provide such services for the Straight after its current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
With Nilson and Craig out of the way, McLeod says he wants to create three managerial positions — one for classifieds and two for display advertising, one each for territories and categories — as well as an overall ad director to oversee these managers and handle marketing and promotions.
He’s also looking to add a sales associate for every three sales reps, someone who would take about a third of each rep’s accounts and handle the daily grind of their management — a position he describes as “a cross with a secretary and a sales rep.”
He also wants to give display ad reps territories to cover so they can get to know their neighborhoods better and will probably go so far as to split agency accounts across the board to even out compensation.
“There’s going to be some loud howling, but it’s a way to grow the business,” McLeod asserts.
Currently, the Straight enjoys a 120,000 circulation in a market of 1.7 million adults, according to McLeod. His paper averages around 110 pages weekly, and he employs somewhere in the vicinity of 75 full-time people, plus freelancers.
Flash back 35 years to the Summer of Love, though, and the former publisher of poetry magazine Tish — “Just sound it backwards,” he adds slyly — was part of a group of Vancouver artists who felt they were being slighted by the large daily paper’s weekly arts supplement. That, and anti-Vietnam War sentiment that helped fuel the underground press in cities like Vancouver, inspired McLeod to found The Georgia Straight, a twist on the name of the body of water between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada, the Strait of Georgia.
“We’re not just an alternative paper; we’re one of the ‘underground press’ papers,” he reminisces. “That was even wilder than what the alternative press is now.”
The Georgia Straight “unintentionally became the spokespaper for the hippie movement.” In fact, McLeod’s first issue took on local police, criticizing them for running the longhairs out.
Roughly half a dozen core volunteers ran the paper in its infancy, and at one point that first year 65,000 copies were carried and hawked by 700 hippie street vendors in Vancouver. In September 1967, the Straight’s many problems with the city culminated in city government banning the newspaper, empowering police to seize copies, and charging those affiliated with the paper with everything from criminal libel to obscenity.
“It took years for the paper to recover from that,” McLeod says, adding that in 1980, he finally withdrew hard news for roughly a decade, limiting content to arts and entertainment. “We just got sick of getting busted.”
Still, the Straight survived and even helped spawn modern culture. McLeod names former Boomtown Rats frontman and internationally known Irish musician Bob Geldof as an example.
“He was the music editor for a while. He used to say, ‘I could do better than this myself,’ and so he went out and did it,” McLeod says.
McLeod and the Straight are the subjects of a 1999 local documentary, “The Last Street Fighter.” Even the environmental movement got a jump start out of the Straight’s office when Greenpeace planned some of its first protests there.
Only in the last 11 years has he revived the Straight’s hard news coverage. Asked if city government still gives him a hard time, he quips, “Well, at least they acknowledge that we have a right to exist.”
Ann Hinch is a freelance writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.