Toronto’s West End Phoenix is proving why you should get to know your neighbours

Independent paper focuses on grassroots engagement, including lawn signs and special events.

Lauren Kaljur Lauren Kaljur  - November 2, 2021

When the home-delivered West End Phoenix encourages you to “put down your phone, pick up a newspaper,” they mean it.

Since the Toronto community newspaper’s inception in 2017, they’ve had a boots-on-the-ground approach to reader engagement and marketing. Though founder and publisher Dave Bidini, wouldn’t even call it marketing at all.

Eschewing digital advertising, they got their start knocking on doors. Bidini would walk the streets of the neighbourhood, sometimes with a friend and maybe their kid, to hand out fridge magnets. “And we would just talk to people, like, ‘This is what we want to do. This is what we’re thinking of doing. Would you be interested in subscribing?’”

One they confirmed interest, they put up an online landing page and started contacting people to get them to pre-subscribe. Thanks in part to Bidini’s personal network as an artist, author and musician (he’s the guitarist for Rheostatics), they had about 700 to 800 subscribers before they even put out the first issue.

As the non-profit broadsheet approaches its fifth anniversary, and edges closer to its December target of 3,000 subscribers, the newspaper just hired its first Twitter and Instagram manager.

The paper’s dogged commitment to analogue tactics like lawn signs and face-to-face relationships has served them well. Here’s how they do it.

Relationships that pay

Bidini has doubled down on building relationships with patrons and bringing them into the fold of their operations — and it’s paid off.

One example? A donor covers the cost of the paper’s printing. When their managing editor wanted to print lawn signs to promote the paper, that same patron offered to cover the cost of a hundred of them.

Today, Bidini estimates they have about 1,000 bright pink signs declaring “I read the West End Phoenix newspaper” around the neighbourhood. Since they ask new subscribers how they heard about the newspaper, they know it works. “It also plays into the real grassroots nature of our paper,” he says.

Two massive billboards were also paid for by a generous patron during the previous election, Bidini explains. “I don’t really know how effective they were, it was just kind of neat for us to have them up there.”

This July, they tried convenience store ads.

Last year, a patron offered up a year’s rent for an office space, Bidini says, though due to pandemic restrictions they haven’t taken them up on it.

“It’s so beautiful that people want to help,” he says. “We count ourselves among the lucky.”

They’ve even been gifted Bitcoin. As Bidini recounts, a longtime American donor asked if, instead of making a cash donation, they could donate Bitcoin. “And I was like, what’s Bitcoin? So I did a bit of research and I was like, well, that’s interesting. It’s certainly a lot more than we’d ever received.” (Over $70,000 at the time).

Staying in contact

These relationships, and the gifts that flow from them, are supported by regular events. From A Night of Duets to a Telethon subscription drive featuring their in-house band and a host of other performers, arts and culture gatherings are central to their fundraising efforts. Their recent outdoor benefit, NewsAid, sold out in weeks.

Bidini says they’ve hosted about half a dozen fundraisers, mostly pre-pandemic, mostly involving prominent guests.

Not everyone has connections like Bidini. But if there’s one big take-away from this approach, it’s about connection. “You really try to maintain pretty tight relationships with the people that support and help and try to stay in constant contact,” says Bidini.

“I’m always kind of trying to reach out to them and tell them what we’re doing and just involve them as much as possible. So it’s not just a check being written, it’s a conversation. It’s relying on their thoughts and their ideas”

That can look like individual phone calls or emails, but sometimes readers reach out randomly, he says.

“It’s kind of neat to think about patrons and patronage in a kind of a creative way,” he adds. “That’s part of the fun.”

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