My brain is a complicated place.
I’m sure regular readers will immediately identify that statement as another in a long list the of puff-chested, head-expanding egotism they’ve come to expect from me. And while I don’t blame them for thinking that, I actually have a reason for making this assertion beyond my oft-touted megalomania.
You see, I am completely incapable of taking things at face value. I can’t watch a TV show without deconstructing it – whether it’s the acting, the videography, the cultural subtext, what you like. I read books through the lenses of Freudian psychoanalysis and postmodernism. I listen to music and wonder what version of Logic or ProTools was used in post-production. I do all these things and more even if I’m just talking to another human. It’s an uphill battle to just sit back and not think; it’s a battle I have yet to win.
So when I was approached yesterday on my way to the subway by a young man dressed in ironic retroactive “town crier” apparel (poor boy cap and a duffel bag stuffed with newspapers) who offered me a free copy of Toronto’s latest transit rag, all my finely-tuned faculties started taking apart the scenario brick-by-brick to figure out how I was being marketed to this time.
t.o.night is the latest in a long list of so-called “subway publications”; twenty- to forty-page newspapers and cheaply-printed magazines designed to give the long-suffering patrons of the Toronto Transit Commission something to do on their commutes other than fall over when the newbie driver hits the brakes too hard, talk obnoxiously loudly on their cell phones, pile-drive into unsuspecting commuters the second the doors open, and stink.
If you live in the city, you’re familiar with some of the other publications that make the rounds every morning and invariably wind up discarded all over subway cars or stuffed into the incorrect disposal receptacle at stations: the two most popular being 24 Hours and the Toronto Metro; the latter has survived the last ten years despite several changes of ownership and Editors-In-Chief (and my column, which ran for a year back in the late ’90s), and the former is still relatively young.
Despite the fact that 24 Hours is essentially Metro Lite, and that Metro is more-or-less Toronto Star With Half The Content, their basic purpose is the same. Typically commuters are less than awake between the hours of seven and eight-thirty A.M., and therefore can’t digest real news the likes of which you’d find in a full-sized paper – add into that equation the fact you barely have room to breathe without inhaling somebody’s hair on a subway during rush hour (let alone unfold and read a newspaper) and all of a sudden this mini-news handful starts to make sense. Until such time as wifi becomes available in Toronto’s massive underground subway landscape, publications like these are going to continue to make that kind of sense.
As long as you’re not Dose, of course, but that’s a different story.
Enter t.o.night. Founder and Editor-In-Chief John Cameron had the brilliant idea (aped from popular paper media in Europe) of tapping into the heretofore-ignored “after work” demographic not touched by the morning papers like Metro and 24. t.o.night doesn’t go to press until 11AM, much later than the morning papers can afford to do, which means Cameron’s paper can report on news that’s broken after the other papers have gone to press. Pretty cool, right? Wait for it. Cameron also cites advertisement as a primary motivator: this is what he said to the Globe and Mail:
[Cameron] believes advertisers will respond to the afternoon paper, which commuters would be reading while on their way home and mulling over what to watch on TV or what to have for dinner. He says T.O. Night will be “the last touch-point before they make these decisions.”
And this is where I start to take some issue.
Anybody who lives in Toronto (and I assume in other cities as well, but I don’t live anywhere else so I’m not going to comment on it) is inundated with advertisement after advertisement the minute they leave their homes. I walk out of my place the same time every morning and walk up the street to the subway to head down to the Compound. On my way I pass a half-dozen billboards telling me to Get Away For The Winter (not likely on my salary, no matter what deals Expedia is willing to kick my way), whiten my teeth with creepy scotch-tape strips courtesy of Crest (how about I just brush my teeth?), and eat at McDonalds (no thank you).
I head down the stairs into the subway station where I’m greeted with at least two dozen posters lining the tracks, usually enticing me to spend my hard-earned money at the theatre so I can “enjoy” the latest Michael Bay shit festival (opening soon!).
Same thing once I enter the car, only this time it’s a series of debt-management ads (I’ll budget myself thank you) and guilt-trip “give money to _______ charity” scans, usually featuring a heart-rending visual of an old person in the grips of rheumatism, or some cracked-out homeless dude crawling out of his decaying skin (creepy!) to reveal his true potential (apparently his “true potential” involves becoming a janitor at your local high school).
Once off the subway, I catch a streetcar (which has actually been covered in a matte for advertising purposes, so it’s essentially a billboard on wheels), passing by a dozen more billboards, not to mention advertising for upcoming condos (there are at least ten going up along my ten-minute streetcar ride). When I get off at the corner I wait beside a lamppost that’s been absolutely plastered in offers to “make cash from home” meet other professional singles (since when am I a professional?) and attend various live shows put on by DJs and shitty indy bands I don’t care about. Then I go into the basement of the Compound, log on and immediately start closing spyware windows for products promising to make my junk bigger, firm up my abdomen and cure cancer thanks to the wonder of acai berries.
Exactly how much advertising am I supposed to swallow in a twenty-four hour period? I literally cannot get away from it without locking myself in sensory deprivation. And further – isn’t the daily commute bad enough? I spend an hour and a half, total, in transit per day; I don’t have room in my laptop bag for a book (not like I’d get a seat anyway, thank you lazy citizens of Toronto), my cell phone doesn’t have a large enough battery to accommodate me playing pool all the way down, so I like to pick up one of those little one-handed newspapers now and again. I was genuinely excited when the aforementioned Paper Boy gave me my free copy of t.o.night, because between that and the glory that is my iPod, I was hoping it would distract me enough from the rest of the herd I ride with everyday to keep me from gleefully running down the subway platform shivving everyone who got in my way (which is everyone).
Needless to say, the last three pages have been building up to the part you’ve all been expecting: t.o.night has let me down in a big way.
First of all, the “news” section is even less comprehensive than 24 Hours’ is (and that’s saying something). Apparently t.o.night doesn’t get any of their news from a direct source – they don’t even have a news staff. Instead they have an arrangement with BlogTO that allows them to access their database for noncy little info bytes that give you about as much information as the scroll bar at the bottom of CNN’s televised coverage. Ninety percent of it is the same alarmist bullshit I see all over the internet all day long: Iran To Destroy Everything, Swine Flu More Deadly Than Iran, Michael Jackson Inexplicably Still In News, et cetera. All of this with next-to-no context applied to it: these aren’t stories, they’re extra-long headlines. Okay, they’re working within a twenty-page forum, so they don’t really have room to expand on these ideas, but that begs the question: why bother? This isn’t news: it’s Twitter with a newsy bent.
Concurrent to “why bother”, the rest of the publication seems to me a combination of Twitter-esque celebrity gossip, a half-assed “fun” page with horoscopes and a Sudoku game (I’ve seen better on the backs of the kids menu at Kelsey’s); other than that, it’s nothing but ads.
Now, to be fair, most of the advertisement pertains to what Cameron set out in his business plan – more or less, Stuff To Do Tonight – and it’s mostly local, which is cool. I’m a fan of this city despite my many gripes, and I like checking out new places. But really, if I’m picking up something to read on my long trek home from the Compound, the last thing I want is more advertising, even if it’s well-intentioned. t.o.night isn’t a publication – it’s a flyer. Nothing more. I’d get as much enjoyment out of a No Frills flyer. At least that way I’d be in the know about sales on toilet paper and canned tuna. This isn’t something the people of Toronto are going to dig: this is nothing more than yet another “talking point” in the list of stuff advertising people like. When you pander to your financial backers to the detriment of your demographic, you know what you get?
All right asshole, you’re probably saying, why don’t you come up with a better idea?
Well, my rhetorically challenged friend, I have done that very thing.
It goes like this.
Scrap the whole thing.
I know better than anyone how unpleasant the transit ride can be – I’ve explained as much up above. But the bottom line is you either have to do something right or not do it at all – half-assing it never got anybody anywhere. Even the Metro, which is probably the most coherent of all the subway mags, is only giving you a snippet of the story you’re reading, which is going to mean one of a few things.
A) you forget about the story completely due to lack of context, information overload, and the fact that you’re either on your way to work and thus not awake yet or on your way home and thus exhausted,
B) you remember it, but you work at a job that doesn’t allow you to read into it further when you get to work, or you’re too emotionally drained from your soul-sucking job to look into it when you get home,
C) you remember it, can look it up at work, and thus waste company time – or you look it up at home and give yourselves ulcers thanks to the sorry state of the world, or
D) you throw the damn thing on the floor of the subway car after reading your horoscope. (That’s an interesting side note, by the way – how much waste paper do you think the combined production of the subway publications produces every day? Stave off boredom by contributing to deforestation. Well done.)
Maybe I’m wrong. It’s happened once or twice before. But this time I wonder. I see way too many people giving a cursory glance to publications like this before tossing them aside, unenriched by the experience and producing more waste than all the stupid Starbucks “my coffee is too hot” sleeves in Christendom. It’s pointless – you’re not getting anything out of it – it’s just another time waster that takes away from the fundamental human experience. And if you’re going to say, “Oh Alex, Metro and t.o.night are the only ways I get my news” I will reply with a swift kick in the ass and a gentle reminder to check out some real news now and again. At the very least, hop online and visit my blog – believe me, you’ll be much more soundly rewarded.
Speaking of time wasters, I think I’ve said enough on this subject. I’m currently splitting my off-time between musical projects, Borderlands and PokerFace – and right now I feel like gambling with money that doesn’t actually exist (or else I’d lose it all, and then what would you read?) so that’s just what I’m going to do. If you survive your subway trip, come on back tomorrow for real content. You heard it here first.