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When two street weeklies went to war in Toronto

The entry of a new entertainment newspaper called Metropolis into the city's street weekly market had the more established Now determined to protect its turf in 1990.

Established Now magazine faced competition from new title Metropolis in 1990

The street weekly circulation war

Digital Archives

31 years ago
3:04
Now magazine and Metropolis compete for readers and advertisers in Toronto in 1990. 3:04

The urban weeklies hit the streets every Thursday, just in time to help readers plan their weekends.

CBC's business program Venture went inside the fight to win over those readers — and the advertisers who wanted to reach them — in April 1990.

There were two players in the "lucrative" and "competitive" Toronto market, according to reporter Colin King.

Now had been founded in 1981 by, in King's words, "ex-campus radicals from the '70s who just wanted to keep their ideals and make some money in the '80s with a so-called alternative weekly."

Metropolis, on the other hand, was a newer startup founded by a publisher who had left Chicago and his family's public relations business and put together a group of Toronto investors.

'We don't read it'

Now magazine founder Michael Hollett said he wasn't concerned about competition from Metropolis, but was keeping an eye on it. (Venture/CBC Archives)
 

Now, with a circulation of 93,000 issues per week, was the "market leader," said King.

Its publisher, Michael Hollett, was comfortable in that spot. Now had enjoyed sales of $4 million in 1988, turning a profit of $600,000.

He said he didn't even read Metropolis. 

King pointed out there were copies of the competitor "floating around" the Now office.

"We might look at it," conceded Hollett, sipping from a Now mug. "We don't read it."

Metropolis publisher Richard Rotman, who was printing 150,000 copies a week, said he hadn't turned a steady profit yet.

"The business plan didn't say you were going to make a profit instantly, and business plans never do," he said.

Rotman's strategy was to reach the "upscale niche" of readers who were "uninterested in Now's left-of centre view," as King phrased it.

'Can both survive?'

Trying to win both advertisers and readers

Digital Archives

31 years ago
2:48
Now magazine says it had the readers advertisers want, but Metropolis has a tasty way to boost its readership. 2:48

Later in the report, King examined the papers' differing approaches.

"Now sells itself as a gateway to the well-heeled 18-to-35 crowd," said King.

Metropolis, on the other hand, sought out an older, "30-something bunch" with "cash at hand."

"Can both survive, or must one die?" asked King.

It was Hollett's contention that readership was what mattered, not circulation.

"You can print all the papers you want but if nobody reads it, you're not going to sell a button or a hockey ticket or a ballet ticket," he said.

But there was a personal edge to the weeklies' competition, said King.

'Who taught you manners?'

Metropolis founder Richard Rotman struck upon an innovative way to get his papers seen: a copy with every delivery from Pizza Pizza. (Venture/CBC Archives)
 

The report played an audio cassette from an interview months earlier with both publishers from the CBC Radio program Later the Same Day.

"He stands in the same room with me and refuses to speak to me," Rotman said on the audio. "He even ordered his staff not to speak to me ... after all, who taught you manners?"

"I'm sorry you're so sensitive," responded Hollett, with a laugh.

Despite his lack of concern about the threat posed by Metropolis, Hollett was keeping an eye on the competition.

"Anyone who's making a bead on me, no matter how effective or ineffective their ability to deliver on that process, I would have my back up," he said. "Someday you might get someone who knows what they're doing."

According to the Globe and Mail, Metropolis suspended publication in October 1990.

"Critics and former employees of the 130,000-circulation weekly say the paper's distribution contract with the fast-food chain, Pizza Pizza, may have been the cause of the paper's woes," said the newspaper. 

In December 2019, the Canadian Press reported that a "startup media company," Media Central Corp, had agreed to buy Now for "as much as $2 million" as part of a plan "to consolidate the alternative publication landscape."

Metropolis had worked out a distribution deal with Pizza Pizza that saw a paper sent out with each delivery. (Venture/CBC Archives)

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