Can a Margaret Atwood-backed newspaper startup find success in Toronto's west end?

The non-profit West End Phoenix is the brainchild of Toronto writer, publisher and musician Dave Bidini, who hopes to showcase the city's best writers and artists in a monthly broadsheet.

Non-profit West End Phoenix is brainchild of Toronto writer and musician Dave Bidini

Toronto writer, publisher and musician Dave Bidini dreamed up the idea for a new local newspaper after a 2015 writing trip to Yellowknife. (Shelagh Howard)

It's dark times for Canada's local journalism industry​.

In January last year, the Nanaimo Daily News shut down after 141 years of publishing. That same month, the Guelph Mercury axed its print edition and all 26 staff lost their jobs. Other newsrooms across the country have cut staff, merged, or folded entirely.

Now, in 2017, can a Toronto newspaper startup rise from the industry's ashes?

That's the hope for the West End Phoenix, a monthly broadsheet launching in October that's backed by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Serena Ryder, Jeff Lemire and Yann Martel.

The non-profit publication is the brainchild of Toronto writer, publisher and musician Dave Bidini, and sparked, in part, by his 2015 writing trip to the Northwest Territories, where he spent the summer working at The Yellowknifer.

"I was reinvigorated by that experience," he told CBC Toronto. 

Bidini — who's beloved in Canada for his years with the Rheostatics — wondered if a hyper-local newspaper could flourish in Toronto's west end, where he's been living for 23 years in the house he bought from his grandmother.

"I've seen the west end evolve as a social organism, I suppose. It's a pretty interesting time here. You blink, and there's something new and different," he mused. "I wondered about the ability of a newspaper to sustain here, and to illuminate that evolution."

It's a daunting proposition, but the phoenix imagery was no accident. 

Left to right: Canadian writers Yann Martel and Margaret Atwood, musician Serena Ryder, and cartoonist Jeff Lemire are among the backers of the upcoming West End Phoenix.

Newspaper will have patron, subscription-based funding model 

Bidini's vision for the newspaper is a visual and literary representation of "that feeling you get when you're wandering home one night and you find yourself up an alley you haven't traveled through before."

Already, he's joined by deputy editor Melanie Morassutti and senior editor Susan Grimbly, both formerly of The Globe and Mail, and has an advisory council assembled with notable names from the city's arts and culture scene, including Grid founder Laas Turnbull and J-Source managing editor H.G. Watson.

The plan, Bidini says, is to bring in local voices — writers, artists, photographers — to tell the stories of a community stretching from the Junction Triangle to Parkdale, Christie Pits to Baby Point.

He hopes to make it happen based on annual subscriptions of roughly $56, alongside bigger financial gifts from patrons.

"That's actually a model that works very well in public broadcasting in the States," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Both PBS and NPR have never had such large audiences, he adds. "That's because they're providing something the audience can't get anywhere else."

'Main challenge' is financial sustainability

But that doesn't guarantee Bidini's project will be a slam-dunk, according to local journalism expert April Lindgren.

"The main challenge is, of course, financial, and the sustainability of it," says Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University who runs the journalism school's Local News Research Project.

One poll earlier this year found Canadians love local news but don't want to pay for it, she notes.

"Producing great content, I think, is the joy of it, and the thing people focus on, and the thing we all get excited about," Lindgren says.

"But the nitty-gritty of how to pay the reporters... is really what spells the difference between life and death."

That challenge is fine by Bidini.

"It will be hard. It won't be easy," he says. "But I've never really been interested in easy anyways."