On Thursday, Feb. 19, the new issue of Fast Forward Weekly had just arrived at our office and, as I had done every other Thursday during my four years as music and film editor, I was flipping through its pages, beating myself up over tiny typos, panicking about who was writing next week's stories, and procrastinating my own assignments. Every time a new issue came out, there were about 15 minutes where you'd either feel proud of your accomplishments or deeply ashamed of your mistakes before you had to worry about the next one.
That afternoon, we gathered around our small meeting table for what we thought was a standard staff meeting, where publisher/editor Drew Anderson had laid out some beers and snacks. He nervously made small talk while we waited for an ad rep to finish her smoke. Once everyone was in their seats, he looked up, and in a grave tone said, "Greatwest Newspapers has decided to shut us down. Our last issue will be printed in two weeks." Not understanding how to process the information, I laughed. I've since spent my first week of unemployment drinking cheap beer and binge-watching Empire.
Greatwest Newspapers is headquartered in St. Albert, a 60,000-person "city" located near Edmonton. They own a few dozen publications, including such notable magazines as Edmonton Senior and Calgary Senior, along with a ton of rural community newspapers. It's not uncommon for these papers to feature two-page centre spreads highlighting all the babies that were born in town that week. None of the other publications feature articles about safe crackpipe repositories, art gallery swindlers, or their respective local hardcore scenes. As Calgary's only alternative weekly with a focus on arts and culture as well as news, Fast Forward Weekly was the bratty little brother of the company, but even it was aging.
Formed in 1995 and shut down just shy of its 20th anniversary, the paper was of that fabled, ancient era where advertising and editorial were mutually exclusive departments. To this day, ad people weren't allowed to make suggestions or have any say in what editorial was doing. It was a noble idea, to be sure, but also a relic from the past. Advertisements go on covers of magazines now, and their pages are peppered with ads that look like stories and stories that were written by advertisers. People who say "J-school" love to soapbox about these trends, launching into self-righteous tirades about once-meaningful standards, but you can't maintain those morals and have a profitable business in 2015. We live in the age of the brand: everyone's their own personal brand, thirsty marketers serve as "brand ambassadors"—hell, there's a new magazine in Calgary that's literally called Branded. Put simply, it should come as no surprise that our print newspaper—named after a VCR function, no less—was working on an outdated model.
The news of Fast Forward's demise was met with an overwhelming chorus of sadness as people seemingly came out of nowhere to express how much they'd miss us and how much of a hole would be left in the city. There was a smarmy swarm of immensely kind vultures from local media outlets, piling papers to establish slow-motion tracking shots for their evening broadcasts about the end of an era. Ironically, our last issue was packed with ads, and the paper ballooned to approximately four times its scrawny recent size.
Already, the loss of Fast Forward is rippling through the arts community. As Brenda Lieberman, festival director for the Calgary Underground Film Festival and senior features programmer at the Calgary International Film Festival, explains, Fast Forward was a crucial ally in programming films. "It actually added credibility to our films and our organization," she says of the paper's relationship to CUFF. "When we were trying to secure Canadian and international films in a non-industry focused city—it's not like we have buyers coming, we don't have journalists flying here—Fast Forward was one of our primary defences or tools or examples of where we could look to get coverage for these films on any sort of level."
Kevin Stebner, a musician, show promoter, artist, and record label proprietor, is easily one of the hardest-working artists in Alberta, though he hasn't achieved the national fame he deserves just yet. For him, Fast Forward was a source of encouragement. "Fast Forward actually went and searched out the activity of arts culture in Calgary and engaged with it," he says. "Certainly no other publication did that to the extent that Fast Forward had. Certainly no media from the east would. Every mention, or article, or even place to write about something exciting locally, only sought to raise visibility for local artists—and every minor step towards larger visibility was one minor step towards less struggle for local artists. Working as an artist or musician, running a label—these are Sisyphean, difficult callings. Without support, it's even harder."
I too took Fast Forward for granted. Though I was generally proud of our work, I often thought we weren't edgy enough, or we weren't pushing enough buttons. I once co-wrote a cover story called "Canadian music is boring" with my colleague Mark Teo, and of the many criticisms we faced, the one that stung hardest came from a friend: "I just read your story, and all I can say is that it was the most obvious argument I could think of. I've always thought that about Canadian music." Though our left-leaning cynicism was obvious to some, I now realize we were often the only ones saying it. That we tried or cared at all was what made us such a vital force in Calgary.
Originally from Toronto, Teo lived in Calgary for a year, serving as the music and film editor right before me. With an outsider's perspective, he too saw Fast Forward's criticism as a necessity. "I liked Calgary, but there was certainly a bit of culture shock coming from Toronto. The entire arts community—or really, the entire downtown community Fast Forward served—was preoccupied with proving that it wasn't a redneck hick town," he says. "It was almost comparable to how Toronto's hellbent on proving that it's Canada's answer to New York. Both, of course, are untrue.
"Due to the tightness of its communities, it was incredibly timid—its arts media, for example, felt it very difficult to properly criticize the arts scene," he adds. "Thing is: Criticism is completely necessary for any scene's self-awareness. I don't necessarily believe that Fast Forward was the always critical voice it could've—or should've—been. But at the same time, I think its arts coverage provided something essential to a town that had a completely under-reported arts scene."
As much as the city's aggressively passionate arts community aspires to make, do and be something substantial, there's no denying that the city is built to cater to an affluent class of oil-industry employees. They're the ones who keep businesses alive, from cookie-cutter bars serving $8 domestic beers through our many entrepreneurial coke dealers. They're also the reason that we're likely getting a new hockey arena instead of, say, solving the housing crisis.
Like it or not, the city is built for and run by rich people. It's no wonder we couldn't find advertisers to finance a bunch of environmentalist articles or guides to the city's small but worthwhile noise scene. In fact, every time I'd make fun of one of our many Linkin Park concerts, we'd lose advertisers.
Calgary is a place that desperately wants to be world-class, even though a solid selection of its citizens think that means Cirque du Soleil, appies 'n' bevvies at a chain gastropub, or floor seats to Neil Diamond. These people are the ones with money, not the many struggling, oft-ignored artists we catered to and covered.
"Like all alt-weeklies, Fast Forward's mandate wasn't to cover whatever was playing at the Saddledome, but to cover local, beneath-the-surface phenomena, and there's nothing to replace it," Teo says. "To me, its role was curatorial: It was there to tell Calgarians about their actually worthwhile local culture. But it also informed the rest of the world that Calgary had its own, distinct culture, and that, yes, there were things worthwhile happening in the city."
Now, Calgary lacks a nagging, cynical and occasionally snarky voice to push it into becoming the so-called "world class" city it wants to be. "As of right now, there is definitely no alternative voice in the city, certainly not one focused on arts," Stebner adds.
That's the tragedy here: If any city needed an alt-weekly, it was this one.
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