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Close Reading Illustration by Anson Chan.

Close Reading

Maybe old media is dead. Maybe it was time to turn the page anyway.

“In the digital panopticon, the illusion of limitless freedom and communication predominates. Here there is no torture—just tweets and posts.”— Byung-Chul Han
“I need humanity.”— SZA

Even though modern humans live longer than ever, so much of waking life is preoccupied by the idea of death. And in our culture of winners and losers it seems there’s only one way to live—eternally, and through infamy, which is increasingly bought—and there are many, many ways to be dead. Even while you’re still breathing. This insistence on linearity positions death as an endpoint, despite evidence from the natural world that much of life is a cycle—and that decomposition brings a new beginning.

The year 2006 was all death discourse. Nas preached that  “Hip Hop is Dead,” which was less a diagnosis and more a reflection of the anxieties of aging. At the same time, my teachers in journalism school were all “print is dead,” turning their anxieties into lesson plans for rooms of young people who had put thousands of tuition dollars toward becoming future media workers.

“Journalism is not in a period of maximal self-confidence right now,” wrote Columbia Journalism School professor Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker that same year. “And the Internet’s cheerleaders are practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence.” The article, titled “Amateur Hour,” is set up like a sneak-diss of digital evangelists and citizen journalism, but Lemann’s assessment revealed the shrewd pragmatism of a tradesman: “The more that traditional journalism appears to be an old-fashioned captive press, the more providential the Internet looks.”

Digital or print; resurgence or death. For almost two decades, the market has swung media workers between these two polarities. New platforms staffed by blue-checked writers emerge and then fold within a few years. Groups of hipper, literary types start print magazines—sometimes even pitched as “prestige” offline experiences—that are written up in the New York Times, and then silently disappear from newsstands. And legacy media properties, whether traditional, independent or alternative, are purchased by corporations and consolidated. Eventually they undergo death processes as well, with mass layoffs heralding either shut-downs or editorial regression into ghostly and banal content mills.

So when a Maisonneuve editor asked if I’d consider writing about the potential revival of alternative print media in response to a new free broadsheet in Toronto called the Grind, I felt those 2006 anxieties tensing against a decade’s worth of digital media maximalism and turmoil. Magazines and papers come and go, I scoffed, so why continue to preserve the hierarchy and “moral authority” of the print medium? And then, after binge-scrolling:  what makes the Grind more worthy of cultural consideration versus a TikTok account with a modest reach? What function do media brands serve when the audience is simultaneously fractured and also deeply captured—when literally everything is media? Are the politics of the wealthy, mostly white, men who fund new magazines and platforms that divergent from those of new media overlords like Bloomberg or Bezos or Zuckerberg or Musk? “Is democratic media even a thing? Like, whose intellectual fetish is this???” I finally sputtered in an email to my editor, Sarah, who had some thoughtful queries of their own: “There are times I’m walking a young or emerging writer through a certain structure and really wondering what the hell I’m doing and … who is this for? I have a sense that the style may just be aiming to serve this sort of fossilized structure of whiteness and expectations of white readership which I can’t fully see.”

Media has endured, both digitally and in print, but its value has shifted for writers, editors, publishers and the new guard of “creators” as well as the audience. And so, I suggested to Sarah, it would be more generative (and less navel-gazing) to break free of the life/death framing brought about by the career anxieties of professional journalists.

“You don’t live in the discourse, you live in the world,” says Cheryl Rivera, an editor at Lux magazine, a triannual print publication that launched in January 2021. Rivera, who describes herself as the magazine’s “resident highly online person,” is also an organizer with New York City’s Democratic Socialist Alliance Racial Justice Working Group and its #DefundNYPD campaign. Most of Lux’s staff members are connected through socialist feminist organizing, she says, and the magazine is an extension of that work. The editorial sensibility feels grassroots and alive, with an explicit focus on international feminist struggles, intergenerational dialogue, prison abolition and communism. The creative design similarly evokes a coming-into-consciousness: it’s sensuous and erratic, conveying the pleasure and tension of dreaming.

“You can’t build a strong socialist front without culture, relationships and production of thought,” Rivera says. “Lux is not reactionary. You avoid that by being deeply involved in feminist struggles beyond just commissioning writing about them. It’s hard to be reactionary when you have to encounter the contradictions of engaging in this leftist world-building project.”

The Grind, which started in September 2022, takes its editorial perspective from the imagined readership of a free urban print magazine—workers, students, unhoused people, anyone who is reliant on the subway and looking for something to read. In Canada, decades of consolidation by a handful of multimedia corporations—including Rogers, Bell, Postmedia, Torstar and Quebecor—has led to monopolies and the slow dissolution of local and independent news. Consolidation also means the same “conservative, probusiness, pro-police narratives,” are cycled over and over, says Phillip Dwight Morgan, one of the Grind’s editors.

By leveraging its visibility as “one of the only free print games in town,” Morgan says that the Grind hopes to counteract these status quo perspectives through a mix of original reporting and the efficient, capacity-building strategy of republishing work from other progressive media such as Briarpatch, Canadian Dimension, the Hoser, and more. “In the States there are the same issues of consolidation and the big outlets spreading hate, but there is a critical mass of communities with resources to provide some semblance of counter-narrative,” he notes. “In Canada you have to be really connected to find that stuff.”

Reorienting attention from the ghastly urgency of CP24’s ticker and the high emotional stakes of Twitter requires imagination—a way to compel people to think, and feel, beyond inevitabilities. Morgan sees value in borrowing from prefigurative ideologies, like abolition and transformative justice, that go beyond case study and description and use the imagination. “The model of how the world works that’s being put forward in society doesn’t actually make sense,” he says. “It’s so hard for people who live under intense austerity in Toronto to imagine a world without policing, for example. Writers are doing a lot of that work to help us imagine a better world. It’s stuff that we don’t yet have the language to envision.” And Rivera notes that the pace of print—Lux publishes three times a year—can signify something transformative as well: “It’s a commitment to a more bespoke world. Something that wants to be a moment in time, rather than every moment.”

Human beings read for meaning, but both Rivera and Morgan make me wonder whether today’s media imperative takes that neurological impulse too literally. Looking closer at objectivity, the supposedly neutral tenet of journalism, it seems to aesthetically or morally—even theocratically??— insist on the idea of a universal human experience. This severs us from the ability to feel awe, surprise, connection, inspiration and other non-intellectual drivers of meaning-making. It’s narrowing; an orientation that disregards the composite nature of humanity and what counts as knowledge. To disrupt this impulse perhaps we need forms that go beyond reporting, analysis and investigation.

There’s some inspiration to be taken from FUNCTION, a soon-to-launch digital platform about ballroom, the decades-old underground queer subculture that has served as a literal safe space for Black and brown gay and transgender people— and birthed vogue, a contemporary American dance style. Co-founders Tamar Carter and Nikolaos Théberge-Dritsas, both members of Toronto’s ballroom community, say they hope FUNCTION can archive and reimagine the scale of ballroom’s relational, purposeful and protective storytelling tradition.

“Ballroom is a culture that’s primarily orally transmitted. You learn about it by attending balls,” says Théberge-Dritsas. “But people didn’t want to hear the stories of Black and Latinx trans women, so there’s not a lot of documentation where you have people telling their own stories, in their own voices, in the way that they want.”

Ballroom could be seen as an enactment of the afterlife on earth. It’s a form of art and family-building developed by a community confronted by literal death from disease and homicide, as well as the psychic death of social ostracization. “Resilience is the throughline,” says Carter, who also works at Maggie’s, a Toronto organization run by and for sex workers. “We don’t have many old legends. A lot of older folks from the eighties and nineties are dead because AIDS took a toll on that generation. It’s only now that those who survived are getting credit for birthing these spaces for us to be alive and belong.”

Legacy media and queer media have failed the constituents of ballroom, says Carter. Trans people are disproportionately victims of violent crime and scapegoats for deeply antisocial policy initiatives across education and health care, but these narratives are supplanted in favour of cultivating moral panic over gender diversity.

And despite its cultural presence via TV shows like Pose and Legendary, and insanely viral TikTok edits of voguers and catwalkers, it is important to document ballroom from a craft perspective. “The category of ‘realness’ comes out of survival (to ‘pass’ as cisgender),” says Carter. “You have to vogue every single day to be great. You can’t be a legend without going through years of discipline.” Preserving the protective properties of the oral tradition, while also scaling to accommodate its thriving, is at the heart of what FUNCTION wants to accomplish, says Théberge-Dritsas.

The gag in all of this is that modern archiving of both print and digital media takes the most spectral form, which means most people assume “content” lives forever—except it doesn’t. “I mean, Gawker got got twice!” says Rivera, breaking the news of the site’s recent second demise to my offline ass. “There is something alarming about that ephemerality in a world where our media is being bought up by huge companies that will trash the archive.”

Past perspectives resurrected help us recognize and organize for shifts and changes in the present. But Hua Hsu, a New Yorker critic whose memoir Stay True documents his origins in nineties zine culture, cautions via email that, “The history of periodicals is not as well documented as we think.” From important magazines to “zeitgeist-y blogs or websites of the 2000s,” as well as sites from the 2010s that emerged as vanguard media institutions—it can all disappear, “once someone stops paying the hosting fees (or however it works). I think the industry (or capital? or something?) has an investment in making us forget that,” he writes. 

So maybe the death discourse thing isn’t just rhetoric, but the whole point.

In a 2007 piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, Robert Kuttner attributed the “mood of crisis” about journalism’s future to a fundamental misunderstanding of the internet. Editors and publishers saw it as a new delivery mechanism for print content, oblivious—or resistant—to a larger cultural and technological shift: the audience could now self-publish, and be read, with ease. Newspapers were still profitable, Kuttner notes—internet usage had only just begun to reach peak saturation amongst adults—but their stock values were plummeting. The moral and aesthetic panic over “mere bloggery” was a straw man for what should (certainly by now!) be accepted as a feature of capitalist society: there was more money to be made elsewhere. 

But he introduces a tantalizing idea, one that I could see Succession’s Kendall Roy delusionally evangelizing at a Waystar Royco town hall: “Newspapers may well require owners with values that go beyond the marketplace.” Ultimately newspapers exist because advertisers exist, but their supposed cultural relevance is simply a smokescreen for the political influence and career jockeying of tycoons. Taking a material understanding of the purchase of Toronto’s NOW magazine brand by former CP24 reporter and aspiring media baron Brandon Gonez allows us to think about the alt-weekly’s value beyond sentiment.

But the role of institutions is to consolidate power, to be immortal, which contradicts the laws of nature—and capitalism, right? So short of starting a GoFundMe to buy the Toronto Star, or whatever, we could return to the question of form. In a time of intense contradiction—human longevity and material abundance maintained by deep forms of economic, physical and spiritual depravity—what forms recognize life as uncertain, complex and cyclical? Can we make media that cultivates open, wondering spaces, beyond a singular, inaccessible truth? Maybe even beyond meaning, or outcome, or the lifespan of one individual? Perhaps it’s gossip, recipes, poetry. Perhaps it’s silence. ⁂

Anupa Mistry is a writer and producer living in Toronto.