NOW Just Became One Of Canada’s Only Black-Owned Publications — But Rebuilding Will Be A Struggle | CBC Arts

The venerable Toronto magazine has a new owner … and the shadow of over $2 million in debt. Can Brandon Gonez rebuild the digital platform without a plan to pay it off?

NOW Magazine’s January 2020 issue. (Courtesy Radheyan Simonpillai)

Against the Grain is a monthly column by Huda Hassan examining popular culture and the arts through a Black feminist lens.

As a Toronto adolescent relying on public transit, I remember being enamoured with NOW Magazine, a free alt-weekly focused on local arts, culture, and political news that consumed my commutes. For many Torontonians, NOW was a staple part of the city for more than four decades.

But last year, the city’s relationship with the publication was ruptured when it was announced that NOW‘s parent company, Media Central Corporation (MCC), was significantly in debt. In March of 2022, MCC filed for bankruptcy. This also put Vancouver’s alt-weekly, The Georgia Straight, at risk of being discontinued.

The aftermath of the events left employees and contributors at NOW without pay. As of August 2022, employees say they worked 21 weeks despite not receiving their salaries. The Georgia Straight was acquired in September by Overstory Media Group (OMG). But NOW‘s new ownership was still left in limbo.

This month, however, the story took another major turn when the digital component of NOW Toronto was acquired by local journalist and Toronto resident Brandon Gonez. Once known for bringing patois to mainstream news as a CTV and CP24 journalist, the 30-year-old formed his growing media empire, Gonez Media Inc., in 2020. 

Journalist and NOW Magazine owner Brandon Gonez. (Gonez Media Inc.)

At first, it appeared that this feat could be a win for maintaining the oeuvre of NOW — a legacy publication was now owned by a local Black journalist. But many former employees and longtime supporters were furious about the new direction. NOW was digitally acquired without any former employees being paid their overdue salaries; Glenn Sumi, a beloved local theatre critic for the magazine, had found out he was no longer part of the publication after being locked out of his work email in December 2022. 

The purchase of NOW Toronto did not include legal liability to catch up with back pay, as Gonez Media only acquired its digital platform and not all of MCC’s assets and debts — even though the new brand, with the same moniker, is still promoting unpaid content by former writers. 

NOW’s loyal masthead 

NOW Magazine has a 42-year history as a free alternative weekly paper circulated across Toronto. Launched in 1981 by Michael Hollett and Alice Klein, it was privately owned until 2016 when Hollett decided to focus on his festival, North by Northeast (NXNE), selling his portion of ownership fully to Klein.

Three years later in 2019, Klein sold NOW to MCC for $2 million, shortly before they purchased The Georgia Straight. By 2022, its subsidiary, NOW Central Communications, filed for bankruptcy. 

Watch a 1986 report on NOW Magazine from the CBC Archives:

Free magazine thrives by covering the Toronto scene

Toronto’s NOW magazine struggled to pay the bills when it started in September 1981. Less than five years later, the weekly newspaper with a focus on entertainment is a success. Aired on CBC’s Monitor on March 3, 1986.

Many of NOW‘s staff members — including longtime contributors Radheyan Simonpillai, Glenn Sumi, and Enzo DiMatteo — remained devoted to the publication. Unfortunately, their loyalty meant working without earning an income in the midst of a growing recession. 

The former team at NOW was known for consistently producing stellar content, highlighting local emerging talents and keeping the city up to date about arts and cultural affairs. At a time when arts and culture reporting is severely underfunded across the continent, their steadfast commitment was honourable to watch.

It was also extremely ominous for the future of local alt-weeklies and arts journalism — something that signaled an industry-wide problem. 

The plan at the time was simple: staff would keep working, using ad revenue to pay off debts, and wait for a new acquisition to relieve overdue payments. But as MCC’s debts continued to accumulate — reaching over $2 million, which Simonpillai says he understood to include approximately $250,000 of unpaid salaries — the end did not seem nigh. By spring of 2022, staff began to leave.

Sumi, Simonpillai, and DiMatteo were some of the few who remained to contribute free labour. But by August, Simonpillai announced the publication would release its last print publication for the time being. 

“People held on until they couldn’t anymore,” Simonpillai tells me from his home office in Toronto. A film critic whose predecessors at NOW included now-TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey, Simonpillai’s career at the publication began in 2007. By 2020, he was the editor. (Simonpillai is now a contributor to CBC Arts and has resurrected NOW‘s “Rising Screen Stars” feature as a monthly CBC column called Rising Stars.)

Some contributors found themselves in significant debt, leading to economic and personal losses. Simonpillai says one writer was cut off by loved ones for being too loyal to the publication. 

“There are all of these legal things flying around now,” says Simonpillai. “It’s thrown a new wrench into [NOW Magazine‘s former staff’s] legal battles for getting our wages back.” 

2022 NOW Magazine covers. (Courtesy Radheyan Simonpillai)

Simonpillai says they were led to believe that they would be paid when someone purchased the publication.

“Every tort lawyer told us that when somebody buys NOW, they would cover the outstanding wages. Every lawyer we spoke to, all the legal advice we got up to this point, reaffirmed the idea that if a new buyer buys this company, they will be liable to pay off those debts.”

“There was no indication in our minds that anybody could find some way around that. And yet, they did.”

Every lawyer we spoke to, all the legal advice we got up to this point, reaffirmed the idea that if a new buyer buys this company, they will be liable to pay off those debts.– Radheyan Simonpillai, former editor at NOW

When Simonpillai learned that Gonez Media Inc would be a possible acquirer, he became hopeful — but not for long. Eventually, he began to accept the legacy of NOW might be over. 

“I was still invested when it was looking like he was going to try and buy NOW and make us whole.”

“I’m excited to see how he makes that new direction his own — but, again: the way it went down, I tapped out after everything looked like it was going down the wrong way.”

The legacy of Black media in Canada 

It was the early 2000s when I was a young teenager in Scarborough obsessed with collecting magazines. One of those publications included WORD Magazine, one of the country’s widely circulated Black-owned publications. It had everything 13-year-old Huda was in search of: album and event reviews accompanied with pictures and posters to collect on my wall. I would grab issues from Cedarbrae Mall and add to my growing bedroom collage.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of its significance — that the legacy of Black-owned publications in Canada was small, and its end would arrive by the time I became a journalist myself. 

Toronto has been home to many Black-owned publications in the past. In 1969, Al Hamilton launched CONTRAST newspaper, which included notable contributors and editors like Cecil Foster. It was marketed as the “eyes, ears, and voice of Canada’s Black community.” Spear: Canada’s Truth and Soul Magazine was launched in 1971 and had many notable editors, including poet and author Dionne Brand. 

But since the 2000s, the heartbeat of Black-owned publications in Canada has waned as the media sector transitioned. Across the industry, maintaining print publications became economically arduous. 

The acquisition of NOW by Gonez Media Inc. poured some water into the literary drought of Black-owned media, however. The announcement of Gonez’s new acquisition of the legacy publication also brought more good news: NOW’s editorial would be led by Kerrisa Wilson, the first Black woman to run a newsroom in Canada. 

“This has never happened before in the city,” says Brandon Gonez over a Zoom chat from his office. 

Toronto has changed over the last 42 years. It’s time the publications reflect the city.– Brandon Gonez, journalist and new NOW owner

“This is the most diverse city in the world. We say that all the time, but you walk into the [rooms of] purveyors of information and it looks nothing like the city. But if you walk into [Gonez Media’s] offices in Liberty Village, you’ll see Toronto accurately reflected.” 

“That’s our commitment. Toronto has changed over the last 42 years. It’s time the publications reflect the city. And that’s what we are about.”

Gonez is tapping into an industry-wide issue: a lack of access to Black media. Black people in this country do not see themselves reflected in the majority of newsrooms and storytelling here. But I’m wary as to whether one person representing an entire identity group can successfully fill such a colossal gap.

The future of NOW

A recent Canadian Association of Journalist report concluded that 8 out of 10 newsrooms in the country have no Black or Indigenous reporters, editors, and staff. In a country that prides itself on multiculturalism and diversity, these statistics are troubling for the dissemination of news. 

“As somebody who worked in legacy media for major networks across the country, I’ve had the privilege of seeing what it’s like on the inside in terms of how stories are developed,” says Gonez. “And I’ve also had the privilege of reporting on those stories. It’s been such a fascinating career, but I definitely saw that there were a lot of gaps that needed to be filled. What I also realized is that there weren’t a lot of people trying to fill those gaps.”

“I’m the type of person where I’m going to do something about it.”

And that’s what Gonez has committed himself to for the past two years. After leaving a cozy role at CP24, he decided to be bold: he launched The Brandon Gonez Show, a weekly talk show covering political, entertainment, and social topics. It premiered in January 2021 on YouTube and has expanded its audiences through Instagram. The show enters its third season this spring. 

With the acquisition of NOW Toronto‘s digital platform, he’s expanding his efforts and goals of Gonez Media Inc. “We’re giving great artists a platform to talk about their craft, go a little bit deeper on stories that far too often are left on the chopping block in newsrooms,” he says. “It’s just been so well received by the community across this country that we’ve grown super fast. That support led to us creating a tremendous team of a diverse group of journalists.” 

But the reception to Gonez’s acquisition of NOW has been mixed. Although there are many supporters who are enthusiastic about this feat for Gonez, longtime readers of NOW are enraged about the inability to make up for the lost wages owed to the publications’ past contributors. Although legally he is not entitled to rectify this error, the question remains — is he ethically responsible? 

NOW supported the arts community,” says Simonpillai. “And now the arts community is showing their support for the writers who have been treated unfairly.” 

The legacy of NOW is currently being coloured by legal disputes between MCC and NOW‘s previous union. (Due to this legal battle, Sumi was unable to give a comment to CBC Arts for this column.) Comments across NOW‘s social platforms demonstrate the contentious moment: feedback is mixed with support for new Black leadership and anger for neglected arts and culture journalists. To me, both sides have their points.

NOW Magazine photographer Samuel Engelking on a photoshoot with Elle-Maija Tailfeathers (left) and Lesley Hampton. (Radheyan Simonpillai)

As a Black journalist, I feel complicated about the debacle at hand. How can someone legally buy a publication without being liable to the legalities of an entity’s past? That’s a question for tort law — but what I’m more concerned about is ethics. NOW‘s writers deserve care, respect, and compensation for their diligent contributions. There are real ethical concerns as to how this compromises the publication’s journalistic integrity. 

This internal conflict stems from being a Black writer who sees the minimal spaces where Black cultural politics can be reported on. Gonez went from working at one legacy publication to owning another one, now possibly filling an everlong void. There’s something compelling about such a story in Canada’s complicated media game. But representation politics is not enough. The new NOW will need to show us what its values and principles truly are. Until then, I’m not sure it’s fair to cast them off yet. 

Representation politics is not enough. The new NOW will need to show us what its values and principles truly are.– Huda Hassan

Sandwiched between a dark past and an uncertain future, Gonez and his team find themselves in a troubling place. What has happened with the alt-weekly is a cautionary tale for local newspapers and culture journalism altogether: a possible future of financial neglect.

“I am a journalist myself,” says Gonez. “I urge [MCC] to do the right thing here. Gonez Media’s commitment is to the community; we’re going to make sure that we create a sustainable path so we don’t see the same thing happen again.” 

Because Gonez acquired only NOW‘s digital platform, he does not believe he is responsible for the insurmountable debts accumulated by the publication in recent years — leaving the future in limbo.

“All I can do as a journalist, and as the owner of this business,” he says, “is ensure that what we saw happen under the previous ownership doesn’t happen again, and that we have a strong NOW.”

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