Friday, October 14, 2011

Gridizens of Toronto

You used to be able to tell the kind of people you hung out with by the free Toronto weekly paper they picked up. There are two major competitors in this fine city, and a host of other, more niche-market options to supplement your transit-time reading. Since I'm not a gay man or a person of South Asian descent, and I rarely find myself in the market for a new automobile or apartment, I tend mostly to stick to the big two: NOW and The Grid, formerly known as Eye Weekly. With The Onion's recent entry into the Toronto market, there might be a third horse in the race, but for now, it rests with The Big Two.

In previous times, Eye Weekly was a distant second to NOW, which boasts the Savage Love, and a thorough selection of globe-trotting pleasure women - Tatiana from Russia! Svetlana from Sweden! Like a cadre of slutty Carmen Sandiegoes! Also, the concert listings. I'm a nerd and so I'll include the NOW weekly crossword, which is one of the better crosswords out there. NOW has the restaurant reviews, movie listings, and a naked, photoshopped Rob Ford. NOW also, unfortunately, sometimes seems a little chintzy: their cover stories, often musicians or actors, are frequently interviewed at open press scrums and their cover images are culled from non-exclusive sources, which can lead to a sense of deja-vu while one gets their Ryan Gosling fix.

Eye Weekly was its sickly second-place competitor. When I bothered to pick up a copy, I was always impressed with the layout, which was clean and interesting - it reminded me of IKEA catalogs, but I mean that in a good way. But the covers were uninspired, and they always seemed so slender. I rarely grabbed a copy in the first place. NOW seemed to cover all my bases, and Eye Weekly wasn't going to tell me anything new about being a Torontonian.

In recent months, though, there's been a shift. Reading through NOW doesn't actually take that long. Readers with a political bent use it as a forum to decry Toronto's devolution under the pinko bike-riding vegans who want us all to pay 110% of our income in taxes/under the fascist warlords who bring want to rip out the TTC and start charging 120% of our income for private schools and flu shots. Under Rob Ford, the tone became shrill and strident, and a little alienating to those of us who live somewhere in the middle of the extremes. NOW still offers top-notch reviews and a rigorous approach to concert listings, which my boyfriend pores over with Talmudic intensity each week. But like I said: the content? Not so much. Puff pieces on actors and bands, festival guides and eco-advice, and cover stories that don't leave me feeling satisfied.

Enter The Grid. Despite it's semi-unfortunate name, it's done something that leaves NOW in its dust: it produces actual, readable, entertaining content each week, every week.

For instance, recent cover stories have been a celebration of the city's young fashionable risk-takers and one woman's chronicles of her box-bike experience. It also, unfortunately, ran a story about how hard it is to find an apartment downtown, which read like "Yuppie Like Me: one white, under-30, $100K+/yr couple's struggle to find a cool apartment for under $1500/mo while illogically refusing to put a totally manageable down payment on a house," which made me, and everyone I know, want to scream. Generally, though, The Grid manages to put out cool issues from week to week. They spend money on their cover shoots, and it pays off. They have an informal, bloggy aesthetic that's a breath of fresh air from NOW's text-block crunch. They brought back lots of man-on-the-street interviews, which makes it feel like Toronto is participating in The Grid's experiment, and their editorial tone is sophisticated, urban, and inclusive.

Obviously, with free weekly newspapers, I'm welcome to pick up both and read them with pleasure and any degree of completion. NOW still blows The Grid out of the water in terms of concerts and reviews, and that's okay: to fill up The Grid with that kind of content would mean edging out their more interesting and original pieces. Readers should, and do, take a hybrid approach: each weekly offers something for everyone, even if neither offers everything.

But The Grid should be congratulated for trying something new, like a redesign of their visual brand and a re-conception of their editorial focus. It's paid off handsomely. I, and many of my friends, have become Gridizens - people who look forward to each new issue. Even if the crossword is sort of second-rate, they have a kick-ass Sudoku.

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