LONDON, ONTARIO - One year shy of its 30th birthday, publisher N. Breton Downe has unwittingly invoked one of George Herbert Walker Bush’s favourite phrases and announced that “it would not be prudent” to continue publishing SCENE magazine any longer. The prudence which Downe is now heeding is of the business/fiscal kind. From that moment when he was visiting his sister in Toronto in the mid ‘80s, picked up a NOW magazine and wondered if something along similar lines might not be doable in London, profitability has always been his lodestar. And indeed, that’s as it should be if you’re going to venture into a line of enterprise such as publishing where it’s so treacherously easy to take a blowtorch to your life savings.
Downe has been vainly seeking a buyer for SCENE for at least the last five dispiriting years. It’s a bit of a stalemate, all right. If your magazine or paper is healthily chugging along, then life is both profitable and fun and who would want to walk away from something as dynamic and rewarding as that? And if it’s all become a thankless grind – and in a digital age when a publication no longer requires a building or a press or even a couple of desks in a rented room – who is going to be tempted to fork over any sort of moolah to buy the name and whatever goodwill might still be associated with a freebie publication that has no subscriber list and has frankly seen livelier days?
The June, 2018 issue of the occasionally-weekly, usually bi-weekly and most-recently monthly alternative paper will be its grand valediction; an edition which Downe promises us “will be a keeper”. Well, if it’s going to earn that distinction, it’ll have to be a little more dazzling than SCENE’s 28-page May edition whose generic, unsigned cover story – “Hot Summer Guide” – is a sprawling series of short, disconnected, boosteristic plugs for upcoming events and a handful of restaurants and bars, most of which have taken out ads.
Well, so far this essay is turning out snarkier than I’d intended. It’s undeniable; I have decidedly mixed feelings about SCENE. I was on board with my Found Wandering column from their very first eight-page issue of March 23–29, 1989. That weekly timetable was kept up, even through the summer and Christmas seasons, until the 16-page issue of February 1–14 of the following year. Downe and his then-wife operating out of their apartment in the furthest reaches of northeast London were responsible for publishing, editing, ad sales, type-setting, layout and distribution. Staggering under that kind of workload, and neither party evincing a pronounced literary or aesthetic flair, it wasn’t surprising that in terms of physical presentation, the first few years’ worth of SCENEs were what my mother used to call “a dog’s breakfast”.
Sometimes I’d pick up a still-warm-from-the-printers new issue and beholding the latest abomination of a cover with an advertising tie-in – an out-of-focus shot of dancers at a commercial studio or a sax player at the short-lived Club Pantera; the very same photo of Blue Rodeo as was plastered on the back page ad for Best Buy; or the late April issues which were always devoted to the brazenly grinning finalists in the Miss Nude London and Western Ontario contest at Famous Flesh Gordon’s – and I’d wonder if I wouldn’t be further ahead seeking work with a slightly more respectable organ like The Lumber and Buildings Materials Association of Ontario Reporter (or the LBMAO Reporter as it's more familiarly known).
Downe hit a wall in late November of 1992 when he published two ads for phone sex companies (one of them of the triple X variety) and a barrage of grossed out readers, fellow advertisers and managers of various distribution outlets made their outrage known. He published a special letter in the next issue in which he vowed to resist such odious fare in the future. And recognizing that he’d been spreading himself way too thin and such a faux pas would never have happened if he wasn’t trying to keep so many plates simultaneously twirling on top of so many sticks, Downe invited me to come aboard as editor of everything but the music section in our only issue of December and as the cross-the-board editor starting with our first issue of 1993.
Kirtley Jarvis, who had already been compiling and laying out the listings for SCENE, stepped forward at about the same time to take over layout duties for the magazine overall, setting up her base of operations in what should have been our dining room and fielding conflicting requests from Downe and myself to make room for "Just one more ad" or "Could I possibly have another 100 words so that I can do that book real justice in my review?" On those frantic days when we had to scramble to get the latest edition out the door to the printers before the final extended deadline's knell, our neglected kids were pretty well left to fend for themselves and go foraging through the neighbourhood with the dog for scraps of food.
I worked as editor until late October of 1996 when I resigned because I hated what I regarded as the dumbing down of SCENE that was part of the publisher’s push to appeal to a younger audience and simultaneously attract lucrative advertising contracts from beer companies. I usually do a pretty decent job of keeping my friendships and associations in good repair but my exit from SCENE was a bitter parting of the ways which I think obscured the gratitude I will always owe Bret Downe for some really wonderful opportunities that he threw my way.
It took me a couple issues to find my legs as an editor. My first inclination was to micromanage all of the writers which is a complete waste of everybody’s time and only breeds mistrust. Once a couple of thin-skinned writers marched off our masthead in a huff at my heavy-handed ways, I was left with a diverse group of very able scribblers who with a bit of encouragement and a slight slackening of the reins, worked wonders with their various specialties. There was the ever dependable Bob Pegg on TV; Patricia Black and Sheila Martindale who did a heroic job (better than a certain London daily I could mention) of covering southwestern Ontario’s incredibly rich theatre scene; and I had a particular fondness for Tim Lehman, a goodhearted soul with a wonderful laugh who wrote fabulous reviews of music I hated in his Metal Trackin’ column.
I brought in a feature length interview in every issue; bumped up our book review section and our coverage of classical music; had Jeffrey Reed cover City Hall in addition to his sports column; got Toronto Star court reporter Paula Adamick to take a stab at writing an opinion column, thereby assuring that most issues came with a full page of letters to the editor (not all of them enraged); and took a chance on a wonderfully dry arts student named Derek Swartz who covered goings on at UWO in his regular slot called View From the Hill. On December 16, 1993, one year into my gig as editor, SCENE published its fattest-ever issue, clocking in at 52 thrill-packed pages.
That year and the next were the happiest and most productive of my seven years working with Downe and SCENE. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to decide to return to a weekly publishing schedule with the September 29th issue of 1994. Downe led that particular charge, I was pleased to see, re-reading an interview with him that we ran at the time. We were hoping to double our coverage of all the beats we’d been reporting on but very few advertisers were interested in doubling the frequency of their ad placements. A few times we were able to bulk up to 40 pages as a weekly but most often it was 32 or 28. So when you averaged out the total number of pages printed in a two-week period, it wasn’t much of an advance on what we produced as a bi-weekly but we were now paying out considerably more in printing costs and writers’ fees.
In pursuit of those elusive beer contracts that would place us on a firmer financial footing, Downe called in a series of consultants and design specialists who devised strategies that would supposedly make SCENE more youth-friendly. They called for shorter articles and jazzier graphics, leaned on me to drop this column or that writer. These recommendations seemed to come in waves, shaking everything up for a few weeks and then going dormant for a few months until the next round of recommendations came crashing through. I played along where I could; held my ground where I had to. But a lot of the fun of doing my job was being drained away.
I was getting into more arguments with Downe and realized that I didn’t have his ear in the way I had before. Though we both wanted what was best for the paper, our ideas of what was best were sharply diverging. I wanted to put out a one-of-a-kind newspaper that was deeply rooted in the London community and staffed with talented and provocative writers prepared to talk about stuff that you couldn’t find anywhere else. From my perspective, what Downe was after was a little more generic than that.
I remember one of the consultants had dropped off a stack of six or eight of these NOW-style alternative papers from considerably smaller Canadian cities than Toronto – all with the coveted beer ads taking up the back page, the very same new releases being reviewed on their record pages, sometimes the same rock star featured on the cover as they ticked off the dates of their cross-country tour. “It’s like a bloody franchise operation,” I thought. The final elbow for me was being asked to let Paula Adamick go and use the space which that freed up to assign more and shorter interviews with inarticulate rock stars. And so in one of the saddest decisions I’ve ever had to make, I decided to let myself go instead and gave up on a magazine I’d dearly loved.
As I recall, it was by the next spring that SCENE reverted to its biweekly schedule and played out most of its subsequent 22 years that way. Picking up issues after I’d left was a little like handling kryptonite at first; it had a magical ability to make me feel crappy for the rest of the day but I had to do it both out of masochistic curiosity and because their next editor, Barry Wells, would sometimes write uncharitable things about me in his Ram-Fed and Loaded column. Obviously I didn’t much care for the kind of paper SCENE became but I had to admit that during the Wells years, it at least had a distinctively vituperative energy that was something to behold. Once Wells moved along – did he jump or was he pushed? – I could go years between picking up a copy and after a quick peruse, deduce that I wasn’t missing anything of any import.
Am I sliding back into the zone of snark? I really don’t mean to. What can I say? I’m a fussy and egocentric writer and editor who thinks my way of doing things is the best. I’m afraid it sort of comes with the territory of being a writer and I just have to ask you to forgive me for that. And, to my credit, I fully recognize that I am not a financial genius and that I sometimes fail to grasp certain realities by the nettle. I know that I do not have what it takes to concoct a publishing operation and successfully navigate it for almost 30 years through a period of cataclysmic change and uncertainty when most other enterprises of that kind have crashed and burned in a fraction of that time. I know we didn’t always see eye to eye, N. Breton Downe, but you really did a remarkable thing and I thank you for it.
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