2,000 issues and counting
For any publication to reach 2,000 issues is a rare accomplishment-publishing is a tough business. But for the Georgia Straight to achieve this milestone is even more extraordinary. Week after week, a remarkably diverse group of individuals-including straights in suits, freaks, tattooed, shaved, and pierced punk rockers, misfits, overachievers, iconoclasts, near hermits, jocks, geeks, and quite a few more surprisingly normal folks than you'd expect (and that just describes some of the receptionists)-have cooperated to create what has been, by turns, a scurrilous left-wing rag, an alternative newspaper, a comprehensive entertainment guide, and an award-winning news, arts, and culture magazine.
Not that there weren't roadblocks along the way. Take May 12, 1967, a week after the first issue appeared and the day the Straight moved into its first office space (432 Homer Street). The police sent a patrol wagon to pick up coeditor (now publisher) Dan McLeod and hold him for three hours for "investigation of vagrancy". (Vagrancy and loitering charges were common Vancouver police techniques for harassing anyone they didn't like.) Local printers refused to print the next issues, which had to be sent to a Victoria shop instead.
By October, with a circulation of 60,000 copies an issue, the paper was told it needed a business licence, which the city then promptly suspended for "gross misconduct"; specifically, for selling near local schools. (The paper, with a cover price of 15 cents, was peddled on the streets by any individual with enough gumption to walk into the office and buy-or hand over a wallet as collateral for-a handful at wholesale.) The city reinstated the licence within six weeks. Poet Stan Persky was arrested for "loitering" the following April and, after he was found guilty, the Straight, McLeod, and the late Bob Cummings were charged in August with criminal libel for awarding the Pontius Pilate Certificate of Justice to Magistrate Lawrence Eckhardt. A fine of $1,500 was imposed in January 1969, though the charge was later thrown out.
Things had already really geared up in May of that year, when nine obscenity charges were laid for interviews and cartoons in an April issue and for running a classified ad requesting a woman for the purpose of "muff diving". There were also three charges of "inciting to commit an indictable offense" for an article on growing marijuana. Some 2,000 copies of the May 21 issue were seized and four more obscenity charges placed.
That month was probably the peak of attempts by the powers that be-behind the urging of confrontational Vancouver mayor Tom "Terrific" Campbell, a bitter opponent of the Straight-to shut the paper down, and over time, most of the charges were dropped, dismissed, or had fines reduced on appeal. Still, a half-dozen more charges occurred as late as March 1973 for selling and distributing "obscene" underground comics through the Straight's retail outlet (Grasstown Books). The judgment that the comics were indeed obscene, accompanied by a $3,500 fine, prompted an editorial in the paper vowing to fight it to the Supreme Court-"After almost seven years of harassment by dumb, insensitive, bigoted assholes, we are fed up"-but in February 1975, five of the charges were dropped and the fine reduced to $200. By and large, that was the Establishment's final salvo, except for the 2003 attempt by the provincial government, in an action that seemed to specifically target the Straight, to levy taxes and fines totalling $1 million on the paper. (Whew, inflation really has gotten out of hand).
Well, so what? So the Georgia Straight has been around for a while and managed to piss off a lot of folks in the process, participating in the free-speech fight that ultimately meant, among more important accomplishments, that a show like South Park could be aired on commercial TV and that some fairly odd-looking people could get jobs at Starbucks (which is not insignificant-they have to pay for those tattoos and hair dye somehow). But it does illustrate the struggle that went on four decades ago between the calcified, straight-white-male ruling class that dominated North America and the emerging counterculture of postwar baby boomers. In its debut issue, about the vagrancy arrests of four people on West 4th Avenue, the Straight called them the latest victims of the escalating war "between the young hip and creeping old fogeyism".
Now that we're in the ultimate age of self-publishing, performed on computers and distributed via the Internet, it's hard to picture the stifling state of the 1960s media environment, in response to which papers like the Straight were created. At the beginning of 1967, word trickled north from Detroit of a brew of political activism combined with rock music, activist theatre, and an independently published newspaper called the Guerilla. There was also talk of the Berkeley Barb, the L.A Free Press, the East Village Other, and the San Francisco Other. Hundreds of North American counterculture newspapers started in those days; many petered out soon after-people ran out of steam and money or ran into legal problems, discovered that regular publishing is tougher than it looks, or maybe got high or something and simply forgot-and today less than a handful of those grand attempts to provide an alternative media have survived. There's the Rolling Stone, the Advocate, the Village Voice (now merged with a competitor), and a few others.
It wasn't the oppression and legal actions that nearly extinguished the Straight, although they took down a lot of its comrades (except for that tax thing, the authorities largely gave up on us by the mid-1970s), but the fact that the paper's paid readership had begun to seriously decline. In 1979, the 600th issue was proclaimed the "Last Georgia Straight" and rebranded the Vancouver Free Press in an attempt to shed the negative connotations of the paper's accumulated notoriety. By March 1981, though, it had returned to its original moniker, albeit as an all-entertainment, mostly music-focused publication. Nothing helped, however, so on September 17, 1982, with circulation well under 10,000 copies a week, it turned into an advertising-funded free paper in search of readership.
One of the inadvertent achievements of surviving as long as the Straight has is the service of documenting the social, political, and cultural history of this city and province. Sure, there's silly hippie-dippy stuff in abundance, the finest example of which might be the January 12, 1968, cover story with the headline "We Are All God, You Are All God", which goes on to ask: "Do you know that you are God? You are God-but do you know it?" before trailing off into incoherence.
But there's also a trove of on-the-spot reportage from soon-to-be- famous performers in small clubs, and civic events like the closing of the Commodore Ballroom (yes, it did eventually reopen), the saving of the Orpheum Theatre, the fight to stop a proposed highway through Chinatown and Gastown. The police harassments that the paper and its staff endured represent literally thousands of such events that happened across the city and country, and its legal battles stood in for those of people who couldn't afford a good lawyer (kudos to John Laxton). The Straight always had space to run stories advising people of their civil rights. It also reflected changing social mores. For example, starting in 1968, there was a wave of poignant classified ads placed by worried parents and grandparents trying to reach their runaway kids, asking for a phone call or promising to be more understanding if they would only come home…
Regular coverage of environmental issues started with an article on the Amazon rain forest in September 1968, and the paper began writing about Greenpeace before its founders even settled on that name. Bob Cummings even set off to sea with the group. Vancouver's first column on gay issues debuted in June 1970. And that oft-derided hippie revolution the Straight was part of did change society for the better. As musician and film-industry worker Danny Mack commented in our 30th-anniversary issue, "A lot of people are willing to write off the '60s, but I believe that era changed the consciousness of the planet. The environmental movement, women's liberation, gay liberation and more all came out of the '60s, as far as I can figure. I can remember what life was like before then, and it was a different society, with no big freedom of choice."
Since the late 1980s, the Straight might have become "respectable"-a word sometimes uttered pejoratively or with a head shake of amazement-but I prefer the interpretation that it has become worthy of respect. And after nearly 39 years of rented office space, earlier this year the Georgia Straight moved into its own office building. Now we have a secure base to get started working on the next 2,000 issues.The Georgia Straight's history in a jiffy
1967: The debut issue of the Georgia Straight appears on the streets of Vancouver in May. It's only 12 pages and costs 10 cents. By October, the circulation reaches 60,000.
1968: Lawyer Mary Southin, now a B.C. Court of Appeal justice, writes an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun about the ongoing legal harassment of the Straight. She describes the suspension of the Georgia Straight's business licence as "the most flagrant example in recent years of the misuse of discretionary powers". Southin also writes: "Someday another mayor and council will use the power to suspend in a similar situation and will rely on the Straight's suspension as justification." The same year, Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell fails in his bid to persuade council to suspend the paper's business licence. After then-alderman Harry Rankin opposes Campbell's plan, the mayor accuses Rankin, then a Straight columnist, of being in a conflict of interest.
1970: A 15-member Senate committee on the mass media says the civic and police harassment of the Straight "can only be described as shocking". The committee, chaired by Sen. Keith Davey, also states that this persecution could be seen as "a kind of accolade". The Straight publishes the city's first gay-issues column.
1971: The Straight publishes a story called "Secret Papers of a Drug Cop". The article features excerpts from an undercover Vancouver officer's stolen notebook. Straight publisher Dan McLeod later tells police that he didn't know that the notebook had been obtained in a break-in.
1972: A staff rebellion results in 15 workers taking over the office after McLeod refused to create a legal collective. Lawyer Leo McGrady represents the rebels in an unsuccessful court challenge against McLeod.
1973: The Straight publishes front-page editorials "Biased Judge 'Didn't Even Read Comics'?" and "Biased Judge Fines 'More Than Maximum'?". Both articles concerned then-judge Murray Hyde, a former Crown counsel. In 1969, according to the editorials, Hyde led a criminal prosecution against the Straight. "The establishment press, predictably, will not mention any of this," the second editorial states.
1974: An Irish immigrant named Bob Geldof becomes the Straight's entertainment editor. Just over a decade later, he organizes Live Aid, which raises tens of millions for Ethiopian famine relief.
1975: John L. Daly (now a Global TV news reporter) writes an article claiming: "Vancouver's suburbs are hotter than the ads at the back of this paper."
1982: The Straight becomes a free newspaper.
1983: The Straight features the Rolling Stones on the cover. In the inside interview, Keith Richards is asked how the band manages to maintain its "street feeling" as it has become successful. "Well, ten years as a junkie keeps you pretty much on the street," Richards replies. "That was one of the things that kept me very much down to earth." Mick Jagger says that if he weren't a Rolling Stone, "I'd be in a marmalade factory, I'd expect."
1986: Then-columnist Alan Twigg gives the thumbs down to the Expo 86 opening: "As the human race catapults from Piltdown Man to Meltdown Man, Expo 86 largely ignores human needs beyond entertainment and transportation, ignores history in favour of commerce and science (remember the Bhopal gas disaster, the exploding space shuttle, acid rain and other endangered species) and, by default, asserts technology as the hope of mankind."
1987: The Straight features a two-part exclusive interview with Burnaby's Michael J. Fox. At one point, Fox expresses regrets about not staying on at Burnaby Central secondary long enough to graduate. "Failing drama was kind of weird," Fox tells McLeod. "I was doing an Equity play, Shadow Box, at night at the Arts Club, and failing drama because I was late for class in the morning. Then I told this other teacher that I respected that I wanted to be an actor, and he said, 'Come on, you're not going to be cute forever.'?"
1991: Sarah McLachlan makes her first appearance on the cover of the Straight. The same year, Rita Johnston becomes premier and also makes the cover of the paper. McLachlan lasts a lot longer in the spotlight than Johnston, who is bounced out of office later that year. Johnston's successor, former Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt, also appears on the cover of the paper shortly before the election.
1994: The Straight publishes the first lengthy story in the media questioning the NDP government's decision to build three fast ferries, then budgeted at $210 million. Then-Opposition MLA Gordon Wilson calls for a public inquiry, describing the vessels as "unproven technology". Glen Clark, the minister overseeing BC Ferries at the time, responds that the capital plan was "the best piece of work done by a Crown corporation-maybe ever-in terms of planning for the future". The same year, journalist Ben Parfitt writes a cover story exposing the existence of a potentially deadly parasite, Cryptosporidium, in the Greater Vancouver water supply.
1995: The Straight publishes Taras Grescoe's satirical cover story, "White Peril", which chronicles an alarming rise in criminal behaviour by the city's Caucasian inhabitants. Some readers don't get the joke and bombard the paper with letters of protest.
1998: Dan McLeod wins a lifetime-achievement award from the Jack Webster Foundation. The Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank, buys a building at 1770 Burrard Street that houses the Straight. Hollinger Inc., controlled by Conrad Black and David Radler, puts up $99,000 toward the cost and gets a wing named after the company.
1999: The Straight wins eight Western Magazine Awards, including Magazine of the Year. The Straight also wins its seventh consecutive Western Magazine Award for best business article.
2002: McLeod wins a lifetime-achievement award from the Western Magazine Awards Foundation. The new COPE-controlled Vancouver city council decides to hold a plebiscite on the city's Olympic bid after the Straight exposed how divided COPE candidates were on hosting the 2010 Games.
2005: Celebrated international author Salman Rushdie appears on the cover. "People who like my books…tend to praise the female characters," Rushdie says in an exclusive interview. "The people who don't like my books say I can't write about women."
2006: The Straight moves into its own completely renovated four-storey building at 1701 West Broadway. Architect J. Kerrigan Sproule upgrades a commercial building constructed in 1948 by adding one more level of underground parking and a fourth-floor amenity space with spectacular views of the city. The fourth-floor addition includes a kitchen, lunch room, exercise room, large patio area, and a shower for employees. (We hope the cyclists make use of it.) Extensive landscaping, including 11 trees and various shrubs, transforms the Pine Street side of the site and the back alley. The emblematic Mr. Wuxtry appears on a flag hanging on the Broadway side of the building. The Straight's move comes as this section of the Broadway corridor experiences significant growth with the addition of several new restaurants and retail outlets.