Stirring it Up

Co-founders of Stir: Gail Johnson, Laura Moore, and Janet Smith. Photo by Etuviere Mrakpor

Creative news platforms in Vancouver are aiming to revive local arts and culture reporting

By Sena Law

When Gail Johnson and Janet Smith first met, they were working together as reporters at the Georgia Straight. But over decades of watching the industry change, there was one thing that remained bothersome for both Johnson and Smith: Arts and culture reporting was continuously being placed on the backburner.

 During their time at the Georgia Straight, Johnson and Smith dreamt of having their own platform devoted to arts and culture, exploring the expanding creative scene in Vancouver. 

 “There is so much art and artists going unnoticed,” Smith says. “There has never been a lack of art to report on, but never enough reporting done on the arts.”

 With this observation in mind, Johnson and Smith, alongside third co-founder Laura Moore, created Stir: an online magazine platform dedicated solely to covering the local creative scene.

 Stir was launched in September 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smith says they saw an opportunity as arts and culture reporting was among the first sectors to be neglected by larger news outlets during that time. 

 “[The bigger newspapers] thought that the arts were kind of done. And the very opposite was true,” Smith says.

 Smith graduated from Carleton University with a focus on arts journalism. Johnson graduated from Langara College’s journalism program in 1996. After spending most of their careers working in mainstream media, the pair found that the balance of content made it difficult to devote enough attention to the arts.

 Johnson says that mainstream media often lack the time and resources for long-form journalism. “We want to pursue that side of things and talk to the people creating all this amazing art in Vancouver, and have the space and time to tell those stories a bit more comprehensively than we had been seeing,” she says.

 According to Johnson and Smith, the biggest hurdle when it comes to arts and culture reporting being recognized by media outlets is the disconnect between out-of-town corporations and the local creative scene.

 “With a corporately owned media outlet, covering the arts is just trying to convince them that dance is a thing in Vancouver, or theatre is really experimental and exciting,” Smith says. “Try to explain that to a ‘board of suits.’ It’s just not their world.”

 Kay Higgins, who is the head of gallery publishing at Emily Carr University, knows this all too well.

A journalist with decades of experience in the world of arts, Higgins was responsible for reviving Issue magazine in 2014 with the nonprofit Unit/Pitt Society for Art and Critical Awareness. Issue was originally published in 1983 and places a significant importance on covering Vancouver’s political and social art landscape.

“It’s no secret that print magazine publishing has really, really diminished compared to what it was 20 years ago,” says Higgins. “Newspapers are thinner than ever, and they don’t have a lot of specialty reporting.”

Higgins says the result is a lack of venues for critical writing about art, or even very basic reviews. The under-reporting of arts and culture strips away opportunities for threads of discourse around bigger issues in the creative world.

“We’ve already got so much lost history in cultural production, especially around the margins,” Higgins says. “There’s very little record of some of the things that were actually major upheavals and that we should retain the knowledge of.”

Operating an independent news platform comes with its own set of challenges, the main one being funding. Without revenue from subscribers or advertisers, Higgins says a lot of independent news start-ups only last a year or two at the most.

Unlike some news platforms that sustain themselves using a subscription-based model, Smith and Johnson say they chose to come up with their own revenue model, resulting in more hands-on work for a smaller team.

 Stir operates on donations from readers—and while they have contributors who write stories for the platform, the full-time Stir team consists only of Johnson, Smith and Moore.

 “When you’re a small operation, we’re not just the writers and the editors; we are the ones building the website and doing all the backend stuff,” Johnson says. “You have to be willing to wear a lot of hats.”

Challenges aside, Johnson and Smith say operating their own platform has given them a sense of limitlessness when it comes to the content they want to produce. 

 “You don’t have to play into those factors where you’re dealing with what political party you belong to; we try and strive to be just open and neutral,” says Johnson.

 The perks of independence were also felt by Higgins, who says the independent nature of Issue magazine allows its content to be honest and ever-expanding.

 Johnson and Smith say they are optimistic about a change in the media landscape, and that more independent voices are needed to highlight the arts in B.C. 

“Don’t let anybody tell you it’s a dying industry,” says Johnson. “We’re a living, breathing example that it can be done. So people who are talking about the death of newspapers, especially in the face of the pandemic, I think we prove that that’s not necessarily the case.”

 Johnson says that digital platforms offer plenty more opportunities than traditional print news for independent voices to stand out.

“We’re starting to see those types of publications appear,” Johnson says.
“Having everybody scrambling for a story, everybody scrambling to cover some arts event—that is the dream.”

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