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Today, within the city of Vancouver, The Georgia Straight is unquestionably an alternative media establishment. Reaching close to 600,000 readers, its pages offer everything from music and theatre reviews, to opinion and lifestyle pieces, to, occasionally, hard news. But despite its status as a cultural mainstay, the Straight of today, with the vast bulk of its pages dedicated to event listings, advertisements, and an extensive Classifieds section, is very different in both aesthetic and intention from the Straight that first appeared on the streets of Vancouver back in the spring of 1967.
“It was fuelled by large amounts of idealism,” explains Pierre Coupey, one of the paper’s founding editors, “the idea was to give voice to an anger against establishment values, and their assumption of power. The opposition was crying for a voice. It was, in the beginning, opposed to private ownership, and was designed to be a collective to fight for social justice.”
A meeting was held at 883 Hamilton Street, the home of Rick Kitaeff, on the 2nd ofApril, 1967, to discuss the aims of a free press. Among those in attendance were early Straight contributors Rick Kitaeff, Stan Persky, and Peter Hlookoff, “People’s Poet” and activist Milton Acorn, and current owner/publisher Dan McLeod.
According to Coupey’s early manifesto, The Georgia Straight was intended to be a collective enterprise, with a floating editorial board. Printed on a weekly basis, it was to provide an alternative voice to the heavily anti-youth and anti-hippie sentiment that was then being espoused by the Vancouver Sun and Province. The name itself was allegedly chosen by McLeod for the free publicity it would garner, since local radio stations often issued gale warnings for “the Georgia Strait”. Each member of the group donated whatever money they could for the first issue, with the largest contribution, according to Coupey, coming from Milton Acorn, who contributed his entire Veteran’s Pension cheque, a sum of between $200 and $250.
“Milton was essential to the start of the Straight,” Coupey recalls, “and more the inspiration for the paper than anybody else.”
The first issue hit the streets in May of 1967, with a cover price of ten cents. Early releases featured articles on police persecution, a how-to guide for growing marijuana, an article called “Help Stamp Out Little Old Ladies”, and cartoons such as ‘AcidMan’, whose hallucinating hero was pictured with genitals on full display. Predictably, the paper caused quite a controversy when it first appeared, and, consequently, there wasn’t a printer in town who would touch the second issue. It was banned on the streets of New Westminster, where vendors responded by selling the paper anyway, in open defiance of police. In the ensuing two years, the fledgling publication was subjected to intense police harassment and legal trouble; between 1967 and 1969, the Georgia Straight and its contributors were charged with one count of “inciting to commit an indictable offence” (for the marijuana article), 27 counts of obscenity, and one count of criminal libel for awarding Magistrate Lawrence Eckhardt the “Pontius Pilate Certificate of Justice.”
“At one time I had an escort of two or three police cars following me on a regular basis,” Coupey recalls, “we were always getting tickets and being pulled over for minor infractions. Rick Kitaeff fought most of that in court and won; he got more tickets than all of us.”
Finally, In October of 1967, the Straight’s business license was suspended by then-mayor Tom Campbell, on the grounds that it contained obscene material.
“It’s a filthy, perverted paper,” said Campbell, in a statement to the Vancouver Sun, “it should not be sold to our children.”
Coupey, now an accomplished Canadian writer, visual artist, university instructor, and founder of the influential West Coast literary magazine The Capilano Review, speaks frankly about the effect of the suspension.
“As any advertising executive knows,” he grins, “any publicity is good publicity. After the suspension, the Straight became notorious. We were emblematic of the struggle for free speech, and the result was that it sold like crazy. Being forced underground was the best thing that could have possibly happened.”
By the end of 1967, the Straight’s circulation was well over 60,000 per issue. They regularly published a column called “Heads Busted”, which dealt with the details of drug arrests. They printed articles on how to avoid police harassment at protest actions. On one occasion, they even published the home address of well-known and despised undercover Vancouver Police Officer Abe Snidanko, (immortalized by Cheech and Chong as “Officer Stedenko”) necessitating his transfer to another department. During this time, many Straight contributors, including McLeod, lived in a large house on 16th Avenue, operating the paper, and living as part of a close-knit community.
After 1970, the Straight’s legal and financial troubles eased, but despite its growing success, internal conflict plagued the publication. In the early 70’s, The Straight’s offices were taken over on three separate occasions; once by a group of female contributors who published an all-women’s issue, once by a group of gay-rights protestors, and once by members of the paper’s own writing staff. In January of 1972, a collective, comprising a large majority of the Straight’s writers and editors, took over their Powell Street headquarters in an attempt to “liberate” the paper.
“We wanted to make the paper a collective, which meant that if you worked on it, you owned it,” explains former Entertainment Editor and rock critic Rick McGrath, “McLeod refused. He basically said: ‘See these papers with my name on them? Too bad.’”
The collective occupied the Powell Street offices for over two weeks before McLeod obtained a court injunction to have them removed.
“The basis was economic,” McGrath continues. “Basically, we wanted to get paid. For the last eight or nine months I was there, I didn’t see a nickel. But McLeod, at the same time, had a distribution company. And, he was making all this money distributing these American magazines, and rock newspapers, and he was also distributing pornography. Well, of course, it finally dawned on some people that the money from the Straight was being siphoned off into this distribution company, and at the same time, we weren’t getting paid. It didn’t bother me so much, because I was making money as a teaching assistant, but the other guys, it was killing them. And, they finally said: ‘okay, enough of this’.”
Coupey, for his part, supported the Collective, having left the Straight in late 1967 (along with co-founders Peter Hlookoff, Milton Acorn, and Rick Kitaeff) for much the same reasons. Although the first few issues of the paper had remained true to the Floating Editorial Board policy (“Subject to Change Without Notice”, the masthead read), by late 1967, all mention of this body had vanished, replaced simply by Dan McLeod’s name, listed as “Head Editor”. Coupey, along with contributing editors Peter Hlookoff, Rick Kitaeff, and Milton Acorn, became concerned at this apparent violation of the Straight’s original policy, and, in late October of 1967, forced a meeting with McLeod to discuss the issue.
“It was always difficult to communicate with McLeod,” Coupey recalls, “it was tough to have a dialogue, because he was so talented at being inarticulate. But, by that point, he had assumed an attitude, with the Straight, quoting from Louis XIV: ‘L’Etat C’est Moi’.”
As they soon discovered, this attitude was at least partially justified; McLeod had opened the Straight bank account under his own name, and, at the end of 1967, unbeknownst to the other founding editors, created Georgia Straight Publishing Limited with himself as the owner, giving him full legal claim to the paper and all of its assets. Hlookoff and Coupey were appalled and chose to resign their posts, even after McLeod offered them each a 25% share in the paper. Among the early staff, a great deal of controversy still surrounds Dan McLeod’s ownership of the Straight, with former contributor Korky Day, going so far as to call the action “theft and betrayal”. McLeod, however, had a different opinion, stating in a 1972 response to the collective’s allegation, that: “the paper, and the community it serves are more important than the staff, and if that paper folds, it is the community which will suffer most. I believe it is quite possible the paper will fail under collective ownership, and this must not happen. I never wanted to own the Straight, but I’ve always felt very strongly that the Straight, or a paper like it, MUST survive. I have never found, though I wish I could find one, an alternative to single ownership which would ensure the survival of some kind of free press in Vancouver.”
Close to 40 years later, Coupey is moderate in his reflection on the circumstances of the split.
“I don’t think he had any devious intent at the start. I don’t think he planned to rip anybody off. In the beginning, we were all acting in good faith. The disappearance of good faith on his part was something that followed.”
Despite the actions of the collective, and the appearance of several other underground newspapers, such as The Western Gate, Terminal City Express, and The Georgia Grape (produced by Collective members), the Straight’s local influence continued to grow. By the mid-70’s, however, the underground press scene in Vancouver had all but died out, and the Straight was beginning to founder.
“The paper was in big trouble,” claims former editor Rowland Morgan, in a comment posted on rickmcgrath.com, “The Georgia Straight when I edited it was in transition between being a busy collective in its prime and a commercial listings free-rag in its latter decadence (with one progressive article glued on to the front to maintain cred). It still had subscribers and sold copies out of machines on the street and was not a “controlled circulation” freebie. Sales were pretty much dead in the water.”
According to Morgan, by 1976 the Straight was down to sales of fewer than 2,000 copies a week, was operating at a loss, and would have “closed, and would be forgotten” if it hadn’t been subsidized by a sister publication known as the Vancouver Star.
“The Vancouver Star was a sex newspaper in the days when sex was still controversial,” explains Morgan. “We sold these classifieds for good money, in addition to which the massage parlours all advertised, and the paper’s street sales were brisk. The Vancouver Star made a tidy profit, and McLeod used its revenues to keep the Georgia Straight afloat until he could succeed in switching it to a freebie listings rag.”
In October of 1982, the very first free issue of the Straight arrived, solving its circulation issues by relying on its scores of advertisements and classifieds to support the paper. Since then, The Georgia Straight has gone on to become an unqualified financial success. It has won dozens of Western and National Magazine Awards, including Magazine of the Year. McLeod himself has won at least two Lifetime Achievement Awards (including one from the Jack Webster Foundation), for his “contribution to journalism in BC”, and in the process, has made himself a millionaire.
“The Straight died as an underground paper,” McGrath muses, “McLeod essentially reinvented it as an entertainment handout, and now, that thing is a goldmine. There’s really nothing to it. Just some typesetting. It’s simple, easy, fast. You can always tell how successful a paper is by looking at its classified section. And, the Straight always had those listings of what was happening, what was on, and now, if you want to know what’s going on in Vancouver, it’s the only game in town. The other media don’t even try to compete with them anymore.”
So, how is it that a counterculture news-rag that once ran stories like “ShitPower Gives Birth to ShitCar!” goes on to become an alternative media institution?
“Basically, the Georgia Straight became an entertainment rag for two reasons,” McGrath concludes, “it sold papers and it sold papers. When I was there we always printed more if I had a good interview to run. The political stuff appealed to a much smaller audience -probably the guys who wrote it.”
As to the current state of the Straight, both Coupey and McGrath are skeptical.
“The goal was always to raise the bar for investigative journalism in Vancouver,” Coupey says, “rather than raise the bar, the Straight has chosen to keep it about the same, or, in some cases, lower it. It was intended to be an opposition to the Establishment, not to become the Establishment.”