Michał Kozłowski

A barn full of sweaty pub­lish­ers, deep in the heart of Toronto

Geist - - Features - MICHAŁ KOZŁOWSKI

Cen­tre of the Uni­verse

The mayor of Toronto, dressed in a spiffy blue suit, with his grey hair combed to the right, made the open­ing speech at the FIPP World Congress, the largest mag­a­zine media event in the world, this past Oc­to­ber at the Sher­a­ton Cen­tre Toronto Ho­tel. “The way we Toron­to­ni­ans choose to live to­gether,” he said into the mi­cro­phone dur­ing his speech, “is what makes Toronto so great.” It was nine in the morn­ing and many of the eight hun­dred pub­lish­ers at­tend­ing the con­fer­ence were star­ing down into their smart­phones. The mayor of Toronto went on at length about the cul­tural and eco­nomic supremacy of his town and the pub­lish­ers con­tin­ued to stare down into their phones. Then the mayor blurted out, “We re­ally are the cen­tre of Canada.”

The ge­o­graphic cen­tre of Canada lies not in On­tario, but in Nu­navut, just south of Yathkyed Lake, at 2° 24މ N, 96° 28މ W, mea­sured as the mid­point be­tween the ex­trem­i­ties of Canada: Cape Aldrich, Nu­navut, in the north; Mid­dle Is­land, On­tario, in the south; Cape Spear, New­found­land, in the east; and the Yukon-alaska bor­der in the west. Nor is Toronto the cen­tre of the uni­verse, as is of­ten claimed in the media by Toron­to­ni­ans and non-toron­to­ni­ans. The cen­tre of the uni­verse lies at a knoll over­look­ing Vidette Lake near Kam­loops, BC, ac­cord­ing to Bud­dhist monks who made the claim in the 1980s and car­ried out tests over the next few years to ver­ify its au­then­tic­ity by gaug­ing the shape and di­rec­tional slope of the place. Yet an­other cen­tre in Canada lies out­side of Toronto: the cen­tre of the world lies in Lyt­ton, BC, the site of the boul­der where Coy­ote landed, ac­cord­ing to In­te­rior Sal­ish sto­ries. One story goes that the Ni­ha7kápmx of the In­te­rior Sal­ish buried the boul­der, or ex­ploded it, to hide it from the set­tlers en­croach­ing on the Fraser Val­ley; the orig­i­nal site of the boul­der was paved over when the Tran­scanada was laid down in 1967.

Some of the pub­lish­ers in the crowd were hung over from the FIPP Hoe­down, the open­ing gala held the pre­vi­ous night; dress code: coun­try. The pub­lish­ers had been given Stet­son hats made of foam and had been loaded into a string of buses and driven out to a hall by the Don Val­ley Park­way that had been fash­ioned to look like a barn hal­lu­ci­nated by Stephen Harper (who hap­pened to be cam­paign­ing with the for­mer mayor of Toronto on the other side of town); hay bales served as side ta­bles, cowhide pat­terns were pro­jected onto the walls. A con­tin­u­ous stream of cater­ers in plaid shirts of­fered up Mon­treal smoked meat canapés, lob­ster canapés, Al­berta steak canapés and grilled cheese canapés, as well as On­tario beer and wine. A whole roasted pig, eyes closed, mouth open, was laid out on a sil­ver plat­ter by the pulled pork sand­wich sta­tion. A young man in a baggy Moun­tie uni­form roamed the room, posing for pho­to­graphs with the pub­lish­ers. A group of eight fid­dlers played Celtic jigs up on stage. Then a man in a felt Stet­son, who spoke in the man­ner of an auc­tion­eer, led a square dance for the pub­lish­ers dur­ing which much arm lock­ing took place. A Ja­panese pub­lisher in

a red foam Stet­son jos­tled his way into do-si-do-ing with the danc­ing teacher’s part­ner. In a corner of the barn a group of pub­lish­ers hud­dled around fifty-five-gal­lon drums, roast­ing marsh­mal­lows over open flames. In an­other corner, pub­lish­ers tested their cow­boy skills on the me­chan­i­cal bull; twenty-nine sec­onds took first prize that night.

Over the next two days the eight hun­dred pub­lish­ers hun­kered down in the base­ment of the Sher­a­ton. CEOS and COOS and pres­i­dents of the big­gest media com­pa­nies in the world— TIME Inc., Hearst Media, At­lantic Media, Na­tional Ge­o­graphic—got up on stage and dis­cussed the con­cerns of pub­lish­ing: mo­bile web, mo­bile apps, mo­bile page load times, mo­bile na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing, mo­bile videos, mo­bile com­mu­ni­ties, mon­e­tiz­ing mo­bile. The pub­lish­ers in the crowd who were not star­ing into their smart­phones oc­ca­sion­ally asked ques­tions about the se­crets of the mo­bile web; they had to speak into green foam cubes the size of lunch boxes, em­bed­ded with mi­cro­phones, heaved at them by the ush­ers.

A young man on stage pointed out that 4.5 bil­lion peo­ple have ac­cess to clean wa­ter, and 6 bil­lion peo­ple have ac­cess to cell­phones. “Six bil­lion,” he said into the mi­cro­phone. “What an ex­cit­ing time to be in pub­lish­ing.”

An­other young man stated that in 2008 hu­mans had an at­ten­tion span of four­teen sec­onds, and that in 2014 we had an at­ten­tion span of eight sec­onds. He then said, “That’s one less sec­ond than the at­ten­tion span of a gold­fish.” The crowd sighed. “What this means is that we now have eight sec­onds,” said the young man, “to get the at­ten­tion of our read­ers.”

Down the hall was a huge room, iden­ti­fied by a sign as Beaver Lodge, set up as a min­gling area for the pub­lish­ers, out­fit­ted with so­fas, high ta­bles, an in­flat­able twenty-foot-tall beaver, an in­door camp­fire (made of silk, LED lights, metal) en­cir­cled by Muskoka chairs, and Na­tional Parks Board booths dis­play­ing taxi­der­mic birds, as well as a green screen where one could have one’s photo taken and then be Pho­to­shopped into a na­tional park.

The pre­sen­ta­tions went on; a string of men in ex­pen­sive suits, some three-piece, got up on stage one af­ter an­other, talk­ing about the dis­rup­tive ef­fect of smart­phones on pub­lish­ing. “It’s like we hit the Ti­tanic,” said a high-level ex­ec­u­tive dur­ing the fi­nal panel dis­cus­sion, “but it’s okay, be­cause we’re all still here. Now we just have to hang on and pad­dle to shore.”

For the clos­ing cer­e­mony of the FIPP World Congress, the pub­lish­ers were rounded up and herded into buses and driven out to Ri­p­ley’s Aquar­ium of Canada, at the foot of the CN tower, where a string quar­tet played Bea­tles songs near the ex­otic fish tank. More cater­ers in plaid shirts handed out huge glasses of wine. I stopped at a tank full of wolf eels: long black tubes, un­mov­ing, clumped to­gether against a rock. The ef­fect of mo­bile pub­lish­ing, it be­came clear to me then, is to re­duce the pe­ri­od­ic­ity in pe­ri­od­i­cal pub­lish­ing to im­per­cep­ti­ble in­ter­vals, re­sult­ing in a con­tin­u­ous bar­rage of con­tent to the palm of the smart­phone user. (FIPP was orig­i­nally called Fédéra­tion In­ter­na­tionale de la Presse Péri­odique; now it refers to it­self as a mag­a­zine media as­so­ci­a­tion.)

Ahead lay a glass tun­nel that passed through an enor­mous aquar­ium. The tun­nel was out­fit­ted with a peo­ple mover (the kind you find at air­ports), the long­est one in North Amer­ica. I or­dered a beer and stepped onto the peo­ple mover. Be­yond the glass, long green plants un­du­lated in the wa­ter and hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands of brightly coloured fish swam around in their en­clo­sure: sand­bar sharks, sand tiger sharks, stingrays, talons, saw­fish, yel­low­tail snap­pers, oth­ers.

A cou­ple of pub­lish­ers with English ac­cents got on the peo­ple mover.

“Did you hear that pre­sen­ter ear­lier talk­ing about things?”

“Things?”

“Things. Like, did you see that thing on the in­ter­net last week?” “No. Things?” “Things.” “Like, ar­ti­cles?” “Some­times, but not al­ways. Like, the email that Steve Jobs sent just be­fore he died out­lin­ing the fu­ture of Ap­ple. That’s a thing.”

“Is it an ar­ti­cle about the email?” “No, it’s the email, pub­lished on a site.”

“I’m not fol­low­ing. Still, what’s the point of things?”

“I don’t re­mem­ber now.”

There were prob­a­bly a hun­dred pub­lish­ers now, glid­ing along the peo­ple mover, look­ing up from the bot­tom of a fish tank at thou­sands of brightly coloured fish. Some pub­lish­ers snapped pho­tos; oth­ers tapped the glass, try­ing to get the at­ten­tion of the fish.

Af­ter what felt like an hour, the peo­ple mover came to an end in a huge room filled with food stands and fish tanks. The short ribs stand was

near the eel tank; the grilled sal­mon stand by the jel­ly­fish tank. The pou­tine stand was by the bar. We were soon ush­ered out of the aquar­ium and into el­e­va­tors and shot up to the top of the CN Tower, where waiters armed with mousses and truf­fles roamed, and ta­bles were adorned with choco­lates and bricks of cheese and bowls of crack­ers. The pun­gent aroma of old socks and sweaty pub­lish­ers dom­i­nated the room; the outer decks were closed on ac­count of strong winds, so we all stayed in­side, smelling the smell of pub­lish­ing late into the night.

I caught a cab to the air­port at five the next morn­ing; it was still dark and the free­way was al­most empty. The driver asked how long it would take to drive to Van­cou­ver. Five days, I said. He said he’d never been there, and was con­sid­er­ing driv­ing out in the spring, some­thing he’d al­ways wanted to do. I re­called driv­ing from Ot­tawa to Win­nipeg twenty years ear­lier and see­ing a sign along the Tran­scanada high­way out­side of Taché, Man­i­toba that read Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Cen­tre of Canada, and then half a de­gree later, far­ther down the high­way, an­other sign that read Cen­tre Lon­gi­tu­di­nal du Canada.

Michał Kozłowski is the pub­lisher of Geist. Read more of his work at geist.com.

Baker Lake, an­other claimant of cen­tral sta­tus.

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