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