…And then Uptown Went Down

The shocks come and come and keep on coming, and here’s another one.

Last week, the Winnipeg Free Press made the decision to “change” Uptown Magazine. At the end of the month, all the Uptown staff jobs will be terminated. That is four full-time positions and one part-time position axed, including Uptown editor Jen Zoratti.

Then, the Uptown brand will replace the Free Press’s previous Thursday entertainment pull-out, The Tab. It will be populated with stories by the Free Press’s remaining entertainment writers, as far as I understand, and also distributed in the old Uptown boxes. (ETA: Whoops, I meant sold at the newsstand as a separate entertainment weekly, because street cred or something.)

This move effectively ends Uptown’s time as an alt-weekly. And I know there was debate about how much it was that anymore, even just as the news started to break…

 

 

…but now there won’t even really be anything left to debate, and no opportunity to change.

This move will put some very talented young media folks of work. (The fact that they have to keep working there for three weeks after being informed seems… rather unfortunate.) And after a couple of decades in the business, Uptown is effectively done.

The Free Press layoffs shocked me, but this hurts.

It hurts because it means more losses, more writers out in the cold, and again they are writers that I know. I’ve known Jen since she was just getting started in the music writing biz; I’ve watched her career and her writing evolve over the years into one of the city’s brightest, most genuine and most quietly committed.

She’ll land on her feet.

But where will the writers like her, or like me, get their first start with paying gigs in Winnipeg today?

I accidentally launched my own writing career with Uptown back in 1999, under the vivacious tutelage of then-editor Susan Krepart. The first article I ever wrote: Moses Mayes. It was the first article anyone ever wrote about them, and they offered me tickets to the show, and I had to turn them down because I was too young to go.

Those were golden years at the paper, in character if not in cash: I craved the work, loved the work, churned out as many articles as I could for $30 a pop. We’d hole up for hours in the rickety old office, and lick the grease of Albert Street burgers off our fingers and toss CDs across the room. And we’d gossip, and laugh, and talk about punk rock and house parties and ways of making art out of nothing.

I was 19 years old, and I was paying my rent with Uptown, if barely. And I was learning the business of the written word. That paper would be the window through which I crawled into the world: because of Uptown, I met friends, made contacts, got introduced to Free Press people, got bigger jobs, scratched my way up the ladder.

That’s been the accepted way of things for as long as I can remember — for writers, and musicians, actors and artists.

We wrote about shows that were beneath the Free Press’s purview, we delved into the darkness of the Albert and the Pyramid and the Zoo. Ask most artists in this city where they got their first press, and they’ll name Uptown Magazine.

I think it’s been hard to keep that up, and the industry is changing and things are changing, and Uptown hasn’t been the same in awhile, but — so much for that. The name goes on, but at a certain point it’s just singing a totally different song. Or croaking, as the case may be.

For a writer, it’s all just even a little more depressing. It’s hard to imagine we have a future right now. Very hard to see.

The Free Press has described this decision, internally, as “building on a successful brand.” But what has ever been built by tearing it apart? And who is left now to write the stories of the streets, the loud guitars and gritty bars and art, and youth, and the most challenging beats?

Building on a successful brand would have meant putting it in a position where it could flourish and thrive, and eke out its own unique space in which to survive: Uptown always could have ventured further into some of the more challenging political and life writing that other alt-weeklies thrive on, for instance.

It’s just all too sad. Especially because I am still gripped with the conviction: there could have been another way. Somehow, there was another way. But the razor blades keep coming for content, and hacking away at the number of voices that are given a platform on which to play.

It’s getting so damn cold outside.

I wrote this originally five days before the Free Press made it public, waiting for the writers to hear the news.

Now that it’s gone out, something else occurs.

In our business, we come to identify ourselves so strongly with our platform, with the places we tell our tales: for years, I was Melissa from Uptown Magazine. Then I was Melissa from the Free Press. Well now I’m not that, and Uptown barely exists anymore, and pretty soon it will be hard to explain to anyone what it is I used to do.

So who does that make me? Who am I, when everything I drew an identity around is stripped away?

Guess it doesn’t really matter, at the end of the day.

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