September 2012 marked an important historical milestone for Saskatoon and the province’s co-operative movement—Planet S magazine’s first ten years of independent city journalism. Published by an award-winning, home-grown workers’ co-op, its triumph will be remembered as one of this province’s great co-operative campaigns—like the pooling, retail co-op, credit union, insurance mutual and community clinic organizing waves of previous decades.
Their campaign busted the province’s print media monopoly, long a foe of Prairie co-operation, in its two major urban centres. In 1993, it launched Regina’s prairie dog. In 2002 it published the first of 365 issues (to date) of Saskatoon’s Planet S Magazine. Together these co-operatively published city-papers now reach about 120,000 urban adults every issue.
Making Cooperative History
Mounting a meaningful alternative to the corporate media monopoly, particularly in the volatile new networked media economy, is no small achievement. Ironically, these co-operators outlasted both the once-powerful Lord Black—who ended up in jail, and the mighty Asper family empire—which also ended badly, in bankruptcy court.
It was an uphill struggle to launch local, independent alternatives—that were both market-viable and democratically valuable—against such well entrenched incumbents. The feisty young challenger’s small staff, scant resources and willingness to take on the powerful didn’t make things easier. It faced flak from big business advertisers—and a censorious provincial government—for standing up for Saskatoon, particularly its most vulnerable citizens. But it held the line on principled, progressive publishing and earned the trust, respect and loyalty of 60,000 regular Saskatoon readers.
The triumph of Planet S over its corporate adversaries—and the new sources, writers and readers it helped bring into the city’s democratic conversation—marks a coming of age for this city that has so often led the nation in social innovation.
Much as the community clinic campaign helped open a new chapter in Canadian history by bringing health care without a price tag to the people in 1962, Planet S reclaimed the public sphere for the people of the Bridge City. Regina’s prairie dog and Saskatoon’s Planet S are the first co-operative city-papers in English-speaking Canada.
With the launch of a co-operative alternative, Saskatonians were no longer exclusively subjected to the interests, values and prejudices of distant and remote shareholders. Planet S rescued the city from investor-driven journalism, layoff chill, bargain bin syndicated copy and an echo-chamber of establishment spin. It provided new choices and new voices.
Perhaps most importantly—like the co-operative press of previous waves in Saskatchewan’s movement history—it provided an independent, co-operative alternative to corporate media’s bias toward free market fundamentalism and the investor-led development model.
A New Frontier of Worker Cooperation
Like another great Saskatoon enterprise, Great Western Brewery, Planet S was founded by its employees. Planet S is still run by them, which explains the grit and gusto that pops off its pages. In an age of deregulation and run-away corporate concentration, when Corporate Canada was downsizing, centralizing and otherwise turning its back on the Bridge City, brewery workers took matters into their own hands in 1989 to keep that brewery brewing.
Similarly, in 1996 Conrad Black laid off a quarter of the local daily’s newsroom staff. He stripped the province’s twin cities’ largest media assets—and most important democratic resources—of 170 staff, all to bankroll his vanity press, the National Post. Thatcherism and syndicated wire copy were in. The mixed economy and local reporting were out.
Once again, a feisty group of Saskatonians stepped into the breach. They helped rebuild the city’s vandalized communications infrastructure. They helped citizens know more and think more clearly, deeply and differently about the public issues before them as a democratic community. They brought new energy, diversity and city focus to journalism in Saskatoon.
Like generations of democratic upstarts who drove co-operative campaigns before them, they locked horns with the corporate establishment. Their campaign drove a twenty-first century Renaissance in city-journalism. It reasserted the democratic values of a free press in the wake of the nineties’ Dark Ages that had belonged to Lord Black—prisoner 18330-424, as he would later come to be known.
Truly independent, they eschewed buzzwords and bandwagons, conventions and conformity, privilege and prejudice. Like the muckraking of the early co-operative press—and co-operative journalists like Annie Hollis or Violet McNaughton—they spoke the truth, exposed lies, challenged the corporate establishment and highlighted community-based co-operative alternatives—from the Core Neighbourhood Youth Co-operative to QUINT housing co-ops to Station 20 West.
Reinventing the Cooperative Press
Like Le Monde in Paris, the world’s largest French-language newspaper, Planet S is structured democratically—as a co-operative in which its workers call the shots. But like generations of Saskatchewan co-operators before them—who harnessed the power of the people to build agricultural, insurance, housing, childcare, fishing and consumer co-ops, community clinics and credit unions—Planet S has done much in this new, extraverted media age, to disavow bright lights and big cities. Instead, it has made Saskatoon its centre of gravity, building this city’s scene and public square from the inside out and the bottom up.
The ideas and sense of identity and community that a great city-paper produce are less tangible than some of those traditionally provided goods and services—like that tasty GW beer—but they are no less important. Indeed great papers reflect and strengthen the soul of a city, its cultural and political identity and its sense of community—and co-operative possibility. Planet S published against the tsunami of syndicated wire copy, celebrity Hollywood gossip, and political advice from pundits who can’t even pronounce Saskatchewan—never mind account for the co-operative principles.
These tenacious co-operators—starting with April Bourgeois, Terry Morash, Stephen Whitworth and Heath Mulligan—will be remembered in movement history alongside heroic figures like E.A. Partridge, Annie Hollis, Violet McNaughton and Harry Fowler—all determined champions for a co-operative press.
Partridge understood the importance of communication channels, compelling stories, and quality information to the co-operative movement. He lobbied tirelessly for a co-operative newspaper in the early days. The Grain Growers Guide created an important forum for diffusing the pooling concept and a critique of vested interests. This was crucial to building a strong ideological and cultural foundation for co-operation on the Prairies. Through the Guide, The Progressive (later The Western Producer) and The Co-operative Consumer, the agrarian and co-operative press advanced the educational and cultural frontiers of co-operative development in Saskatchewan.
If it weren’t for their relentless crusade for a co-operative press, this province’s early co-operators would have been isolated and in the dark—unable to discuss, share, reflect and debate over how to take on the grain traders, bankers and manufacturers and move their province forward.
Similarly, if it weren’t for Harry Fowler’s fight to launch the Co-operative Consumer in 1940—once the highest circulation newspaper in the West—one wonders where urban co-operators would have found the information, ideas and resolve to sign on with the campaigns to launch the Co-operative Life Insurance Company (now The Co-operators) in 1945 or to launch the community clinics that broke the doctors’ strike and won Medicare for Saskatchewan people in 1962.
The co-operative press once opened the door for new possibilities by laying the foundations of an alert, informed and engaged democratic culture. It also mitigated the rise of consumer culture and economic liberalism, forces which would gradually help frustrate and defeat this democratic culture in a rapidly urbanizing Saskatchewan.
Opening the Door to New Cooperative Possibilities
Similarly today’s market and state failures—in housing, in childcare, in decent employment for Aboriginal people and New Canadians and much more—it takes alternative journalism to reach beyond the conventional wisdom of established authorities to find new ways for democrats to innovate. After the Co-operative Consumer ceased publication in the recession of 1982 and the Western Producer was privatized in a dress rehearsal for the privatization of the Pool itself, the Saskatchewan movement was left with a huge education, outreach and movement-building vacuum.
Like The Grain Growers Guide, The Progressive, The Western Producer and The Co-operative Consumer before it, Planet S fills a void where community-based, democratic solutions can be heard, reflected on, discussed, developed and advanced. The early movement papers laid the foundations for a better way of life for our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Similarly, Planet S builds Saskatoon’s civil society, co-operative movement and social economy—even though it has no institutional or financial backing from the (now huge and prosperous) co-operative sector. History is nothing if not ironic.
What do you get the Paper that’s got Everything?
The good news is there are many ways today’s co-operatives, credit unions and mutuals can get behind the campaign to build the new co-operative press. In fact, in the International Year of Co-operatives, there has never been a better time to make meaningful legacy investments in core movement principles like co-operative education, co-operation among co-operatives and concern for community:
- Talk to your colleagues about why supporting the co-op press is important. Be ambassadors for Planet S (prairie dog in Regina).
- Request a meeting to discuss how you can work together in both cities.
- Request city-paper stands in high traffic areas of your Saskatoon and Regina operations to reach your staff, members and the public.
- Earmark a percentage of your city advertising budget to the new co-operative press. Ten percent for Planet S’s tenth birthday might be a good place to start.
- Budget ad support to annual Co-operatives Week campaigns in both city-papers.
- Make a legacy contribution to help establish a Foundation for Independent Journalism and help them dig deeper, reach farther and expand faster. $10,000 for each year of community service also has a nice ring to it.
- Reprint and circulate this feature to your board, management and members to help educate the movement on the importance of the co-operative press and make your case for co-operation.
Paying it forward to emerging co-ops is a great way to recognize that every established co-operative in Saskatchewan got its start with assistance from other agencies, often co-operatives. Pool field-men sold insurance policies, with no commissions, to help launch The Co-operators. They swept the province in a campaign to sell Western Producer subscriptions. And they organized countless retail and credit union locals. What better way to honour that legacy of Prairie co-operation than helping a high profile, emerging co-operative success story to enlarge its footprint—while also building co-operative education capacity and a co-operative culture? It’s a tribute to the wisdom of our movements’ pioneers, an investment in the next generation of co-operators and a practical movement-building strategy to renew a culture of co-operation for the twenty-first century.
By Mitch Diamantopoulos
Published by Saskatchewan Co-operative Association
As part of Saskatchewan Co-operative Association’s ongoing series of co-operative profiles, we asked Mitch Diamantopoulos to write about the founding of Planet S magazine on its 10th anniversary. Mitch helped found prairie dog magazine in Regina in 1993 and Saskatoon’s Planet S Magazine in 2002. He is now an Associate Professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Regina, where he also serves as Department Head. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.