Tony Sutton is bearded, irascible, opinionated, verbose, profane and loves good writing so much that when he's not in some foreign clime earning an excellent living designing newspapers, he runs his own website magazine devoted to publishing some of the best political journalism written today.
His magazine is called ColdType. Motto: Writing Worth Reading From Around the World. All articles free. Everything in downloadable PDF. No advertising. You don't even have to register.
Newspaper designing is Tony's day job.
You can see his work -- or echoes of his work -- in some 68 newspapers around the world. Among them: Dziennik Polski (Poland); the Portland Tribune (U.S.); Daily Ireland (Northern Ireland); Carlow Nationalist (Republic of Ireland); Sunday Times (South Africa); Bay of Plenty Times (New Zealand); Sunshine Coast Daily (Australia); Sunday Herald (Scotland); Africawoman (Kenya); Dnes (Czech Republic) and the Globe and Mail here in Canada.
Newspaper designing is Tony's business.
But ColdType is Tony's love.
Here's just a few of the famous writers he's published in ColdType over the past dozen years from his home in Georgetown, just outside Toronto:
Robert Fisk (multiple award-winning journalist); Chris Hedges and Mark Fritz (Pulitzer Prize winners); Joe Bageant (Deer Hunting With Jesus); Noam Chomsky (Manufacturing Consent); Rebecca Solnit (U.S. author/activist); John Pilger (investigative journalist); George Monbiot (political and environmental activist); Hugh Lewin (Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison) and many, many more.
Tony insists "the editorial question is not how famous they are -- but what they have to say!" Which is very encouraging since he's published a couple of my writings over the years.
He started out on British newspapers, moved to South Africa to edit the famous anti-apartheid Drum magazine, ended up in Canada 23 years ago and eventually started ColdType and his own company, News Design Associates.
We meet one afternoon for beers at my Toronto neighbourhood watering hole, Scallywag's.
No problem getting Tony to talk. The problem is getting the occasional question in. That's because Tony is a man of great passions, so he ignores the recording iPhone and speaks from the heart.
Tim: What is this thing called design that you're selling to newspapers?
Tony: Essentially, it's the identity of the papers. It's the way it appears to the readers. In fact, design is content. The words are content. The way it looks is content. The way they're presented is content. They're all part of the same thing.
Tim: How many readers do you have? Tell me the truth.
Tony:ColdType gets between 150,000 and 250,000 hits a month. Twelve hundred subscribers.
Tim: Is that good or bad?
Tony: It doesn't really bother me. Because first of all we don't do advertising. We don't make any money out of it. I do ColdType because its fun for me to do. ColdType is therapy.
Tim: Back in the '90s, you redesigned Toronto's venerable Globe and Mail which has twice been recognized as one of the best designed newspapers in the world. Does the Globe still respect your vision Tony? How well or how badly is it designed today? What would you tell them?
Tony: I think it's a bit boring, the way its formatted. And I'm not sure how many pages are even produced in Toronto any more. I think a lot of the pages are outsourced and done on common templates. The problem with templating pages is that you're just shovelling stuff in so the pages look the same. Of course, you have to template stuff because some stuff doesn't need to be changed every day. And of course they've got their designers and they design the front section and everything else is more or less dropped in. It's neat and clean and...boring. Some of the feature pages are weak. But some of the stuff, you look at it and oh f--k...a designer's done this and nobody's challenging the designer. Some of the stuff is obviously being designed to win an award rather than designed to win a reader.
Tim: How about its main rival, the Toronto Star?
Tony: It used to have lots of staff doing lots and lots of stories. Now it's essentially stuff I saw on TV last night. They do some really good investigation stuff but some of that long stuff is there to fill up pages. You know they're there because they don't have enough staff to fill the f--king pages.
Tim: And the National Post?
Tony: Oh Christ, that's crap. I loathe them.
Tim: But that's because of your politics.
Tony: I don't care. Politics gets in the way of everything. I don't like it. Full stop.
Tim: The Sun?
Tony: Oh god. The Sun.
Tim: Is it well designed?
Tony: No it's crap. The Sun is not well designed but it's effectively designed in that its done to appeal to working class people. And it follows the British tradition of big headlines, J'accuse, all the way through. And the terrible thing is that it's a propaganda machine propagandizing working people to hate unions -- to do things that are not in their interest. It's a cynical newspaper. I was once asked to redesign it some years back. We decided I wouldn't be a good fit because my leftwing politics got in the way.
Tim:Huffington Post Canada?
Tony: It looks Ok. I've looked at it quite a few times. But I don't read it. Why? Nothing to do with design. I don't like the paper because the lady with so much money still doesn't pay the freelancers. I think its exploiting writers. It's very cluttered. There's all these columns down the left hand side. Now, you've got to make me want to read them. Do I want to read this stuff? No. And I'm not interested in lifestyle stuff at all.
Tim: My final question about design is about a website called TimKnight.org.
Tony: I think your website is wonderful. (laughs) One thing I don't like about your website is the white on black. Because the mind is attuned to black on white. I think your stuff is really good. I like your columns. But your columns should be more prominent and you should have the columns at the top, not down in the bottom corner.
Tim: I don't have to pay you any money for that?
Tim: Going back to ColdType, you've been quoted as saying ColdType is "politically aware, searching for a better life for all?" What did you mean?
Tony: I think one of the great things about ColdType is that it's a contemporary, alternative history. We've done 76 issues now at an average of 50 pages. That's a helluva lot of stuff and there's no ads in it. The choice of stories is always done on the question will they be as readable in a year's time, two years time, three years time? And the answer is, I hope, yes. It's about discussion, its about stimulating the intellect. We don't carry the other side's point of view. I don't believe that news is balance. I don't believe that truth has balance. Truth is truth. You cannot balance truth by saying on the one hand this and on the other hand this.
Tim: The magazine Northern Light gushes over you. I quote: "Tony's marvellous publication is one of the best kept secrets we political educators and agitators for social justice have in our arsenal. Tony publishes one of the finest radical journals in existence?" Is this true?
Tony: I'm a radical journalist. I don't think I'm the finest anything. I think I'm a very, very good journalist. I think I'm a very good newspaper designer. And I think ColdType is a very good magazine.
Tim: Why the hell do you do it. All these days ...
Tony: It's fun.
Tim: But all this effort, and not charge a penny? Why do you do it?
Tony: Because its fun. Because it makes me happy.
The interview with Tony Sutton has been edited and condensed.