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Hamutal Dotan
Hamutal Dotan. Photo by Corbin Smith

Urban Explorer

Torontoist editor Hamutal Dotan seeks out stories from the underground

When Hamutal Dotan was 12, someone told her what “philosophy” meant. “I thought, ‘There’s a word for the stuff in my head that no one else talks about?’” says Dotan. She went to the public library and started reading a book of Aristotle’s writings, which made no sense to her. But by the time she reshelved the book, Dotan wanted to be a philosopher. Much later, she decided she also wanted to be a writer.

Now 34, Dotan is the editor-in-chief of Torontoist – a website founded in 2004 and devoted to all things Toronto. Every month, about a quarter of a million people visit the site – which covers municipal politics from the left, the arts (from graffiti to theatre) and the just plain quirky (poutine-eating contest, anyone?). Torontoist contributors have more flexibility to write in their own voices, unlike the impersonal tone that often characterizes print media. “We occupy this hybrid space,” says Dotan, who became editor in January. “We do traditional reporting, but we’re not constrained by a formulaic style.”

Active tweeting and Torontoist’s open Flickr group, which has around 150,000 photos, have helped to build a community of engaged readers. Daily posts distil overwhelming amounts of info into useful dispatches, whether it’s brief and snarky summaries of Toronto-related news or a short list of things to do in the city. Torontoist originally belonged to a network of city sites called Gothamist. It had no full-time staff to deal with the business end, and would have shut down a couple of years ago if three Torontonians hadn’t formed a company to keep it afloat. While the site is still in the Gothamist network, St. Joseph Media (the publisher of Toronto Life) acquired it earlier this year.

Dotan, who’s lived most of her life in Toronto, took the scenic route to journalism by way of academia. After high school, she went to Israel to study the Talmud and explore Judaism. She stayed about a year, despite realizing early on that she wouldn’t continue practising religion. At U of T, Dotan attended Innis College and devoted herself to philosophy: she ran the philosophy course union and edited the Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy. She moved to Pittsburgh for a PhD in philosophy but found herself at odds with the cloistered grad-student lifestyle. Dotan left the PhD program, returned to Toronto and, in 2008, began writing for Torontoist to reintegrate into the city. She now manages a team of about 75 regular contributors.

In addition to editing, Dotan still writes political and opinion pieces. She hasn’t left philosophy behind, either, even though she’s not studying full time. “My baseline world view about what government should be doing, and how representation should work, is informed by reading I did in ethics, political theory and the nature of a good society,” Dotan says. In the future, she’d like to explore long-form magazine writing. For now, she’s got a city to cover.

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