March 31st, 2014

Features | October 31st, 2012
Mirror, Mirror, on the wall
Quebecor media is the worst of all
Written by | Visual by Hera Chan | The McGill Daily

When Lorraine Carpenter walked into the Montreal Mirror offices on a late June afternoon, she noticed Hugh (she would never learn his last name) out of the corner of her eye. The nondescript corporate suit had been appearing sporadically in the office in the past six months, meeting often with her increasingly harried boss, Mirror editor-in-chief Alastair Sutherland. The thought, quickly suppressed (“almost a joke,” she said), crossed her mind; are we getting shut down?

But when she heard the dull thud of office supplies shifted into boxes, the couldn’t help but walk over to Sutherland. He asked her to shut the door behind her, and almost immediately, she knew. She had been at the Mirror for over twelve years.

When Quebecor, the media behemoth that owned the Mirror, announced that it was stopping the publication immediately, most of the staff certainly met the news with a level of outrage, particularly about the way in which the shutdown was handled. Quebecor didn’t even wait until Sutherland had had enough time to send a message to his freelancers before shutting down the company email. The media conglomerate stripped the website of all of its content before writers could save their clippings – or even know that they were in a position to need to save their clippings – and replaced the website with this now infamous posting:

Dear readers,

It is with great regret that we recently stopped publishing the Montreal Mirror. The June 22 edition of the free Montreal English-language cultural weekly will be its last.

The growing popularity of digital media and communications has irremediably changed the context in which free cultural weeklies operate, bringing about economic challenges which have unfortunately compromised The Mirror’s viability.

We wish to thank all the readers, advertisers, writers and staff whose passion and talent contributed to making the Mirror a true Montreal cultural and journalistic institution.

The editors of The Mirror

This message, incidentally, hadn’t even been seen – let alone written – by the Mirror’s editorial board before it was posted to the website. Another Quebecor press release noted the loss of seven jobs in total, making no mention of the dozens of freelancers who relied on the Mirror’s consistent pay and exposure.

***

According to most of the former Mirror-ites interviewed, Quebecor’s relationship to the paper had been one of benign neglect. Their corporate owners didn’t exactly pour money into the newsroom, but they also stayed out of it. For the most part, editors at the Mirror were grateful for their autonomy, rather than a few more bucks.

Suddenly though, Quebecor realized that their little bête noire actually did cost some money to run, and a round of cost-cutting initiatives was instigated roughly six months before the ax finally fell. Page-counts shrank, the office moved across the street, entire sections disappeared, and the flat-checker was replaced by an unpaid intern.

“I don’t know these people, but I sort of just picture them looking at a spreadsheet and going, oh! This is where we can save money,” former Mirror film editor Malcolm Fraser told The Daily.

The Mirror’s francophone sister publication, ici, had been dumped in a similarly unceremonious manner back in 2009 – former Mirror-ites described walking into their shared office to simply find the staff of ici gone.

Several on the Mirror’s staff pushed to make the publication at least more relevant on the web – if they couldn’t afford pages, couldn’t they at least publish web exclusives? And why not develop the website, make it more user-friendly, workable on smartphones – and why, the staff asked, didn’t their paper have an app?

Whether from on high or from Sutherland – who had, by all accounts, spent much of his nearly twenty-year career at the paper trying to keep the corporate kill-men at bay, the response was always the same – there was no budget for it.

***

 When Radio-Canada’s investigative reporting show Enquête ran an expose on Quebecor in November of 2011, the media conglomerate did what it always does to defend itself – it invoked the crisis facing print media.

By 2010, Quebecor had pulled its major newspapers out of the Quebec Press Council, a private nonprofit dedicated to reviewing complaints filed by the public about ethics in print and broadcast media. In response to charges that by doing so, Quebecor had betrayed promises made to the Quebec National Assembly in 2001 – who had allowed the conglomerate’s merger with Quebec’s largest cable TV operator Videotron despite anxieties about Quebecor’s ever-swelling size – Quebecor executive J. Serge Sasseville had this to say in a statement published on their website:

“That’s completely ridiculous. In the past ten years, the context of print journalism and the media have completely changed and it is completely normal, and even responsible, that we have made decisions to adapt to this new context, even if this means modifying previous stances.”

Two years prior to dropping out of the Quebec Press Council, Quebecor cut 600 jobs in Ontario, Quebec, and Western Canada weeks before Christmas. A press release cited rising costs, flatlining advertising, and the growing availability of free online content as the cause.

Around the same time, Quebecor locked out 253 journalists, editors, photographers, and newsroom workers from the Journal de Montréal for nearly two years over collective agreement renegotiations. A Quebecor press release again cited the “difficult context” of the print media industry. “This is a crisis situation affecting everybody,” the release continued.

Two years later, in 2011, Quebecor slashed another 400 jobs, and remained largely silent on the issue. They refused to comment and released no details about where the cuts would be concentrated, or why they even occurred.

This is not to say that Quebecor hasn’t created jobs – it has created at least 500 in 2009 alone and over 800 in 2010 – but none of these jobs are journalism jobs. Instead, they are concentrated in sales, IT work, customer service, technical support, programming, network construction, and maintenance. Yet, despite decimating its content-generating workforce, it hasn’t stopped putting out newspapers.

Quebecor is one of Canada’s largest media conglomerates, and, according to several independent surveys, it’s responsible for at least 40 per cent of the media that Quebecers consume. Together with the provincial pension fund, it owns and operates the province’s largest newspaper chains, an internet and cable provider, broadcasting, publishing, and production company TVA Group, internet portal site canoe.ca, movie rental stores, book publishing companies, and the largest music retailer in the province.

***

After a 15-month lockout at the Journal de Québec, the Quebec labour board ruled that Quebecor had made use of scabs by hiring out subcontractors. The decision was eventually appealed and overturned, but Quebecor nonetheless decided to change tactics.

It created QMI, a wire service that would allow its many media outlets to share their content amongst themselves. This solidified Quebecor’s longstanding strategy of media convergence – generally speaking, this involves corporate concentration, and increased digitization to facilitate content sharing – which allowed for two things: package deals for advertisers, and reduced labour and administrative costs. Oh, and it allowed Quebecor to put out a Journal de Montréal, even when the majority of its newsroom was locked out.

Journalists and press councils across the province say that convergence is dangerous for the diversification of content, kills local coverage, and overworks journalists.

Why have more than one journalist cover an event, Quebecor reasons, when digitization makes it possible for their content to feed a multitude of publications and media platforms? Besides, diversification of content is a “dead debate,” says Sasseville; a proliferation of critical and differing voices is guaranteed by the internet and social media. He looks to Egypt to illustrate his point, saying in French that “even in authoritarian regimes, it is no longer possible to monopolize public debate.” The implication is that the critical work of a professional class of journalists can somehow be safely relegated to Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

In an interview with Enquête, president of the Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec, Brian Myles, characterized Quebecor’s success saying that “Quebecor isn’t a satellite in the information industry – it’s a planet that generates its own gravity, that spins in orbit in its own solar system.”

***

The way that one of the Mirror’s founders, Catherine Salisbury, tells it, the Mirror’s sale was a classic tale of big guy eats little guy. “We approached Quebecor at a time when we were under significant competitive threat from Communications Voir,” Salisbury wrote in an email to The Daily. “Voir’s wealthy owners, Rémi Marcoux and Claude Dubois, founders of Transcontinental, had tried to intimidate us into selling.” Its offer rejected, Transcontinental retaliated by starting up the English-language alt-weekly Hour in hopes of running the Mirror out of business. Offering higher salaries, the Hour hired away key staff, and by offering packaged deals on advertising, it undercut the Mirror’s rates.

“If an advertiser bought an ad in Voir, a free or next to free ad would be tacked on for the English market in Hour. This technique was effective in pulling away our advertisers. And given that we did not have the financial capabilities of fighting such an aggressive approach, we looked for other solutions,” explained Salisbury.

Left with no other options, they pitched a French-language sister publication to Quebecor, then a Transcontinental competitor. Quebecor agreed, ici was born, and within a couple of years, Quebecor had invoked a clause in the original shareholders’ agreement and bought out the shares that remained in the founding members’ control; the Mirror was fully integrated into the Quebecor empire.

It is perhaps especially ironic, then, that a common Quebecor refrain is that media convergence is precisely what’s going to save the independent voices that once populated the media landscape.

“This movement is beneficial because it allows for a diversity of voices, instead of the disappearance enterprises that wouldn’t otherwise have the financial means to survive,” read the same 2011 Sasseville letter that justified the company’s decision to pull most of its major newspapers out of their respective press councils.

***

So when the news broke – mainly by word of (cyber)mouth – several Mirror-ites staggered into a Little Italy bar (perhaps competing bars will hang plaques in twenty years: “CultMTL born here”) and hatched a plan to fill the void left by their paper’s closure.

“First, this city deserves that coverage, and people deserve to have their bands covered and to know what’s going on and stuff, and fuck you! You don’t get to do that. First of all, the way that Quebecor handled that was sloppy, and it is out of a similar sense of rage about this new America that we’re building here in Canada,” said former freelance editor Emily Raine.

CultMTL went live online weeks after and has since been publishing about forty articles a week about Montreal food, music, books, fashion, and occasionally, news.  The online publication is largely staffed by former Mirror contributors and editors, and features familiar Mirror landmarks “Rantline” and “Sasha’s sex advice column.” In September, it published a student guide, as its first print edition, and the next month it put ten thousand copies on stands again, officially declaring itself a monthly print publication as well as a daily website.

***

Financially viable media that meaningfully connects people to their communities, that is edgy and irreverent, that is critical and angry, that is concerned with the cultural landscape, is entirely possible today. It exists in Seattle, where the Stranger publishes gay rights activist (and particularly articulate sex columnist) Dan Savage, breaks stories about municipal politics, and, as of 2012, wins Pulitzer prizes. It exists in Portland, where the Willamette Week reported a 5 per cent pre-tax profit in 2007, and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2005 for a story first published online. It exists in Boston with the newly re-designed and re-branded Phoenix. And, most tellingly, it also exists in Halifax, where Salisbury is keeping free alt-weekly the Coast alive and kicking in a city a tenth of the size of Montreal.

She admits that the recession and the digital revolution have severely impacted alt-weeklies – print-classified advertising doesn’t exist anymore, and web advertising, which commands much weaker rates, has overtaken print advertising as the dominant marketing strategy for most companies. Besides this, the economic downturn has meant that businesses have little extra money (if any) to spend on advertising and promotion, “the bread and butter of free alternative weeklies.”

But it’s entirely possible, she argues, as long as you put a priority on maintaining a loyal readership. “You have to be much more creative than before and your whole staff has to work as a team. Perhaps this is what Quebecor was having a hard time with at the Mirror. As I understand, [the paper] was run out of the offices of 24 Heures. That must make it hard to work towards a collective vision of serving your community.”

And therein lies the operative difference between the Stranger, the Coast, and most of the best weeklies and print publications surviving the downturn, and the Village Voice (now a desiccated version of what it once was), and the countless alt-weeklies that have shut their doors: independent ownership. The corporate instinct to cut costs when the going gets tough – generally by firing people or shedding pages – inevitably hastens a shut-down because it renders the publication obsolete to readers, and advertisers, because circulation drops.

Cult is doing the opposite – it’s trying to connect people to their community first, and it’s thinking about money last. Admittedly, Cult is on pretty shaky ground – advertising revenue is paying for the costs of printing, but not much else, and nearly three months in, most of their writers are still generating content pro bono. Carpenter, now its music editor, freely admits that the publication will need to figure out how to turn a profit if it wants to stick around in the long run; even renegade punk-rock journalists have rent to make. But it’s a self-determining publication – owned and operated by people who are actually part of the community they serve – and that will most likely make all the difference in the world.

 

The third print edition of CultMTL hits stands today. 

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