Features | Rue Frontenac

New life in a dying industry

The fourth issue of Rue Frontenac’s print edition hit the stands this morning. Rue Frontenac is a free, weekly, French-language tabloid. Its content is all original, and will be entirely free of wire-content and advertorials. But Rue Frontenac is more than just the vanguard of independent journalism in Quebec right now – it’s part of a difficult, protracted, and as-yet unresolved fight for press room autonomy and fair labour practices.

Frontenac began in January of 2009 when the Journal de Montréal locked out 253 of its workers following the failure of management and the union – the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal (STIJM) – to agree upon a new contract. The management of the Journal – a Quebecor Media publication and Montreal’s biggest French-language print daily – wanted to lay off 75 people, on top of slashing their salaries and benefits.

This is Quebecor’s 13th lockout in a little over ten years, and each conflict has had some sort of compounding influence on the next. During the 15-month lockout at the Journal de Québec, which was finally resolved in July of 2008, its unionized journalists had started their own independent publication, Média Matin Québec, as a pressure tactic against their employer. The journalists at the STIJM decided to adopt this strategy – and Rue Frontenac was born.

The STIJM named their newspaper after the street where the Journal is located, but also in keeping with their spirit of resistance.

Pascal Filotto, secretary general of the STIJM and a Frontenac desk editor, explained the history behind the name. “Frontenac was the governor of New France when the British tried to invade in 1690. They parked in front of Quebec City, and there was a siege, and after a while [the Bristish commander] sent his envoy to demand that Quebec surrender. Frontenac said, ‘Tell your master we’ll answer him by the mouths of our cannons.’”

The publication’s logo is a cannon, and their slogan is “par la bouche de nos crayons!”

– “from the mouths of our pens!”

Unlike Média Matin Quebec, which was a print publication at the outset, Rue Frontenac had been exclusively online until four weeks ago, but has nonetheless established itself firmly in Montreal’s media landscape and garnered a reputation for investigative reporting. The website first made a name for itself in 2009 when it broke a scandal involving illicit campaign fundraising by municipal politician Benoît Labonté. The story led him to resign from his post at Vision Montréal – the main opposition party at city hall – and subsequently drop out of the Sainte-Marie city council elections.

Jessica Nadeau, a Frontenac reporter who covers environmental news, spoke about having the freedom to pursue stories in an in-depth manner. Last summer, she wrote a series of stories about the shale gas wells that have been popping up along the St. Lawrence River – sometimes in very close proximity to residential areas. “And now shale gas is a pretty big story, I’d like to think I can take some credit for that,” she said.

­According to André Forté, the union adviser for the Confédération des Syndicats nationaux (CSN), the STIJM’s parent union, it’s perfectly understandable for an employer to try and cut costs in a difficult financial situation – but the Journal isn’t having any money problems.

Quebecor likes to invoke the difficult situation facing the print media today as a justification for its decisions to lock its workers out. In a recent press release, they reminded readers that their decisions about the Journal are being made in the “very difficult context of the print industry.”

They aren’t lying about the “difficult context” of print media. Management at La Presse, the Journal’s rival publication, threatened to shut down last fall unless its union made some concessions. The Gazette, Montreal’s most popular English daily, switched to a smaller-sized paper last spring as a result of financial difficulties.

But La Presse’s management was forced to disclose its financial accounts during negotiations, and the Journal’s management has refused to do so. Forté points out that the Journal’s readership, according to Newspaper Audience Databank (NADbank) numbers, has actually gone up over the past year. And while Quebecor has seen a decline in revenue in its media division because of declining circulation and flatlining advertising sales, it has not released any numbers about the Journal’s financial situation. Also, the Quebecor empire as a whole is doing very well – it posted a 19 per cent rise in net income last Tuesday, which amounts to $82 million in profits this quarter alone.

“They don’t need to save money…their new vision is to have one guy write one article for QMI [Quebecor’s news agency], and to reprint that in every Quebecor publication,” said Forté.

This means no diversification of content, and very little in-depth coverage of any local news.

“I mean, right now they want 17 journalists back. That’s less than any other newsroom in Montreal. It’s ridiculous for a paper the size of the Journal,” said Forté.

Quebecor Media is one of Canada’s largest media conglomerates and its biggest newspaper publisher. Its subsidiaries include not only newspaper chains but a television network, internet and cable provider Videotron, publishing and printing companies, magazine distributors, and movie rental stores.

The aspirations of Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Péladeau to own a prospective Quebec City hockey franchise, and to establish a right-wing news outlet called Sun TV News – often referred to as “Fox News North” – have worried those who see its potential political implications.

“[Quebecor] controls forty per cent of the media in this province,” said Filotto. “It’s the biggest newspapers, the biggest TV stations, they’ve got massive clout and power. They could become a major player politically if they wanted to.”

When the conflict first started, Quebecor’s deal to the union included layoffs primarily of employees in the accounting and classifieds department – as well as fewer rights for new hires, and the employer’s right to reassign employees to produce online or multimedia content. Quebecor, on the whole, sought to revise over 200 articles in the union’s contract. Almost two years later, the union is willing to concede to some of Quebecor’s original demands. They refuse, however, to concede to the new demands Quebecor has since put on the table – demands that include the layoffs of roughly eighty per cent of the original personnel, and a non-concurrence clause that would have prevented those fired by Quebecor from working for a competitor (such as La Presse or Le Devoir) for up to six months after their contract’s termination. The non-concurrence clause would have shut down Rue Frontenac – both the website and the print edition.

Quebecor’s latest offer, which the union rejected by a resounding vote of nearly ninety per cent, not only galvanized the STIJM and the CSN into declaring a boycott campaign against the Journal, but it has also garnered their cause quite a bit of political and public sympathy. Several politicians and unions across the province have come out in support of the boycott against the Journal. The rejection of Quebecor’s last offer roughly coincided with the publication of Rue Frontenac’s first print edition. Ad space was sold out days in advance, thanks mostly to union ads.

“Usually it would be unusual for a union to declare [a] boycott, but the amount of public sympathy we got after Quebecor’s latest offer came out convinced us it might be effective,” said Filotto.

The boycott has monopolized most of the STIJM’s time since it was launched. STIJM representatives, such as Filotto, are either spending their time mobilizing unions across the region or trying to catch the public’s attention. On November 10, for example, STIJM members went to the Bell Centre before the hockey game to distribute copies of Rue Frontenac and to collect signatures for the new CSN petition. The petition authorizes the CSN to notify businesses advertising in the Journal of the signatories’ disapproval of their marketing choices and also asks the provincial government to push for the modernization of anti-scab laws. The CSN has also organized a march for December 4, which will start at the Parc La Fontaine at noon and end at the Journal’s offices.

On top of it all, the union is looking for an update to Quebec’s anti-scab law. Despite locking out virtually its entire newsroom, the Journal continues to publish. According to the Quebec Labour Code, which stipulates that a company can’t hire replacement workers during a strike or lockout, they shouldn’t be able to do this. The Journal has been getting around the Labour Code by publishing wire content from their news agency QMI, which was established a short time before the lockout began. Aside from a few columnists, who weren’t part of the STIJM and stayed on after the lockout, most of the content in the Journal is now funneled in from the news agency. The Journal has been able to fill its pages without technically breaking the law.

Representatives of the STIJM and the CSN were in Quebec City last month, presenting the National Assembly with a petition, signed by some 24,000 people, demanding that the anti-scab law be amended to suit the modern labour environment. The assembly unanimously passed a motion proposed by Amir Khadir, the MNA for Mercier, to study how the law should be updated. Filotto worries, however, that the law won’t see an update before the conflict’s conclusion.

Things at the Journal haven’t always been this bad.

The magazine L’actualité recently ran an article written by Paule Beaugrand-Champagne, who was editor in chief at the Journal from 1998 to 2001. It was titled “Requiem for the Journal de Montréal.” In it, she highlights the stark differences between Pierre Péladeau, who founded the Journal de Montréal, and his son, Pierre-Karl Péladeau, who has been the head of Quebecor since his father’s death 12 years ago.

“Pierre Karl,” she wrote in French, “is in the process of destroying his father’s favorite achievement, [the Journal], which is the origin of the very empire he now leads like a czar.”

Under “Monsieur P.” as Pierre Péladeau was affectionately called by his employees, labour and management maintained a healthy relationship. “Monsieur P” had started the Journal during La Presse’s 1964 strike, and wanted wholeheartedly to avoid labour disputes within his own publication. He generally conceded to most union demands, and over the years the STIJM had acquired for its members one of the best contracts in the business – in all of North America, according to Beaugrand-Champagne. But Pierre-Karl’s ascent to his father’s throne has marked radical departure from the old way of doing business. Beaugrand-Champagne points not only to deteriorating labour relations between management and the unions, but to the rise of corporate influence in the newsroom.

Quebecor is well known for using “convergence” tactics as a successful corporate strategy, which involves different divisions (or subsidiaries) in the company working together to Quebecor’s general benefit. For example, smart phones on the company’s new wireless network have access to Quebecor TV channels. However, in the context of the newsroom, this can have worrisome implications.

The Journal, along with other Quebecor publications, is being increasingly used as promotional fodder for the rest of the company’s products. The change came slowly at first, according to Beaugrand-Champagne – in the form of “suggested” stories – but quickly became less subtle. Especially in the entertainment sections, reporters have been encouraged to hype up shows such as Star Académie, a reality show featured on the television network TVA, a subsidiary of the Quebecor empire.

Having worked at the Journal nearly ten years, Filotto has seen the full scope of this shift in corporate attitude.“Most of us weren’t hired by Pierre-Karl, we were hired under the previous administration, and there wasn’t this much corporate influence in the newsroom. Péladeau was the owner, but as far as the newsroom was concerned, it was live and let live. There wasn’t that many editorials, there was no moralizing. You see more of that now.”

Lyne Robitaille, the Journal’s editor in chief, recently did an interview with 98.5 FM’s Paul Arcand on his morning radio show Puisqu’il faut se lever. She was asked exactly how many people the Journal wanted back, and specifically, how many locked-out journalists were expected to see the inside of the Journal’s offices again. She explained that the Journal’s business model had evolved in recent years, and that those who would be brought back to work would be those capable of adapting to this “new model.” “We no longer talk about journalists now,” she said in French, “we are talking about producers of multimedia content.”

Nadeau, who has been working as a journalist for nearly ten years, was unsettled by Robitaille’s statement. “That shocked me. Because I’m a journalist. I am not a producer of content. I studied in journalism. I have a code of ethics. I have a career. I’m paid – and I’m paid a good salary, to think, to analyze, to [be] able to turn in stories. But above all, at base, I’m here to think. If you tell me that I’m no longer a journalist, that I’m just a ‘producer of content’, well, then I can understand why you’d want to pay me $17 an hour. Because what’s a producer of content? It’s someone that rewrites press releases. But that’s not my job.”

The Quebec Press Council, the non-profit, non-governmental organization devoted to upholding the media’s responsibility to provide quality reporting, is responsible for reviewing complaints filed by the public about ethics and standards in print and broadcast media across Quebec. When it released unfavourable rulings about incidents in Quebecor publications earlier this year, Quebecor responded by pulling out of the Press Council entirely. It then threatened to sue the Press Council should it continue to review content produced by Quebecor Media outlets.

The STIJM’s previous contract included several stipulations designed to keep corporate influence out of the newsroom, stipulations which Quebecor would like to see omitted in whatever deal is eventually reached.

Many at Rue Frontenac would like to see their publication become a permanent fixture. As it stands, Quebecor only wants 17 journalists, four photographers, and a handful of office workers to return. Many at Rue Frontenac see the publication they’ve started as a possibility for employment once the conflict is ended and a number of inevitable layoffs are rolled out. Several couldn’t imagine going back to the Journal under the conditions established at the Journal.

“With Rue Frontenac, we’re rediscovering the freedom we once had at the Journal,” said Patrick Gauthier, a desk editor at Rue Frontenac.

However, while those at Rue Frontenac would certainly want to see their publication become its own private entity, independent of the union, upon the conflict’s resolution, they still aren’t sure about Frontenac’s viability. As it stands, Rue Frontenac is able to pay for most of the costs incurred by its operation – except for salaries. The STIJM pays all of its members 76 per cent of the salary they received while working at the Journal out of a strike fund. Rue Frontenac makes its money from advertisements online and in print, as well as through donations. They will either need to start charging for their product, or develop a stable source of revenue from a steady stream of advertisers – or both – if the tabloid is going to survive in the long run.

Ultimately, the settlement reached between the STIJM and Quebecor – and by extension, the fate of Rue Frontenac – will go a long way in predicting the feasibility of good, independent journalism today.

Rue Frontenac is available at several news stands across the city – including one at Basha, on the corner of Sherbrooke and University.