La Belle Chaos
One city. Four alternative weeklies. Forget the linguistic squabbles. The real fight to watch in Montreal is a good, old-fashioned newspaper war
It’s lunch time in Montreal, but the day’s just getting started for the editors at the alternative newsweekly Hour. Six staffers have gathered for a meeting around an egg-shaped boardroom table strewn with notepads, ashtrays, latte bowls and candy wrappers. At the moment, they’re puzzling over an ad that a local theatre company has placed in this week’s edition of the English-language paper, which serves up a mix of news and entertainment for the young nightlife crowd. The unusual ad is an open letter to the public that complains how Hourcritic Gaetan Charlebois recently slandered a company production. As it happened, Charlebois, a passionate if slightly zany reviewer, stood up before the curtain call and shouted, “C’est d’la merde!”
Hour‘s editor, Peter Scowen, a 39-year-old who sports a George Clooney crop and the clichéd head-to-toe black of the urban hipster, is used to handling unruly characters such as Charlebois. (He jokes that managing the guitar-smashing band the Who in its heyday would have been easier than keeping his Hourteam in line.) He turns to his young staffers and in his teasing, fatherly manner quips that at least there was an economic bonus to the theatre company’s act: “If they were really mad at us, they would have put [the ad] in the Mirror.“
The Mirror is Montreal’s other English-language alternative newsweekly-Hour’s competitor and arch rival. The two papers target roughly the same batch of 18- to 35-year-old readers; they’re both circulated as giveaways, to the same restaurants, shops and bars; they both chase the same stories and advertisers; and they even fight over the same small pool of writers and editors. To make things more complicated, both the Mirror and Hour are owned by publishing companies that in turn each own a second alternative newsweekly aimed at francophone readers. The Mirrorhas a brand-new baby sister, Ici; and Hour has a big sister, Voir. While Montreal may be best known as Canada’s historic home of lively political and linguistic battles, right now it’s host to one good old-fashioned, rock ’em, sock ’em newspaper war.
The battle is playing out in an incestuous professional community where the personal intrigue rivals Melrose Place, and in an embattled local economy that guarantees little room for all the players to survive and prosper. “We’re faced with an increasingly divided pie vis-a-vis the amount of advertising that exists,” says Carlos Madruga, who’s familiar with the local market through his work as the Quebec sales manager at Montreal-based Reader’s Digest. “I quite frankly don’t see any long-term potential for two English newspapers. French is another story I think there’s enough for two newspapers. But to support two English papers….” His voice trails off ominously.
As the Hour editorial crew huddle in their smoke-filled room and work through a postmortem of last week’s paper, their publisher and battle captain Pierre Paquet is hard at work one floor above them. He’s determined that his company, Communications Voir, and its papers Voir and Hour will win the battle for local-market survival. “I’ll do everything to make it happen,” he says. His French-language flagship, Voir, launched in 1986, is Montreal’s alt-weekly giant, with a circulation of 100,000. Hour, the English paper he launched in ’93 to crush the Mirror, is now at 70,000 and has been growing since day one.
Smoking at his desk like a true Montrealer, in an office that overlooks the notoriously hip Rue St-Denis, the 38-year-old francophone is a collage of surface contradictions: He’s the publisher of two alternative newspapers, yet he talks the language of capitalism and finance. He’s a successful businessman who has landed well-known Quebec publishing executives Remi Marcoux and Claude Dubois of GTC Transcontinental as partners in Voir yet he’s dressed like an elegant roadie in a blazer, faded jeans and a T-shirt. And he’s a separatist who owns an English newspaper. “We’re prosovereignty and pro-Anglo,” he once told The Gazette. “That’s not a contradiction. Voir is for a multicultural, tolerant Quebec.”
More to the point, economics force Paquet to publish in English. If he had to rely on only local retail advertising, he might choose to ignore the anglophone market – less than a third of the city’s population. But even a French-language paper such as Voir needs to land national advertising, and the national ad business is run by Toronto-based anglophones. What Paquet began to discover in the late eighties and early nineties was that it was hard to bag national ads from big companies such as Labatts and Ford when no one who bought the ad space could actually read Voir.
After watching the Mirror get more big national movie and music ads than his paper, then seeing a lot of big Quebec accounts hopping on the 401 to Toronto, he knew trouble was looming. Even when advertisers would buy in Voir for the French market, they would at the same time buy in the Mirror to hit the anglophones. Paquet felt caught. “There I am looking at my future and saying, ÎHow can I make the paper grow? How can I make it a 100 pages one day without having to translate every word?'”
So he tried to buy the Mirror. When the owners wouldn’t sell, he gathered a few former Mirror staffers and launched Hour. Today, he attracts national ads from English Canada for both it and Voir, and he encourages his local francophone advertisers to put out a little more to get into Hour, too.
Paquet’s main competition, publisher Catherine Salisbury and her company Communications Gratte-Ciel Ltée, is just as determined as he is to survive and flourish in Montreal. She’s also betting on the same tag-team strategy of French and English papers. Sitting in her first-floor office in Old Montreal-a place that’s home to both old-world charm and a slow erosion of anglophone businesses-35-year-old Salisbury declares she’d love the Mirror and Ici not just to be well received in Montreal, but to be the only alternative papers it receives. “The best papers that exist-I don’t know if it’s by chance or by squatters rights tend to be the single papers in their markets. The Mirror could be stronger and Ici could be stronger if we had the whole market to ourselves,” she says. With each of her two newspapers circulating 80,000 copies a week, she’s ready to fight. “I’m a terribly stubborn person,” she says.
The Mirror was launched in 1985, when Salisbury and a bunch of other local student newspaper veterans got a government grant and launched the title as a gritty street paper that dug through the mayor’s garbage for a story, exposed CBC-TV for rejecting National Film Board pieces; and produced serious pieces such as “A Tale of Two Refugees,” a look at the lives of some of Montreal’s poorer citizens. The paper was grungy, bordering on sophomoric, and worked in the feisty tradition of New York’s The Village Voiceand Toronto’s Now.
Salisbury, a Montreal-born anglophone, began at Mirror as a listings editor out for a summer adventure. She eventually worked her way up to publisher and is now the only founding member who’s still involved. Recently, in a move that would have been unimaginable in the early, ideological days, Salisbury and her now ex-partner sold a majority share of the company to Quebecor Inc., the massive, international corporation that publishes the tabloid Le Journal de Montréal, among many other mainstream titles. Though the decision was scorned by many in the North American alternative newsweekly community, Salisbury felt she needed the deep pockets of Quebecor to finance the launch of Ici, her new French-language sister publication that allows her to compete head-to-head with Paquet’s two papers. “Myself and my partner chose Quebecor as partners,” she explains, “because they have this very decentralized approach to partnership. They don’t have enough people to get involved, they don’t want to get involved.” Without this move, she adds, “on a strategic level, over the years to come, the Mirror would have lost ground.”
While the strategies of Paquet and Salisbury may make self-contained sense to each player, from a more detached perspective the two seem to be fighting a futile battle for meagre spoils. Do young Montrealers and Montrealais possess such boundless joie de vivre that they require four separate weeklies to help them plan their nightlife and entertainment? David Klimek, the manager of advertising research and information at the English-language daily the Montreal Gazette, views the weekly publishers as conducting a bizarre fight. “It does defy logic,” he says.
The main problem is that Montreal, which was a generation ago Canada’s most thriving, populated city, is now in many ways a saggy, economic has-been. The city is still Canada’s second-largest, but it ranks 26th out of 54 for retail marketing potential. And local retail advertising dollars are an extremely important revenue stream for the free newsweeklies. The English-language market is particularly imperilled. For instance, since the collapse of the daily Montreal Star in 1979 and the disastrous Daily News, which disintegrated in 1989 after two terrible years, The Gazette has stood alone and no would-be publisher would dare venture into that market again. And while the four papers have created more jobs for young journalists and have slightly improved the dismal freelance rates, it’s hardly enough to make a dent in the city’s major unemployment problem. Almost 60 percent of Mirror and Hour readers are between 18 and 35, the group most likely to leave la belle province for sunnier, job-filled pastures.
The upshot of all this is that there are only so many English readers and English dollars. And the political and economic situation of Montreal doesn’t promise much improvement. Now, with Salisbury’s team able to square off evenly with Paquet’s, the market will continue to shrink and the two competitors will only get hungrier.
To gain an edge in their battle for limited dollars, each of Montreal’s four alt weeklies strives to be editorially distinct. While the most direct and obvious competition happens along linguistic lines, Montreal is such a bilingual city that all four are essentially fighting for many of the same readers. Historically, the first two existing papers, Mirror and Voir, did separate themselves in ways that went well beyond language. Working under the influence of the alternative giants, the Mirror staff has always been committed to underdog topics and traditional lefty beats. But it’s also been big on the wacky, raunchy and sexy stuff, too, running countless stories about drag queens (“The Third Sex Hits the City!”), and featuring Sasha, a fabulously naughty sex columnist.
Voir, by contrast, was founded in a francophone culture that had no real tradition of alternative journalism. While Pierre Paquet did partly look to Toronto’s Now as his model for journalism, for design he had other models. “We gave it this cross look between European and American, which is what Quebec is more about,” he says. And the paper’s content has been slanted more toward the arts, reviewing plays, classical music and art alongside hot Quebec rock groups, films and personalities. It’s an older read, yet still unlike anything you find in a daily.
As for their chippy younger sisters, Hour and Ici, they’re clearly shaped by their older siblings. Hour is a relatively subdued, column-driven paper that, like Voir, aims at the wrinklier end of the young-adult crowd: the people with jobs, money and education. And while Hour has a news editor who’s not afraid to show some claws when it comes to protecting his section, the paper also has a strong commitment to the arts community, covering books, dance and theatre. Ici, by contrast, follows the Mirror‘s lead to chase the 18 to mid-20s college-age crowd who want a funkier, livelier, slightly more political product. It launched in September of 1997 under the somewhat hokey manifesto “To speak the truth,” and with a plan to focus on the real-life social issues of multicultural Montreal.
For all the editorial strategizing, however, the four papers do often run the danger of blurring together. The French ones tend to feature French cover personalities, while the English feature English, but beyond that they are covering the same beats. In one week, Montreal singer Lhasa de Sela will appear on Hour and Voir‘s covers, and all four papers might review the same opening of a film. And the differing age skews of the papers’ target markets may not clearly inform every single story: it’s tricky for a writer to direct his story about an asbestos scandal to a 22-year-old instead of a 31-year-old.
It doesn’t help matters that Montreal’s talent pool of alternative journalists is so small that the papers are frequently swapping staffers. Since Hour’s launch in 1993, Catherine Salisbury has watched Paquet steadily pilfer away many of her valuable Mirror staff members, including Peter Scowen, who was snatched from her paper’s editor’s chair in 1996 to be the editor of Hour. Paquet has also managed to attract key sales people. What this does, says Salisbury, is cloud the content of the two papers in the eyes of readers and advertisers.
“Voir Communications wants to sort of blur the distinction between the Mirror and Hour, because if they do that, they can capture the market,” Salisbury says. “And the other thing is, I guess they just figure it’s a way to try to destabilize the people who work here.”
What it also does is cause a lot of gossip-mongering and nasty infighting among editors and writers. Peter Scowen, who has worked at both English papers and lives with a partner who also worked at the Mirror, knows firsthand the extent of the hennish lunacy. “Both papers are convinced that the other one is filled with cheating, lying advertising salespeople,” he says. He adds that the general level of squabbling in his professional community can be a distraction: “It’s a big pain in the ass. It’s so full of the same people who are all so mad at each other and so distrustful of each other and so convinced that the other screwed them.”
The Mirror‘s editor, Annarosa Sabbadini, takes the theatrics more in stride, and says it’s all just part of the game. “The anglophone community is very small and the journalistic community is even smaller,” she says. “We all kind of frequent the same bars, have mutual friends, have crossed paths for different reasons. It’s just like that. When I first met someone who worked at Hour, he told me, I didn’t realize that you were such a nice person. I had for years this image of everyone at the Mirror being evil and horrible.'”
A widely held impression in the community is that Paquet is the better boss than Salisbury, and his company a more hospitable place to work. He is seen by his employees as enlightened and fair, and by the business world as determined and shrewd. Salisbury’s management style, on the other hand, is not popular with many of her colleagues. While it’s normal to make an enemy or two on your way to the top, many of Salisbury’s onetime staff membersÛoften talented and ambitious have left her paper at least in part because they didn’t have a good working relationship with her. More than goodwill is at stake: when powerhouse salespeople go to the competition, they often bring ad clients with them.
To compound Salisbury’s problems, she’s caught up in a rather ugly lawsuit with some of the Mirror‘s founders. They claim she and her former partner privatized the paper illegally. (It was originally set up as a nonprofit outfit, where any surplus revenue would go directly back into editorial and salaries.) Because Salisbury is involved in a life-or-death battle for the market, contending with unrelated conflicts takes her away from the more important fight.
As Montreal’s four alternative weeklies look toward their uncertain futures, one thing that’s clear is that they and their readers will continue to be plagued by Quebec’s seemingly ceaseless separation battle. With a possible provincial election next year and another referendum on the horizon by 1999, Quebec’s economy can’t really prosper. While separation politics make great material for lampoons in the papers (Scowen calls the subject of separation “one big needleful of piss pumped straight into your day”; the Mirror teases with slogans under its front-page banner such as “Bloc memberships on sale at reception,” or “Our bomb squads on permanent alert”), the situation is no great help to the local economy.
So what would jump-start the city and bring back the lost Anglos and businesses? What would help keep all four papers safe so their reporters could continue to taunt bad theatre and enjoy the rush of being part of an old-fashioned newspaper war?
Pierre Paquet, the determined newspaper publisher who says he knows his city, also says he doesn’t know what will happen. “It’s not for me to decide,” he says. “It’s the market that will decide. It’s the readership, it’s the advertisers.” In other words, everyone involved will just have to keep fighting. This is, after all, Montreal. As Peter Scowen once wrote in his weekly column, “The National Beverage”; “The meek shall inherit the earth-everyone else gets Quebec.”
by Julie McCann
Julie McCann was the Managing Editor, Production for the Spring 1998 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.