Twenty-five years after he created L'actualité, the magazine that changed the way journalism in Quebec was conducted, Jean Paré can look back on a career filled with high notes
Jean Paré once dreamed of being a conductor. From his podium, he would guide the orchestra through magnificent symphonies and transport the crowds with a touch of his baton. Sleek and proud in his black tux, he would uncover the mysteries of the likes of Mozart and Beethoven.
Unfortunately, Paré doesn’t have much of an ear. But this didn’t prevent him from composing and conducting his very own symphony-one made up of great stories by talented journalists that, twice each month, captivates over half a million people. Paré’s symphony is L’actualité, the French-language, general-interest magazine he helped found 25 years ago. It quickly became one of the most successful publications in Canada, and it still is, even though Paré himself stepped out of the spotlight last November.
Back in 1976, nobody would have predicted a brilliant future for the new Maclean Hunter publication. It was the merger of two shaky partners: Le Maclean, which had accumulated close to a $4-million deficit over its 15-year history as the French-language equivalent of Maclean‘s, and Actualité, which was Le Maclean‘s main competition, despite its own struggles as a small, general-interest magazine out of Drummondville. Its circulation strategy might have had something to do with its financial straits: Paré remembers that Boy Scouts sold the subscriptions and kept all the money. He was managing editor of Le Maclean at the time; Maclean Hunter gave him the task of inventing the new magazine.
From this unpromising material, Paré created a magazine that never lost a penny after its first year. And it not only made money, it became the most prestigious magazine in Quebec, the one that attracted the biggest names in journalism and as a result garnered 300 awards over the next 25 years. But L’actualité‘s greatest accomplishment is that it has become the barometer of Quebec society. It feels the society, listens to its pulse and reflects it like a mirror-not for Quebecers to admire themselves, but for them to analyze, question, appreciate and debate where their society is heading.
L’actualité is in a class of its own. It’s the only general-interest magazine in Quebec and it successfully targets a sophisticated audience, composed almost equally of men and women with post-secondary education. It has the largest readership in the Quebec market, printing almost 200,000 copies twice monthly, and reaching 524,000 readers with each issue. Circulation is about 95 percent subscription-based: high anywhere, but an even more telling sign of reader loyalty in a market that generally favours newsstand sales.
It’s by far the most influential magazine in the province. Credibility is what it’s all about. People feel they can count on it to tell them what’s going on, to give them an accurate portrait of Quebec society. “A magazine has to be essential in order to sell,” says Pierre Sormagny, a former longtime contributor. “When I don’t read L’actualité, I’m missing something. It really feels the pulse of Quebec society.”
Right from the start, Paré had tremendous ambitions for the new publication and a vision of how to achieve them. His premise was simple: Quebecers should be proud and aim high. “The fact we’re a small people doesn’t mean we must have lousy publications,” he says. He wanted to publish a world-class magazine-maybe smaller, but just as good as the magazines in Paris and Lyons. His editorial vision had a strong business-side component. A 20-year journalism veteran by the time he took on L’actualité, Paré had already seen many publications fold. He knew that financial success was his passport to journalistic freedom, and he was determined to ensure that the new magazine would be profitable.
“We didn’t have the budget of L’Express, France Soir or Time,” he says, “but there are all sorts of tricks for publishing a magazine when you don’t have too much money.” Paré’s philosophy was to make the most out of what he had and to never assign a story unless he was absolutely sure that he would publish it. He also tried to hire multilingual journalists who could travel on the magazine’s behalf, which would provide international coverage without the expense of foreign bureaus. As he says, “It’s all about finding the right people and sending them to the right places.” The trick, of course, is to know what’s “right,” in both tone and content. Paré relied on two main convictions about his audience and their responses. First, he respected his readers. “He thought that his readers were intelligent, and that they wanted to be made to feel more intelligent as a result of reading the magazine,” says Brian Segal, president of Rogers Media Publishing, which bought Maclean Hunter in 1994. Second, he knew he had to keep those readers interested. Le Maclean had failed to do that and paid the price. So before launching L’actualité, Paré retired to the country with all 15 volumes of its predecessor and analyzed them. “It was a great magazine in the history of magazines and journalism in Canada,” he says, and then adds, “but it was a magazine for its time.” It had been a “loudspeaker” for Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, he explains, and it remained true to that mentality. “It would find problems in society and ask for government intervention.”
Paré felt that it was time to move on. He wanted L’actualité to break new ground. Instead of pointing out problems, he decided to focus on something more universal: the people who were pushing society forward. This was not only a big change, it was a real gamble because it had never been done before. As a result, it had a tremendous impact on Quebec society, says Jean-Fran?ois Lisée, former political editor atL’actualité. “Quebecers had not been accustomed to boldness and success in their history,” he explains. “They are very much driven by consensus. L’actualité, instead, became a voice for individual achievement, for distinctiveness within the crowd. This is the greatest gift Jean Paré could give them, to push them along the path to success.”
To achieve his great ambitions for the magazine, Paré needed talented journalists. “He wanted to have big names in his magazine as well as beautifully written stories,” says Michel Vastel, a contributor for more than 20 years and political columnist for several Quebec newspapers. “He wanted journalists known for having independent minds, great writing and credibility.” And he got them. “Paré’s stable,” as many Quebec journalists refer to L’actualité, is home to the most influential and talented journalists in Quebec. Michel Vastel, who has turned political profiles into an art and written a novel as well as biographies of Trudeau and Bourassa, is one of them, along with award-winning reporters such as Luc Chartrand, Louise Gendron, André Ducharme, Jacques Godbout and many others. In fact, most of L’actualité‘s staff writers and contributors have also written books, both novels and nonfiction.
L’actualité was also a stepping-stone for writers who were still relatively new to the business. “Paré has always had a gift for spotting talented journalists at the beginning of their career,” says Sormagny. Carole Beaulieu is a good example of his talent-scout eye and his persuasive ways as well. At the time Paré decided to bet on her, she was a reporter for the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir. “I was stuck on a treadmill, always running,” she says, looking back. At the time, she didn’t even read magazines, but she did write features forLe Devoir and they caught Paré’s attention. He went around asking her friends and colleagues what would make her leave the paper. The opportunity came when Beaulieu, an avid traveller, desperately wanted to go back to Turkey to write a story. Le Devoir couldn’t afford to send her, so Paré offered to pay half the expenses if Beaulieu would write a piece for him as well. She started to freelance for L’actualité upon her return and became a staff writer a couple of years later. She is now its editor-in-chief.
Paré was always deeply involved in every aspect of L’actualité. Throughout his tenure he was both editor and publisher-a logical situation for a man convinced that editorial freedom is based on financial success. “Jean had the luxury of talking to himself,” jokes Segal. “He could wake up in the middle of the night and decide if he was editor or publisher at that point in time.”
Paré downplays the significance of his dual role. He likes to say he was “an editor who managed not to have a publisher.” The quip establishes his priorities. He was more of a journalist than a businessman, he says, so he never had a conflict of interest: readers and editorial quality always came first.
Colleagues agree that it wasn’t always easy to work with Paré. As Lisée explains cryptically, “When you work with a brilliant individual, there’s all that comes with it.” L’actualité‘s staff had to have strong personalities in order to be able to confront Paré, disagree with him and survive the disagreement. “Doubt has never been one of his values,” says Pierre Sormagny. “He has very firm ideas and he maintains them with tremendous confidence. The problem is, even though he’s often right, he is also sometimes wrong, but he maintains all his ideas with the same confidence.”
“Headstrong” is a word that many people use when describing him-but, then, that’s how leaders tend to be. Paule Beaugrand-Champagne, former managing editor at L’actualité, thinks his style had a very simple explanation. Paré demanded a great deal of himself, and he expected others to demand just as much of themselves.
Paré has a somewhat different analysis. He admits that it takes a very convincing argument to make him change his mind, but insists that it can be done. As for being headstrong, well, so was the rest of the team-otherwise, they wouldn’t have stayed around for 10 or 15 years. “I can be insistent, maybe heavy sometimes, but I’m not brutal,” he says, “and I have no regrets about that.” He agrees that he was always very frank and that some people couldn’t handle it, especially writers who submitted stories that didn’t make the cut. He would send them letters explaining why he could not publish their pieces, because he felt they had the right to know. And if he thought they didn’t have what it took to become good journalists, he would tell them that as well. But he wouldn’t tell them twice. Anyone foolish enough to ignore that dismissal and keep submitting would have a miserable time of it. As Louise Gendron, a staff writer for eight years, says, “If he didn’t think you were good, you had better go somewhere else.”
Paré might have been intransigent with people, but he was more flexible when it came to story ideas. While he had his biases, he was generally aware of them. “He’s an open-minded man, and freedom is very important to him,” Gendron says, adding that he rarely rewrote her stories. He proved it dramatically in the weeks leading up to the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord.
Paré was in favour of the accord and so was the publication’s then-owner, Maclean Hunter. Jean-Fran?ois Lisée obtained what came to be known as “the secret files of Bourassa,” internal memos drafted by the premier’s constitutional experts who said that the accord should be rejected because it was not in the interest of Quebec. “What I brought to Jean contradicted his own views and the parent company’s views,” says Lisée, “but he didn’t hesitate for even a split second. He published the file, in the middle of the campaign.” It proved to be the turning point, and it spelled defeat for the pro-accord side.
In the end, it also gave L’actualité such extraordinary publicity in Quebec and in the rest of Canada that Maclean Hunter congratulated Paré and his team for their boldness.
L’actualité‘s great and continuing success at reflecting Quebec society is due to its ability to perceive trends and social movements before they become mainstream. This is Paré’s flair at work. “He’s a classic visionary,” says Segal. “He believed that L’actualité should be an early warning system on major issues, and I think he was very successful.” Vastel, like many others, believes that Paré could predict what was going to happen. “He would decide which major stories we should work on a year ahead of time, what should go on the cover, and he was always right,” he says.
Sormagny remembers the time Paré assigned him a story about a young man who was winning go-cart races. “His name was Gilles Villeneuve,” he adds, “and a month after we published the story he became a Formula One driver.” Céline Dion first graced the cover of L’actualité back in the mid-80s. The headline read: “Céline Piaffe.” The clever pun was also a prediction. It implied that she was going to be as great as Edith Piaf and that she was stomping like a horse (piaffer in French) because she was impatient for stardom.
Paré doesn’t agree that he has flair. Instead, he talks about intuition, “something that comes with time when a person has had to make choices and has learned not to make too many mistakes.” According to him, if other magazines did their job, they could see trends as well. “Everything that happens has consequences,” he says. “It’s the work of good journalists, of good papers, to put all of this together so that people can use their media as a map, not just as a postcard.”
The quality of the writing is an important factor in L’actualité‘s popularity. A 1999 survey by the magazine showed that it was the primary source of satisfaction for 68 percent of its readers, and that it mattered more to them than the quality of the stories.
This, too, reflected Paré’s own convictions. The French language means a lot to him because it’s at the heart of Quebec culture. For him, there’s only one French language, and that’s what he calls international French. Quebec French doesn’t exist, he says: it’s just a matter of accent and regional vocabulary. Canadian English doesn’t exist either, he adds, for the same reasons. In an effort to preserve the French language in Quebec, which he thinks is under considerable pressure, he always wanted everyone at L’actualité to write it properly. Every contributor remembers this demand all too well. Beaulieu talks about her years as a freelancer, trying to write the perfect piece, linguistically speaking, the piece in which every word she used was exactly the right one. She is a great writer, but she says that she never succeeded. Sormagny describes the time, years ago, when he and Paré wrote about the same topic for different magazines. He says that comparing his story with Paré’s was his first lesson in journalism. Later, when he worked at L’actualité, Paré’s lessons were more direct. “He would mark my stories with a yellow pen, underline sentences and tell me, ‘Come on, Pierre, read this over, it doesn’t make any sense!'” Though Paré was harsh, Sormagny admits he was always right. “He’s one of the greatest writers we have,” he says.
As deeply involved as Paré was with L’actualité, he knew that he wouldn’t be there forever. In fact, he knew that he shouldn’t be. He therefore began thinking about his succession six years ago, and prepared it carefully and well. As Sormagny says admiringly, “By the time he left, he had managed to make himself superfluous.” For the last five years of his tenure, Paré was putting together a jigsaw puzzle of the people who would lead L’actualité into the future. During that period, he didn’t hire anyone without seeing precisely how that person would fit into the puzzle.
Carole Beaulieu was the first key piece he put into place two and a half years ago. While she learned her job as editor, he continued working as publisher. He also used the time to work on finding his replacement as publisher. This piece dropped into place in November 2000, when he appointed Marc Blondeau to the position.
It’s now up to the new team to deal with the rest of the puzzle, he says. “L’actualité is going to represent somebody else and it’s going to be different. And I hope it’s different, because life and people change.”
Paré may not have much of an ear but he has an outstanding sense of music. In his own way, he wrote a 24-year symphony, relating the history of the people he loves so deeply. He found accomplished musicians to play his symphony and an audience to listen to it, larger than any concert hall could ever contain. In the end, he showed Quebecers that nothing is beyond their reach, and that not only can they enjoy beautiful music, they can create it as well.
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.