Your local newspaper just got worse

Transcontinental, parent company to the Westmount Examiner, West Island Chronicle and many other community weeklies, just slashed its staff — again. What does this mean for the communities these papers serve?

Corporate ownership is turning community weeklies into ad sheets. Photo via Flickr

Imagine, if you can, what would be left of your favourite media sources if the people who owned them slashed the staff in half and — in an effort to do more with less — told the remaining reporters that they could no longer cover:

• City council meetings or public works projects or zoning issues
• Political news or politicians’ news releases
• News conferences
• Local sports results

In addition, what if reporters were barred from doing any investigative reporting and were transferred out of the communities they had worked in for decades to cover municipalities where they don’t even know the name of the mayor? (Not that it matters, because they can’t report on anything the mayor does anyway.)

Well, thousands of people living on the island of Montreal won’t have to imagine a newspaper devoid of news, because that’s exactly what they’re getting in 11 community newspapers starting this week.

TC Media, the owner of the West Island Chronicle, the Westmount Examiner and 175 other publications in Canada, has shit-canned 11 out of 23 editorial staff at its Montreal papers effective this week.

The remaining staffers are being stretched as thinly as possible, with some even assigned to report for two different newspapers at the same time.

On Monday, members of the employee’s union — the Syndicat de l’information de Transcontinental — gathered in front of Montreal city hall to draw attention to the layoffs and to warn that “the real victims of this shameful decision are a healthy democracy and the right of Montrealers to have quality local news.”

* * *

One of the people saying goodbye to colleagues this week is Toula Drimonis, a popular columnist who has been writing for the chain for the past 12 years. She’s not happy to be leaving, but says she had little choice.

“The new direction the company is taking simply isn’t what I had in mind. No hard news, no strong opinion/editorial pieces any longer, no editorial cartoons… We simply have a radically different idea of what constitutes community journalism at this point, so we’re parting ways amicably.”

In her final column, Drimonis tells her readers: “It’s a decision that saddens me since I’ve always believed that strong opinion pieces with recognizable bylines are vital to a newspaper’s identity, and even more vital to the role newspapers are supposed to play, but the decision was not mine to make.”

In this week’s Voix Pop, which covers some of the city’s most impoverished districts, reporter André Desroches writes about the cancer struggles of a local MP, a $3-million project to improve parks, $11.6 million for street repairs, a mobile book service for seniors and the success of a local swimming club at a regional tournament.

Under the newspaper’s new marching orders, only the mobile book service would have merited a story.

* * *

Community newspapers are a valued part of our heritage. When I was growing up in the West Island, the News and Chronicle was a huge paid-subscription broadsheet with several sections, including one just for sports. I watched it shrink over the years, but in the 1990s it still had an editorial staff of about eight reporters. Over those years, Chronicle reporters were regulars at city council meetings, and their stories often provided taxpayers with the only glimpse they could get of the shenanigans at city hall. Those stories changed the course of many a project, by-law or boondoggle and were as important to democracy as the vote itself.

Journalists and supporters protest TC Media’s recent cuts. Photo by Peter Wheeland

Ah, but it’s all economics, you say. The newspaper is dead and we should just get over our mourning and move on.

Except newspapers are far from dead. No less a figure than Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett has been buying up newspapers left and right because he says local news is indispensable. In his 2012 note to shareholders, he wrote:

“People still rely on old-school papers for the delivery of local news — an argument that has been reinforced time and again by the continued growth of the so-called ‘hyper local’ news market.

“Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.

“Papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly bound

communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time. We do not believe that success will come from cutting either the news content or frequency of publication. Indeed, skimpy news coverage will almost certainly lead to skimpy readership.”

TC Media has taken the opposite approach. It has bought up proud regional institutions like the Chronicle and the Examiner and turned them into — no offence to remaining staff — crap.

In the words of a former colleague, TC Media has treated its newspapers as little more than “tabloid Publi-Sacs.” In other words, cram in the advertising and stuff just enough news between the ads so that we can still call it a newspaper.

This week’s Voix Pop has 21 pages of advertising vs. three pages of news. The profits are still rolling in for shareholders, but the stakeholders — the communities these papers are supposed to serve — are the ones being rolled.

* * *

To voice your opposition to what TC Media is doing to its — scratch that — to your newspapers, please sign the letter of support addressed to company president Ted Markle. Or by all means, please write your own. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear every second Tuesday in this space. Follow him on Twitter, or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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