Review: Noovo Le Fil does news differently, with some familiar cost-cutting

Noémi Mercier hosts the first episode of Le Fil on March 29.

In the lead-up to its launch on March 29, Noovo (formerly V, formerly TQS) hyped that its new daily newscast called Le Fil would be, above all else, different.

Different in how it told stories (longer, more in-depth), different in what stories it would tell (younger, more diverse), and different in how it presented itself (two Black anchors, a more industrial-looking studio).

After two weeks of watching these programs, I can conclude that it’s definitely different. In some ways that are good, but in many ways the difference is a stark reminder of how few resources are being put into news-gathering at the network, even though its new owner Bell Media has extensive English-language resources across the country, francophone journalists at radio stations across Quebec, and lots of money.

Rather than being an alternative newscast to TVA and Radio-Canada, it might be more fair to say Le Fil isn’t even in the same league, and isn’t trying to be.

History

A recap of what led to this: TQS, founded in 1986, was the first television network to try to compete directly with the duopoly of Radio-Canada and TVA in Quebec. It was owned by the Pouliot family, who also owned CFCF (CTV Montreal) and CF Cable.

Its newscast, Le Grand Journal, promised to be different, but looking back seems very generic — an anchor in a studio, tight two-minute packaged news reports with reporter voiceover, and weather and sports.

TQS would eventually be bought by Quebecor, but then sold because Quebecor bought Videotron, which owned TVA. Cogeco and what was then Bell Globemedia bought TQS in 2002 (with Cogeco as the controlling owner) and injected money into its news operation, but by 2007 Cogeco gave up and pushed the network into bankruptcy.

It was bought by Maxime Rémillard, a film producer and distributor, who disbanded the entire news operation and renamed the network V. Rémillard convinced the CRTC to drastically reduce the network’s local and news programming requirements in order to keep it alive, and tried various cost-effective ways of doing the bare minimum of news programming, with forgettable newscasts like Les Infos and NVL that were outsourced to other companies.

Rémillard’s massacre of the news operation was heavily criticized, but it worked. V stopped bleeding money and managed to survive.

In 2019, Rémillard agreed to sell V’s five stations (Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and Saguenay) to Bell Media for $20 million, and Bell promised to bring back newscasts to get the CRTC to approve the purchase. The CRTC approved the deal last year and brought in higher local programming requirements, with each station needing to broadcast five hours a week of local programming and two and half hours a week of “locally reflective” programming. Next year, the local programming requirements for Montreal and Quebec City go up to 8.5 hours a week.

Bell must also spend 5% of V’s revenues on local news. In 2019-2020, V brought in $35.7  million, which was about half of its expenses. This would mean about $1.8 million a year minimum on news.

Enter Le Fil.

Structure

Le Fil is a series of newscasts:

  • Le Fil 17h: An hour-long newscast at 5pm weekdays, hosted by Noémi Mercier, a long-time journalist who had been seen mainly on Télé-Québec before joining Noovo.
  • Le Fil 17h30: Though billed as a separate newscast, it’s more of a regional cutaway for Noovo’s owned-and-operated non-Montreal stations (Quebec City, Saguenay, Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke). About 15 minutes total not including a commercial break, each region’s newscast is anchored out of Quebec City by Lisa-Marie Blais, who comes from LCN but was part of TQS in the last days of Le Grand Journal. For Montreal viewers, Mercier continues to anchor with more local segments during this time. After the regional cutaways, the regions come back to Mercier who does a signoff opinion/analysis monologue.
  • Le Fil 22h: The 10pm half-hour newscast is hosted by Michel Bherer, who spent 13 years at Radio-Canada but also worked at TQS back in the day. It consists mainly of a selection of stories that were presented at 5pm. Regional cutaways, also hosted by Blais, begin at 10:10pm. (They’re not posted online, so I haven’t seen their content.)
  • Le Fil Week-end: Two hour-long shows that strangely air at 9am on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and mostly repeat stories from the week, sometimes with fresh introductions. The shows include an original feature interview near the end. They’re hosted by Meeker Guerrier, who previously worked at Radio-Canada and since last fall has been a regular columnist on Bell Media radio stations and RDS.

For all of them, the structure is pretty simple: five-minute blocks, either packaged reports, often introduced by the journalist, or perhaps an in-studio chat with a journalist or a columnist.

Contributors include big names like La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert and freelancers like fact-checker Camille Lopez and U.S. politics watcher Valérie Beaudoin.

Laid-back news

The biggest difference between this newscast and a mainstream one is how it tells stories. Rather than a standard two-minute heavily narrated package including B-roll of people walking and ending with a reporter standup, these packages are about five minutes long, adopting a slower pace, and let their subjects do a lot of the talking. Almost like a mini documentary. Many packages include music, to further accentuate that feel. The reporters are also present, but more casual and engaging in how they talk to the camera.

There are “live” chats between the anchor and the reporter, either in studio, or via double box, and I notice the reporters tend to be introduced by first name only.

The rough edges can be seen in the reports, which often show technical issues that I have difficulty just dismissing as first-week flubs or COVID-19 compromises. Subjects in interviews often don’t have a microphone on them, leading to poor-quality audio. This probably wouldn’t have been an issue if they hired both reporters and experienced camera operators who would be more concerned with those technical aspects. Many reports are done entirely by the reporters alone.

Diversity

The other big difference Noovo highlights in its approach to this newscast is diversity — not only of its staff, where two of four anchors are Black, but of the story subjects. They spend more time talking about issues facing young people, racialized communities, Indigenous communities. I don’t know if they’re necessarily covering these issues better than their well-funded competitors, but that’s where they’ve decided to put their focus.

Being a brand new operation, most of their journalists are pretty young, and so much of this focus on different types of stories may come naturally.

Look and feel

Michel Bherer next to the window in the Montreal studio.

Reporter Audrey Ruel-Manseau on the side of the anchor desk in Montreal.

Lisa-Marie Blais at the Quebec City studio.

Lisa-Marie Blais and Alexane Drolet in Quebec City.

I suppose Bell Media was trying to get away from the standard TV studio look with its design for the studios in Montreal and Quebec City. It’s very industrial, like you might expect for a tech startup or something. White-painted brick, exposed metal conduits, a light wood desk, coloured lights, vertical screens. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they were going for something new and cool, but it comes out to me looking a lot like moderate-budget community TV.

The graphics are better. Bold white text on dark blue backgrounds for the most part. Overlays are squarish on the side rather than going along the bottom.

No weather or sports

Despite being built by the same company that runs CTV News, there’s very little of the usual building blocks of a newscast. There’s no weather report, no sports highlights (Bherer briefly gives out the final score at the end of the night when the Canadiens play), no market numbers, no entertainment news, no stories from foreign news services, and no ambulance-chasing fire and car crash briefs.

Bell owns RDS (in fact, the two broadcast out of the same building), so it would not have been difficult to incorporate a sports component, so it seems this was done intentionally. And honestly, it would have been odd to shoe-horn something like sports highlights into this show.

News briefs are often presented on screen with no visuals or only a faded still image to accompany them — literally the text of the brief is presented as a graphic as the anchor reads it. They’ve gotten a bit better at this as the days went on, with some briefs presenting visuals now, but it’s an odd thing to see so much text in a newscast.

One thing I have seen a lot of, though, is vox pops. For a newscast that promises to do things differently, adopting one of the news media’s laziest, most useless forms of journalism — asking random uninformed people on the street what they think of some topic — would be a head-scratcher if we didn’t already know why it’s done. It’s an easy crutch for an uninspired assignment editor.

They’re not in every newscast, but in less than three weeks I’ve seen a handful of them.

Recycling the news

The most glaring way Le Fil saves money is through reusing its content. The 10pm newscast is largely stuff that aired earlier in the day. The weekend newscast is mostly stuff that aired earlier in the week.

Even the regional cutaways involve a lot of reuse. The 15 minutes mean they have three stories. But for most of the regions, the third story is common, regardless of what region it comes from.

So for the Mauricie, Saguenay and Estrie regions, we’re talking about 10 minutes per weekday of actual original local news. Less than an hour a week.

Since Bell has not deemed those three regions worthy enough to even have their own anchors or studios, it’s probably unsurprising that even their local news isn’t that local.

Will anyone watch?

The first broadcasts of Le Fil got just over 100,000 viewers, according to Richard Therrien of Le Soleil. That’s relatively decent, but also a lot of curiosity factor. Later broadcasts got smaller ratings.

Working against Noovo is the schedule — if you want news at 5pm, you can watch TVA. If you want news at 10pm, you can watch either TVA or Radio-Canada. And if you want news at 9am on weekends … well, I guess you have that now, assuming you don’t have LCN or RDI on cable?

I would have liked them to, say, push the late newscast to 11pm and offer some counter-programming in the 10pm hour. Or try to do something more with the weekend news than an hour-long in-case-you-missed-it.

Multiplatform

I can’t say Noovo really sets itself apart by promising its news will be on a bunch of platforms, since everyone is doing that now, but it’s worth noting here. At the moment, there isn’t much along these lines. Packages and newscasts are posted to their website, a few clips are posted to YouTube, and they have Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, and now TikTok too.

A new Noovo Info website is promised to launch later, which will give a better idea of the digital facet of this operation. By then, Bell will probably have found a way to integrate its journalists at Rouge and Énergie radio stations throughout Quebec into the system, and maybe even found some synergies with CTV and CTV Montreal in particular.

Bottom line

So with some aspects still marked incomplete, and taking into account the usual early-day bugs that will work themselves out as everyone gets more familiar with the daily routine, I would rate Noovo Le Fil as … OK.

Noovo doesn’t have the same news resources as Radio-Canada and TVA, which both have all-news channels and close relationships with other journalists on different platforms (Radio-Canada has digital and radio journalists, while Quebecor has the Journal de Montréal, 24 Heures and other platforms for journalism). But Bell has deep pockets, so if it wanted to, it could create a new competitor on that same level.

As a news operation, it’s definitely better than what it replaced. As a newscast on TV, it’s also better, though probably not better enough to become a real threat to the duopoly of Radio-Canada and TVA. (And we’ll see if, down the line, Noovo’s desire to be different will hold or if it will slowly morph into a similar kind of generic TV newscast that its competitors have settled into over the decades.)

Some of its longer-form documentary-style reports might have some success on digital platforms, I suppose, but it’s really unclear what target audience they’re trying to reach here. Le Fil doesn’t have the flash of TVA nor the reporting depth of Radio-Canada, and despite their promise to be more diverse and reflective, I don’t see that many people who don’t normally watch the news flocking to this show.

Which leaves us with the distinct impression that, despite all the hype, Le Fil exists not because Bell wants to shake up the marketplace when it comes to local news on TV, but simply because the CRTC required Noovo produce local news, and this is what they came up with to fill that minimum requirement.

I hope I’m wrong there.

Noovo Le Fil airs at 5pm and 10pm weekdays and 9am Saturdays and Sundays on Noovo.

Professor suspended for using U-word as university investigates what U-word is

A professor at the University of Eastern Ontario has been suspended after a student’s complaint that he used the U-word in class. The university has launched an investigation to determine the circumstances of the incident, including figuring out what the “U-word” is.

“We took swift action to protect students from offensive academic material,” university president Goby Jasyrundy said in a statement. “We intend to fully investigate this incident, and invite the student in question to meet with our special panel to tell them what the U-word is and why it is offensive.”

Initial Google searches and checks with Urban Dictionary and the Scrabble Dictionary suggest the U-word may be an antisemitic slur or possibly a degrading term for people from Uruguay, but neither would seem to apply to this context.

“What’s important is that students learn in a safe environment, free from racial slurs or ethnic slurs or sexist terms or maybe just a word with too many consonants?” Jasyrundy said.

“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” he continued before apologizing for using the B-word.

Accidental recursion creates infinite number of Canadian Screen Awards nominations

The Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television is struggling to figure out how it can stop an automated system stuck in a recursive loop that is creating thousands of new Canadian Screen Awards nominees every day.

The academy had wanted to expand this year beyond its usual 141 categories into something “a bit more comprehensive,” spokesperson Oscar Nisansakagunu said Wednesday. “With the help of artificial intelligence and blockchain, we created an algorithm that generated new nominees for us, but … things got out of hand.”

People at the academy noticed something was wrong when the algorithm reported an error message indicating it was running out of disk space. By that point, more than 3.9 million Canadians had received nominations in 1.2 million categories. Within a month, it is expected all Canadians, and at least 10% of the world’s population, will have been nominated for at least one award. Within two months, 30% of the world’s computing power will be devoted to creating Canadian Screen Awards categories so more people can be nominated for them.

Plans are still being finalized as the academy does not know how many awards there will be in the end, but the expectation is that the awards will be given through a series of daily broadcasts starting May 1, with about 3,500 awards being given out every evening at a rate of about 23 per minute.

Schitt’s Creek creator Dan Levy leads the nominations with 94,310.

Facebook Canada launches impassioned GoFundMe campaign to help it compensate news publishers

Saying its financial future is under threat and it doesn’t know where it will find the money to pay off news producers for its use of their content, Facebook Canada launched a GoFundMe campaign so its users could chip in to help.

“It’s embarrassing to have to do this, but we have no other choice,” Facebook Canada VP Dory Paenga-wh?wh? said in a heartfelt post announcing the campaign. “If you believe in the future of Canada’s news business, we implore you to contribute what you can.”

Facebook has been under fire recently for brazenly making money while other people make less money, and recently it acknowledged things need to change. “The lack of subscriptions to Canadian media outlets is as much your fault as it is ours,” Paenga-wh?wh? said in her post, “so it’s incumbent upon you to help make that right. For the price of a cup of coffee a day, you can help pay for a journalist’s cup of coffee.”

Perks offered to those who contribute to the GoFundMe campaign include being listed on a thank-you page and access to that feature where you can see who looks at your profile.

Quebecor Media launches QUB ASMR streaming service

Quebecor is expanding its QUB-branded streaming empire, which includes talk radio service QUB Radio and music streaming service QUB Musique, to include a new soft-talking brain-tingling channel called QUB ASMR.

Following in the footsteps of successful YouTube streamers, QUB ASMR proposes to “leverage QMI’s media resources to provide a euphoric information environment that will stimulate the brain both mentally and physically,” explained Dab de Yebrir, one of the new hosts brought on to the service, as host of the new show Rubix QUB.

Among other programs QUB ASMR proposes are a daily show where philosopher Mathieu Bock-Côté soothingly explains how Quebec’s cultural heritage is under constant threat from immigrants and anglophones while slowly scratching a piece of felt, and another featuring Richard Martineau just whispering “hein?” over and over directly into a microphone for an hour.

QUB ASMR will be free to Videotron Mobile customers and $5 a month for everyone else.

Montreal’s orange cones announce union certification, plans to negotiate with city

Fed up of poor working conditions, low pay, lack of respect and literally being abandoned on the street, Montreal’s orange traffic cones announced on Thursday they have been certified as a bargaining unit and will attempt to negotiate a collective agreement with the city.

Though salaries will probably be a sticking point, union leaders say their primary focuses are working conditions and mental health.

“Our cone members are out there 24/7 in the most unforgiving weather,” said Greeneye Onerah Tokha, a member of the bargaining committee. “And despite their unwavering dedication to their jobs, all they get from people is frustration and hate.”

Among the proposals are winter coats, more frequent shift rotations and paid sick and family leave.

The city said it is willing to negotiate, but that coning remains an essential service and it will not accept putting non-cone citizens at risk.

New Rogers NHL GameVote™ lets premium subscribers choose who fights, how video reviews go, and which players are healthy scratches

Rogers is continuing to innovate as it begins the second half of its 12-year $5.2-billion rights contract with the National Hockey League. Today, it announced a new premium service for Rogers Ignite and Rogers Wireless customers called NHL GameVote™, which gives them unique new ways to influence gameplay.

GameVote™ will allow members to vote on things like which players will engage in the next on-ice fight, which way a video review gets decided, which players are made a healthy scratch and what line combinations to use.

“Hockey fans love to debate how coaches should manage their games and how referees call them, so we’re thrilled to put them in the driver’s seat with this new functionality,” said Rogers spokesperson Devario Ebrill. “If they don’t like a call, now they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.”

In order to not delay gameplay, GameVote™ subscribers will be given a game feed three minutes ahead of its TV broadcast, which Rogers is marketing as an additional perk. And though these decisions will be entirely up to fan voting for now, the NHL has given itself the power to override the vote if it feels it goes against the spirit of the game.

So far, Rogers NHL GameVote™ is only available to Rogers customers, but Ebrill said they are looking at making it a premium feature on Sportsnet NOW+.

Simon Jolin-Barrette says he’s almost finished reviewing every word in Larousse dictionary for improvements

Simon-Jolin Barrette, Quebec’s minister responsible for the French language, said Thursday he’s almost completed his word-for-word review of the Larousse dictionary and will be announcing proposed changes to the language in the coming weeks.

“I’m at zéro right now, so should be finally done by the end of the week,” the disheveled minister said as he downed a Red Bull to keep his eyes open. He estimated he would have recommendations on changing the spelling of more than 10,000 words and the pronunciations of about 3,000 more. He also said he plans to have several hundred words deleted, as they are offensive, too English or no longer serve their purpose.

“Soon, we will have a dictionary that truly reflects our society and will set us on the path to a more enlightened future,” he said.

New Larousses would be distributed to families across the province by fall. New bescherelles will have to wait a bit longer as a review of every conjugation of every verb will take some time.

Bell Media introduces new self-serve layoff system

Canada’s largest media company showed its innovative spirit once again today by launching a new system whereby its employees can lay themselves off from the comfort of their homes.

Avril Barbeau, a former employee at Bell’s 103.1 The Bass in Nanaimo, B.C., was one of the first to use the system to self-terminate her employment after 23 years at a company acquired by another company acquired by Bell. “Rather than burst into tears and embarrass myself at the office, I could cry about my life being ruined from the comfort of my own home,” Barbeau said. “It’s a much less painful experience.”

The self-layoff system is controlled through a website, where surplus employees can do everything from schedule a listen-only 90-second conference call where they’re insincerely thanked for their service to hiring a bailiff to come to their homes and confiscate any company-owned equipment. They can also digitally sign non-disclosure agreements and set up automated reminders threatening them if they talk about their layoff on social media.

“We expect self-layoff will do for the firing process in our industry what self-checkout did for the grocery store industry,” said Bell Media CEO Wayne Schusterman, shortly before he was informed he would be retiring at the end of the month to spend more time with his family. “We expect significant synergies with this system that will help us strengthen for the future.”

Bell expects to save several thousand dollars a year in human resources costs, and dozens of HR employees have been invited to use the system as they become redundant over the coming weeks.

CFQR-Anon believers say CJAD competitor will launch any day now

Undeterred by almost ten years of inaction, Montreal conspiracy theorists who have branded themselves followers of “CFQR-Anon” say the secret clues they have received send a crystal clear message that a direct competitor to news-talk station CJAD 800 will launch within days, with a large newsroom of dedicated professional reporters and an on-air lineup filled with personalities that have lost their jobs at other Montreal radio and TV stations.

Elver Kawasik, who has been part of the growing movement for most of the past decade, said he looks forward to hearing the voices of Peter Anthony Holder, Barry Morgan, Sarah Bartok, Elliott Price, Heather Backman, Frank Cavallaro, Richard Deschamps, Chantal Desjardins, Suzanne Desautels, Tasso Patsikakis, Patrick Charles, Brian Wilde, Sean Coleman, Jamie Orchard, Barry Wilson, Joanne Vrakas, Wilder Weir and others on the air again, and to experience a radio station that will spend unlimited amounts of money on journalists.

The CFQR-Anon group had gotten excited just after CFQR 600 AM went on the air in 2017 and promised a full launch with regular talk programming within weeks. But Kawasik said the station has just been in an extensive testing period waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Though there have been no announcements about studio space, staff hired or anything else giving signs of life, Kawasik said his fellow patriots should trust the system and be ready to switch their radios once the CFQR saviour has arisen.

“The shutdown of CJAD’s newsroom was the moment CFQR has been waiting for,” he said. “Our salvation is finally at hand.”

Projet Montréal, Ensemble Montréal announce merger to better compete against large foreign municipal parties

Days after former mayor Denis Coderre returned to municipal political life, he demonstrated how much of a changed man he is today by announcing Montreal’s two largest political parties — Projet Montréal, led by Mayor Valérie Plante, and Ensemble Montréal, led by Coderre — would merge ahead of this November’s election and present a unified slate of candidates.

“In order to better compete with unregulated foreign municipal political parties, we must consolidate our forces and find synergies,” Coderre said. “Montreal is a small market, and against forces like the Democratic and Republican parties in the States, we can’t compete unless we develop that critical mass.”

The rise of foreign political giants has worried Canadian municipal parties for years now. While the 2020 U.S. presidential election cost an estimated $14 billion, Projet Montréal had a budget of only $1.5 million in its last annual report.

“The Montreal political system must be strong or we risk foreign alternatives taking over,” Plante said at the announcement. “Key to this is maintaining the balance between rights and obligations and ensuring the health, quality and sustainability of local political parties within the global political reality, while continuing to fulfil public policy objectives.”

The merger requires the approval of the chief electoral officer of Quebec and of the party memberships.

Rogers to buy Shaw for $26 billion — but will regulators agree?

There are days you think Canada’s media and telecom industries are about as converged as they can be. And then another megatransaction gets announced that you think couldn’t possibly be approved by the government. And then it is.

Transactions like Bell buying Astral Media, Bell buying MTS, Rogers buying Mobilicity, Postmedia buying Sun Media, and all the other transactions that brought us to this point.

So the news that Shaw has agreed to a $26-billion sale to Rogers maybe shouldn’t come as quite a shock. But as the government professes to be pro-consumer, particularly when it comes to wireless services, can we really expect this deal to be approved?

Here are the stumbling blocks the companies will have to get over:

  1. Freedom Mobile. In Ontario, Alberta and B.C., Freedom is the fourth large wireless carrier, the last surviving one from that era of increased competition after Mobilicity and Public Mobile were scooped up by the big three. Rogers, which is already Canada’s largest mobile provider, apparently believes it can just keep Freedom as part of the deal, with nothing more than a promise that it won’t raise prices for three years. If the federal government is to be taken seriously on wireless competition, it can’t possibly let that stand. It could force Rogers to sell Freedom to some other party (Quebecor? Xplornet? Cogeco? Some random rich guy?), or it could come to some agreement where Rogers sheds just enough Freedom customers to another party, like Bell did when it bought MTS.
  2. Corus. Shaw and Corus are separate companies, with separate boards of directors and different shareholders, but both are controlled by the Shaw family. The CRTC treats them as if they’re the same for competition reasons. The issue here is that, as part of the transaction, the Shaw family gets two seats on the Rogers board. That doesn’t give them control of Rogers, but does it present enough of a competition concern to warrant increased scrutiny?
  3. Cable and satellite. Because Shaw and Rogers have essentially split the country geographically, with Shaw serving western Canada and Rogers serving eastern Canada, there’s not much overlap in terms of wired coverage to deal with. But these are still big companies. Shaw has 1.4 million cable TV subscribers and more than 600,000 satellite TV subscribers, making almost $4 billion in annual revenue on TV services alone. Add that to Rogers’s 1.5 million TV subscribers and $3.5 billion revenue, and you get a company 30% larger than Bell on that front. That’s a change in dynamic in bargaining position when, say, negotiating carriage contracts with TV services. There’s also the fact that if Rogers buys Shaw’s satellite service, that’s one less TV service option for subscribers in Rogers territory. They go from having to choose between Rogers, Bell Fibe/satellite and Shaw Direct to having to choose between Rogers and Bell alone.
  4. Sheer size. Rogers has $15 billion in annual revenue. Shaw has $5 billion. Combined, they still fall short of Bell’s $24 billion, but not by much. No doubt Rogers will use the need to compete against Bell as an argument for approving the transaction, because the only way to fight ownership consolidation is more ownership consolidation.
  5. Jobs. Rogers has promised to create 3,000 “net new jobs” in western Canada as part of the deal. But it also says “synergies are expected to exceed $1 billion annually within two years of closing.” I’m curious what synergies can be achieved without cutting any jobs.

Mobile service seems like the only potential dealbreaker here, unless there are some minor assets that compete directly that would also need to be divested. Rogers would probably be fine ditching Freedom if that was a condition of approval.

Will political and regulatory forces accept such a deal? We’ll have to see. Recent experience suggests they probably will, and companies don’t go through this kind of trouble if they don’t think a deal can succeed. (At least that’s what I’d like to say, but Rogers’ proposed purchase of Cogeco fell flat, so…)

24 Heures transforms into weekly as free newspapers adapt to pandemic

24 Heures’s first edition as a weekly, from Feb. 11, 2021.

24 Heures, Quebecor’s free daily newspaper distributed in Montreal, has undergone a metamorphosis, one that makes it look a bit more like the next reincarnation of Ici than it does the 24 Heures of old.

This month, it launched a “new platform” at 24heures.ca (no more being just a subsection of the Journal de Montréal website), where it promises to “get to the roots of issues you care about, in addition to covering daily news, and inspired by solutions journalism,” according to a message posted on that website.

The website is now broken down into categories:

  • En bref, which has news
  • Panorama, which has content about “social movements, innovation, digital culture, sexuality” … so lifestyle content
  • Urgence climat, which is devoted to climate change, and is its own section so you know they take it seriously like the youth of today
  • Porte-monnaie, which has content on money, personal finance and entrepreneurship
  • Lifestyle … so more lifestyle content
  • Pop, which will have “viral content”

The website has some wire content, from Agence France-Presse, Agence QMI and Quebecor’s other websites like Silo 57, but most of it so far is from 24 Heures’s own writers. And while some of it is viral-content-churnalism, there are some real stories in there as well.

Weekly

The print edition has the more major transformation. It now runs weekly, on Thursdays, and it has a new design and new logo. It’s also thicker — the first two editions are 32 pages each.

But it’s the content that’s most different. The issues are themed — Black History Month for Feb. 11, sex and social media for Feb. 18. You’ll see less hard news and more feature stories and columns, and those columns are new, younger and more diverse faces.

It’ll be interesting to see how long they keep this up. A newspaper is going to put its best foot forward for a launch like this, but a year or two down the line will we see more repurposed Journal de Montréal content?

You can read the digital versions of the paper editions of 24 Heures here.

This isn’t Quebecor’s first youth-focused free weekly newspaper. In 2009, it shut down Ici, its answer to free alt-weekly Voir. That was followed by the shutdowns of Montreal’s other alt-weeklies: Hour, Mirror, and finally last June, the remnants of Voir.

The new reality of the commuter freesheet

24 Heures’s move comes after competitor Métro changed its schedule last fall. After taking almost the full month of August off, it returned on a twice-weekly schedule, publishing Wednesdays and Fridays.

Both newspapers were hit hard by the pandemic, not just because of the dramatic reduction in advertising, which is their only source of revenue, but because fewer people are taking public transit and sanitary rules prevent them from having their human distributors at rush hours handing out the paper to passersby.

Métro and 24 Heures are the last remaining free dai… uhh, right they’re not daily anymore. But anyway, they’re the last of its kind in Canada. The 24 Hours chain was a victim of the 2017 Postmedia-Torstar paper swap, while the last Metro newspapers were shut down by Torstar in 2019.

CRTC rejects request to reduce local programming quota for TSN Radio 690

A request from Bell Media to reduce the amount of local programming it is required to broadcast on TSN Radio 690 AM in Montreal has been rejected by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

In a decision published on Wednesday renewing the station’s licence until 2027, the CRTC found it already had enough flexibility in its current quota and allowing this change in its licence — going from 96 hours a week to 63 hours of local programming — would undermine the reason the quota was established in the first place.

Commercial AM radio stations in Canada generally don’t have requirements for local programming. As we saw with the (coincidental) format changes for TSN stations in other markets this week, you can run whatever you want on AM. Requirements for FM stations are a bit more strict — you have to have at least 42 hours a week of local programming (a third of regulated hours) to be able to solicit local advertising on a station.

But TSN 690 (CKGM) had special conditions of licence imposed in 2013 as part of a deal that allowed Bell to own four English-language stations in Montreal after it purchased Astral Media (which at the time owned CJAD, CHOM and Virgin Radio). Bell had originally proposed to turn TSN into a French-language station to get around that problem, but after seeing the public outrage that caused, they asked for an exemption to the policy during their second try. Bell promised to keep TSN as a sports radio station, and agreed to a CRTC request for a local programming quota roughly equal to what they were broadcasting at the time.

“The station’s condition of licence relating to local programming was an important factor in the approval of an exception to the common ownership policy,” the decision reads. “By authorizing at this time the requested amendment to this condition of licence, which was imposed in 2013 to mitigate the impact of the exception to the common ownership policy, the Commission would substantially reduce the mitigation measure put in place to justify such an exception. Therefore, the Commission is of the view that reducing CKGM’s local programming requirement is not appropriate.”

In its application, Bell had argued the quota caused problems during weeks when the Canadiens weren’t playing. They said this came to a head during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, when it couldn’t broadcast every game because it would have violated the quota. Instead, the station ran some rerun programming in the evening.

That argument didn’t sway the commission. While it acknowledged that the quota would “bring challenges to CKGM” during certain times of the year, “the station can broadcast 30 hours of non-local programming per broadcast week out of a possible total of 126 hours. The Commission considers that this level allows for a significant amount of non-local content and provides sufficient flexibility for the station’s programming offering.”

The 30 hours a week comes out to about four and a half hours a day, more than enough to have a non-local game every night, a couple of NFL games on the weekend and a Blue Jays game or two.

The decision is not directly related to the cuts at other TSN stations this week — this application was originally filed in 2019 and published in November.

The CRTC did agree to another licence amendment proposed by TSN — eliminating the need for additional $245,000 in Canadian content contributions from 2013 to 2020. The commission determined that the money had been paid and the licence condition was no longer necessary.

CJAD merges Natasha Hall, Aaron Rand shows, to rebroadcast CTV News at 6

On the heels of recent cuts to its programming, CJAD is reducing its local schedule by an hour a day and merging the shows of afternoon hosts Natasha Hall and Aaron Rand as of next Monday.

The announcement was made at the beginning of Hall’s show on Wednesday. The two, who have known each other for years going back to when Hall did traffic for Rand’s morning show on Q92, will co-host a show from 2 to 6pm weekdays. The new show, whose name hasn’t been announced but will be something like “Montreal Now with Aaron Rand and Natasha Hall”, replaces Hall’s 2-4pm show and Rand’s 4-7pm show.

Hall said Robyn Flynn, currently the producer of Rand’s show, will produce the new show, while Brian Kowlessar, currently with Hall’s show, will stay as technical producer.

The final hour, from 6-7pm, will be a rebroadcast of CTV News Montreal at 6. That follows similar moves from Toronto’s CFRB and Ottawa’s CFRA, which already rebroadcast local CTV newscasts at 6pm. CJAD already rebroadcasts CTV’s national newscast at 11pm and the local 11:30pm CTV newscast.

Meanwhile, morning host Andrew Carter announced Wednesday he would be joining the Live at Five show, from 5am to 5:30am, with Trudie Mason and James Foster.

The end result of these changes will be reducing CJAD’s local original programming down to 11 hours on weekdays, from 5am to 6pm and excluding the Evan Solomon Show from noon to 2pm. That’s much less than it used to be, when CJAD had local programming until 11pm or midnight.

There’s no word of staff cuts as a result of this change, though it may save some money down the road by, for example, not needing to bring in replacements during vacations. A memo from Bell Media on Tuesday said its organizational changes were complete, so there shouldn’t be other major staff cuts in the near future.