In 1995, a young francophone studying communications at the University of Ottawa set his sights pretty high: like just about every other francophone journalist wannabe in Canada, he applied for an internship at La Presse.
They turned him down.
In 1996, he tried again. Again, they said no.
He was pissed. How dare these bastards say no? Once he could understand, but twice? Either that newspaper is run by clueless managers, unable to see greatness before their very eyes, or this kid wasn’t nearly as good as he thought he was. Clearly, to him, the former had to be true.
So instead, he began small. A researcher for Radio-Canada in Ottawa. A journalist for a community weekly in Hawkesbury, Ont. The next year, he began working at Le Droit, the francophone paper in Ottawa.
In 1999, a recommendation from a journalist friend got him an interview at the Journal de Montréal. It’s not La Presse, but the largest francophone newspaper in North America is certainly a step up.
The interview was very serious. He had to bring in clippings of his work and show them to the group of managers who were judging him for employment. And he had a few good, serious articles with him. But knowing the Journal’s reputation for, as the French call it, “faits divers”, he tailored his application to that target audience, and rearranged his clippings to put a less serious story first. It was a story he did for Le Droit about a child getting bitten by a dog. The headline: “Circoncis par un chien” (I imagine the details are self-evident).
When his interviewers turned their pages past his CV to see that headline, they started laughing. He was hired as a reporter.
His name: Patrick Lagacé.
Yeah, that guy.
The rest of the story is more familiar to the public. His job eventually led to becoming a columnist for the Journal and becoming a pundit for various TV and radio outlets. In 2005 he replaced Benoit Dutrizac as Richard Martineau’s co-host on Les Francs-Tireurs on Télé-Québec. He also began blogging for Canoë, becoming one of Quebec’s most-read bloggers. In late 2006, after a falling out with management at the Journal (in part related to that blog), he pursued what he had originally dismissed as a half-joking offer from La Presse and left the former for the latter. He started up a new blog at Cyberpresse, which is now the most-read blog in Quebec.
Recently, I had dinner with Lagacé at an undisclosed location, as his girlfriend brought his four-year-old son Zak to see his first Canadiens game. Having an unusual curiosity for local media figures, I asked him a bit about his career and what it’s like behind the scenes.
I started off with an anecdote I had learned about him two weeks earlier at a panel he participated in during McGill’s student journalism week, about his applications for an internship at La Presse. He was actually rejected three times (he applied again to be a sports reporter) before he became a star at the Journal and was lured over.
I asked him what he felt, finally getting that job, after repeatedly asking for it and getting turned down, only for that same newspaper to come calling a few years later and start chasing him instead. He struggled to find the right word in English. Not redemption, but … satisfaction.
Of course, the management at La Presse had changed significantly in the decade since. “It was a different management, not as prone to managing as wonderfully as today,” he would tell me in a follow-up email punctuated with a smileyface emoticon.
His own schedule
So how can a guy have three jobs (newspaper columnist, star blogger, TV host) and still have time to have a life, maintain his sanity and raise a four-year-old kid?
Being a columnist has its advantages here. Unlike a general assignment reporter, Lagacé doesn’t punch a clock. He sets his own hours, writes his columns when and how he wants. He works about 50-55 hours a week, but he gets to decide what those hours are, working one job around the demands of another.
“I’m not saying it’s much, it’s never too much when you have the insane luck of doing what you love,” Lagacé said. “On the other hand, I make my own schedule, sort of.”
No two weeks are the same. The shooting schedule for Les Francs-Tireurs goes into high gear in the fall and then tapers off. (“From August to March, it’s like a plane, full throttle in August, September and October. After that we’re getting to cruise altitude and in January we’re starting our descent in terms of effort.”)
A column, meanwhile, might take a couple of hours, a brilliant idea just flowing from the fingers, or it might take lots of painstaking research. And, unfortunately, there isn’t always a direct correlation between the effort put into a column and the response to it.
Cheesy, but true
Lagacé is the first to admit he’s living the dream. “I know it’s cheesy,” he said, “but if you would ask me to draw my dream job, that would be it. Either of them [journalist or TV star], and I’ve got two.”
“This is the high point of my life. It’s all downhill from here.”
He doesn’t drive a fancy car (I’ve been in it, it’s tiny). He isn’t mobbed by teenagers on the street (well, not most of the time anyway). His TV show isn’t the most watched in Quebec. But he’s a star columnist for one of Canada’s largest newspapers, and his thoughts are read by thousands.
“I know I’m privileged. I know. Just having les Francs-Tireurs or La Presse, it would be a wet dream.”
As it stands, not only does he have both of those, but he has the blog too.
The column comes first
“I’m always focused on the column,” Lagacé says of his priorities. “I think about the blog, but it’s always the column.”
Of course there’s a lot of overlap. Many blog posts are related to columns (usually adding something to complement it instead of just a link), and some ideas come out of the work he does at Les Francs-Tireurs.
Pause Kit-Kat de type «Pause Kit-Kat»
Lagacé estimates he posts to his blog 4-5 times a day, almost all on weekdays. That is corroborated by my Google Reader analysis, showing 22.6 posts per week, or 4.5 posts times 5 days. He schedules some of his posts in advance, taking advantage of a WordPress feature that allows this. The timing is important: there always has to be a new post up in the early morning, when people are just getting to work (and, apparently, not working). Usually another follows later in the morning, a third in the early afternoon, and maybe another in the evening.
His “Pause Kit-Kat”s (which are not, by the way, sponsored by Kit-Kat, though they did try to send him a couple of bars as a gift), amusing videos with little commentary, usually go up in the afternoon, when the 9-to-5 office drones are tired of using their brains and just want to have fun.
For Lagacé, blogging these finds is just a way of making use of time he’d already be spending on the Internet looking at stuff he’d find.
Every post contains a visual element, either a photo or a video (and half the time it has little to do with what is being written, other than having some keyword in common – being funny is more important than being accurate when it comes to file art). It’s one of those things that print editors learned long ago: People notice words when there are pretty photos around them.
But as fun as it is, Lagacé’s blog also flexes the mental muscles. “I started writing better because of the blog,” he says. “Before the blog, I was writing 3-4 times a week. With the blog, I’m writing 3-4 times a day.”
Lagacé points to 2006 as being his best year at the Journal de Montréal. That’s when “I really started to become comfortable with my own prose. Part of it had to do with the blog,” which he began with Canoë in late 2005.
As time goes on, the blog evolves. Recently, he’s started responding directly to readers’ comments with blog posts. Because of the sheer volume of comments on his blog posts, conversation becomes very difficult. It’s too much for one person to even moderate all the comments that come in, much less respond to them. But Lagacé wants to improve interaction with readers, because he knows that without them he’s worthless.
Follow the traffic
Lagacé used to post on weekends, but the traffic isn’t there, he says. Nobody visits his blog on weekends.
Nobody is a relative term for a blog that gets a gajillion page views a month. I’d kill for just the 4-5am crowd on Tuesdays. But statistics show that traffic peaks during weekday mornings and is lowest on the weekends.
Not that Lagacé cares about statistics. Unlike me, he doesn’t obsess over the numbers. He knows he’s the most read blog on Cyberpresse. He knows the traffic dips on weekends. But he doesn’t know which posts are more popular, nor does he know the difference between a page view and a unique visitor. And he doesn’t really care.
Although part of me finds it incredible that a journalist would be willfully ignorant of such data, another part realizes it’s probably for the best. I’ve seen journalists who get access to statistics pages for their blogs suddenly start thinking differently. They see that a post they wrote on Michael Jackson or Twilight or porn or Angelina Jolie (or all of the above) gets a jump in traffic, and suddenly they’re more inclined to write about these topics. It could be that this extra traffic is junk – spambots, for example, trained to seek out popular topics – but it doesn’t matter. They want to become popular, and unfortunately that doesn’t always mean better.
“On ne fait pas ça pour être aimé,” Lagacé said at that panel discussion at McGill. I found that statement really funny. He’s the most popular blogger in Quebec, and every young aspiring journalist student wants to be him. (Older journalists aspire to be – or do – Pierre Foglia, ahem.)
The reason he’s so admired is because of that attitude. He’s cool because he doesn’t try to be popular. He has his enemies (Claude Dubois isn’t particularly fond of him right now because of this), but everyone enjoys his putdowns until they’re the victim.
Let’s be Franc
The hardest people to interview for Les Francs-Tireurs are foreigners. They don’t know the show, they don’t know its style. They don’t know to expect the interviewer to be aggressive, to tell them they’re full of shit. Most Quebecers have seen the show (or at least know its hosts) and know what to expect.
Like most edited television shows, it can take a while between shooting and airing. “We have shot stuff in September that hasn’t been broadcast yet,” Lagacé says. “We have been shooting in the past month stuff that won’t be broadcast until January or February.” The only constant is the introductions, which are shot on Mondays, two days before the show airs on Télé-Québec.
Interviews usually last about an hour and a half. Usually they involve two cameras, one on the interviewee and one either on the interviewer or showing both to capture the questions. Sometimes a third camera is setup by the producer and left to run unmanned. From there, editors will cut the interview down to the best 20-25 minutes. Two long segments (one with Lagacé, one with Martineau) and a few short segments are put together to form a 45-minute episode.
Lagacé says he tries not to interfere in the production process. Sure, he may think a different part of an interview should have been aired, but he’s not in the editing booth when the show is cut and the hard decisions are made. So long as he doesn’t participate in the process, he doesn’t have the right to be a backseat driver. So when the producers say he has to interview Louise Harel at the corner of Peel and Ste. Catherine because they like the way it looks, that’s where he’s going to do it.
Besides, he says, “a lot of talented people are working hard to make you look intelligent.” It’s best to just let them do their job.
Many of the guests on Les Francs-Tireurs are known to the population. They could be politicians, celebrities, people in the news. Others aren’t known, but offer an interesting perspective. What’s key is that “you’ve got to have something weird,” Lagacé says. “You’ve got to have something to say.” Nobody’s going to come on Les Francs-Tireurs and talk for 20-25 minutes about their latest album or movie, no matter how famous that person might be.
And what if there simply isn’t enough to fill those 20-25 minutes? It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
He wouldn’t let me name the interviewee, other than to say it was a politician. They sat down, but the interview was “boring as hell.” Lagacé’s still not sure if they’re going to use it before the end of the season.
Despite the editing, people don’t get mad after they’ve been on the show. “We don’t screw people with the final cut,” Lagacé says, adding that they never run out of guests.
There was one notable exception, though. Michelle Courchesne, the minister of education, came on the show in 2007 but accused the producers of manipulative editing, taking her out of context in the final product. Outraged, they posted the entire interview online.
“Celebrity, I frowned upon when I was younger,” the ever humble Lagacé says as he checks his hair in the mirror for the 20th time.”I had a lot of contempt for TV. … I still do sometimes.” But “it opens doors that I did not think could be opened. Now I take it, because I’m older.”
Still, he admits, it’s a “tiny celebrity. You’re on TV, people do a double take. I didn’t know how to cope with that.”
Being recognized has its disadvantages too. “I can’t do undercover stuff,” he says. “I had an appointment with an osteopath, and the woman thought I was doing an undercover thing.”
Sometimes Patrick Lagacé just needs to see a doctor.
Forced to choose between the two jobs (it’s fun putting people in gun-to-your-head hypothetical scenarios, no?), Lagacé leans toward print. “I’d probably give up TV,” he says, “because I’m probably better at writing.”
And he wouldn’t have to worry about grooming himself so much. Those columnist photos only need to be taken once.
I don’t remember how I first got hooked on Patrick Lagacé. It certainly wasn’t his column. I don’t read newspapers that aren’t (a) free and/or (b) anglophone. And it wasn’t Les Francs-Tireurs, either. I watched a lot less franco TV back then than I do now (something I’ve been working to fix since then). It could be because it was the most popular blog, and it was on everyone’s blogroll.
And, of course, he likes me. I’m not quite sure why. Other journalists read my blog, simply because I talk about their industry (an industry that is ironic in that it’s about the distribution of information but is also incredibly secretive when looking at itself in an unflattering corporate light). But he seems to like it more than most.
Maybe it’s a personal fault, but I get excited when people say nice things about me online, and that excitement is proportional to the popularity of the speaker. Patrick has praised me a few times, usually referring to me as the best media blogger in Quebec, which is pretty high praise form someone who used to edit Quebec’s magazine for journalists. Every link from his blog sends thousands of readers to mine, leaving a noticeable spike in my statistics and reminding me that I ain’t all that. Mere presence in his blogroll, along with dozens of other bloggers he considers his favourites, makes his blog one of my top sources of incoming links (besides search engines, Twitter and RSS feeds).
Though, of course, it’s more important he be judged on the quality of what he does than the quantity of eyeballs it attracts, part of me feels the market has spoken and if he’s so well read, it’s because he must be the best. The fact that he has great taste in blogs only reinforces that notion.
Lagacé freely admits that backing from a major newspaper helped him get that audience, both at Canoë and Cyberpresse. He wouldn’t be where he is if not for La Presse (and always being a click away from Cyberpresse’s homepage). But it takes more than having a cyberpresse.ca address, of course. Just ask Yves “can’t get no respect” Boisvert.
Want him? Bid!
For the third year in a row (perhaps it was longer than that, but the Fagstein universe begins in 2007), Patrick Lagacé is participating in a fundraiser with his La Presse colleagues. He’s already sold his soul to the devil, but he’s willing to rent his body and mind for a day to the highest bidder.
In 2007, Lagacé came in dead last, well behind winner Pierre Foglia. In 2008, with no Foglia in the picture, he did a slightly better 7th. This year, Foglia is back and is already a runaway leader with a couple of days left to go.
This prompts me to begin an Anyone But Foglia campaign.
Lagacé is the preferred choice, of course. But don’t count out Marie-Christine Blais (currently in last place), Paul Journet or Yves Boisvert, other lesser-known stars who are badly trailing in the money game. It doesn’t matter who you bid on, as long as it’s not Foglia.
His prize isn’t even that good. They’re offering to let you bike with him in the slush during spring. What kind of a ridiculous prize is that? Sounds more like punishment to me.
With Journet, there’s a round of golf involved. With Boisvert, a run and lunch. With Blais, a show, and with Lagacé, you get to follow him around for a day while he does his thing. All better prizes than getting your pants dirty with Foglia (and not in that good way).
Cyberpresse has details of the 10 prizes up for grabs. The donation page and running count is here. The auction ends on Thursday, Dec. 10. at 4pm.
La Clique du Plateau and Le Devoir’s Stéphane Baillargeon seem to think pretending that columnists are superstars is silly. But Fagstein readers know better. And the thousands of dollars rolling in speak for themselves, no?
Still, I suppose we could give mention to the guignolée put together by Radio-Canada, which is less about journalistes-vedettes and more about, you know, prizes. It also ends Thursday.
UPDATE (Dec. 10): It seems I have no pull. Foglia came in first ($5,050), Lagacé was 7th again ($2,050), beating out Yves Boisvert by $50. Dead last was Paul Journet at $1,050.