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Can the West Island Chronicle be saved?

West Island Chronicle's Talk of the Town: Advertorial or business section?

If you haven’t read it already, this piece by David Yates (former Gazette business editor, and one of my journalism professors at Concordia) is worth reading. It appears on Thursday’s Business Observer page in the Gazette, and takes direct aim at another newspaper, or perhaps more accurately its owners.

Yates sets his sights on the West Island Chronicle, which used to be much larger than it is now. Many eons ago, people used to pay to get it, it used to have a reporting staff. Now, he says, it “is barely a shadow of its former self, as are other community newspapers taken over by Transcontinental Inc. … almost indistinguishable from the advertising fliers for grocery stores and other retail outlets that it accompanies.

Yates doesn’t pull his punches. He accuses it of running advertorials, of running pictures of its publisher with advertisers to keep friendly with them, and of contributing to its own demise by slashing its quality and inviting competition. He says similar papers like the Westmount Examiner are doing the same thing, which is why we now have independent papers in Westmount and the West End.

Yeah, it’s true

This piece comes as the Chronicle is struggling to get back on its feet editorially. Just before Christmas, news came down that its editorial staff of two would be reduced to one with the dismissal of reporter Raffy Boudjikanian. Editor Albert Kramberger refused to be demoted to reporter and left the paper, leaving it with an editorial black hole.

(Since then, Boudjikanian has been seen heard working for CBC radio in Montreal, while Kramberger has had freelance pieces in the West Island Gazette.)

Announcement welcoming Sarah Leavitt in April 7 issue

After a rough few weeks, in which stories were borrowed from other papers (some translated from Cités Nouvelles, which covers the West Island in French), they hired Concordia journalism student Sarah Leavitt as the new reporter.

“I’m going to try my best to bring the Chronicle into the Web 2.0 world and make it better than David Yates thinks it is,” she tells me, figuring out that my email inquiry about her new job was in part related to Yates’s piece.

Even without the dramatic staff turnover, the paper is struggling. People within Transcontinental agree with that (though, of course, they asked me not to identify them). People simply aren’t going to pay for a community newspaper anymore, and declining ad revenue means less money to spend on staff, which means the quality goes down, which means fewer people read it, which means less advertiser interest, and the spiral just gets worse.

Transcontinental is looking to fix that, in part because of competition from Quebecor. But the threat Yates talks about is from a mom and pop organization.

Let freedom reign

With the NDG Monitor reduced to online-only status and the Westmount Examiner barely worth reading anymore, newspapers have moved in to steal the readership. One is the Suburban, which publishes separate editions for the West Island, the central city and the East End. Two others are published by David Price, the weekly Westmount Independent and twice-monthly NDG Free Press. Both claim a distribution of about 13,000, have more high-end ads (mostly from real estate agents) and a lot more editorial content that ruffles feathers instead of placating businesses.

Yates’s suggestion about a similar thing happening in the West Island (where it would also go up against a weekly section of The Gazette) comes at the same time as a rumour that Price is starting up a third newspaper to focus on the West Island.

Price denies such a thing is in the immediate future. “Fun as that sounds, there is no expansion plan at this time,” he tells me.

Ethical lapse?

As for those standalone photos of business leaders with the newspaper publisher, a Transcontinental insider tells me that the Chronicle’s “Talk of the Town” page and similar pages in other newspapers doesn’t involve a quid pro quo with advertising. In other words, there’s no requirement to buy anything to get covered. Instead, the purpose of the pages seems to be to allow the newspapers to tell businesses that “yes, we had something about your Subway franchise opening in the strip mall” without actually wasting a reporter on the story.

Whether that’s a big enough distinction for you is up to you. Smaller papers have a particular problem with keeping the walls between advertising and editorial separate.

Awards season

All this controversy also comes just after the nominees finalists for the Quebec Community Newspaper Association awards are released (PDF), showing a lot of honours for the Chronicle’s two departing staff. Reporter Boudjikanian got seven nods, Kramberger one, and the paper a total of 12, second in total behind the Low Down to Hull and Back News (still my favourite name for a newspaper) at 17.

Though Leavitt is no doubt a capable journalist, it is expected that the paper will sink in quality compared to its peers over the next week or two as it re-establishes its institutional memory. The Chronicle, which has often been a dominant force at the QCNA awards, could come into them next year without making a very big splash.

What do you think?

Is there room for a new West Island paper with the Chronicle, Suburban and West Island Gazette already fighting over the anglo market? Have Trancontinental’s papers, like the Chronicle and Westmount Examiner, gotten so bad that there’s no journalistic value in keeping them going? Could a community paper that invests in staff become profitable before it’s run out of business?

Can the Chronicle be saved? And if it could, should it?

20 thoughts on “Can the West Island Chronicle be saved?

  1. Mtl'er

    Is it worth saving?

    What if all of these self-destroyed papers move on and allow the market to embrace new options. Some seem to be appearing. Some, like The Suburban, seem to be building up their publications to cover the market better.

    I do believe the West-Island can support a quality paper. One that would publish once a week. If really good, perhaps even charge for it. But, it would have to really present news stories. But, the first step needed will require the West Island market to consolidate into a single market. Unless somebody comes along and does this, we’ll just continue to see the same old thing. But, the way things are going, I think that The Suburban might just manage to become that newspaper that units the West Island market within 3 years. But, the separate editions will need to stop. One edition that covers the West Island, and the western part of Montreal would be a better paper.

    Reply
  2. Singlestar

    The NDG Monitor, which also used to be a pay-to-read paper (7 cents a week, but for that you got a full comic section, every minor hockey league score and the summaries of the public speakers at the Community Council’s Beefs and Bouquet nights) doesn’t even keep its on-line edition alive any more. I just looked and there is a 3-week old story and others which are months old.

    Once people lose the habit of a local paper, usually long after the local paper has really stopped covering local news, it is difficult to start up again.

    Too bad!

    Reply
  3. Shawn

    I’m old enough to remember the old Chroncicle and its then-competitor the North Shore News, which was splashier as I recall. Anyway, that was decades ago.

    As for your question: I for one don’t see anything wrong with the advertorial Talk of the Town section. IMO, you read a community newspaper because you want to know what’s going on in your (relatively sleepy) burg. Yes, you’d like there to be hard-hitting investigative reporting. But you also DO want to know if there’s a new Subway opening.

    If I was still in DDO, I’m sure Talk of the Town would be one section I’d always at least scan, just for this type of stuff.

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  4. Marc

    Shadow of its former self indeed. Not that long ago (early 90s and prior), it was a broadsheet paper with sections. I’d say put it out of its misery.

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  5. Alex H

    transcontinental has proven itself to be the Astral Media of newspapers, first screwing with the formats and staff, and finally gutting them entirely. The current commercial nature of their community newspapers should not be a surprise considering that much of their business is in the publisac market, which requires them to keep sucked up to advertisers. No feather ruffling possible here.

    It may be time for those papers to just close out entirely. Perhaps if there is enough interest in the community they would be replaced, and if there is not, then perhaps that was the truth all along.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Not that I want to defend either Astral or Transcontinental, but is what they’re doing really that different from Corus, Quebecor, Canwest or any of the other giant media companies?

      Reply
  6. Morgan

    If the Chonical can be saved, my bets are on Leavitt. As a former classmate I know how resourceful, focused and dedicated she is.

    Let’s hope she can make it work. Community journalism is vital to the industry and the people it serves.

    Reply
    1. Jamie O'Meara

      While all of the comments here are well-intentioned, and exhibit an attention to readership that most publishers are oblivious to (it’s the beans that get counted, not the journalistic brownie points), it’s nonetheless frustrating to hear otherwise well-informed readers pin the onus on the editorial staff. In all of the aforementioned, and in my publication as well, we’re at the unflinching mercy of market/management. Leavitt can work her ass off, as I’ve no doubt she does, but it’s not going to be worth a flying fuck if she doesn’t get support – in terms of financing stories, freelancers etc. – from her higher ups. And specifically, her sales team. She can be the best editor in the world, and she may well be, but she’s not going to turn things around if, like all of the rest of the communities, there’s no direction and support from the top down. Everyone here has an opinion about local media, but I’ve yet to hear anything from anyone who actually understands the mechanics of how it works. And if you feel like correcting me, have the balls to use your real name.

      Reply
      1. Peter Wheeland

        Jamie:

        Long time no talk, buddy. I’m sure you’ll agree that as a former publisher of two community papers (one eventually sold to TransCon and the other to Quebecor), I know a bit about the mechanics of this biz.

        The problem with TransCon is that the formula that allows them to make so much money with their French-language weeklies is a miserable failure in most English communities. TransCon buys previously thriving – although marginally profitable – newspapers and slashes the budget for content until the paper becomes, as many TransCon papers are described, “un publi-sac en format tabloïd.”

        Every English paper that TransCon or Quebecor has bought (not coincidentally, Quebecor owns most of the off-island papers while TransCon owns all the non-independent on-Island papers) has quickly seen its content reduced to press releases and photo-ops. The N.D.G. Monitor, The Westmount Examiner, The West Island Chronicle, The Nuns’ Island Magazine. Ask anyone in any of these municipalities and they’ll tell you that the papers which used to garner community respect and prizes at the annual QCNA conference are now the object of derision and disgust. Ironically, newspapers that began their lives as ad shills, like The Suburban, have taken up the slack and consequently not just grown, but thrived in a market where advertisers are savvy enough to place their bets with the paper that people actually WANT to read.

        TransCon doesn’t understand this because the Canadian community newspaper tradition is foreign to most French-language community paper markets. Ironically – again, and I use the term correctly – the most successful French-language weeklies are the ones who’ve embraced the English model. Two off-island papers – Premier Édition and l’Étoile in the Vaudreuil-Solanges area – are fat and happy thanks to a relatively strong and sometimes critical coverage of local issues. Ironically – there’s that word again – both papers are controlled by Carole Marcoux, a relative of TransCon CEO Rémi Marcoux, who has tacitly agreed not to tromp on her turf (nor, coincidentally, has TransCon “competitor” Quebecor.)

        Both Quebecor and TransCon have adopted a business model of newspaper ownership that is driven by cost-controls that are blind to the quality of the product. “Let’s provide people with the cheapest way to buy ads,” they say, but fail to address the very fundamental question of “why would anyone pick up the paper?” which is of course the key to people seeing the ads.

        I could write a book about the subject, but I’ll spare you the pain by concluding on the issue of stories aimed at promoting advertisers. As publisher of two papers, I, too, faced the pressure from advertisers to publish stories about their businesses. It was rarely as simple as a “quid pro quo,” but was expressed as a question of “I support your business, you should support mine.” Rather than deal with these pressures in a piecemeal fashion, assigning stories every time the local grocery store had an announcement about expanded operating hours, I created the position of Business Columnist in each paper. The piece was clearly designed to talk about and boost local business, which let readers know where the author was coming from and allowed us to respond to myriad demands for coverage of events large and small. Plus, I still believe, it was a service to readers, letting them know about new goods and services in their community without the pretense of it being “news.”

        To conclude: chain ownership is killing community newspapers, but the good news is that the chains’ strip-mining attitude toward quality content is leaving the field wide open to independent challengers.

        Reply
        1. Melanie

          The deterioration of the quality of weeklies in Quebec has been a reality that I find truly sad.
          I`ve been working as a reporter for Première Édition and L’étoile for almost four years now. I have to say our bosses have made a conscious effort to move from a strictly community newspaper to one with more current news and

          We have five full time reporters, and this summer, we have an intern – you don`t see that many people in most weekly newsrooms. We have two photographers working full time. Reporters rarely produce advertorials or commercial-related sotries; we have a reporter dedicated to these types of stories.We even have an english page that is read quite a bit because it offers new perspective on stories and our English reporter is an additional source of ideas. So, we have the support from our bosses, we have ressources and we are backed up.

          Sure we don`t have a major competitor, but that doesn`t stop us from trying to cover as much news as we can. Yes, there are still fluff stories and sections where local businesses are featured. But, more and more, we are asked to produce more news stories.

          I`m not just saying all of this because I work for the newspaper, but because I see the deterioration of other news rooms and other community newspapers, and I know that more community newspapers across Quebec would thrive if they had the ressources they need. It is such a shame that so many weeklies and community newspapers have become uninteresting, without any real news. I receive the Cité-Nouvelles at my house and I barely read it anymore because there are more and more ads, less and less content.

          And I don`t blame the reporters, but often, they are one person in the office trying to make miracles…

          At the FPJQ conference in november, a lot of community reporters felt a little left out of the loop; bigger organizations seemed to look down on community newspaper. I left a little angry. There are still good local stories produce…I know because I often see our stories being reused in other papers. I guess our stuff can`t be that bad if other people are reusing our ideas!

          Everyone knows the quality of a lot of weeklies has gone down and something has to be done if we want to save them from disappearing. And this won`t happen if more editorial content is cut.
          But guess what, people want to know what is going on in their town, they want to know how that zoning change is going to affect them, they want to know what activities are offered in their town,…Why aren`t weeklies reporting about city council, about local development, school projets, infrastructure problems, etc? Reporters will find a wealth of news items by covering municipal affairs. We cover some small municipalities and sometimes they have the most interesting stories!

          Readers want news that is NOT offered by larger news organizations. Weeklies have a special niche that should be exploited…

          I truly think local newspapers need to seriouly rethink the way they do business and regain the interest of the readers.

          On a side note, look out in the next few months for our stab at new media (possibly blog, twitter, facebook and the likes…)

          Reply
          1. Jim P.

            I agree the readers want local news and the daily papers can’t fulfill that need entirely. There are a few independent weeklies that are succeeding (profitable?), so it can be done in todays economy. Perhaps the internet based paper is a better fit.

            It’s reassuring to know you want to make a difference. Frustrations aside keep doing your best.

            Reply
      2. Saro

        It’s rather bittersweet to read the insightful if somewhat jaded comment Jamie left almost a year ago. . . if rumours about Hour going belly up are true.

        Reply
  7. Mtl'er

    While on the subject matter about newspapers becoming nothing more than Publi-Sac flyer inserts, somebody needs to take a look at what has happened over at CTV Montreal news. You remember them, when it was called Pulse. Now it seems like the TV version of what has happened to some of these newspapers.

    Reply
      1. Mtl'er

        Well, that last few days their top stories involved The Israel demo downtown, the save the Meadowbrooke golf course demo, or some other half baked excuse for the news. I’m not saying don’t cover it. But, this is not the top stories in your headlines. Especially in context to what is happening in this province. Those two events I indicate are something I expect to be on a front cover of a newspaper flyer publication. Soft news. Why not assign one of your monkeys to do a story on how much money Quebec MNA’s are allowed for daily meals (Meal allowance) in context to crazy budgets. Now that would be a story. Hell start small, how about the city of Montreal. No don’t bother trying to do a real story. Just point the cameras at the demonstrantion.
        Also, there current poor excuse for outdoor hits with there reporters. We can all see that they are standing outside there offices on Papineau and Rene-Levesque pretending that they are on location covering a story. It’s always the same building in the background. What are they brain dead.

        Reply
  8. Goaltender Interference

    We’ve got a chicken-and-egg situation. Yes, an editor needs advertising support or they won’t make a go of it.
    On the other hand, advertisers aren’t going to put ads in a newspaper that no one reads because it is boring (eg., a glorified grocery store circular).

    Part of the difficulty is simply urbanization. When I was in Hudson I read the Hudson Gazette ( http://hudsongazette.com ) but since I have moved closer to the city I have become more interested in city issues. I care about Tremblay and the Superhospitals; I couldn’t care less what the borough mayor does or whether the community library I never use has extended opening hours. So I throw away any community newspapers I get.

    Community papers in urban areas have to define their readership carefully and cater to their interests. The Suburban, for all of its faults, has been relatively successful in targetting the interests of readers who share certain common identities– some of which are related to the area they live but also are related to their cultures and ideologies. I don’t see how a generic Westmount paper that reports on pool openings and the like could survive. “Westmount” really isn’t a community, nor is the West Island, since most of the people who live there are more interested in downtown than their local city. They cheer for the Canadiens, not the Lac-St-Louis Lions; they see shows at the Bell Centre, not the community theatre; they want the Superhospital built but don’t necessarily know where their closest CLSC is.

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  9. Jim P.

    I can’t read The Chronicle this week cause the Publi-Sac wasn’t delivered to my front door. That underlines the true raison d’etre of The Chronicle – advertising. What a shame.

    Reply
  10. ron francis

    Transcontinental just doesn’t get it, when trying to operate English language papers. Cut costs, sell ads, have a photo of the smiling Publisher every Wednesday just doesn’t fly. And, don’t expect change. In my opinion, a lean, but effiently managed and sold paper could be a viable option to the Suburban. Don’t think there are many, however, ready to put up the money to take that chance.

    Reply

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