La Presse scored a major coup last week, hiring investigative reporter Fabrice de Pierrebourg, who has been breaking stories for Rue Frontenac since he and 252 others were locked out from the Journal de Montréal in January 2009, a lockout that just marked its 18-month anniversary.
De Pierrebourg was the posterboy for the lockoutés' argument that the true value of the Journal de Montréal came from hard-working investigative journalists, which their newspaper has replaced with wire stories, freelance opinionators and overhyped reporting from managers.
Henry Aubin named him one of the "watchdogs of democracy" in December for his scoops about city hall and the municipal election campaign. He was just as useful before he got locked out, perhaps best known for breaching security at Trudeau airport to prove a point.
De Pierrebourg was also one of nine employees fired by the Journal for storming the office while locked out - as part of a peaceful but illegal demonstration - in July 2009. While Patrick Lagacé says it's unrelated (because negotiations began weeks ago), de Pierrebourg tells Rue Frontenac that was the final straw.
The news of de Pierrebourg's hiring was met with mixed reviews. It's a huge move for La Presse (though not unprecedented - the guy who made the announcement was himself hired from the Journal de Montréal back in 2006).
And speaking of La Presse, I guess those financial problems that nearly forced them to shut down less than a year ago, until the union made serious concessions, are a thing of the past. Not only did they take on a new high-profile hire, but they've made 17 temporary workers permanent. (One of those workers I spoke to had no idea why, though that person wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.)
Aside from being good news for La Presse, de Pierrebourg's hiring is also good for him. He has a proper job again. The anxiety and stress is gone.
It's bad news for the Journal de Montréal (at least at first glance), which has lost a solid investigative reporter.
But it's also bad for Rue Frontenac. And if the comments attached to its story are any indication, his now ex-colleagues are supportive of his escape but still saddened at losing a high-profile member of their cause.
The beginning of the end?
Though I hate to use the term "trend", I have to wonder about who else might follow in de Pierrebourg's footsteps. Bertrand Raymond, the most high-profile columnist on the picket lines, announced in January that he would "retire" - and never again return to the Journal.
Raymond has, of course, hardly retired. He writes now for RDS, putting out a column about twice a week on average. Like de Pierrebourg, Raymond has simply found an employer that he can live with.
Both Raymond and de Pierrebourg gave similar reasons for leaving: they couldn't fathom the idea of going back to work for the Journal de Montréal, for Quebecor and the managers who put them out on the street.
It's a sentiment echoed by Jean-François Codère, when I interviewed Rue Frontenac's technology guy in January. I asked him how they would be able to work out their differences with their managers once the conflict ends, and he said he didn't know. Codère has turned down other job offers to stay at Rue Frontenac, but can he and the rest keep this up forever?
The Journal de Montréal isn't showing any signs of cracking. It's still publishing seven days a week (soon it will be the only Montreal newspaper to do so), and so much of the work of producing it is outsourced that they've made it seem almost transparent to its readers. (The number of people who have moral objections to reading a newspaper produced during a lockout are far outweighed by people who don't give a rat's ass about it.)
De Pierrebourg said he felt bad leaving his colleagues at Rue Frontenac. He should. Not because what he did was wrong, but because whether he wanted to or not his departure hurts the cause of those still locked out.
As this labour conflict drags out into the long term, more departures like this are inevitable. Some who are close to retirement age will just decide to give up. Some who aren't might take better jobs elsewhere. And as the union's strike fund starts running out, the rest might not have a choice.
And as the cream of the crop gets poached, what's left will be those who can't get jobs elsewhere. Those who work in classified sales or other non-editorial jobs, who have spent decades in a highly specialized function that doesn't translate well into the job market.
By then, the argument that the Journal is a lesser paper without these people begins to fall apart.