Monthly Archives: April 2011

Posted in In the news

Bixi in Toronto

Bixi station in Toronto (photo: Kenny D)

Fagstein reader Kenny D sent in this photo from Toronto, which is the latest city to be assimilated into the Bixi empire.

The official launch is Tuesday, May 3, with an official “first ride”.

The rate is higher than in Montreal, at $95 a season or $40 a month, but that didn’t stop 1,000 people from already signing up. More details are at Bixi’s Toronto website, or the usual Toronto blogs.

I’ve just recently gotten a chance to regain my regular Bixi habits, lugging my helmet around with me wherever I go. It’s still a bit cold, but it’s nice to be able to spend some energy on a regular basis.

Not much has changed on the Montreal side this season, except that subscribers now get 45 minutes free per trip instead of 30, and there’s a new three-day rate of $12.

No word on whether either city will get a tandem Bixi similar to what was given to William and Kate.

Posted in Media, Technology

Cyberpresse creates political donation map

Political donations mapped by postal code from Cyberpresse

Cyberpresse has outdone itself.

Cedric Sam and Thomas de Lorimier, who brought us that poll-by-poll map of 2008 election results – and ported it into English so the Rest of Canada could enjoy it too – have mashed up a Google map with data from Elections Canada on party and candidate donations. It’s introduced here on Saturday by Martin Croteau.

As you should know, political donations are public information, and Elections Canada provides some raw data (though not all, see Sam’s comment below). Sam and de Lorimier used some Google Refine finessing to create an interactive map of donations, colour-coded by party. Each dot represents a postal code where a registered donor lives. Clicking on one reveals the name of the donor, the date and amount of the donation, and the party or local riding association the money was donated to.

It’s a fun tool if you know your neighbours and want to find out who among them is politically active. You can also search through the data. Or, if you don’t like the way they presented it, you can download the raw refined data yourself and create your own map.

Another example of the power of data journalism.

Posted in Opinion

Un souper presque Epic

Epic Meal Time's Harley Morenstein and Sterling Toth on Tout le monde en parle (photo: Karine Dufour for Radio-Canada)

I’m a lifelong Montrealer who from two to 23 years old spent his life living in a home in Pierrefonds. I went to school there, learned French there, watched TV there.

It’s only in the past few years that I’ve really started paying attention to Quebec’s francophone culture. It’s not so much that I didn’t understand the language, although that certainly turned me off when I was younger. But it’s hard to just pick up a different culture, especially when you don’t understand its cultural references.

The fact that I was educated in an English public school also contributed. One of the unintended consequences of Quebec’s French language charter (Bill 101) is that it separates English and French-speaking children socially by having them go to different schools. Children whose parents were educated in French and not English were prohibited by law from going to school with me.

Maybe it was anglo guilt, or a desire to understand what was going on in francophone media, or perhaps just wanting to see, hear or read something that was produced close to home, I’ve started consuming Québécois popular culture. (Notice here I say “popular” – I’m a very uncultured person in either language.)

Among the cultural icons I consume is Tout le monde en parle, the Sunday night talk show hosted by Guy A. Lepage that regularly attracts more than a million viewers (despite being almost two and a half hours long) and some of the most high-profile guests you’ll see in Montreal.

Sunday’s episode was, for the most part, like any other. A mix of politics and culture, high brow and low brow, serious and funny. Discussions of autism and Libya, but also of filmmaking and comedy.

And Epic Meal Time.

In case you haven’t heard of them, this group of anglo Montrealers posts YouTube videos of massive meals they create, made up for the most part of meat (particularly bacon) and other fatty substances that send the calorie count into the stratosphere. They do this in character, for some reason thinking that having personalities that take themselves too seriously will improve the quality of their videos.

The Epic Meal Time videos have gone crazy viral, and have been watched tens of millions of times. Among those viewers, apparently, was Mr. Lepage’s son, who suggested his dad invite them to his talk show.

The viewers found out as Lepage introduced them to the plateau that Morenstein and Toth spoke very little French and so the interview was conducted in English. The two even had earpieces installed so the questions could be translated into English for them.

Montreal anglos unable to talk in French on a talk show with a huge audience. You bet that provoked a reaction.

I’ve rounded up some of the tweets I found on the subject.

Continue reading

Posted in Media

Journal de Montréal: The day the union died

Tech reporter Jean-François Codère has only his iPhone to comfort him

It’s hard to describe the emotions coming from Rue Frontenac’s journalists when I met them a few hours after the vote that approved a new contract between the Journal de Montréal and its workers’ union.

Sad. Angry. Indignant. Depressed. Resigned. They certainly weren’t celebrating, but they decided as a group to drink their troubles away at a local bar as they contemplated their futures. They were cooling off after a 10-hour meeting that ended badly for them (and they let the cameras know it just afterward).

This group was a minority of the 253 workers locked out of their jobs on Jan. 24, 2009. They are the Rue Frontenac faithful, the young, motivated journalists who have worked hardest to feed a website and weekly print publication that was setup primarily as a pressure tactic and a demonstration that the success of the Journal de Montréal had more to do with the workers than the company or its name.

People like Gabrielle Duchaine, Jean-François Codère, Jessica Nadeau, Dominic Fugère, David Patry, Pascale Lévesque, David Santerre, Vincent Larouche, and others. I can’t say for certain what was in their minds (or their secret ballots), but for the most part, these are people who voted against the contract, who were ready to say on the spot that they’re never going back to the Journal (“no fucking way” was how Nadeau put it when I asked, though others didn’t want to commit officially while emotions were still high), who are so low on the seniority list that they probably couldn’t come back even if they wanted to, and who are ready and eager to make a run at turning Rue Frontenac into a viable business.

Starting Monday, as the journalists who are returning to their jobs come back to work (though it won’t be in the same building, and at last report it seemed they wouldn’t even be able to fill all 42 editorial positions because only 23 have agreed to return), Rue Frontenac changes from being a union pressure tactic into an experiment with an untested business model.

While the prime focus of the anger of this group after their ratification vote was and remains Pierre Karl Péladeau, the chief executive of Quebecor who they believe has turned lockouts and union busting into a business model, a flood of criticism emerged that night against a former ally: the CSN, who they believe let their union be destroyed.

Was CSN incompetent?

The list of criticisms against CSN management and its leader Claudette Carbonneau were many: They were woefully unprepared for the type of conflict they were engaging in. They were slow to push a public campaign to boycott the Journal de Montréal (one which was obviously unsuccessful – the paper actually saw a readership increase despite the drop in original content). Their lawyers were incompetent, unable to battle on the same level of those of Quebecor. They didn’t even support the idea of Rue Frontenac when it launched. Carbonneau, who was too timid to be a union leader, bungled the PR for the union’s side of the conflict, and should have known despite her denials about an agreement shortly before the lockout that Péladeau argues could have stopped it before it started.

It’s not so much the motives of the CSN that are in question. Carbonneau says the central union gave $7 million to the local to support it and its members, and made it clear at the second anniversary of the lockout that it would continue supporting the union for as long as it takes.

But it’s clear the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal believed it knew better how to run its business, and it was the local that did most of the organizing and planning. The CSN provided money and organizational support, but the campaign – particularly Rue Frontenac – was mostly the local union’s doing.

The anticlimax

The last straw – or perhaps just the most recent example – of CSN’s perceived incompetence came during that heated Saturday union meeting at the Palais des Congrès. After the vote was counted, as the executive waited for all the members to come back into the room for the announcement, a flak for the CSN assembled a scrum of outside media to tell them the result. Those journalists instantly forwarded that information to their desks or tweeted it themselves, resulting in all sorts of breaking news alerts going out. Many of the union members sitting patiently waiting to hear the results ended up getting it not from their executive but on their smartphones from Radio-Canada or other media.

There was no harm done – the result had been counted. But it made for an incredibly anticlimactic announcement, according to some of the people who were in the room. That, they said, aside from being yet another example of the CSN screwing something up, hurt them psychologically.

“They stole that moment away from us,” explained Jessica Nadeau. That moment where the announcement is made, and people cheer, yell, cry, pat each other on the back, or otherwise react together. Instead, the ground had been softened by rumours (much like a government will leak bad news to the media before it’s announced so the impact is lessened), and there was no such release.

CSN head Claudette Carbonneau, seen here at December's protest, spent a lot of time explaining herself to the media in the past week. Union president Raynald Leblanc is on the far left.

Say it ain’t so, Carbo

After this very public airing of grievances (even Beaudet had a cartoon on the subject), and articles from people like Patrick Lagacé taking her to task (he defends his views in a blog post), Carbonneau and the CSN went on the defensive. She talked to Radio-Canada. She explained herself to Presse CanadienneShe appeared on Tout le monde en parle to explain herself to Guy A. Lepage (and got a rather nasty pancarte from Dany Turcotte saying the CSN was “so-so-so-solidement planté”). The FNC’s president wrote an op-ed in Le Devoir defending the union.

It got to the point where the STIJM’s president, Raynald Leblanc, had to issue a press release defending the CSN.

Former CSN head Gérald Larose didn’t bite when invited to by Rue Frontenac, instead saying such a long conflict is bound to cause tensions. In Le Devoir, columnist Gil Courtemanche also wrote that it’s difficult to assign blame to any one party for all of this. Though he and others make it clear that the unions came out on the losing side.

Less than two weeks after the vote, and for reasons she said had nothing to do with the Journal de Montréal, Carbonneau announced she would not seek re-election to the top post at CSN.

Fractured union

Now that the formalities are out of the way, the STIJM is no longer what it once was, if only because its membership will be only a fraction of those 253 from 2009.

The contract effectively split those members into the following groups:

  • The 62 full-time workers and one part-time worker who will be returning to the Journal de Montréal (assuming all positions offered are taken)
  • Those who will take the buyout/severance money and retire – a number that theoretically could encompass more than 100
  • Those who will work with Rue Frontenac as it tries to become a viable worker’s cooperative – one that coordinator Richard Bousquet admitted in January could realistically only include a handful
  • Those who have already found other jobs (like Fabrice de Pierrebourg), will quickly find other employment or will rely on other jobs for income, taking semi-retirement or working for less
  • Those who are not part of the above groups, who are too young or too poor to retire even with this extra cash, and whose skills aren’t transferrable to available jobs elsewhere

It is, of course, that last group that is the big worry. And we won’t know for a little while how many people are in it.

Will this end up in court?

The division between members of the STIJM heightened shortly after a followup meeting to vote on a back-to-work protocol. An email signed by photographer Claude Rivest (one of many people in the editorial department whose contributions to Rue Frontenac trailed off in the months after it launched and eventually stopped entirely) sought to round up opponents to the protocol to launch a court case arguing improper procedure in the vote. (Rivest didn’t answer a request for comment on the matter.)

The main issue was the way the union decided to disburse the $20 million severance funds. It was by seniority, with a minimum and maximum. Rivest argued that setting a maximum unfairly hurt those who worked at the paper before 1985 by making those years not count.

Rivest’s email launched a heated back-and-forth over email among STIJM members, most of whom were strongly opposed to Rivest’s move, calling it “cheap” “disgusting” and “absurd”. The discussion died down quickly, and not much has been heard since.

Lessons

Everyone and their grandmother tried to analyze the Journal de Montréal conflict to find some sense in it:

Most agree that this is a union defeat, that the Journal proved one could operate a newspaper legally and successfully during a lockout, and that the readers who could have made a difference by refusing to read the Journal chose to continue reading, rendering the union virtually powerless.

Frankly, I think both the union and the paper have been crippled. Sadly, both look like they’re what Pierre Karl Péladeau wanted. (He disagrees, of course, during an interview with Paul Arcand)

Now what?

As some employees return to work, the rest try to forget about the Journal de Montréal, either trying to figure out how they can begin their retirement, finding another job or trying to work out a viable business model for Rue Frontenac.

Union president Raynald Leblanc is not among those returning to the Journal, and still deciding on his future. So what’s left of the crippled union needs a new leader.

As far as the public is concerned, the campaign is over. That hoopla about changes to Quebec’s anti-scab law is all but gone now, even though nothing about the agreement prevents another company in a similar situation locking out its workers in the future. The Journal de Montréal was a heavily mediatized conflict (some would argue it was overexposed in the media), and the end of the conflict has made this issue less important in everyone’s minds, no matter what efforts the CSN may put behind promoting it.

Nothing changed outside of the Journal itself, to the point where people may forget about this conflict entirely in a few years.

Rue Frontenac may be the exception to this. It’s still trying to figure out what it can be and how it can make money. (I, for one, would suggest less focus on things everyone else is covering, like Canadiens games and Tout le monde en parle episodes.) Even the most optimistic would admit its chances aren’t that good. But everyone hopes it can survive and prove that good-quality original journalism is a viable business model.

If Rue Frontenac survives in the long term, it may be the only real lasting evidence that there ever was a lockout here, and a reminder of what the Journal de Montréal used to be.

Because whether you’re on the side of the union or the employer, you have to admit that the Journal de Montréal won’t ever be the quality it was when those 253 employees were working there.

Hell, it’s even given up Frontenac St. itself.

Posted in Media, Navel-gazing

Gazette editorial workers approve three-year deal

Employees in The Gazette’s editorial department (including myself) voted 63-20 (76%) on Sunday afternoon in favour of a three-year labour contract with 1.5% yearly salary increases (plus a signing bonus equivalent to 1.5% of wages during the previous year).

Turnout was 76% of the 109 editorial employees.

The workers have been without a contract since the summer of 2008, so wages have been frozen since then. The increases (besides the signing bonus) apply to the three years following ratification, up to 2014.

Among the features of the new contract:

  • Reporters can be asked to shoot video without additional compensation.
  • Permanent part-timers will have pro-rated paid vacation, as well as a guaranteed two consecutive days off a week.
  • Photographers get an increased car allowance, adjusted based on gas prices. Permanent photographers are also protected against layoff during the contract as a result of reporters shooting video.
  • Shift differentials (paid to employees for each shift worked before 7 am or after 7pm) increase from $8 to $12

The contract also included controversial language that redefines how seniority is calculated. Previously, many workers in editorial were given leave or alternate work arrangements (working fewer days a week) on the understanding that their seniority would not be affected. A letter of understanding with the new contract means time worked after May 2007 will be calculated based on actual days worked.

The Gazette has also agreed to post three new permanent full-time positions in the editorial department: two reporters and an online copy editor. This measure is designed to cut down on the numbers of “permatemps” who have worked non-stop but don’t yet enjoy the benefits of permanent status. Some have been working for up to nine years. (UPDATE April 22: City reporter Max Harrold, business/tech reporter Jason Madger and sports/online copy editor Kevin Mio have been made full-time permanent as of May 8.)

The editorial department voted in January 2009 against a contract that called for larger union concessions.

Three other smaller departments also voted on contract offers (with similar provisions for salary and benefits):

  • The IT department voted unanimously (4-0) in favour
  • The Reader Sales and Service department voted 7-4 (64%) in favour
  • The Business department voted unanimously (0-4) against their contract. They return to the bargaining table.

UPDATE: A brief in The Gazette and a press release from the CWA union.

Posted in Media

Concordia’s Link newspaper: A hypocritical lack of transparency?

The following is a letter to the editor I submitted to The Link, one of Concordia University’s student newspapers, where I worked for four years in an editorial capacity and sat for two years on its board of directors. It’s having its annual general assembly on Friday, which is the one time every year where all fee-paying members (that is, all Concordia students) have the right to vote.

It’s a scary time, because student politicians have been known to try to take advantage of that right to try to exact revenge on editors who have criticized them, or try to take control over the paper to change how it covers the news.

But I think the paper has gone too far in trying to shield itself from this perceived menace.

Dear editor,

As a former Concordia student and Link editor, I always make sure to pick up a copy of my old newspaper every time I’m near the campus. I’ve been reading with interest the paper’s coverage of the Concordia Student Union election and the dismissal of President Judith Woodsworth by the university’s Board of Governors. In coverage of both those issues, you called for increased transparency and accountability on the part of both student and university governments, and rightfully so.

But something I noticed has made me wonder if the next target of your demand for increased transparency shouldn’t be The Link itself.

As I write this, you and other members of the Link Publication Society (essentially, all Concordia students who bother showing up) are hours away from taking part in its annual general assembly, in which you appoint members to the paper’s board of directors, approve constitutional amendments and do other boring stuff that has nothing to do with the paper’s editorial content.

At the bottom of your notice for this meeting is written the following: “Constitutional amendments are available at the Link office.”

What’s notable about this is that it means this list is not available anywhere else. The proposed constitutional amendments were not printed in the paper. They are not available on the website (for that matter, neither is the constitution itself). The Link’s board is proposing changes to the rules that govern the way the organization runs and seems to be doing everything in its power to make it difficult for students to find out what those changes are. (I can only imagine what you make students go through if they want to see the amendments. Do they have to show ID? Are they allowed to take a copy out of the office or make notes? Are they monitored while they read them?)

I believe this is being done intentionally to prevent as many students as possible from seeing the proposed amendments before the meeting, in case any may disagree with them and want to round up support to vote them down.

It’s a perfectly understandable and justifiable fear. But it’s still wrong.

I don’t say this lightly. I know more than most the dangers of student politicians coming to this one meeting a year when they have the power to vote and using that power to take control of the paper for the sole purpose of affecting its editorial content. I know because I lived it in 2001.

Back then, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had taken over all other political discussion at the university, and editorial decisions of The Link caused a rift between the paper and members of a Palestinian activist group and the CSU. Enemies of the paper protested and passed around a petition calling for The Link to be shut down. They later used sheer numbers to take over the general assembly, appoint sympathetic students to the board and demand changes to the bylaws.

The result was a nasty political tug of war between Link editorial staff and student activists that caused the paper to be shut down over the summer.

In the years that followed, I proposed changes to The Link’s bylaws that strengthened its protections from those who would seek to control it for political reasons. (Those protections may still be in place. I don’t know for sure, because I don’t have access to The Link’s constitution.) I learned that increased transparency helps the free press more than it hinders, even if it may sometimes seem in the paper’s best interest to try to manipulate its own democratic processes.

It’s a delicate balancing act between having a newspaper that is free of political control and having one that is accountable to its members and properly protected from itself. But secrecy doesn’t protect The Link from politicians. It only serves to make it unaccountable and untransparent. And that makes it wrong.

I read with interest your recent decision to increase the use of your website by moving breaking news there. You can make a big leap in transparency by also posting your bylaws, constitutional amendments and board meeting minutes.

Transparency is scary in a world where knowledge is power. But The Link is strong. And if any politicians try to take it over again, I’ll be the first to run down there with a picket sign and make sure they don’t succeed.

Please reconsider your policy.

Steve Faguy, B.CompSc 2004, GrDip Journ. 2005

Editor-in-Chief 2003-04

It may seem petty to care about how a university newspaper announces constitutional amendments half a decade after graduating from that university (sadly, I know people who have been gone longer and still care more). But I don’t think anyone else knows this issue as well as I do, and something compels me to write to them about it.

UPDATE: A shortened version of this letter (to meet their 400-word limit) appeared in Tuesday’s Link. Its editor says the paper is open to adding these documents online.

Posted in Media, Montreal

The end of Hour

The last of the Hour staff at their final meeting. From left: Meg Hewings, Robyn Fadden, Jamie O'Meara, Melora Koepke, Richard Burnett (photo totally stolen from Facebook)

If you haven’t already, go ahead and pick up a copy of Hour that’s on the newsstands. It should be a collector’s item. Unfortunately.

A little more than two months after word came out that the editorial staff of Hour was being canned, it’s happened. This week’s issue is the last for what’s left of them (and many of the freelancers who have supported the paper’s editorial content). Included are goodbye columns from Jamie O’Meara and Richard Burnett, who will be looking for other jobs once they sober up. (Burnett has started up a blog to keep the public informed of his opinions.)

Because the paper’s owners don’t think they need to answer to the media, official information about the changes isn’t easy to come by. (The Gazette is waiting to hear from them.) But here’s what we know from the information those departing staff have:

  • The editorial staff has been canned. All the people in the picture above, as well as “nearly all” of the paper’s freelancers, have been told their services are no longer required
  • Some freelancers have remained and others are being added at reduced rates
  • Among the new people being brought in is Black Sheep Reviews film reviewer Joseph Belanger
  • The arts section is history
  • The paper will be renamed “Hour Community” (UPDATE: A Facebook page has been setup)
  • Voir’s Kevin Laforest takes over as the man in charge of Hour

It all adds up to a giant effort to cut costs for editorial content far beyond what anyone would consider reasonable. Hour’s owners are gambling that people are so desperate for bylines they’ll accept being paid next to nothing, and that there are advertisers so clueless they’ll buy space in a paper nobody wants to read anymore.

It’s a gamble that I’m going to go ahead and predict won’t work. It might take six months, or a year, or longer, but either the slow descent into oblivion will continue as more and more costs are cut or Voir will finally throw in the towel and give up on Hour altogether.

They might as well just put it out of its misery. Despite the best efforts of its tiny staff, Hour has been on death’s door for years.

Hour of commiseration

Former and now-former Hour staff are talking about their beloved newspaper like people talk about departed friends at a funeral. Through a private Facebook support group, they’re sharing stories and photos from their days at the paper, many from more than a decade ago. They’ve even planned a wake for Saturday night.

Congratulations, Mirror

The race for anglo alt-weeklies was long ago won by Mirror. The tipping point for me was when Hour dropped sex columnist Josey Vogels (who’s nationally syndicated now, but got her start at Hour), and though they briefly tried a replacement columnist, the sex content disappeared when she left too.

As Hour started shedding regular features, Mirror added them. Readers and advertisers chose sides, and the difference between the two started to become more apparent.

It’s not the fault of those people in the photo above. They tried their best to keep the ship afloat. But they had no time and no budget to experiment or do anything beyond going through the motions.

How much management is to blame is also up to interpretation. If the market couldn’t support two francophone alt-weeklies, it’s hard to argue it could support to anglo ones. On the French side, it was Voir that won the war with Quebecor’s Ici. On the English side, Quebecor’s Mirror beat Voir’s Hour. In both cases it was the older paper that came out alive in the end.

Jan. 20 editions of Mirror (left, 48 pages) and Hour (right, 12 pages) sitting side by side

Hour vs. Mirror: A quantitative comparison

When I first heard about the problems at Hour in January, I picked up a copy of the paper. I admit it had been a while since I stopped to pick up either of Montreal’s alt-weeklies. I was stunned by how thin it was. I knew Hour was thinner than Mirror, but it hadn’t hit me how much.

I looked inside to find very little. I started counting what was inside so I could get a sense of scale.

The numbers below are taken by comparing the Jan. 20, 2011 issues of Hour and Mirror, which came out just before Hour staff were informed they were losing their jobs.

Here’s how the numbers add up:

Hour Mirror Mirror/Hour
Age 18 years (1993) 26 years (1985) 144%
Pages 12 48 400%
Size per page (inches) 11×15 11×13.5 90%
Total area (square inches) 1980 7128 360%
Display ads (movies) 4 6 150%
Display ads (other) (*1) 12 43 358%
Classified ads 108 171 (*2) 158%
Articles (*3) 8 42 525%
Aritlces: Music 3 4 133%
Articles: Film 2 6 300%
Articles: Theatre/dance 1 3 300%
Articles: Other art 1 2 200%
Articles: Books 0 1 Inf.
Articles: Food 1 1 100%
Music reviews 3 12 (*4) 400%
Cartoons 1 2 200%
Columnists 0 (*5) 7 Inf.
Other features
(horoscope, puzzles)
0 2 (*6) Inf.
Contributors 4 35 875%
Editorial staff (*7) 6 7 117%

*1 Does not include house ads, filler ads and contest ads.

*2 About 2/3 of The Mirror’s classified ads are for “adult services”, which all but disappeared from Hour.

*3 The definition of “article” is up for some debate. I’ve included columnists but excluded some items too small for a byline.

*4 Does not include a handful of “mini reviews”

*5 Jamie O’Meara and Richard Burnett were columnists up until the end, but their columns did not appear in the issue studied here.

*6 Mirror has a Sudoku puzzle and a horoscope.

*7 This is based on the number credited, not the number employed. Hour, for example, had only two full-time staff.

Thank you … Richard Martineau?

UPDATE: The following was posted by former Hour editor Martin Siberok. It’s reposted here with permission:

How it all started

I remember getting a call in October 1992 from Richard Martineau, the editor-in-chief of Voir, asking me if I wanted to have lunch with him and his boss, Voir publisher Pierre Paquet.

At the time, I was at The Mirror, which was being helmed by my former “editorial board” colleagues, Eyal Kattan and Catherine Salisbury.

I agreed and we arranged to meet at L’Express on St-Denis for lunch. Our conversation was light and entertaining as Richard and I caught up, while Pierre and I spoke about our degree of separation, namely his Stanislas school buddy Ivan Doroschuk (Man Without Hat). Pierre had been part of the early Hats along with Dave Hill and Jeremie Arrobas.

Towards the end of our two-hour luncheon, Pierre asked me whether I knew why I had been invited to this meeting. I answered that I thought Richard had phoned to discuss a possible Voir-Mirror bowling night. Then Pierre popped the question, what did I think about starting a new English-language weekly and would I be interested in working for if?

I told him it was an exciting proposition and played coy, but I knew it was an offer I wouldn’t be able to refuse. Starting up a new English-language publication in Montreal was a dream. I had already been involved in setting up the Mirror and now this.

Pierre explained he had approached the Mirror’s publishers about selling, but their price was too high. So he had decided to start his own publication and take on the Mirror.

Over the next two months, Pierre and I had a few more clandestine meetings until I finally jumped on board. On December 31, I went to the Mirror offices and cleared out my desk. I told Catherine I was leaving the paper and would be heading up a new publication to be launched in the new year.

Luckily I wasn’t alone. My friend Lubin Bisson, the Mirror’s former distribution manager, was also on board. And then after several phone calls I persuaded Peter Wheeland to quit his job as editor of the Nuns’ Island paper and join us on a journey into the unknown.

Five weeks later, on February 4, 1993, the first issue of Hour hit the streets.

I would to thank everyone who contributed to Hour – over the years – because of you the paper had a run of 18 illustrious years.

UPDATE (April 16): The new Hour is out, with its new website, new Facebook page and new columnists Anne Lagacé Dowson and Kevin Laforest. The announcement is here.

Also, you might be interested in this Ryerson Review of Journalism piece from 1998 describing Montreal’s alt-weekly newspaper war and Hour’s beginnings.

Posted in TV

Ethics don’t matter on TV

A couple of disturbing stories have come to light recently about Quebec television broadcasters’ attempts to censor things that might affect their bottom line.

The first was the revelation from La Presse’s Hugo Dumas that producers of dramatic programming for TVA were being asked to not show characters using iPhones. This, apparently, because Quebecor owns both TVA and Videotron and Videotron doesn’t offer the iPhone to wireless customers.

That prompted a reply from Quebecor VP Serge Sasseville that actually admitted Dumas’s story was true, but said that this was simply a case of a sponsor (Videotron) wanting its products depicted in the programming it sponsors. He offers the example of Ford sponsoring Radio-Canada’s series 19-2, and seeing Ford vehicles being driven in the show.

Dumas in turn replied to the reply, saying the argument seemed to suggest that Videotron sponsors all of TVA’s programming, and calling that reasoning preposterous.

Interference from a broadcaster into dramatic programming for business reasons is bad enough. But as Sasseville’s comparison points out, we’re well past that point already.

The second story is the decision of RDS to refuse to show a commercial from comedian Mike Ward that makes fun of the Canadiens. To be precise, they refused to show the ad during Canadiens games.

Their argument, and it’s a really stupid one, is that RDS is the official broadcaster of the Canadiens, and it’s unacceptable that an ad that runs during Canadiens games makes fun of them.

Some have noted that RDS is now owned by Bell, which is a stakeholder in the Canadiens and owns the naming rights to the Bell Centre, among many commercial deals between the telecom giant and the hockey team.

Both of these moves are ridiculous, and both reek of giant media empires abusing their ownership powers to mold programming in one area so it matches the business interests of another.

It’s not that many steps from this to each media giant having its own imaginary universe, each with its own set of maybe-true facts.

Posted in Media, Opinion

I don’t want to be a professional journalist

Members of the Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec are being asked to vote today until Thursday on a proposition to establish the “title” of “professional journalist”, in an effort to improve journalists’ working conditions and give them more power to maintain their integrity.

The goal is a laudable one. But here’s why they should vote “no”:

When the FPJQ first decided to consider this idea in the fall, I wrote a blog post panning the idea. I picked apart the argument for creating a professional journalist status, as well as the supposed perks having such a status would give people. I also criticized the examples given of France and Belgium, where such statuses exist but whose media environments aren’t nearly the same as ours.

My primary concern wasn’t so much that journalists were getting more rights, but that these rights would be given only to those people deemed worthy of them.

Journalism has existed as we know it for decades without needing any type of formal accreditation system. So, I asked, why should we establish one now? What problem is it solving?

Still, because a big study on the issue hadn’t been released, I held off on a final judgment. Maybe it would convince me that I’d been wrong, that the perceived disadvantages of such an accreditation system would be vastly outweighed by the positives.

The famous report (PDF) from Dominique Payette came out in January.

I remain unconvinced.

Is this necessary?

It’s very clear from the material being shared with members that the FPJQ wants people to vote yes. There’s no effort at balance in the arguments here. No space given to the possible downsides of separating “professional” journalists from non-professional ones.

The Payette report into the state of journalism is also heavily biased in favour of this system.

Payette’s argument is that convergence (read: Quebecor) and the ease with which people can share information have had a detrimental effect on journalism, and establishing a professional title (though not necessarily an order like we have for doctors or lawyers) would somehow help fix this problem.

Payette makes her case based on a statement early on in the report:

Depuis quelques années, on observe au Québec une réduction du nombre de producteurs d’informations originales d’intérêt public, et ce, malgré la multiplication des plateformes de diffusion.

No source is provided for this statement, nor is it made clear who is doing the observing here. Yes, many newsrooms are smaller than they once were. But we also have many more newsrooms than we used to have, and lots of people are using different forms of media to get their message across. Is there really less original news of a public interest being produced? Has someone studied this to see if it’s actually the case?

Payette’s report notes that “l’information d’intérêt public est fragilisée par le développement de médias spécialisés ou de « niche »”, as if the creation of more specialized news sources is somehow a bad thing. I would argue the opposite, that instead of general-interest journalists learning the basics of an issue and giving a simplistic (and potentially wrong) explanation of it to the public, we now have experts in various fields willing to give in-depth analysis of issues.

Whether those experts are “journalists” is a good question.

The Internet and changing consumption habits have radically changed journalism. In some cases for the better, in some cases for the worse. That’s change, and we have to change with it.

But despite all the fretting about how journalists are being laid off and media empires are no longer what they once were, there’s little justification in the material I’ve read for the establishment of a massive bureaucracy that won’t actually regulate much.

Recommendations hard to swallow

Where Payette’s report gets really scary is in some of its recommendations. As I said in the previous post, some of the ideas for benefits of the professional journalist status sound good but should be applied to everyone.

  • The protection of sources, for example, should apply to anyone whose protection of a source is for a journalistic reason, not just someone who has a card saying they’re a journalist.
  • Preferential treatment for access to information requests would make a lot of journalists happy, but would hurt those who don’t have journalist status and want to get information. In many cases, non-journalists making access to information requests want to get data on themselves or a family member, and their needs are much more important to them than a journalist’s curiosity. And, of course, there are cases that gum up the system that come from journalists themselves. Quebecor’s massive access dump on the CBC, for instance, would now be given preferential treatment and make the problem even worse. (Thankfully, a suggestion that journalists’ A-to-I requests all be free of charge has been dropped.)

Then there are the recommendations that are just crazy:

  • Allowing journalists to leave work and take full paid leave of up to a year because they don’t believe their working conditions allow them to be fully ethical is just asking for years of litigation.
  • Restricting government advertising to Quebec Press Council members would create all sorts of problems. Could governments no longer advertise on billboards or on Métrovision or on specialty channels because they aren’t run by people who employ journalists?
  • Changing the law to prevent anyone who has been libelled from seeking any damages from media who follow standard policies about corrections gives those media less of an incentive to stop libelling people. I’m not suggesting that people should be able to sue for millions because of what’s written in the paper about them, but people who are wronged by the media (for example, being accused of a crime when they haven’t even been charged) deserve compensation.
  • Setting up a 1-800 number for the Quebec Press Council so people can get ethics advice sounds like a really stupid idea and a giant waste of money.
  • Requiring all professional journalists to pass a French language test and get regular French language training not only ignores the fact that that not all journalism in Quebec is done in French, but it also sounds like its goal is more about politics than it is about journalism. (The Suburban clearly wasn’t happy with this suggestion.) The report makes a case that language skills are vital to proper communication (though I don’t think too many people are failing to be informed because of journalists’ quality of French), but there are no similar recommendations for other skills journalists should have, like math, basic science or history.

The FPJQ’s vote isn’t necessarily to accept all the recommendations of the report, but this entire project is based on that report, and the association hasn’t rejected any of the ideas above.

The Payette report isn’t all bad. There are some decent recommendations here:

  • Allow freelance journalists to negotiate on a level playing field and ensure their contracts have a minimum standard
  • Allow journalists to represent themselves at access to information hearings, as non-journalists are allowed to do
  • Increase support for small regional independent media (through government handouts or other measures)
  • Having the government follow an open data policy and put raw data online as much as possible
  • Forcing municipalities to publish publicly-accessible documents online and provide adequate public notice of council meetings and their agendas

But none of these in any way require the establishment of a title of professional journalist.

Better or worse for new media

Some bloggers and independent journalists are praising the idea, thinking they will improve their working conditions. Nathalie Collard of La Presse went down to South by Southwest and concluded her vision of the media universe contrasted radically with the visions of young media entrepreneurs.

Criticism from journalists has unfortunately been very little. Most are quiet about it, perhaps unsure of their opinions. Some support the idea (like Le Soleil’s Pierre-Paul Noreau). Some hate it (like The Suburban and The Gazette – which makes it seem as if there’s a language divide here, but Voir’s Jérôme Lussier is critical too). Some don’t think this has been properly thought out. Le Devoir’s Josée Boileau asks the simple question: then what?

That’s a big question. The reports and recommendations kind of skip over the most important question of why this is even necessary, preferring to spend most of their time discussing how it would work (and even then, many of the not-unimportant details are left until later).

Some make a false comparison between independent journalists and artists. But this proposal wouldn’t establish a union for journalists, and artists don’t have a title or the same kind of ethics code that would be so vital for journalists.

Conflict of interest

The FPJQ is obviously in favour of this project, because it would give a legal status to the federation. It says people wouldn’t have to be members of the FPJQ to get official journalist status, but only members could elect FPJQ executives who decide who sits on the council that decides who can become a journalist.

The Quebec Press Council, a separate body whose membership is voluntary and whose powers are practically non-existent, also embraces Payette’s report. That might have something to do with the six-figure government handouts she wants the council to receive.

Judging from the fact that a preliminary proposal was approved unanimously at the FPJQ’s annual meeting, it’s likely this vote will also pass with a huge margin. Only FPJQ members are allowed to vote (and I’m not one of them), even though the decision – if it moves the government to action – would affect every journalist working in Quebec.

Then again, as far as this blog is concerned, whether I’m really a journalist could be up for debate soon.

UPDATE (April 6): Nathalie Collard has a letter from Le Devoir’s Louis-Gilles Francoeur saying he’s voting against this idea, not because he opposes having the title of “professional journalist”, but because he opposes having the FPJQ (as opposed to the press council) be the one to administer it.

UPDATE (Nov. 16): Disagreements over who should administer this scheme has resulted in the FPJQ being less than enthusiastic, and could mean abandoning the project.

Posted in Media, Navel-gazing

Justin Trudeau is a good sport

The tweet that started it all

Well, another 15 minutes in the bank.

As long-time readers know, April Fool’s Day is a holiday for me. Like Christmas, it’s anticipated gleefully. I spend weeks looking forward to it and months weeks days hours preparing a series of fake blog posts that go up throughout the morning of April 1.

I never know as I’m writing them which one will take off. It’s not strictly a question of which one I spend the most effort on, or which one seems the most plausible, or which one is the most outrageous. It’s all just a question of luck.

That clever story about Le Devoir charging for tweets? Not a peep. Bupkis. Gesca buying Rue Frontenac? Not nearly as much reaction to that as to last year’s Rue Frontenac scoop. A late-morning story about CTV’s mascot entering rehab (complete with a digitally edited photo of bags of jellybeans on an evidence table) apparently caused a few chuckles within the station but didn’t get traction elsewhere. CKAC’s decision to stop airing Habs games to add more Habs analysis didn’t fool many but did get a few laughs from Sportnographe and others who think the station talks a bit too much about Canadiens line combinations.

All these were nothing compared to a little story I made up about QR codes on Justin Trudeau’s campaign posters bringing people to porn sites.

Continue reading

Posted in Media

Cyberpresse publishes English electoral map

Cyberpresse, which spent quite a bit of effort creating an interactive Google map of 2008 federal election results by individual poll, has decided to release it in English after seeing how popular it became in English Canada.

The web application allows the user to choose any riding in Canada and see a colour-coded map of how each poll in that riding voted. In even the smallest riding – Papineau in Montreal – you can see the breakdown of votes: Solid red in Park Extension, and mostly blue in Villeray before trending back red in St. Michel.

Large residences that have their own poll are represented by large squares (mostly red, because old people vote Liberal). Ties and polls with no results are marked with white.

It’s an impressive feat of programming, but the fact that Cyberpresse has produced English content is the most interesting part of this. It was a trivial move – the data is already bilingual – but I can’t recall a previous instance of this kind of thing happening before.

Other media outlets (at least those with the resources to produce major projects like this) should take note: The Internet allows you to expand your audience far beyond your regular readership, and language can sometimes be much less of a barrier than you might think.

UPDATE: Cedric Sam, who created the map, said it took him about a week and involved some code he recycled from previous projects.

Perhaps the best feature we had for the Cyberpresse and didn’t on the previous projects was the fallback on Google Maps. It means all the people on work computer, tablets, can visit and use the website.

I coded a program in Python that generates KML, the Google Earth format. Then, Google Maps reads this as well and displays it.

Posted in TV

CTV mascot Jellybean enters rehab

CTV's Jellybean, confronted by a close friend, finally admits in front of the cameras that he has a problem

Jellybean, the lovable mascot of CTV Montreal (named after Johnny Jellybean, a former star of CFCF-12), came out publicly on Thursday and admitted his long-standing substance-abuse problem, agreeing to enter a rehabilitation facility to help him wean himself off of his dangerous addiction.

It started about three years ago, Jellybean confesses in a special report that will be aired next week during the CTV local news. After a breakup with a long-term partner, and as other aspects of his life began to unravel, he tumbled into depression. “It was a dark period of my life,” Jellybean said. “I was looking for anything to help me escape it.”

At first, Jellybean used it occasionally, as a pick-me-up after a really bad day. “But occasionally became once a day, then a couple of times a day. I even started doing it at work,” he said.

As a mascot, Jellybean is in high demand at public events. Those ramped up with CTV’s Save Local TV campaign and the station’s 50th anniversary. Unfortunately, so did Jellybean’s substance abuse.

He thought he could hide it, but “it was obvious to everyone but him,” said news director Jed Kahane. “I pretended not to notice at first, since it wasn’t affecting his job. But I was naive, I think, to assume that it wouldn’t eventually.”

Before long, the station had to start covering for him. Events were rescheduled at the last minute for mysterious reasons. “We made up all kinds of excuses,” said anchor Todd van der Heyden. “Deaths in the family, illnesses, breaking news, you name it.”

At one point, the station even had a fake Jellybean hired, just a guy in an oversized Jellybean suit, to attend events.

Though they admitted they were tired of compensating for Jellybean’s problems, staff at the station say their primary motivation in staging an intervention was to get Jellybean some help.

“I was really worried that if he continued down this path he would be dead in six months,” said reporter/anchor Paul Karwatsky.

The turning point came a week ago, when police raided Jellybean’s dealer.

Police display cash and drugs seized as part of a raid last week

“They came this close to arresting him,” said sports anchor and long-time friend Randy Tieman. “I think it finally woke him up that this had to stop.”

A flurry of meetings later, police agreed not to press charges if Jellybean entered a substance abuse program. But at first he refused, saying he didn’t have a problem.

“I was just in complete denial,” Jellybean said. “I don’t know …”

Tieman, Kahane and others staged an intervention, confronting Jellybean about his problem and begging him to take the offer from police. With cameras rolling, he finally broke down.

It may have seemed cruel to capture this moment on tape, but even Jellybean admitted it had to be done this way. “It wouldn’t have been real without the cameras,” he said. “It wouldn’t have worked without them.”

With the blessing of Jellybean and his family, the story is being chronicled for a special report that will air next week. “I want to tell my story,” Jellybean said. “If I can help someone else with this problem, I’ll feel better about myself.”

Jellybean has been at an undisclosed rehab facility for three days, and says it’s working. “But they told me this would take a long time. I won’t be done in a weekend.”

CTV’s special report and interview with Jellybean will air next Thursday at noon and 6 p.m.

Posted in Media

Fagstein, Quebecor enter partnership

You may have noticed this new bar on top of the blog. It’s only the most visible sign of an important new step in the evolution of this blog.

Fagstein has existed since February of 2007 and in those four years has been entirely independent, both editorially and financially, from the rest of the media scene (including from my current employer).

That’s been great for the whole freedom of speech thing, but it also means this blog has brought in zero revenue for all the work I put into it.

This is where my new friends at Quebecor come in. They have a partnership program with influential bloggers (like Dominic Arpin, for example) in which they sell ads and the two parties split the revenues.

When Quebecor first approached me with this idea, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. But considering my current financial situation, I wasn’t in a position to turn down such a generous offer.

So as of today, the first day of Quebecor’s 2011-2012 fiscal year, Fagstein is officially part of the Quebecor Canoo.ca network.

This means, unfortunately, that the blog will start seeing advertising in the coming weeks. That’s how it’s going to make its money. It’ll start off mostly with ads for Quebecor products, including the fantastic new wireless phone service from Videotron. Some new editorial joint ventures with advertisers will also be coming our way, and I look forward to the various partnerships with Quebecor’s business friends and how they can help me bring a better quality blog for you all to enjoy.

There’s also talk about me maybe getting a column in the Journal de Montréal. Fingers crossed!

Posted in Montreal

City admits pothole brigade doesn’t exist

Montreal city officials admitted at a council committee meeting Thursday night that the famed “pothole brigade”, which the city has convinced the media is going around the city filling potholes, does not in fact exist, and the city is doing absolutely nothing about the pothole problem.

What’s worse, they admitted, this is being done on purpose as part of a convoluted conspiracy.

It happens every spring, people complain to the city and to the media that there are potholes everywhere. They say their cars are getting damaged, that it’s dangerous, and that everywhere else you can drive safely on the street, comforted in the knowledge that a giant hole won’t suddenly manifest itself in front of you.

In recent years, the city has responded by staging photo ops of work crews pouring asphalt into potholes. That seemed to be enough to placate the lamestream media.

Turns out, however, this is not the proper method of fixing potholes. The asphalt pops out of the hole within days and disintegrates, bringing the problem back.

The city knows this, of course. As it turns out, they have a financial incentive to cause damage to cars. It’s not reported a lot these days, but the city has a monopoly on car wheel repair shops, and imposes heavy taxes on all new wheels, rims and suspensions.

Encouraging pothole-related damage is also in line with Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s relentless assault on cars. Not only has he diverted millions of dollars from road repair into extravagant cocktail parties for cyclists, but he’s actively encouraging the destruction of private vehicles. Eventually he’d like all cars taken off the road and everyone to get around by Bixi.

But, of course, he’s not ready to admit that publicly yet, which is why we have this charade for the benefit of rich car drivers who pay almost all of the city’s tax revenue.

Every other city in the world has solved their pothole problem to the point where they don’t exist anywhere but Montreal. Young people in Toronto don’t even know what the word “pothole” means anymore. But in Montreal, they’ll continue to be a daily annoyance for drivers for years to come.

Posted in Radio

CKAC to stop airing Habs games

CKAC Radio announced Friday morning on air that it would no longer be airing live Canadiens games as of the end of the season so that it will have more room in the schedule for Habs analysis shows.

“It was just so frustrating having to cut short our discussions so they could do the play-by-play,” said Michel Villeneuve, one of the station’s personalities. “We have so many people here with so many interesting expert opinions, we needed more time to express them.”

CKAC has been trying all sorts of measures to cram more Canadiens-related opinions into its schedule.  It has virtually eliminated all non-hockey programming except during the summer, it has expanded to add live programming in the overnight hours, it has pushed some overflow onto sister station 98.5FM, and it’s even experimented with technology to get analysts to talk faster so they take less time.

But, management says, the biggest obstacle was staring them in the face: That three-hour block three times a week of boring game coverage.

“Our ratings clearly indicated that people would tune out when the game was on,” said a person familiar with the matter who didn’t want to be identified. “It may seem crazy, but in reality it’s a no-brainer.”

Those who long for actual game coverage over the radio need not fear: Habs games will still be on 98.5FM, though the format will change next season. Instead of saying who has the puck and what he’s doing with it, announcers will spend the game analyzing their actions and complaining about stupid moves or overpriced contracts as necessary.

Cogeco Diffusion, which owns both stations, feels this new format will attract more listeners and reinvigorate the business model for airing live sports programming on radio.

“People who want to listen to boring play-by-play can always tune into Pierre Houde on RDS,” Villeneuve said.