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.

28 thoughts on “The end of Hour

  1. Kevin

    Hey Steve,

    I’m not that hard to reach! I follow you on Twitter, for one.

    The info you posted on your blog is inaccurate on most accounts:

    – Some of the people in the picture HAVE been asked to say, but chose not to. With others, we were waiting for the dust to settle.

    – The rates for new freelancers are more or less the same as they’ve been for years now.

    – Joseph Belanger isn’t exactly “new”; he wrote for Hour in 2008-2009 (he’re his interview with Steven Soderbergh for The Girlfriend Experience:

    – We’ll still be covering the arts, starting with next week’s issue and a feature on a Montreal-based artist who has a new exhibit coming up.

    I can’t comment on your assessment of how the paper had been doing previously (I wasn’t there) or your speculations about its future (haven’t been there yet either).

    1. Fagstein Post author

      – Some of the people in the picture HAVE been asked to say, but chose not to. With others, we were waiting for the dust to settle.

      In other words, some (many?) of the freelancers have not been asked to stay.

      – The rates for new freelancers are more or less the same as they’ve been for years now.

      So the allegation that long-time freelancers have been asked to revert to the starting rate is false?

      – We’ll still be covering the arts, starting with next week’s issue and a feature on a Montreal-based artist who has a new exhibit coming up.

      But there won’t be an arts section, right? (Not that there’s much of one now.)

      Anyway, since I have you here, I’ll ask you the question: Why is your newspaper firing its entire staff?

      1. Kevin

        I can’t speak for the paper, especially not for things that have to do with decisions taken before I was there…

        But I look forward to reading your comments about the paper when you get a chance to see what we’re working on, next week.

  2. ATSC

    I’m surprised anybody picks up any of these alt papers. French or English. They just look like something from another era.

  3. Dan

    As you noted, Hour hasn’t been much of a paper for quite some time (no knock on the recent editors — I doubt they were given much to work with), but it did have its moments over the years, playing an important role in the careers of fine writers like Joe Fiorito and Carl Wilson. RIP. Somehow I don’t think that whatever is coming next will be an improvement.

    1. Shawn

      Yes, it’s hard to see what they think they’re gaining by losing a name columnist like Burnett, especially. I guess we’ll see.

  4. Reader

    I lost interest in the Hour years ago – I had always thought it vanished in the wind. I can’t see how a new head will change that with alt. paper readers.

  5. Craig Silverman

    I was a long time Hour contributor, though I stopped writing my column months before the paper’s owner decided to fire the staff. For the record, I believe it’s inaccurate to count the editorial staff at 6 people. To my knowledge, Hour had two full time editorial staffers, two part-timers and a very part-time copy editor prior to the changes.

    As for what Kevin has said in his comments, my understanding is that some people were invited to stay if they accepted the low base pay rate offered to new writers. Which meant a pay cut from an already low rate. So when he writes that “The rates for new freelancers are more or less the same as they’ve been for years now,” he is correct. (I also love the fact that he volunteers the information that new writers have not be given a raise in a long time…) What he doesn’t say is that everyone is being paid the starting rate. And that includes the people in the picture who were offered to stay. Not much of an offer, really. Which I think was pretty much the idea.

    It’s an owner’s right to decide what to do with his property, be it a newspaper or something else. I’ll be watching what happens with Hour with interest. But it doesn’t sit well with me when there are attempts to make it seem as if the folks at Hour had a choice in the matter. They were either fired or given a laughable offer to stay. Same thing, basically.

  6. Anonymous

    What the hell happened to Jamie O’Meara? I don’t remember him being that bloated.
    I think one of the turning points in the Mirror/Hour battle was when Alaistair Sutherland became editor-in-chief. Annarosa Sabbatini was editor before him and, god bless her, although her heart was in the right place, she really couldn’t manage the writers and the then-recent takeover by Quebecor*. Writers rolled right over her, and wrote pretty much whatever they wanted. Consequently, the quality suffered.
    When Sutherland came in, he turned the paper into what was about as risqué and fuck-you as you could get at the time. Anything that appeared as an article in the paper had to be defended by the writer (there was *no* sucking up to be had), and freelancers had to prove their wile. Otherwise, they went to write for the Hour.
    There was one time in particular that’s still fresh in my mind over a decade later: the BOG of Quebecor came in to discuss with Sutherland how they wanted to restructure the editorial board. Al pretty much told them all, including Pierre-Karl Peladeau, to go fuck themselves and that no one was going to tell his staff what to do. It set the tone for the following years, knowing that Sutherland was going to have their back.

    *Funny how everyone talks about Quebecor owning Mirror, yet no one says a peep about Transcontinental owning Hour.

    1. Craig Silverman

      What a classy comment, anonymous. Insult a guy’s appearance and then proceed to say that writers went to Hour if they couldn’t cut it at Mirror. I can think of many examples of writers who were turned away or let go by Hour and ended up writing for the Mirror. It goes both ways and I think that’s because, as much as the papers had similarities, they were in fact different. So different writers belonged at different places. That’s one of the sad things about this: losing a true rivalry that made both papers better and gave Montrealers a real choice.

    2. Martin Patriquin

      Dogging someone’s appearance anonymously. How classy. Grow some goddamn balls, please.

      Also, Transcontinental doesn’t own Hour. Communications Voir does.

      1. Fagstein Post author

        Transcontinental doesn’t own Hour. Communications Voir does.

        Or maybe that’s just what they want you to think.

        If I remember correctly, Transcontinental boss Rémi Marcoux is a shareholder in Communications Voir, but that’s a far cry from saying Transcontinental owns Hour.

  7. Tim

    I’m the same as you, I tuned out the moment “My Messy Bedroom” finished.

    A few weeks ago I picked up The Mirror and felt like I betrayed a bond… only to find that I was engaged as a reader. I hadn’t happened in the last few sporadic times I had glossed Hour.

    Farewell, Hour! You shall be missed.

  8. Beeper

    The Mirror did not defeat the Hour because the Hour had already beaten its equivalent, Ici Magazine long ago. (Voir launched the Hour to beat the Mirror and the Mirror responded with Ici). The demise of the Hour has been foretold for at least 10 years. It has been reeking of death almost since the start I’m only sad that it didn’t happen sooner so the very decent guys who hung in there could get on with their lives and embarked on real careers. That the Mirror is only 48 pages is something of a sad surprise. I haven’t seen it in a very long time, nor even visited their web site, their writers must be about 55 years old now.

  9. Anonymous

    HOUR started out fine but really deteriorated. I found I was able to read it in about 3 minutes. I won’t miss it all that much but it would be great if someone else would come up with something like it or better and with better writers.

  10. malstain

    Anonymous is not Alastair, unless he’s so crafty that he misspelled his own name.

    RIP Hour… whatever you want to say about the paper’s decline in recent years, it’s still sad that those writers and editors are out of work.

    And thanks to Steve for staying on top of this story.

  11. alastair

    I am loathe to get dragged into this, but for the record, that’s not me, posting anonymously about myself. For one thing, I would be unlikely to go online and slag my wife, even anonymously.

    Also for the record, I find the prolonged demise or pseudo-demise of the Hour to be confusing and sad. I wish the best of luck to its former writers and editors.

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  13. Paul Arrant

    In the last decade, I’ve only ever been compelled to pick up copies of Hour (or the Mirror) when I needed something with which to pack dishes before moving house.

    Physical newspapers are dying. Get over it and go online.

    Hanging on to this quaint model of delivering a paper product to people once a week (or more) will look incredibly silly to our descendants in a century’s time. With all of our electronic communications capabilities, they’ll have to wonder why we bothered doing so for as long.

    Just look at what a shadow of its former self the Gazette has become; More ads, more wire stories, more nationally syndicated columns, ever-decreasing copy-editing quality, fewer local features (with inexcusably weak writing), etc.

    Sad but true.

  14. Anonymous

    What was the beginning of the end for Hour and maybe the declining popularity of Mirror is when they stop giving away movie pass and started contest on the websites.

    I knew a lot of peoples who would go out every thursday back in the day just to know what getaway was happening. Then, the internet cames along and the giveaway just stop and they lost a big section of fans they would pick up the newspaper and they won’t anymore because they can find out about the contests throught the website.

    Hour properly suffered the most from this and it’S to bad because it was a pretty good paper back in the day.

  15. Math-jerk

    Good article, but the math is wrong:

    18 versus 26 is not a 144% difference. It’s a 44% difference. Same goes for all the other figures.

    (26/18-1)*100 = 44%

    1. Fagstein Post author

      “Difference” is perhaps an incorrect term. I’m calculating one based on a percentage of the other, so 26 is 144% of 18.

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