Category Archives: Business

Posted in Business

Videotron: We’re fibre too!

The latest indication that Videotron is feeling the heat from competition by Bell Canada is that it has rebranded its Internet packages to include the word “fibre”.

Now, rather than “High Speed” or “Ultimate Speed”, the packages are being referred to as “Fibre Hybrid”. This term reflects the fact that, while the telecom company has 30,000 kilometres of fibre-optic cable, the cable that actually gets into people’s homes is still the same coaxial copper cable that’s been used for cable TV for decades.

Such a setup, in which the backbone is fibre-optic but that last connection to individual homes is a conventional line, is called fibre-to-the-node or fibre-to-the-neighbourhood. It contrasts with fibre-to-the-home, in which fibre-optic cable actually goes all the way to a person’s home, giving them access to very high data transfer rates and room to grow.

Bell Fibe, which isn’t even five years old yet, has been spreading in Montreal, offering for many the first non-satellite alternative for cable TV and high-speed Internet. We don’t know exactly how many customers it’s stolen from Videotron, but we do know that the powers that be at the Quebecor-owned company are very nervous.

Because fibre-optics is so central to Bell that it’s even in the name of the fibre-optic package, Videotron apparently decided it wanted to make sure everyone knows that it too uses fibre. Ads in newspapers boast that Videotron had a fibre network before Bell set one up.

But Videotron’s network, and much of Bell’s, isn’t really fibre. It’s FTTN, not FTTH. And both of them will need to come up with something even more buzzword-worthy when they do bring fibre right into people’s TVs. (Bell has some FTTH customers, but many with “Bell Fibe” don’t have fibre entering their homes.)

As these two companies continue their pissing contest, La Presse’s Jean-François Codère did a comparison between Bell and Videotron in terms of Internet packages. Bell comes out slightly better in some areas while for others you’re better off with Videotron (assuming Internet speed and download caps are all you care about.

It would be nice to say healthy competition is forcing both Videotron and Bell to put consumers first, but Bell just told clients it’s dramatically increasing its prices And Videotron booting its prices is a yearly occurrence.

Maybe we can just amuse ourself in the assumption that if it weren’t for competition, those price increases would be higher. But don’t hold your breath hoping for more. Cogeco just announced it’s abandoning its plans for an IP-based data link to residential subscribers, saying it’s too complicated.

Posted in Business, Montreal, My articles, Photos

Katie Brioux, the new Montreal stamp lady

Katie Brioux shows off one of her stamps

Katie Brioux shows off one of her stamps

When Katie Brioux emailed me out of the blue to tell me she had started making and selling rubber stamps of Montreal’s architectural heritage, one of the big questions I had in my head was “that’s cool, but what would people do with these?”

As paper becomes less important a part of our daily lives, these stamps seem to be going the way of the dodo as well. And unlike the “APPROVED” and “PAID” and other useful office stamps you get at Bureau en Gros, these ones seem destined to lose their novelty quickly.

Thankfully Brioux isn’t making this her career. She’s a graphic designer, one I met two years ago when I was asked to speak to some journalism students and she was doing cool graphics for The Concordian. (I also follow her father, Bill Brioux, who writes about television for a living.)

As she explains in this story, which appears in Saturday’s Gazette, she created a series of stamps as part of a Concordia Student Union orientation campaign. Inspired by the passports used at Expo 67, it was a way to get students to visit all of the venues and events, each of which would have a different stamp to mark their passports with.

Later, she brought those stamps to colleagues in the design industry, and they loved them, encouraging her to make more and sell them. And so a small business was born.

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Posted in Business, Media, Montreal, Radio

Bell/Astral Take 2 would give it near-monopoly on Montreal English radio

It’s official: Bell is trying again. The company announced Monday morning that it has reached a new agreement to acquire Astral Media, and will submit a revised proposal to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, one that will address the commission’s concerns about Bell becoming too big.

Details of the bid won’t be known until the CRTC publishes the application, which could take months, but it’s expected Bell will sell off some English-language television assets to stay under the CRTC’s ownership cap, and Bell says it will improve its tangible benefits package (with at least 85% of it going to on-screen initiatives).

CKGM will stay English

One detail we do know concerns CKGM. Bell says it will ask the CRTC for an exemption to the common ownership rules to allow it to keep TSN Radio 690 as an English station. From their FAQ:

We heard sports fans in Montréal loud and clear. Their passion for sports talk radio is unparalleled. Loyal and devoted, they responded in droves in an effort to preserve CKGM (TSN Radio 690) as an English-language sports radio station. As a result, as part of our new application, we are filing a request for an exception to the CRTC’s Radio Common Ownership Policy to keep TSN Radio 690 as an English-language sports radio station. As a result of tremendous listener response, we think it’s a discussion worth having. We believe an exception to the Policy is reasonable, consistent with previous regulatory practice, and the only way to preserve CKGM as an English sports talk station. Montréal sports radio fans deserve it.

An exemption from the policy is certainly what many listeners were calling for after Bell decided to blame the CRTC for its decision to request TSN be turned into RDS Radio. But it would also mean four of the five English-language commercial radio stations in Montreal (or four of the six if you include the soon-to-be-launched TTP Media station at 600AM) would be owned by the same company.

Normally, CRTC rules state that one company can own no more than two AM and two FM stations in a single market (English and French Montreal are considered separate markets), and that in markets with fewer than eight commercial radio stations, one company can own no more than three.

The combined Bell-Astral would have a 61% total market share and a 79% commercial market share in English Montreal.

It’s odd to hear Bell say on one hand that it understands the CRTC’s concerns about concentration of ownership on a national scale and then argue it needs to own more radio stations in Montreal than the policy would normally allow. (Of course, it’s just as odd for Cogeco to cry about Astral’s market power in radio when it got a similar exemption allowing it to own three French-language commercial FM radio stations in Montreal. In that case, it was so it could hold on to CHMP 98.5FM as the flagship station of a Quebec-wide radio news network.)

Since there’s no application to change CKGM’s licence, they can’t turn around and make it French if the CRTC decides not to allow Bell to own four stations. Instead, it or one of the other former Astral stations would likely be sold to bring Bell under the ownership cap. And since CKGM has the poorest ratings, it would likely be the one to go.

So while RDS Radio isn’t an imminent threat, CKGM and its staff aren’t out of the woods yet.

Say No To Bell vs. Canadians Deserve More

If there’s one thing Bell has learned most from its previous attempt, it’s that it needs a better PR campaign to convince Canadians to be on its side. So it launched CanadiansDeserveMore.ca along with a corresponding Twitter account. Expect to be bombarded by ads from Bell touting the awesomeness of this deal, particularly on television and radio stations owned by Bell Media and Astral. And, if Quebecor and others aren’t convinced this new deal addresses all of their concerns (I’m guessing it won’t), expect a similar ad campaign from Say No To Bell on channels owned by Quebecor and Cogeco, and possibly Rogers and others as well.

 

The public will have a chance to comment on the application when it’s published by the commission.

Posted in Business

Canadian Tire still doesn’t wave the flag in Quebec

Canadian Tire’s Quebec flyer for this week: Mentions Canada Day, but no Canadian flag on sale

I guess we should be used to it: Canadian Tire is still downplaying its Canadianness in Quebec.

I wrote about this a year ago when someone spotted that the chain was running different flyers inside and outside this province, with the ones inside the province being noticeably less patriotic. At the time, the company said it wasn’t hiding its Canadianness in Quebec, even though the bilingual flyer outside the province had “Canada Day” on it and the one inside didn’t.

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Posted in Business, In the news, Media

An Oasis of bad publicity

Guy A. Lepage et al > Oasis

So here’s the deal: A Lassonde, the company that makes Oasis fruit drinks, is apparently sensitive to other companies using the name for consumer products, even when there’s no risk of confusion with a bottle of juice.

Saturday’s La Presse carried the story of its legal battle with a woman, Deborah Kudzman, who makes olive oil soaps called Olivia’s Oasis. Lassonde sued Kudzman, arguing that her product’s brand was confusingly similar to their Oasis juice brand, even though one’s a juice and one’s a soap, and they have nothing in common other than a word.

Kudzman not only won the case (since, among other things, “oasis” is a word in the dictionary and there are about a billion commercial products with that word in their name), but the judge ordered Lassonde to pay Kudzman’s legal bills, which had surpassed $70,000, she told La Presse.

But Lassonde appealed that part of the judgment, arguing that its lawsuit wasn’t abusive. It won that case, and was relieved of the obligation to pay Kudzman’s legal bills. Kudzman, convinced that Oasis knew from the start that it wouldn’t win its case and sued just to try to scare her away, went to La Presse. The story centred mostly on Kudzman, including only a brief comment from Lassonde saying its lawsuit was justified.

That might have been the end of it, a story in the newspaper about a big company screwing a small business, but then social media took over. Bloggers started writing about it, influential personalities like Guy A. Lepage were talking boycott, and Oasis’s Facebook page was flooded with negative comments. La Presse had a followup about the online reaction.

Then, a change of heart. In the evening, as Montrealers were focused on a meaningless hockey game, the company announced on its Facebook page that it would compensate Kudzman for her legal costs. (The post has disappeared, though I don’t know if that’s because they deleted it or for some other technical reason. Their official Twitter feed linked to the post and La Presse quoted from it.)

It’s surprising. First, that everyone would pay so much attention to this story. Second, that it would provoke a response on a Saturday evening during a long weekend. Third, that in a matter of hours a company would decide to make a PR decision that would cost them almost $100,000. And finally, that they would just give her the money after having gone through the trouble of an appeal process in order to not give her the money.

The cost of doing PR

The basics of this story happen pretty often. When the media publish a story about a big company screwing someone (usually a customer), the response tends to be to compensate that person with a refund or anything else that would make them satisfied. Whether the company was right or wrong immediately becomes irrelevant. This isn’t a customer retention issue, it’s purely a public relations one.

But these kinds of stories are usually about customers with $100 phone bills or who bought something at a store that didn’t work. Fixing those problems cost far less than the free advertising they get from being seen as a good corporate citizen on the local news. (It works best when some slick fact-play tries to turn it into some sort of misunderstanding, as was the case in Oasis-gate.)

Rarely do we see such a huge monetary settlement offered so quickly.

I can imagine some self-appointed social media marketing experts salivating at the thought of offering their two cents on the matter (oh wait, here they are). It tends to happen after high-profile cases like this. They talk about the mistakes the company made and pretend they would do things insanely better if only they were in charge. (In what I’ve read so far, the only concrete thing someone has suggested they should have done differently is to take minutes instead of hours on a holiday weekend to decide to spend almost $100,000 on their opponent’s legal fees because people complained on their Facebook page.)

What went wrong here isn’t that Lassonde had bad PR working for it. Its problems were in a conference room, either in the form of its lawyers or its executives (or both).

The real test of whether Lassonde has learned its lesson is whether it will go after other companies that dare use Oasis in their product brand names. Its conciliatory statement implies that it won’t (well, actually it implies that it never did, in one of those amazing doublespeak moments).

Even if Lassonde does change its legal strategy, there are plenty of other companies out there whose greed or fear has eroded their common sense.

UPDATE (April 11): Some people in the communications industry have pointed out that the major error on Lassonde’s part is that it didn’t consult with PR people before engaging in a legal battle that could have put them in hot water. It’s an interesting point. They could have seen this coming and prepared for it, either by not launching the lawsuit in the first place or by having a communications strategy that would mitigate any damage.

Whether that would have made a difference is hard to see. Any lawsuit can make you look bad when you’re a big (or even medium-sized) company going after a mom-and-pop shop. And it’s almost impossible to predict what kind of story will get traction in social media.

Meanwhile, Patrick Lagacé has a story in La Presse about another company, making a cleaning product called Bioasis, that was forced to shut down because it couldn’t handle the cost of renaming itself or fighting Lassonde in court. Lagacé uses this case, which dates from 2003, to call Lassonde a bully.

Lassonde responds in a new blog that things changed in 2004 when it brought its legal department in-house. Its president also says that the Olivia’s Oasis case was the only one that went to court over trademark issues, and that its settlement options include a free license to use the trademark, which allows Lassonde to protect its rights (trademarks lose their value legally if their owners don’t fight for them) without punishing a smaller company.

Posted in Business, Uncategorized

Minute Maid’s frozen juice ripoff

Old 355ml (right) and new 295ml Five Alive frozen juice can from Minute Maid

If, like me, you went to the grocery store recently and thought that frozen juice can felt a bit odd in your hand, it’s not your imagination. Minute Maid has decided to reduce the size of its frozen juice cans as a cost-saving measure.

The move is, of course, not being announced. There’s no obvious indication on the cans that their size has been reduced (the only real difference is that the logos have been rotated so they’re upright when the can is standing), and at least one major grocery store isn’t selling it for cheaper. On a trip to Loblaws last weekend, I confirmed that both the new and old size of can (the old ones were still in stock) were on sale at $1 each (the two have different bar codes, so it’s not a technological limitation).

And, in case you’re wondering, it hasn’t just been ultra-concentrated like those liquid laundry detergents. They still recommend emptying the can’s contents and three cans worth of water to mix the juice. So now instead of getting 1.42 litres of juice, you get 1.18 litres, a reduction of 17%

When asked about the change, Minute Maid (which is owned by Coca-Cola) said this:

“With the increase in commodities, rather than pass the total cost on to the consumer, the decision was made to adjust the package size to offset some of the increase the consumer would have had to pay if this adjustment wasn’t made.”

I then asked why this change wasn’t made clear to the customer. I didn’t get a response.

Loblaws also didn’t respond to a query about why it didn’t make the change clear to customers and why it was charging the same for both sizes of can.

I can understand commodity prices, inflation and the increased cost of doing business. One could even make the argument that some of these frozen juices could stand to be diluted more, mainly for health reasons (I usually dilute them to a full 2 litres, and even then they’re quite sugary). But households aren’t going to reduce the size of their juice jugs or how much they drink, so this move seems strange to me.

Except when you consider how subtle it is. When you see it in the context of tricking the customer into buying less and expecting more, it all makes perfect sense: It’s a ripoff.

At least a few posts on Minute Maid’s Facebook wall (which is otherwise clogged with posts from people who joined under the apparently false impression that doing so would get them a coupon) agree. None of those posts got a response.

Minute Maid’s brands include Five Alive, Fruitopia and Nestea. Other brands (including No Name, which is still at 341ml) are unaffected … yet.

So if you’re at the store and you’re about to grab a Minute Maid concentrated frozen juice, check the can to see if it’s actually smaller than you think it is. And if you see a 355ml can (especially if it’s still on sale for $1), stock up, because they won’t last.

Posted in Business, Photos

Graite Kenadeun speleng

Great Canadian Coaches bus parked on Berri St. last week

I was downtown around Berri St. and René-Lévesque Blvd. last week, frustrated that I had just missed my night bus connection, when I walked down the street and noticed this curious beast parked next to a hotel. It’s a bus by a company called Great Canadian Coaches, based in Ontario. On the side is a mural of images of great Canadians past and present. The other side of the bus has another few dozen faces. By my count, there are 45 hand-painted images of Canadians (46 if you count Wayne and Shuster separately, more if you count the Group of Seven individually). I thought that was really nice.

Near the door, I spotted this image of Canada’s governor-general, David Johnston:

Image of Governor-General David Johnston... or Johnson?

It didn’t take me long to notice the spelling of his name next to his image. Shouldn’t it have a T in it? I remember the newly appointed governor-general had the same name as a Gazette journalist (which led to some good-natured fun at his expense congratulating him on his new post).

Of course, I was right. Both the journalist and the governor-general are spelled “Johnston”. It’s kind of an embarrassing mistake to make on the side of a bus.

Here’s the kicker: It’s autographed.

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Posted in Business

Canadian Tire not so Canadian in Quebec

Canadian Tire bilingual flyers for Ontario and Quebec

It’s the latest chapter in Canadian companies playing down their Canadian-ness in Quebec. (Remember when Tim Hortons cups here didn’t have maple leaves on them?)

For this week’s flyer, Canadian Tire produced different versions for Quebec and the rest of the country. This is partly because the flyer is for a week starting June 24, and the flyers in Quebec can’t show Friday specials since stores were closed in Quebec on Friday.

But there’s also that big special on a $10 Canadian flag. It’s not in the Quebec flyer, not even on the back page. And while the bilingual flyer on the left (for Alexandria, Ont.) notes that the specials are for Canada Day, the one on the right doesn’t mention it.

Maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. The Quebec flyer covers both the Fête nationale and the run up to Canada Day, so maybe Canadian Tire didn’t want to be seen favouring one holiday over the other. The inside pages reference both holidays at the top. And you’ll notice the product shots in Quebec have Quebec flags in the background.

Or maybe, like Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire thought it was best to play down Canadian patriotism so it doesn’t piss off the separatists.

Montrealer Ted Duskes, who spotted this, writes:

Talk about pandering. This is the second year in a row that they have pulled a similar “disappearing flag act”.

Are they really “Canadian Tire” or are they planning a name change to go along with the missing “Canadian Tire” that they have removed from their red triangular logo. Maybe the new logo is blue, with a fleur-de-lys, but only for Quebec.

They really know how to annoy a 45 year (formally) loyal customer.

I’ve contacted Canadian Tire to ask for an explanation. Here’s what I got back from Communications Manager Sébastien Bouchard:

Canadian Tire has a long history in Canada, including Quebec, and we are proud to be a true Canadian retailer. Our country spans from sea to sea and, like other retailers, our customer marketing vehicles vary from one region to another. This year, in Québec we decided to use a red background with white maple leafs to create a color theme that clearly reflects the Canada Day long weekend. True to our roots, this year’s flyer was definitely designed to celebrate life in this great country of ours.

In other words, a non-answer.

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Posted in Business, Media

New contract proposal to Journal de Montréal workers

The CSN has announced that locked-out members of the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal will vote on a new contract offer proposed by the mediator appointed by the Quebec government.

Note that this does not necessarily mean there’s an agreement in principle. The release mentions nothing about whether the union executive recommends the proposal, whether the employer will accept the proposal, or any details about the proposal itself. (UPDATE: Apparently the CSN is saying the union is, in fact, recommending the proposal, which is pretty huge — oh wait, the union is now denying it has recommended the deal.)

The vote will take place Saturday at 10am at the Palais des congrès, and followed by a press conference.

You’ll recall that the last vote on a proposal, in October, resulted in 89.3% of workers rejecting the offer.

Posted in Business, Media

The future of Rue Frontenac

Rue Frontenac's newsroom

Rue Frontenac started as an idea, in that it was copied from an idea realized elsewhere. When the Journal de Québec was locked out for a year and a half, its workers launched a competing free daily and later a website called MédiaMatinQuébec.

The publication was a pressure tactic (a judge even ruled as such when Quebecor sought an injunction preventing them from publishing). It would keep people updated on the status of negotiations from the union’s perspective. But more importantly, it would remind readers that the real power of the newspaper came from its journalists, who would continue to do their jobs despite being in a labour conflict.

In essence, the journalists protested their lockout by continuing to work.

Whether MédiaMatinQuébec succeeded in its mission of forcing the employer’s hand by turning public opinion against it is a matter of debate. But it raised the profile of the locked-out workers, and journalists facing a labour conflict since then have made this idea part of their plans.

On Jan. 24, 2009, about six months after the end of the Journal de Québec lockout and less than an hour after an agreement not to launch a labour conflict had expired, 253 members of the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal were officially locked out of their jobs.

The lockout wasn’t a surprise – the writing had been on the wall for months. So a plan was already in place when the lockout became official (for both the employer and the union). Journalists would work out of the STIJM’s offices, which are next door to the Journal de Montréal’s office building at 4545 Frontenac St., at the end of Mont Royal Ave.

But rather than a free daily, they decided to go with a website. Unlike Quebec City, Montreal already had two free daily newspapers (one of which is owned by Quebecor), and its larger area makes it less practical to distribute a newspaper on a daily basis. Four days after the lockout began, RueFrontenac.com was launched.

(The title is somewhat ironic – though next door to the Journal’s offices on Frontenac, the STIJM is actually on Iberville St., just north of where Frontenac merges into it.)

Its team of journalists, working out of drafty offices without most of the usual office comforts, continued to work their beats, trying to come up with exclusives that would raise the website’s profile. It’s now considered a primary source of news and a major news organization in Montreal.

Rue Frontenac's first issue in October

In October 2010, after a successful test the year before with a special Canadiens issue, Rue Frontenac launched as a weekly tabloid newspaper to accompany the website. Rather than try to stay up to date with breaking news (much of it would be days old), the paper focused on features and exclusive reports. It was more of a magazine on newsprint than a newspaper.

Richard Bousquet, who has been coordinating Rue Frontenac in both its formats, says he worked seven days a week from August to December on this project, until he finally took a vacation over the holidays.

When it launched, Rue Frontenac had 1,400 distribution points, most shared with the free weekly Voir. Now, Bousquet says, it’s more like 1,600. And distribution points in Quebec City have been added to those in the Mauricie, Eastern Townships and Outaouais regions. The publication is also taking names of people who would be interested in paid delivery.

The print run is 75,000 copies, and Bousquet wants a return rate of under 5%. Right now it’s about twice that, but dropping as they adjust the number of copies for each stand.

The plan is that, with the exception of labour costs paid out by the union’s strike fund, the paper should be self-sufficient financially, meaning that advertising revenue (and maybe subscription revenue) should pay for printing and distribution costs.

Advertising comes slowly

“Ça roule,” union president Raynald Leblanc said during a press conference two weeks ago when asked about advertising in the paper edition. The reality is a bit more complex.

The first issue of Rue Frontenac had quite a bit of advertising, but it was mostly from unions showing solidarity, not businesses trying to make money.

A notable exception was Micro Boutique, the Apple dealer, which had a half-page ad in the first edition. Bousquet says they wanted in right away to take advantage of the media coverage surrounding the paper’s launch. They knew a lot of people would be interested in that first issue.

For other corporate advertisers, the biggest problem was essentially a bureaucratic one: big advertising campaigns are planned and budgeted months in advance. This means there isn’t much money for last-minute ads. Many advertisers are also worried about the long-term future of this newspaper if the labour conflict is eventually solved.

And then, of course, there are those who are worried about offending Quebecor, though that’s not so much an issue as you might think, Bousquet says. “C’est pas un journal de combat,” he clarifies. It’s not afraid to say bad things about the media empire, but that’s not its primary purpose, either. Obviously, they’re not getting ads from Archambault or Videotron, but most other advertisers aren’t afraid of what Quebecor might think.

(On Rue Frontenac’s website, whose advertising is served by BV! Media, now owned by Rogers, ads for Videotron have appeared in the past, not because Videotron specifically wanted to be on RueFrontenac.com, but because the ads were displayed throughout the advertising network.)

As we enter into that 3-6-month window, more ads are showing up in the paper. We’re entering RRSP season, which means a lot of ads from Desjardins, Bousquet offered as an example.

A profitable paper?

“On fait tout pour que Rue Frontenac continue à vivre,” Bousquet says. Knowing that there’s no way the Journal de Montréal will hire back all 253 workers or even a majority of that, the union eventually wants to offer the Rue Frontenac name to a publication that would be run by some of the workers who will be left behind.

It certainly won’t be all the workers not hired back at the Journal who will be able to continue with Rue Frontenac. Forced to pay salaries on top of other expenses, its budget wouldn’t be able to support 200 workers, or even 100, Bousquet admits.

Still, he feels strongly optimistic about Rue Frontenac’s future as a small publication filling a niche as a weekly newspaper focused on in-depth, exclusive stories, and a website with mostly original breaking news.

Asked whether he thinks having an actually profitable newspaper is feasible, he responds: “Oui, il y a possibilité. On croit que économiquement c’est possible.”

There are no big plans for the short term (at least, none Bousquet was willing to share), but they do plan to study their audience and their options. They’re still collecting names as they figure out whether they should implement a home delivery service, and they’re studying the possibility of increasing from one to two editions a week of the newspaper.

After the lockout

When a contract offer was voted down by a huge majority in the fall, and the union complained about an anti-competition clause as one of its main reasons for rejecting the deal, Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau said the company would withdraw its demand that Rue Frontenac be shut down and that laid-off workers be barred from working for La Presse. (When the Journal de Québec conflict was settled, one of its demands was that MédiaMatinQuébec be shut down, which is why it is no longer online.)

There are still other issues on the table, the biggest one being the number of employees who would be allowed to return to work. Negotiations that have recently resumed are covered under a blackout that prevents both sides from commenting publicly, but I imagine that number is still a major issue.

La question qui tue

So if Rue Frontenac does continue beyond the lockout, perhaps with a handful of employees, what are its chances of success?

Posted in Business, Media, Opinion

Journal de Montréal Lockout Anniversary 2: The Boring Sequel

Three TV cameras and a handful of reporters at a press conference on Monday about the second anniversary of the Journal de Montréal lockout

Having nothing better to do on a Monday morning, I headed to a press conference announcing the second anniversary of the lockout at the Journal de Montréal. Miscalculating public transit travel time, I arrived a few minutes late, and passed a man carrying a TV camera down the stairs. I missed little of the press conference, but it was clear none of the journalists there were particularly impressed by what they were witnessing.

That impression was confirmed in the news coverage that came out of it, or the lack thereof. Articles for Métro, The Gazette, Radio-Canada, and, of course, Rue Frontenac. No mention, despite the three TV cameras present, on any of the local newscasts that evening, not even as a 10-second brief with anchor voice-over.

I have a feeling some of them might have expected the artists invited to this Jan. 24 concert to be present, giving at least a minimum amount of interesting video. Unfortunately, though this lockout affects dozens of people who know media very well, the union failed to create an event that would be interesting enough to capture the media’s attention.

I noticed that fellow media-watchers like Nathalie Collard, Steve Proulx and Stéphane Baillargeon weren’t at the press conference either. That’s perfectly understandable. They’ve all written quite a bit about the lockout, and wouldn’t have learned anything new here they couldn’t pick up from the press release that was published during the press conference: there’s a concert with Les Zapartistes, Bernard Adamus, Karkwa and Damien Robitaille, and nothing earth-shattering on the negotiation front. To have them transcribe a predictable statement from these people and then try to get a reaction from Quebecor would have been a waste of their talents. (Fortunately, I have no problem wasting my time on stuff like this.)

Notice the banner covering the window, reducing the amount of light coming in

On my way to the press conference, I bumped into a colleague in the journalism business, and we briefly discussed the lockout and how other journalists deal with it. We disagreed on whether people feel free to criticize the locked-out workers and are too afraid to be seen as cooperating with Quebecor (see Deschamps, Yvon). I have, on occasion, been critical of the union’s positions and of Rue Frontenac (as I’m being here) without feeling as though I would be attacked for it or be punished for it somehow. (Then again, I haven’t given any exclusive interviews to the Journal, either.)

But this all makes me wonder: Are we just getting tired of this conflict? The “253″ workers who have been “on the street” for two years certainly are. Even if they’re still getting paid a significant salary, even if they’re playing in a media sandbox where they can do just about whatever they like without having to answer to any big corporate boss, even if they know most of them will probably never again set foot in the building at 4545 Frontenac St. The uncertainty of the future, living in limbo, it must get tiring after a while.

The rest of us, meanwhile, even those who follow the local media and think that the Journal de Montréal conflict is the biggest story of the past two years, we’ve run out of things to say. Negotiations are barely proceeding (Jean-François Lisée notwithstanding) and in some cases even going backwards. Even the name of this show they’re organizing, Le Show du cadenas 2, reflects that Year 2 of this lockout is just the same as Year 1, and Year 3 probably won’t be any different.

The print version of Rue Frontenac has spiced things up a bit, but even then the tiredness sets in. Richard Bousquet, who coordinates that project, took a two-week vacation over the holidays after working seven days a week on it since August.

Everyone is tired of this. But both sides will keep struggling to push ahead, and there’s no end in sight.

The Show du Cadenas 2 is at 8 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 24, at Metropolis. Tickets are $20 at Admission or the STIJM/Rue Frontenac offices just north of the Journal de Montréal.

UPDATE (Jan. 31): Video highlights of the show from Rue Frontenac.

Posted in Business, Opinion, Technology

Your fake phones are useless to me

Fake phones at Best Buy

I’m currently in the market for a smartphone. I’ve had the same phone for four and a half years now, and it’s starting to show its age. It’s getting tougher and tougher to get the charger’s plug in the right position to get it to charge, and I’ve recently learned that the alarm doesn’t work when the phone is charging.

Meanwhile, my portable media player, a couple of years old, is also deteriorating. The audio jack doesn’t always make proper contact, the top layer of its skin is flaking off, and the software design flaws I tolerated at the beginning are starting to get on my nerves.

Plus, it seems everyone cool has a smartphone but me, and I want to have at least basic access to the Internet when I’m out and about.

So wanting to kill three birds with one stone, I’m doing research into both handsets (I’m looking at non-iPhones) and voice/data plans. I’ll probably do a plan post at some point, as I have a bunch of numbers in a spreadsheet right now.

With online research, I’ve narrowed down a short list of devices that meet my criteria: Wi-Fi and a web browser, an open operating system (Android or Symbian), FM radio (remarkably hard to find, and a major factor against the iPhone), and a feeling of ruggedness – I don’t want some cheap plastic part to break after six months and render the phone useless.

Since there’s just so much I can learn from reading specs sheets and looking at reviews online, I went to some stores recently to check out the devices in person.

Tables and tables of fake phones at Future Shop

Electronics stores have entire sections devoted to cellphones, each one tied to a security cord so you can hold it in your hand but can’t steal it. You can touch the phones, slide out keyboards where such slides exist, and run your fingers across the buttons.

But that’s about it. You can’t turn them on, try the browser, see how high the volume goes, check out what software features it has, or anything else that involves a battery. You can get a vague idea of what the operating system looks like by the fake display that’s pasted on, but you can’t get any sense of how it works.

It’s the same at the carriers’ special shops. There might be a working iPhone display at the Rogers store, but good luck testing out that Motorola Quench or Nokia N97.

This seems ridiculous to me. Computers and laptops are almost always sold in a way that lets you test them out first. So are iPods, digital cameras and camcorders, TVs and other electronic devices.

I asked one of the customer service people at one of those inside-the-mall shops about having phones on display that actually work. He said that if they did that, the phones would constantly be stolen. Those phones, with the bungee cords attaching them to the table? And what about that iPhone – the most in-demand mobile device on the planet right now – that you’ve managed to setup a proper display for?

I’ve gone to Bell, Telus, Rogers, Fido, Virgin Mobile, Videotron and unaffiliated stores, looking for somewhere I can test drive one of these non-iPhone smartphones. I’m facing the prospect of choosing a $500 device without having turned it on first.

It’s not exactly encouraging.

Posted in Business, Media, Opinion

Branchez-Vous unplugged

I suppose it was kind of inevitable. The independent media company Branchez-Vous!, known for its boring-looking Web portal, its news service that cribs other news services, and other websites including Showbizz.net and Fanatique.ca, has been bought by Rogers Media for $25 million, pending approval from shareholders (though administrators with 76% of the stock have already agreed to the takeover).

As much as the media holdings are valuable, though, the acquisition’s main value seems to come from the advertising network used by bloggers and more mainstream sites like Le Devoir and Rue Frontenac.

Financially, the deal is pretty sweet for B-V. The 40-cents-per-share price is 242% of the company’s closing share price on Thursday and about double what the stock has been trading over the past six months at least.

But as much as I think the company is worth every penny of the asking price, I can’t help but feel a bit sad at the loss of one of the few truly independent media sources left in Quebec.

It’s not that I think Rogers is evil (okay, I do think Rogers is evil, but not more than its competitors) or that there will be some radical change to the way Branchez-Vous operates (they’ve already said all management and employees are staying). It’s that a decision that was made by a small management team might now have to go through focus groups to remove any chance that it might offend anyone or detract in some way from the company’s branding.

And even though the acquisition seems to be like a poodle eating a horse (Rogers’s holdings in francophone Quebec are pretty limited – Châtelaine, L’actualité and LOULOU, plus some lesser-known magazines and trade publications – and its web properties get about a quarter of the traffic of Branchez-Vous’s network), expect B-V to look more like Rogers by the end of this than Rogers looks like B-V.

Expect, for example, that Branchez-Vous freelancers are forced to sign Rogers Media’s draconian contracts, that would grant Rogers the ability to freely reuse B-V content in its magazines.

And next time there’s a labour conflict involving a media company (as was the case with Rue Frontenac), expect them to think a lot harder before deciding to take sides.

Most of all, a company that already took itself far too seriously will now do so even more.

But I guess it could have been worse. They could have been bought by Quebecor.

Posted in Business, Media, Opinion

Ex Astral, scientia

Astral Media, the company that has interests in cable channels, advertising, radio and a bunch of other stuff, has changed its logo.

Before: Astral Media

After: Astral

Logo changes are a fact of life, as companies realize that they’ve gotten old and boring and need some hip new way to stay in touch with people, like adding colours and going all-lowercase. They find a designer who whips out the Pantone booklet and gets to work on something abstract that will eventually get shot down by a committee until, 12 months later, a mediocre logo that doesn’t mean anything and therefore doesn’t offend anyone gets tacit support from the corporation and is released to the public.

Astral’s new logo replaces a stylized “A” with … another stylized “A” (but lowercase). According to the press release, the new logo “represents the company’s diverse assets, decentralized yet disciplined business model and the knowledge, passion and imagination its employees bring to the marketplace.”

I think it represents the fact that the only thing a logo maker can think of when it comes to Astral is that it starts with the letter “A”. But then, most corporate logos are just stylized letters anyway, although most aren’t quite so phallic.

My favourite part of the release comes right after that quote:

The vibrant colour palette and creative shape of the new logo are designed to convey human warmth and emotion, within a defined and responsive structure that is grounded and resilient.

Astral is prepared to show human emotion, but only within a defined structure. If it wasn’t obvious how big and corporate Astral Media has gotten, this should make it clear that it has nothing to do with the logo.

This video of an old white guy emotionlessly reading a statement filled with marketingese should accentuate that point.

Remember, these are the guys who own CHOM and Virgin Radio in Montreal.

Alain Bergeron: Out the door already

The redesign was apparently the work of this guy, VP and Chief Marketing Officer Alain Bergeron. Astral announced shortly after the new logo that Bergeron was leaving the company (supposedly he stuck around just long enough to launch the new brand identity).

The change has gotten some ink … err, pixels, in the mediawatchosphere, like this piece form Trente. But there has also been some criticism, one calling it “a weird mess”people on Twitter expressing even worse criticisms, and one even putting money behind a contest to design a new logo. It’s gotten so bad we’re starting to see a backlash backlash, serious analysis of the larger issue and parody on the radio.

Astral Media (now just “Astral”) is a private company and it can burn whatever cash it wants, even while it fires a bunch of front-line people and cuts hours of local programming at its radio stations to replace it with cheap syndicated crap.

But Astral has little brand recognition among the public. And there’s nothing wrong with that. People don’t go to the grocery store and buy Astral cereal. They don’t subscribe to Astral cable. They don’t turn on the TV or radio and switch it to the Astral channel. They go to Canal Vie, and VRAK.TV, and CHOM and Rock Détente. Astral’s properties have their own branding, why should the parent company care what anyone thinks of its logo?

Maybe I’m missing something, but my gut tells me if Astral thinks this change will do anything more than force them to throw away a bunch of old business cards and letterhead (and signs), they’re dreaming in Technicolor.

Posted in Business, Canadiens, Media, Montreal

Running over penguins is fun

A fellow editor noticed this ad that appears in Tuesday’s Gazette. It’s an ad for Ford that seems pretty generic until you think about it for a second.

Ford ad in The Gazette, May 4, 2010, Page A12

The text says “Passion to go the distance”. Penguins in the windshield, and in the rear-view mirror is the Capitol Building in Washington. At the bottom, the logo of the Canadiens.

Ford hasn’t had the best of luck trying to be funny in advertising in Canada, but this one was pretty cute. Not the most subtle ad ever created, but still relatively clever.

And hey, full-page colour ads pay my salary, so I’m not going to complain.

There was something I read recently (and, of course, can’t find now that I want to link to it) about car companies wanting to stop having Canadian firms develop their own marketing campaigns. Instead, they could just use U.S. ads in Canada. This is a pretty good reason not only to keep Canadian-specific ad campaigns, but locally-focused ones.