Monthly Archives: April 2010

Can the West Island Chronicle be saved?

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

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

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

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

Yeah, it’s true

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

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

Announcement welcoming Sarah Leavitt in April 7 issue

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

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

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

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

Let freedom reign

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

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

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

Ethical lapse?

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

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

Awards season

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

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

What do you think?

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

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

Community lacking in community TV

The CRTC will be holding a hearing this month about community television, and at least one group is hoping they will close loopholes (or even just curb abuses that aren’t even loopholes) that allow cable companies to use these channels as promotional arms.

The CRTC requires cable companies to devote 5% of their gross revenues to Canadian programming. Of that, 2% must go to a community channel, kind of like those “cable access channels” we hear about in the U.S.

Even though it’s a very small fraction of their money, the cable companies decided they would put it to good use. Instead of just giving it over to an independent community broadcaster, they’d run their own community networks. Rogers uses the moniker RogersTV. With Videotron, it’s VOX. Shaw TV, TVCogeco, you get the idea.

The problem with having the cable companies in control is that this can lead to abuses. Rogers is being accused of having too much advertising. Others of not keeping proper records (which, admittedly, is a chronic problem for many low-budget broadcasters).

But the biggest problem seems to be that the programming itself isn’t fulfilling its mandate:

The CRTC audits found that Cogeco, Rogers, Shaw, and Persona all classified staff-produced news and other programming-even MTV promos in one instance-as “access programming”. Some Eastlink systems reported no access programming at all.

“The CRTC’s data show that Canada’s ‘community’ channels have become promotional tools for cable companies,” said Catherine Edwards, spokesperson for CACTUS.

A look at VOX, Videotron’s community channel, and you can see what they mean. A show devoted to TVA’s Star Académie. A show put together by a (former) Quebecor-owned weekly newspaper. Quebecor personalities are all over the schedule.

Sure, there’s the “Mise à jour [city name here]”, and the half hour where they show traffic cameras. But I don’t see much access here, nor do they make obvious how someone could get involved.

Perhaps the era of community television is over. We no longer need cable access when we have Internet access. People can just put their videos on YouTube. (Ratings certainly suggest that, with market shares of 0.1 and 0.2%.)

But until the CRTC makes that determination, cable companies should start playing by the rules – the spirit as well as the letter.

UPDATE (May 15): La Presse’s Marc Cassivi also thinks Vox isn’t doing what it should as far as community programming.

Montreal Geography Trivia No. 73

Back to transit this week, on a suggestion from reader Zain Farookhi:

What bus stop is shared between the most bus lines?

(Note that for the purposes of this question, a terminal with multiple stops is not considered one stop.)

UPDATE: Steve Hatton is the first to get the right answer.

STM bus stop at René-Lévesque and Mansfield (westbound)

This stop at René-Lévesque Blvd. and Mansfield (that’s the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in the background) has 10 bus lines serving it as of March 29:

Of those 10 routes, two are less than a month old and two others are less than two years old. Before last week, the answer would have been (unless I’m mistaken) the stop at Brunswick Blvd. and St. John’s Blvd. outside the Fairview mall in the West Island, which is served by nine routes all coming out of the terminal.

Kellergraham points out an alternative that also has 10 routes serving it.

Ted Bird joins K103 morning show

Ted Bird

It’s gratifying that I was able to say what a lot of people in radio want to say but can’t, even if it meant dynamiting every professional bridge in my wake.
Well, not every bridge. There’s still the Mercier.

Ted Bird, on his blog

Even he admits it was the worst kept secret ever: Ted Bird, who left CHOM-FM over “creative differences” in January, will be one of the co-hosts of the morning show at CKRK 103.7 FM in Kahnawake, starting April 19.

This will be in addition to his weekly segment on CFCF television, as well as those blogs he isn’t being paid to maintain.

Mike Cohen broke the news on his blog based on “reliable sources” about a day before what should have been a Gazette exclusive Monday morning, followed by an official announcement from the station.

After getting the news from a “reliable source” of my own, I got Bird to confirm the news under the condition that I hold off publishing it until the first editions of the Gazette were published at midnight. Basem Boshra’s article on Ted Bird headlines Monday’s Arts & Life section. There’s a similar piece at with a photo of the three new hosts.

What the hell is K103?

The 250-Watt station on the south shore isn’t exactly burning up the ratings. In fact, most Montrealers probably haven’t even heard of it. But it was the only one that could offer Bird what he needed: a radio job in (or rather near) his city that could offer him a salary and complete creative freedom, he tells me via email:

I’m really excited.  K103 is about the only place left on the dial where the announcers are left to their own creative devices, and that’s hugely appealing to me.  Also, because of who it is and where it is, there’s a pirate radio element to it.  The main differences are that instead of pirates, it’s Mohawks, and if it doesn’t work out I won’t have to walk the plank, although they may tie me to an anthill and smear me in honey.

Paul Graif

Bird won’t be alone on the morning show. Joining him will be Paul Graif, the former local TV sportscaster who rejoined the station in February, and James “Java” Jacobs, a CKRK veteran who, you know, actually lives in Kahnawake.

“The worst that will happen is I’ll have a shitload of fun doing the kind of radio you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else,” Bird says. “I defy you to name me another morning show with a West Island WASP, a Kahnawake Mohawk and a Hampstead Jew.”

The show will run 5:30am to 10am, which is a slot Bird is used to. Fans of his regular segments Bird Droppings (sports commentary) and Revisionist History (just making shit up about the past) will be pleased to know that he’s planning to bring them with him to his new gig, at least as long as Astral Media doesn’t sue.

One-year deal

Bird says he’s committed to the station for at least a year, and while the salary is nowhere near what he got at CHOM, the ability to keep his integrity and freedom is more important than the money. He’s hoping that bringing a big name to the station might also give it an increased audience, which might bring in sponsors. A big “if”.

“It’s definitely not a between-radio-jobs job,” Bird says, “because the only way I would ever go back to mainstream commercial radio is on my own terms, and there’s not much chance of that happening, considering the fine job I’ve done of dynamiting professional bridges in my wake – a circumstance with which I’m totally at peace.”

Oh, and one more thing: Bird said the day he joins CKRK is the day he shaves his hair into a mohawk. So he’s doing exactly that (as a publicity stunt, mind you).

So when you see him on TV on April 19 with a half-shaved head, now you’ll know why.

Bird blasts CHOM PD

Meanwhile, Bird has opened up on why he left CHOM in January. Saying his contractual obligations to the station expired on April 1, Bird posted on his blog that:

Within the past five to ten years, CHOM and most of the rest of the country’s radio stations have been acquired by corporations who jettisoned the majority of the creative people in favor of bean counters beholden only to shareholders. The impact was swift, enormous and predictable. By the time I left CHOM, it was about as much fun as working at the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture.

Though he points to a trend happening at radio stations across the country, Bird takes particular aim at Daniel Tremblay, CHOM’s program director:

He barely paid lip service to the insights and opinions of staff members who’ve been on the front lines of English radio in this town for decades. That spoke volumes to me, and I could not in good conscience continue to work for someone who was making decisions in a vacuum that were running a treasured Montreal institution into the ground.

Bird also says CHOM offered him a lesser job – at reduced salary – after he quit. Says Bird: “He was – or at least appeared to be – genuinely surprised that I took offense at being thrown a bone on the assumption that I was desperate and could be lured back on the cheap.”

As the featured guest on Mitch Melnick’s web show Melnick Underground, Bird also let lose on CHOM and Tremblay and the state of modern commercial radio. Melnick can relate, as he also values his creative freedom and has found one of the few jobs left in commercial radio that lets him do what he wants.

I’ve been invited by Tremblay to meet with him to discuss what’s going on at CHOM. Once that happens I’ll try to get his side of this story.

UPDATE (April 12): Bird himself discusses the new job, as well as the elephant in the room of a white guy working for a Mohawk radio station. A Facebook group has been setup welcoming Bird to the community.

A more critical Facebook group has also been setup, with some saying Bird’s hiring is directly tied to budget cuts at the station and other people losing their jobs. Bird comments on the group, saying he doesn’t recall saying anything derogatory about the community.

“Sir” Patrick Charles dumped from Virgin Radio Breakfast Show

Patrick Charles

After a year on the CJFM (aka Virgin Radio 96) morning show, Patrick Charles, aka Sir Patrick, is being shuffled into an off-air job at Astral Media.

As seems to be the usual procedure in this town, when a host is removed from a show there’s no announcement or long goodbye. The name of the show is simply changed – it’s now just “The Breakfast Show with Cat and Lisa” – and the offending host’s image scrubbed from the website.

Charles made the announcement himself to his Twitter followers on Saturday night (his new Twitter handle being itself scrubbed of links to Virgin Radio). “The company has new plans for me,” he said, indicating that this wasn’t his decision.

Sources who support Charles tell me this is the outcome of a personal conflict between Charles and co-host Lisa Player. Because Player is the more senior co-host, it’s Charles who gets the boot. (I’ve asked Player for comment, and will update this post with any response.)

But Charles isn’t leaving Astral Media. He says he’ll be doing “new stuff for the company” – he’ll be working in an off-air capacity, continuing to do his parodies for CJFM and CHOM. He will also have a regular segment on CJAD, joining morning host Andrew Carter at 8:20am weekdays starting April 19. And he appears semi-regularly as a pop culture columnist on CFCF newscasts.

It’s expected Charles will return to the air in a more permanent capacity soon, possibly at CJAD.

UPDATE (April 12): On the first show as Cat and Lisa, a pathetic 35-second announcement (MP3) about Charles’s departure suggests that this decision was somehow his and that he’s welcome to be a guest “sporadically”:

Spencer: By the way, as you probably have mentioned, or probably have noticed by now if you’ve been listening this morning, it’s now Cat and Lisa. Sir Patrick is still with us in the building and with all three of our radio stations now. He will be doing other work behind the scenes and he’ll be welcome to join us on the air here and there sporadically.

Player: That’s right, when he gets a chance. When he has time.

Spencer: But the show now is Cat and Lisa, but it’s nothing that he has been asked to leave or let go or anything like that –

Player: No no no.

Spencer: He’s still working with us and all three of our stations in a different capacity.

Player: Yeah, we’re trying to use him even more.

Spencer: There you go.

The announcement aired only once during the three-and-a-half-hour show, at about 7:37am.

Compare this to the multiple announcements throughout the morning totalling almost 17 minutes given on sister station CHOM-FM when Ted Bird left in January. Is Charles less important to CJFM than Bird was to CHOM, or did they want to sweep this under the rug and hope people wouldn’t notice?

Promotions at CJFM

From Mark Bergman via Milkman Unlimited comes news about new appointments at CJFM 95.9 aka Virgin Radio 96, two of whom replace Bergman himself, who has been holding a few titles since being named the station’s program director and has been looking for new blood for the past few months:

The big one is behind the scenes. Madhvi Shah becomes the station’s music director, taking over from Bergman. “Madhvi is part of the reason that Virgin Radio has been enjoying the success that it has. Her attention to detail, strong work ethic, love of music, and her strong desire to win, will make Madhvi a successful and strong Music Director,” Bergman writes.

Vince Barrucco

Vince Barrucco, aka “Cousin Vinny”, who has been getting the really crappy shifts of late (late night weekdays and early morning weekends), takes over Bergman’s afternoon show The Rush.

Bergman writes:

“Over the last 2 months I searched across the country for Montreal’s next big star. Throughout my search, I began to notice that Montreal’s next big star was right here in Montreal! Cousin Vinny possesses a rare quality that allows him to raise his game faster than anyone I’ve ever met. Vinny has been working with Cat Spencer over the last couple of months in order to get the gig of his dreams. Well today his dreams come true! Vinny’s slick on-air style, hot phone calls, and targeted material will give The Rush the fuel that it needs to continue owning the #1 afternoon drive position in Montreal!”

Natasha Gargiulo

Finally, Natasha Gargiulo, who you might recognize from Global Quebec, Entertainment Tonight Canada and CJNT’s Italian show, will be a contributor to Vinny’s show, with segments three times a week.

Unlike some other radio stations in Montreal, CJFM has been enjoying climbing ratings of late. So it’s all happy fun time with no downside.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

I’ll get more details from Bergman just as soon as it’s no longer 1:30am on a Saturday.

My kingdom for a lid

My beloved green recycling bin: zero cost, zero waste

I hadn’t paid attention to the matter until recently, but apparently the city of Montreal has a problem with its recycling bins.

Actually, a few problems.

The first is that after prolonged use they tended to crack and break. That’s okay though, the recycling bins themselves are recyclable, and there are new, stronger bins like the one above (after three years of use, it’s dirty, but completely intact).

The second is that they’re difficult to carry outside, requiring the use of both hands. More of an annoyance to everyone else really, requiring them to put the bin down as they open and close doors (or awkwardly wedge the bin against something to free up the other hand). But for people with limited mobility, it’s a more serious problem.

Finally, the most pressing issue, it seemed, was that papers and light containers would fly out of the recycling bins and litter the surrounding streets. Though I’m pretty good about packing my bin and haven’t seen any of my recyclables tumbling down the street, my job at the coop I live in requires me to clean up the front yard on a nearly daily basis, and it’s obvious that garbage is piling up there from somewhere, most likely other green bins.

To solve all three of these problems, the city of Montreal has looked at three different solutions, which are being implemented in various boroughs. The city is studying each carefully to see which is more successful.

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The transit nerd express

It’s hard to believe, but there are people out there who are more nerdy about public transit than I am.

Take the folks at Transportation Research at McGill (TRAM). They don’t just do this as a hobby, chasing after buses with their cameras. They actually study public transit, and their work has results.

When the STM decided it would make a lot of sense to setup a limited-stop express line on St. Michel Blvd., it partnered with TRAM to perform some serious analysis of the plan.

TRAM first used data about existing passengers on the 67 line to estimate time savings in this rather academic-looking document (PDF), even providing different scenarios of where the 467 should stop for maximum efficiency.

After the 467 was put into service, they went back and looked at the average run times for both the 67 and 467 after implementation, and asked passengers to fill out a survey (PDF).

In October, Masters student Julien Surprenant-Legault produced this report (PDF) on the before-and-after numbers.

He explains:

I became involved after the 467 service’s implementation on March 30, 2009. [Professor] Ahmed El-Geneidy and I evaluated the accuracy of the previous estimatess, quantified times savings, and assessed customers’ satisfaction. We finished the study at the end of July 2009. The study that we have done is unique and is opening a new field of research; therefore, no comparable study presently exists.

As for the results, the estimates were 11% to 19% savings for run time on route 467, and the actual ones are 13%, which is in the expected range. Savings could have been higher without the introduction of the OPUS card, an electronic payment system that slightly slowed boardings. Still, the STM made some improvements to the payment boxes in order to speed up boardings; also, people now have had some time to adapt themselves to the new system. The trip on route 67 originally took 35 minutes, which decreased to 34 minutes after the implementation of route 467. Route 467 run time is 31 minutes (savings of 4 minutes 20 seconds).

A slide from Julien Surprenant-Legault's presentation about the effects of the 467 express route

Surprenant-Legault theorizes (correctly, I believe) that the major reason the improvements weren’t as high as predicted was because of the introduction of the Opus smart card between the before measurements and the after measurements. As I’ve written about before, the Opus card and magnetic-stripe card require additional seconds for each passenger, either to hold the Opus against the reader or insert the card into the slot, wait for it to read, print out a validation and then spit it back out. Instead of passengers boarding two seconds apart, they now board five or six, making the whole trip slower.

One interesting finding in the study is about passengers’ perception of time savings:

For route 467 riders, a statistically significant difference exists between their estimates and the actual savings. Real travel time savings were on average 1.5 minutes per trip, while users estimated them within a range of 6.9 to 11.9 minutes. For route 467 riders, a statistically significant difference exists between their estimates and the actual savings. Real travel time savings were on average 1.5 minutes per trip, while users estimated them within a range of 6.9 to 11.9 minutes.

If we assume this same phenomenon could be replicated on other lines, it means making a lot of passengers happy with not much investment.

You can get more about this study from this presentation (PDF) given by Surprenant-Legault.

Transportation Research at McGill hosts weekly seminars about transportation issues. Surprenant-Legault kicked off the winter 2010 session with the presentation mentioned above. The last one of the season is Thursday at noon, featuring Sébastien Gagné, Kevin Beauséjour and Jocelyn Grondines of the STM’s planning department. The presentation is in Room 420 of the Macdonald-Harrington Building on McGill’s main campus, and is free and open to the public.

Another workaround to bad elevator design

Modified emergency button at Berri metro elevator

Remember back in September when I predicted that the design of the panel on the metro elevators would cause a problem because the call button and the emergency button were the same size and shape, and placed in such a way that an inattentive passerby might mistake the emergency button for the “up” button?

And then when the elevators actually opened there was a quick redesign that put big arrows toward the call button?

Well turns out the STM has implemented a more permanent solution to the problem of people mistaking the buttons. This transparent plate, which easily swivels out of the way, gives this button a more nuclear-missile-launch vibe to it, and will probably prevent most people from pressing it unless they’re absolutely sure they either need help or want to prank the security guards.

The new panel. Press here, NOT HERE!

Concordia’s new tunnel is about ready

View of the tunnel from just outside the turnstiles at the Guy metro

A tunnel connecting the Guy metro station to Concordia University’s Hall Building and library building downtown is finally complete, and the finishing touches are being applied before it’s open to the public.

Great timing. Just when people finally want to venture outside again, we have an excuse not to.

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The comment cesspool

Once upon a time, journalists had mixed opinions about allowing readers to comment on news articles, and having those comments appear below the articles on websites.

I had to deal with it nine years ago, when I setup a website for my student newspaper, and each article was open to comments by default.

Some welcomed the chance to converse with readers. But others said many of the comments were in bad taste, took personal cheap shots at the author or subject, and in general weren’t helpful. They brought down the level of debate instead of enhancing it. And journalists who wanted to share links to their work had to share links to the comments as well.

More recently, a few years ago, the debate was similar in a professional environment. On the part of media bosses, there was a hunger for comments. Not only do active comment sections boost traffic, but they provide free material to use. The local CBC newscast, for example, regularly quotes from reader comments online. The Gazette uses a comment or two on Page A2 of every issue.

Now, though, the opinion is near-unanimous, at least on the part of front-line workers: opening comments on news articles, particularly the ones which are likely to generate debate, exposes them to a rotten cesspool of human ignorance and hatred.

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The anti-clinching scenario (UPDATED)

UPDATE (April 9): With Friday’s Rangers win over the Flyers, the Canadiens’ chances have dropped from over 99 per cent to 97.7 per cent (note to CHOM: Use that in a promo somewhere). Things have happened to make it more likely that the Canadiens will fall out of the playoffs, but it’s still highly unlikely.

All of these things need to happen for the Canadiens to fall to ninth place and miss the playoffs:

  • The Canadiens must lose in regulation Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre
  • The New York Rangers must win in overtime or a shootout against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, giving them two points and the Flyers one
  • The Boston Bruins must get at least a point in their remaining two games

That middle part is the most unlikely. A regulation win by the Rangers would drop the Flyers out of the playoffs. A regulation win by the Flyers and the Rangers don’t make it. An OT/SO win by Philly and the Rangers lose the tiebreaker with the Canadiens. A point for the Flyers makes them tied with Montreal, and they win the tiebreaker with more wins.

The Bruins are in sixth only because they have a game in hand. They still need a point to break the tie after 82 games. Because they lose the tiebreaker against all three other teams, if the Rangers and Flyers both get points, the Bruins need at least a point to make it to the playoffs.

If Montreal gets a point against the Leafs, the Rangers won’t be able to catch the Habs (they could match in points and wins, but the third tiebreaker is the record between the clubs, and the Canadiens won 3 of 4). A win against the Leafs, and the Habs finish no worse than 7th place.

Complicated enough for you? All eight teams have already clinched in the West.

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