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.
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?
The last time I checked out an issue of Rue Frontenac, it featured over 20 journalists. It’s all fine and dandy now as the paper doesn’t spend even one penny on salaries, but retaining the services of such a legion of journalists in a free weekly would require filling up on ads on an unprecedented scale.
The catch is that one of the more attractive aspects of Rue Frontenac is precisely its ad-free layout, which is only made possible thanks to union subsidies. Once that free ride is over and the lock-out is done and dealt with, they’ll quite simply disband or starve to death. There’s just no way they can keep on catering to the imaginary market segment the made up once union money dries up.
And let’s face it, they’re not all star reporters. Some of them are even pretty bad (I won’t name names or anything, that’s not my point… and there are indeed a few stars among them).
What really struck me over the last few days is their propensity to market themselves as martyrs of a situation they supposedly had absolutely no control over. That’s mega-bullshit in the end. I mean, 26- or 27-year-olds willingly spending 25% of their active productive life in a state of flux, in virtual limbo, sends out all the wrong messages. I can’t quite respect or support them.
One wishes they’d open their eyes and realize/admit the world is changing.
This is a lockout, not a strike, so I don’t see where this is being done “willingly”, unless you mean they should abandon the union and seek jobs elsewhere (which some of them have already done – but it’s not like there are a lot of media jobs out there). What message does that send?
Besides, most young people’s jobs are in a constant state of flux. The idea of having the same job for decades is long past us.
Regardless of how a conflict erupts, whether it be through a lock-out or a strike, all other parameters are strictly identical afterward. Which side stuck the knife in first is irrelevant unless one thinks that only unions should have a right to turn on the pressure when collective bargaining gets stuck in a dead end.
Those employees could very well find another job instead of wallowing in self-pity and pretending that their fight is one for freedom and democracy. Truth is they’re all just holding out for the big, fat severance handout; that’s understandable too, but then let’s call a a cat a cat.
Except for the fact that during a lockout, an employer can simply put an end to it at any time.
I don’t know how many are “wallowing in self-pity” – most are doing their jobs, filing stories for Rue Frontenac. I’d hardly call that “wallowing”. Maybe they think their cause is bigger than it really is, but it’s not so much that they’re fighting for “freedom and democracy” as they are for the quality of the paper they helped build.
If they were “just holding out for the big, fat severance handout,” I’d think more than 10% of them would have voted to accept the last contract that had exactly that.
Since they voted for a strike two days after they were locked out, it would make absolutely no difference if the employer put an end to the lock-out.
There’s no denying that they’ve played the woe-is-me angle to death in various interviews. I don’t think they believe their cause is bigger than it is. They clearly want us to think it’s bigger than it is though.
To me, Leblanc always seemed like an odd choice for a war president. He probably was a reasonably good fair-weather leader, but once the storm gathers, you should probably think of trading your sad puppy for an alpha male who doesn’t see tears and strangled sobs as the best defense.
As for the quality of the paper they supposedly helped build, I’m really not sure we’re talking about the same paper here. While I couldn’t back up a claim that the paper has actually improved (I do feel it has, though – it’s more colourful somehow), they certainly can’t prove it’s deteriorated either, not from the readers’ point of view anyway. Content-wise, it’s pretty much the same, really. They keep saying it’s just a shadow of its former self, but I can’t see a difference while they clearly have a vested interest in pretending it was much better on their watch. It’s never been Le Devoir and never will be.
About the severance thing specifically, let’s agree to disagree. What I understood from post-rejection interviews (I’m thinking of the TLMEP interview with Pascale Lévesque, in particular) was that they felt they should be compensated nearly fully for their loss of income over the past two years (regardless of their tax-free union revenues). Lévesque clearly didn’t see those $20M as sufficient. They seem to have sunk into the misguided belief that they’re the benevolent and hapless victims of absolute Evil.
It’s funny that it’s “okay” to bitch about severance packages, but you hardly ever hear a peep about golden parachutes…
I don’t recall bitching. I merely pointed out that the size of their severance handout seemed to be at the core of their grievances even though they draped themselves in the mantle of virtue and victimhood. It’s that sort of doublespeak I despise: they pretend to fight for one thing while hoping for a rather different outcome.
Most of those journalists have no intention of going back and I fully understand why, mind you. I mean, why on earth would they hope to be part of the 20% that will be called back and thus be deprived of a hefty farewell package enjoyed by the remaining 80%? They’re facing a situation where those who’d keep their jobs would actually be penalised.
Despite the rhetoric, they must know that sticking with Rue Frontenac will not actually be a viable option once the labour dispute is over (or not a mightily lucrative one, in any case). It could be if money were no object, but I doubt they’d be willing to settle for salaries that would be significantly lower than even what they now get from the union, which is all the new paper could offer, and then certainly not to 50-60 of them as Leblanc merrily claims.
As for golden parachutes, well, that’s a different story altogether, but, at least, those bosses getting fat severance bonuses don’t go round pretending that the future of mankind depends on their being given a fat cheque. They just openly laugh all the way to the bank. Morally shaky, sure, but at least it’s transparent.
Without a settlement of the labor dispute, RF will always face the problem that they are competing with Quebecor for advertisers, a company that is very likely making it clear it doesn’t want those companies to support the upstart. I wouldn’t say that are getting in the way, but I am sure advertisers feel some pressure.
A labor resolution would allow RF to move forward, but at the same time would drain away some employees and would also kill off the strike fund supporting it. In a weird way, RF actually needs the dispute to go on longer, while it establishes itself in the market place.
How can the people with the money, ie. advertisers, be feeling pressure from Quebecor? What exactly is PKP’s crew saying, “Give us all your money. Don’t give a dime to those union pissheads, or we won’t accept *any* of your cash!”
Shades of Blazing Saddles…
What a sweet touch, explaining the cartography of the east-end for those waste-islanders who never venture beyond Crescent street…
I really wish the unions would stop fucking around and just open their own newspaper (aka rue Frontenac). It can be full of progressive leftist news with pro union slants and provide jobs for locked out workers. Yes they have the money. Do not let them tell you otherwise.
Unfortunate side effect: Unions are absolutely notorious for having absolutely shit working conditions and pay for their OWN staff. They may wish they were back at JdeM.
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