Last week, when Postmedia announced it was slashing 11 per cent of its roughly 650 editorial staff across the country, journalists at the Montreal Gazette learned their newsroom could be hit even harder.
The company, which owns the Gazette, wants to trim up to 10 full-time positions in Montreal — which would see the paper’s staff reduced by a quarter, according to an internal memo obtained by CBC.
The layoffs are just the latest in a string of cuts. Postmedia, which is majority-owned by Chatham Asset Management, a New Jersey hedge fund, has progressively used buyouts, outsourcing, centralization and downscaling to reduce expenses.
Critics say those cuts have come at the cost of local news coverage. Asked how the layoffs would affect the Gazette’s ability to cover the Montreal community, Bert Archer, the Gazette’s editor-in-chief, declined to comment.
But as the Gazette scales back, smaller English-language newspapers in Quebec are investing in local news and hoping readers will respond.
In 2020, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gazette stopped delivering weekday print newspapers to readers in the Eastern Townships. The decision affected the Sherbrooke Record, which had shared some delivery costs with the Gazette, but the Record continued to deliver the paper.
“Our readers are largely seniors,” Sharon McCully, the publisher of the Record, said in a recent interview. “If they didn’t have their daily Record, they would not know what’s going on. They wouldn’t know where to go to get the shots, nothing. So it was so vital for them to continue to get the print copy of the paper.”
Quebec’s English-speaking minority community needs good local news coverage, McCully said. Cuts at the Gazette, she said, will lead to fewer stories and less scrutiny of government decisions, which, particularly on issues like language legislation, affect anglophones.
“It will be a sad day, I think, when we don’t have anybody reporting on this community and saying how the issues are impacting the English minority community of Quebec,” she said. “When you lose that many reporters, it really is going to have a huge impact on how the community can react and mobilize for issues that are important.”
The Record is facing many of the same challenges that confront the Gazette, Postmedia, and practically every newspaper, McCully said. Delivery costs are high, people are loath to pay for news subscriptions and digital advertisements don’t bring in enough money to pay the bills.
But rather than downscale in an attempt to shave costs, the Record is trying to invest in its coverage, McCully said, relying in some cases on grants and federal programs like the Local Journalism Initiative to hire reporters — and hoping comprehensive local coverage will entice people to buy the paper.
“That’s probably our saving grace, that we’re hyper-local,” she said. “Everything that happens in our paper affects people in the Eastern Townships. So that’s 100 per cent our focus.”
Brenda O’Farrell, a Montreal Gazette alumnus who had a front-row seat to some of the changes at the Gazette, said Postmedia consistently favoured its bottom line over considerations about journalism and how it could fund journalism.
“People in the newsroom, they were fighting the good fight from the get-go. But there’s an underlying business model there that is broken,” she said.
“All the decisions they made to address their business were to undermine journalism at every turn. And that’s why I don’t think they have a path forward because they cut back in communities instead of doubling down.”
Now O’Farrell, who is the interim president of the Quebec Community Newspapers Association, is the one doubling down. She is the editor in chief of two new weekly newspapers, the 1019 report and the 1510 west, which she founded in part to fill the void left by the Gazette.
Her bet, like the Record’s, is that people care about what is happening in their communities and will pay for quality local news.
“Every weekly (newspaper) has had to up its game because they’re the only ones reporting now,” she said. “They’re the only ones on the ground. They’re the only ones following municipal councils and local school boards and things that are happening in each of these communities.
“Community papers receiving funding [from the government] are covering more stories, more communities,” she added, “while regional dailies getting more funding are cutting coverage, axing jobs.”
Beryl Wajsman, the editor in chief of the Suburban, a weekly Montreal newspaper, said “there’s nothing to be happy about with this news about the Gazette for anyone in this industry.”
Community outlets like the Suburban are more nimble than bigger, regional publications, Wajsman said, and they have been expanding to cover more ground and reach more communities, even as the Gazette contracts.
“We do the hyper-local stories that you don’t get in the big papers,” he said. “We connect with people at the ground level.”
Wajsman says, for example, while his paper might have a political story on its front page, inside, there would be a feature about “the grocer who is celebrating his 50th anniversary.”
Ruby Pratka, the assignment editor of the Quebec City Chronicle-Telegraph (QCT), the only newspaper in Canada older than the Gazette (it was founded in 1764), said that, like O’Farrell, she believes the future of English-language newspapers in Quebec is in their ability to cover local news well.
“There’s always going to be demand for hyper-local news,” she said. “There will always be people who will want to know what their neighbourhood council is doing.”
But, even though the Gazette hadn’t delivered newspapers to the Quebec City area since 2019, Pratka said the cuts there would have a ripple effect throughout the English-speaking community.
“It’s a disservice to the community that is served by this paper because [the reporters who remain] are still going to be expected to do the same work,” she said, “and of course, one reporter is not going to be able to spend as much time on their stories.