Montreal Gazette Tries to Attract French Readers

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 21, 2003

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 21, 2003

Montreal Gazette Tries to Attract French Readers

THEY DON'T make them like that any more: local newspapers with attitude weighed by the ton, panache to match, weird idiosyncrasies, crazy writers and wicked editors - powerhouses nourished by a rich, long tradition rooted in the days when owning presses was a licence to print money, and when one could get away with journalistic murder, provided it came under a crafty lead.

In the age of convergence, where fearsome local editors have taken a back seat to faceless corporate managers from out of town, the romantic good old days at the Montreal Gazette are slipping fast into nostalgia, alongside the three-martini lunch, felt fedoras thrown on the ice at the Forum, and the let-them-deny-it approach to sensational copy. In July 2000, the paper became part of a $3.2-billion megadeal that saw the Asper family's CanWest Global Communications Corp. of Winnipeg gain control of the Southam newspapers from media mogul Conrad Black. The Aspers' tough, brash style of management has sent Gazette staffers reeling from culture shock.

Some anthropologists suggest that species with a shorter memory span stand a better chance of adjusting to new circumstances. The pigeon has been better at it than the peregrine falcon; wily immigrants have been quicker on their feet than many sons of established families. And therein, perhaps, lies the explanation of the current foul mood in the Gazette's newsroom. The paper celebrates 225 years of publishing this summer, which makes it Quebec's oldest daily newspaper - and one of the oldest in the world. It probably has too much memory for its own good. "We covered the Battle of Trafalgar [October 1805] as news, not history," says John Kalbfleisch, a former staffer who writes a weekly history column for the paper.

The Gazette was a building block of the fabled Montreal Anglo establishment which controlled much of Canada's economy - to say nothing of national politics - through most of the last two centuries. But the paper has fallen on harder times, with the decline of Montreal's influence in Canada since the 1970s. And now, journalists complain about the Aspers' bottom-line-driven style of management. In May, for instance, nobody from the Gazette was sent to cover the election of the new Progressive Conservative leader in Toronto. It was the first time in memory that a Gazette staffer did not cover a national political convention. Instead, a team from the CanWest News Service did the job - the same for all the papers of the chain. In June, 16 of the newsroom's 175 jobs were terminated. The Gazette's special investigative unit has been effectively dismantled, and more and more coverage, including specialty beats such as television criticism, is being provided by CanWest staffers in other locations.

Maybe it is because the Gazette was so rich, as the only English-language daily in a market the size of Vancouver's, or maybe it's because of its embattled position - a throwback to the era of les maudits Anglais, or maybe it's only because it was just a cool shop in a city that attracted eccentrics from all over, but the Gazette has always been home to a disproportionate number of original characters. And has, most of the time, stood by them until the end.

The legendary Nick Auf der Maur, of course, widely known for spending his days and nights in bars, sending minimalist columns written on napkins by taxi. William Johnson, the extreme Anglo voice known for his repetitive, obsessive rants against Lionel Groulx and other nationalists, dead or alive. Hubert Bauch, who was fined $500 after being busted with a stash of illegal drugs aboard Prime Minister Kim Campbell's plane. (Bauch was hauled off the story, but he kept his job and continued, seemingly unbothered, to file a feature story once every blue moon after that.) Journeymen editors with accents from the far reaches of the Empire who referred to French, the language of the majority in the city, as a "code." And Mel Morris, of course, the heroic managing editor who decided to replace, not just the front page, but the whole front section of the paper early on the night of the Dec. 6, 1989 shooting rampage at the âcole Polytechnique and reassigned everyone, including the opera critic, to the story.

The Gazette has been a special place since its inception. One of its backers was an American - Benjamin Franklin, no less - and its first publisher was a Voltairean freethinker from France. In 1775, Franklin, a member of the U.S. Continental Congress, was in Montreal with the occupying revolutionary American soldiers to coax les Canadiens to turn their backs on Britain and join the restless original 13 colonies. A newspaper would help spread the word. Fleury Mesplet, a French printer so fascinated by the American Revolution that he had moved to Philadelphia, was Franklin's chosen publisher. The early days were tough. When Mesplet, bogged down by his heavy machinery, finally reached Montreal, Franklin had already fled the oncoming British soldiers about to retake the city. Mesplet stayed, but soon ended up behind bars. The Catholic clergy and the British authorities had a common dislike of libertarians with the technology to disseminate dangerous ideas about democracy and individual rights. It took another two years before the first edition of La Gazette du Commerce et Littéraire pour la Ville et District de Montréal was published in 1778. (For its first year, the Gazette was published in French, then it was bilingual for the next five decades.)

More than two centuries later, seeing Gazette editors tarred and feathered in the marketplace probably was a recurrent fantasy for many Parti Québécois politicians as well. The Gazette has long been the paper they loved to hate, the Canadian fifth column in Québec, the rag where Aislin, the cartoonist, routinely savaged language minister Louise Beaudoin as a leather-clad, whip-toting dominatrix.

From pre-Confederation until well into the 20th century, the Gazette was a staunch supporter of Confederation, the federal Conservative party, and the provincial English establishment. But today, attracting bilingual francophone readers is at the top of the Gazette's agenda. The paper is embarking on a Canadian first: a cross-cultural circulation war with La Presse, the francophone broadsheet and its neighbour on Rue St-Jacques in Old Montreal. While Gazette staffers are still lamenting the better days of the past, managers are moving at a brisk pace. The paper is tweaking a new set of high-tech presses, sports a more modern layout, and is preparing to move to the heart of downtown. Above all, the Gazette has a new sales pitch: "The Gazette is Montreal." "Anyone who can read some English is a potential customer," says publisher Larry Smith. That is far removed from the previous, embattled slogan "The English language, daily" that branded the paper until a year ago. "The Gazette started its modern period by winning a lethal circulation war against the Montreal Star in 1980," says Peter Stockland, the soft-spoken editor in chief. "We are in the business of stealing readers."

Looking at the tumultuous past year, Stockland admits that "there has been a learning curve for the CanWest people," who acquired newspapers after building a TV empire. He says the next step will be about "rebuilding confidence in the newsroom that we are able to do things right." Despite the current tumult, senior editors are confident that the paper's plan to reach out into the larger community will ensure its survival. Says Raymond Brassard, the deputy editor, "The Gazette will survive all this - because it is one tough old newspaper."

Maclean's July 21, 2003