By KONRAD YAKABUSKI
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Now that Power Corp. of Canada has officially ceded ownership of Montreal's La Presse to a non-profit organization, much is riding on this swim-or-sink experiment in Canadian journalism.
Without a deep-pocketed owner to absorb its losses, La Presse hopes to ensure its viability by appealing to private citizens for donations and the Quebec and federal governments for public aid. Power Corp. is kicking in $50-million to help get this experiment off the ground, although that likely won't keep the money-losing news operation in business for long. Unless readers, private donors and governments step up with funding, the 130year-old La Presse may end up writing its own obituary.
On Sunday, La Presse president Pierre-Elliott Levasseur announced the completion of the change in ownership structure, first proposed in May. La Presse is now owned by "social utility trust" La Fiducie de soutien à La Presse. Retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Louis LeBel was appointed to oversee the trust and name La Presse's directors.
The first of these is former marketing executive Alain Gignac, appointed chairman of the board of La Presse. Mr. Gignac most recently ran the non-profit organization that oversaw Montreal's 375th birthday celebrations. That organization was chaired by France Chrétien Desmarais, wife of Power Corp. cochief executive officer André Desmarais, a fact Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau seized on to question whether La Presse is now truly independent from the Desmarais family. Mr. Levasseur and Ms. Chrétien Desmarais are also cousins, Mr. Péladeau noted.
Under the Desmarais's ownership, La Presse has been a strong federalist voice and consistently endorsed the Quebec Liberal Party at election time. During hearings at the National Assembly in June, Mr. Desmarais expressed hope that an independent La Presse's editorial positions would not change, but that Power Corp. and its owners would no longer have a say.
Still, La Presse's editorials are not what's at stake in this risky experiment. What is at stake is the future of one of Quebec's largest newsrooms in an industry that has for years been losing the battle for eyeballs and advertising dollars against internet behemoths Facebook and Google.
A business model based solely on subscription and ad revenues has proved unsustainable for most news outlets and La Presse is no exception. That's why its new experiment is of such keen interest to the Canadian media industry.
La Presse bet the farm on its free digital tablet edition, ending its weekday print edition in 2016 and killing the Saturday print edition at the end of 2017. It embraced a free-content business model on all digital platforms, counting on ad revenue to make up for lost subscription dollars.
Whether that hastened or delayed the decision by Power Corp. to cut La Presse loose is a matter of much speculation in Quebec media circles. But the paper's finances do not appear to have recovered from a massive 2003 investment in the print edition that failed to prevent the slide in circulation and ad dollars that began more than a decade ago.
During last month's hearings on Bill 400 paving the way for the ownership change, Power Corp.
rival Mr. Péladeau blamed the decline in La Presse's finances on management's failure to reduce the news organization's cost structure. Quebecor locked out the 253 unionized employees at its Le Journal de Montréal for more than two years starting in 2009 in a bid to scrap expensive working conditions, which included a four-day work week and six-week vacations.
The collective agreement between La Presse and its 240 unionized employees expired at the end of 2015. In April, the three unions representing editorial, administrative and information technology employees tabled new proposals that included "major concessions, notably with respect to salaries and job security." But under Power Corp., negotiations remained at a standstill.
While La Presse's unions backed the ownership change, it could be hard for a non-profit organization to solicit private donations and government aid without first reducing the paper's labour costs. Mr. Levasseur has so far indicated that La Presse is seeking a 35-per-cent federal tax credit on labour expenditures, but has given little indication of other measures under consideration to rein in costs.
Meanwhile, La Presse's main competitors - Le Journal de Montréal and Le Devoir - have taken different approaches in their attempts to preserve readers and revenues. Le Journal has beefed up its investigative reporting team and parliamentary bureaus. The much smaller Le Devoir, which has been controlled by a non-profit trust for decades, last month launched a refreshed print design. Unlike La Presse, both of its rivals have implemented digital paywalls.
Time will tell which approach, if any, is the right one.