Métro Média Folds

Over 70 people lose their job in another blow to Canadian journalism.
Journalists working at their desks at Métro Média's offices
Photo: Saïd Khalil

When Monique Dauphin died in a fire last winter, it barely registered as news.

La Presse wrote three paragraphs about the fatal blaze and TVA Nouvelles dedicated five sentences to Dauphin’s death. 

In fact, neither outlet published the victim’s name, they merely relayed the fire department’s version of events — that first responders found “a woman in her 70s” in the charred remains of a house on Montreal’s North End. Paramedics then rushed her to a hospital, where she died of her injuries the next morning. 

But when the news reached Jean Numa Goudou’s desk, he did what any good reporter would, he started digging deeper. The victim, Dauphin, was beloved in Montreal’s Haitian community, she was a lifelong activist who fought for migrant rights and helped countless women get settled in Canada.

Goudou, who worked at Métro Média until it shut down last week, felt he owed it to Dauphin to honour her memory. He interviewed her daughter Melissa and spoke to local leaders who’d all leaned on Dauphin for guidance at one point or another. 

“The fire sent shockwaves through our community, the Haitian community,” said Goudou. “I said to myself, ‘We have to speak about her, this is an inconceivable tragedy for us.’ So I contacted her loved ones, her colleagues and I tried to paint a picture of her life, something respectful, something that marks the passing of a great citizen.”

News last week that Métro Média announced it was folding its 17 newspapers is the latest blow to journalism in Canada. There have been hundreds of layoffs across the industry over the past year — including 70 jobs lost at Métro last week — but Goudou says it’s the newspaper chain’s readers who will suffer the most.

He says that, all too often, big outlets only write about his community when there’s a spike in gang-related violence. Goudou fears that, without a local paper in Montréal-Nord, the only stories people will ever read about their community depicts it as a haven for street gangs.

“People here, the ones I walk by every day, they hate that,” said Goudou, who works for Métro’s Montréal-Nord edition. “Politics here and civil society suffer when we only talk about the bad stuff. It influences the way public funds are spent, it affects the way the outside world sees us and how our young people see themselves.

“Our job, and we took it as a mission really, was to show people this is a vibrant borough, a place where small business owners support their families, where kids do great things in school and on the playing field, that we are an essential part of what makes Montreal such a special place.”

Goudou’s Métro stories depict life in a vibrant, loving place. There’s the one about the 68-year-old crossing guard who watches over her neighbourhood’s children every day. Or there’s coverage of the borough’s 29th annual streetball festival, an event that once hosted future NBA stars like Lugentz Dort and Benedict Mathurin. 

“It isn’t the job of La Presse or Le Devoir to cover a library opening or a popular teacher retiring or a borough council meeting in one of our communities. That was our job and we did it the best way we knew how,” said Saïd Khalil, the editor-in-chief of Métro Média. “There are over 100 elected officials in Montreal and no one media has the resources to cover them all. Now that we’re gone, who’s going to keep an eye on borough councils, on zoning changes and all the big decisions that affect everyday people?

“That’s what frightens me the most here.”

Photo: Saïd Khalil

Métro Média was launched in 2018 after local investor Andrew Mulé acquired the Métro Montréal daily paper and over a dozen other properties from Transcontinental publishing. At its peak, the chain included 17 newspapers and 13 digital-only news platforms in Montreal and Quebec City.

During a phone call with Mulé last year, he told me his goal was to act as a counterweight to the increasingly conservative, increasingly populist tone at the Journal de Montréal and other Quebecor dailies. Whereas Quebecor’s top columnists are almost exclusively white baby boomers, Métro published work by young Indigenous journalists like Maïtée Saganash or Xavier Watso, their opinions pages included columns by queer journalists, women who wore hijabs and a gamut of perspectives sorely lacking in the mainstream press.

They were able to survive for years on print advertising and the age-old distribution model of local kids bundling Métro’s free papers in “Publi-Sac” flyers. 

But in the past two years, Métro adapted its business to an online-first model, boosting web traffic from 1.1 million to over 2.5 million visitors a month. Its newsletter reached tens of thousands of subscribers and it was about to launch a podcast series where journalists interviewed local politicians about their lives outside politics.

Despite their adaptability, the chain was dealt an impossible hand earlier this year when the city of Montreal banned Publi Sac over environmental concerns (the flyers leave an enormous carbon footprint). Without its main source of distribution, Métro saw 80 per cent of its ad revenue evaporate. In the end, no amount of cost-cutting could overcome that loss.

Steve Faguy started tracking the decline of Quebec’s community newspapers six years ago and says that, while he expected bleak results, reality has eclipsed his most pessimistic projections.

“When I started tracking them there were 90 papers and now half of them are out of business,” said Faguy, a Montreal Gazette copy editor who publishes media analysis on his website. “Some of them are thriving thanks to the strength of strong local ownership but the overall picture isn’t great. We’re starting to see these news deserts (places with no locally-produced journalism), not only in small towns but in our biggest cities too.”

Khalil says he understands the city of Montreal’s decision to ban Publi Sac and that the city promised to help Métro transition towards a new business model. The city even formed a committee to help save the newspaper chain last December — consulting industry experts and the heads of major charitable foundations. 

“The recommendations were straightforward: a two-year commitment to transition advertising from print to digital and support Métro with immediate financial aid,” Khalil said. “Mayor (Valérie) Plante took it a step further, talking about partnerships with the city … and a financial aid program that would help that transition. We saw a bit of immediate funding but no program to speak of. What happened to that?

“At minimum, we expected the city of Montreal to transfer its advertising investment to our digital platform but that didn’t happen. And when the companies that supported us see the city backing off like that, they followed suit.”

The city of Montreal did not return The Rover’s request for an interview. But Faguy says municipalities across Canada are cutting ties with community newspapers to save money, opting instead to print public notices on their own websites.

“When you add that to the challenges that already exist in the industry, it’s going to push a lot of small papers to the brink,” he said. “At this point, it’s hard for these publications to make the business case to advertisers. Because the truth is, they probably won’t get a great return on their investment when they advertise in local media. So instead, it’s about supporting local media more than anything else. And that’s not always an easy sell.”

Though he released a statement about the chain closing last week, Mulé told The Rover he’s too distraught to give an interview about it. 

In a way, the chain’s strategy of relying on ad revenue, printing short hyperlocal content and distributing its product door to door couldn’t be further from The Rover’s business model. We write (excessively) long articles, we’ve never run an ad and the bulk of our revenue comes from paid subscribers.

But Mulé and I were bound by the love of a good story. We know the stories will never love us back and that, in the end, we’ll probably end up broke and depressed but we can’t help chasing it.

Last year, when I emptied my savings account and travelled to Ukraine to report on the war, Mulé took the time to reach out and wish me luck. A few days into the trip, when I was broke and exhausted, I noticed one person had just bought a dozen subscriptions to The Rover. That money got me home. It came from Andrew Mulé.

“We’re not in the same boat but we’re in the same storm,” he told me, back then. “And I want to see local journalism thrive. Not just mine, not just yours, but all of the little publications. They’re what make this industry possible.”


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