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La Presse publisher Guy Crevier, left, responds to a question as president Pierre-Elliott Levasseur looks on during a news conference on May 8, 2018 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

French-language news organization La Presse is cutting 37 jobs as it prepares to ask both large donors and individual readers to support its digital journalism.

The cuts follow a transition in ownership last summer at the 130-year-old La Presse. Power Corp. of Canada stepped away from the business, contributing $50-million to transform it into an independent non-profit.

The move ended La Presse’s 50-year relationship with the billionaire Desmarais family and staked the future of the news outlet on finding sufficient financial support through a combination of digital advertising revenue and donations. It is now owned by a trust, La Fiducie de soutien à La Presse.

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Since the ownership change, La Presse has been reviewing its operations. That led to the staff cuts, which were announced at an annual all-staff meeting on Thursday in Montreal. The reductions will be made through a voluntary severance program over the next two weeks.

The organization estimates roughly 19 staff in the newsroom will apply, 14 in sales and a few others from various parts of the organization for a total of 37. La Presse employs about 550 people in total, about 235 of them in editorial.

La Presse has also been evaluating how to attract donations. While it is a not-for-profit, it does not yet have charitable status that would allow it to issue tax receipts. As with some other Canadian media outlets, it has asked the federal government to open up that charitable status to news organizations seeking support for their journalism.

In the last federal budget, the government announced it was open to considering this idea. (The Globe and Mail has an application before the federal government to set up a charitable foundation that could receive such philanthropic support, although that foundation would sit alongside The Globe’s main, for-profit business.) La Presse has also lobbied for a tax credit to cover 35 per cent of newsroom operational expenses across the industry.

“They’re more receptive than they’ve ever been to the dangers of fake news, the polarization of interest in only speaking to your own kind on social media," La Presse president Pierre-Elliott Levasseur said of recent discussions with government officials. “They’re more concerned with the importance of quality journalism than they’ve ever been.”

Over the next month, La Presse will hold a roadshow for potential large donors, Mr. Levasseur said in an interview on Thursday. He expects the outlet will begin asking readers for smaller donations sometime in the first half of next year.

La Presse stopped printing a weekday newspaper in 2016 and went all-digital last year when it also halted its Saturday print edition. It invested heavily in its digital app LaPresse+, which launched in 2013.

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Workers leave a meeting at La Presse office in Montreal, on Nov. 8, 2018.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

It draws all of its revenue from digital advertising and does not intend to put up a paywall to restrict articles to paying readers, Mr. Levasseur said. Its biggest competitors, Le Journal de Montréal and Le Devoir – which is also controlled by a non-profit trust – both have digital subscription offers.

“We’ve tested it and tested it, repeatedly. It’s not an economically viable model for us,” Mr. Levasseur said. “We provide a unique perspective, we’re a major player in this market and this province, but the reality is … we won’t find enough [subscribers] to pay for La Presse and fulfill our mission properly.”

Finding sufficient financial support for news has become much more difficult as digital advertising sales are overwhelmingly dominated by the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon – tech giants that have aggressively courted advertisers with troves of data on users' behaviour and interests. As they realize digital advertising is not sufficient to support operations, news outlets – including, in Canada, The Globe and more recently Torstar Corp. – have launched digital subscriptions.

La Presse is now working on how it will ask readers for support, but in the form of voluntary contributions. In surveys and focus groups in recent months, La Presse found a large percentage of people did not realize it transitioned to a non-profit structure.

“When those people hear that we’re asking for contributions, their reaction is quite negative. ‘Why would we give money to the Desmarais family?’ is essentially a lot of what we get,” Mr. Levasseur said.

“We’re concerned in the next couple of months around creating that awareness, especially among our readers, around the new structure. Once we’ve done that we’re going to be in a very good position to go get contributions.”

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