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Quebec offers plan to help newspapers while Ottawa does nothing

The francophone newspaper Le Droit was founded in Ottawa in 1913 to agitate against Ontario government legislation to limit French schooling in the province. Former federal cabinet minister Martin Cauchon recalled these origins while explaining, in a speech in 2015, why he had just bought Le Droit and five regional Quebec papers, at a time when other newspaper publishers were struggling.

In Quebec, all francophone media are instruments of language preservation. From that perspective alone, it's not surprising to see the Quebec government in recent days announce two separate measures to deal with the crisis in print journalism – while the federal government continues to do nothing.

On Dec. 4, Marie Montpetit, Quebec's rookie Culture and Communications Minister, said the province is spending $24.4-million over five years to help community papers survive and build their digital platforms. Another $12-million will go toward improving recycling by the papers.

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On Thursday, Dominique Anglade, Minister of Economy, Science and Innovation, said Investissement Québec is making a $10-million loan to Mr. Cauchon's Groupe Capitales Médias (GCM), as its share in a $26-million investment by the company in the digital side of its publishing. Rival Quebecor Inc. immediately attacked the deal as "flagrant favouritism," with president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau tweeting darkly about "the Liberal connection."

Ms. Montpetit, as the minister responsible for "the protection and promotion of the French language," acted in part to prevent an erosion of francophone cultural space.

When federal Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, who holds a similar language responsibility, presented her Creative Canada policy in Montreal on Dec. 8, all she had to offer Quebec news publishers was a "bravo" to those already making conspicuous efforts to go digital. This was just 11 days after a mass closing of dozens of Canadian papers that put 291 people out of work.

Ms. Joly received a short list of things to do about the crisis in June from the Liberal-dominated Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. The committee recommended a five-year tax credit for capital and labour investments in digital publishing; an expansion of the Canada Media Fund to include daily newspapers; and a ban on ads on the CBC's websites. Ms. Joly and her cabinet colleagues would have none of it.

When grilled in the House of Commons on Dec. 6 about why even the mass closings had not prodded the government into action, Ms. Joly said she was "working with the industry." The scope and shape of that work remains secret, with no money or new policy to show for it.

Ms. Joly received a harsh reception in her native province for letting Netflix play tax-free in our yard without any firm commitment to original francophone production from Quebec. She's now making a similar mistake in a different cultural industry, overlooking a very real threat to the francophone milieu while tossing roses from afar to anyone making an effort online.

She seems not to notice, or to want to notice, that some of her policies make the situation worse. In her Montreal speech, her musings on the threat to newsgathering drifted into a reminder that she's giving an extra $675-million to the CBC. But as several witnesses told the standing committee, a more robust CBC digital news operation tightens the screws on private media publishers whose resources are shrinking.

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Ms. Anglade said that her part of the recent announcements was an investment in Quebec businesses, not newsrooms. She was concerned about GCM's 400 employees, she said, and had concluded that the six Quebec centres served by the papers (Le Droit is also based in Gatineau) would be worse off if they failed.

She brushed away Mr. Péladeau's complaint by saying that the same resources are open to Quebecor or anyone else. "Why not? If they present us with projects to do with the digital shift, we will consider them on their merits," she said. Mr. Cauchon said that any suggestion his personal politics might influence or benefit his newsrooms – most of which endorsed the ruling Liberals during the last provincial election – was an "insult" to his journalists.

It's amusing to line up that remark with Mr. Cauchon's elegaic 2015 reference to Le Droit's origins, as a paper created to transmit the views of its first publishers, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. But times change, and so does journalism. In the same speech, Mr. Cauchon spoke of a wall: "Politics is on one side and media is on the other." There's no reason politicians, including the Heritage minister, can't do something to keep Canadian newsgathering strong, without compromising themselves or those who publish.

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