Skip to main content

In 1959, a white Texan named John Howard Griffin chemically altered his skin colour and assumed the identity of an itinerant black man to expose the racism of the South. The results of his travels were published in Black Like Me, a watershed 1961 book that fuelled the fight for civil rights in the cauldron that was the sixties.

In 2003, a white reporter at Le Journal de Montréal underwent five hours of makeup each day and assumed the identity of an itinerant black man to expose the racism of Canada's second-largest city. The results of his travels were published in Seven Days in the Skin of a Black Man, a series of articles that fuelled the fight for market share in the cauldron that is Montreal's newly hot newspaper war.

Be forewarned. No tactic is too sensational in this battle.

Story continues below advertisement

Le Journal, Quebecor Inc.'s flagship French-language tabloid, followed up its recent Black Like Me knockoff with The Secret World of Raël, a salacious inside look at the cult-like Quebec-based movement that believes in free love, aliens and publicity stunts. (Remember its claim to be clone-capable?) Le Journal's much-hyped features were simply pre-emptive strikes against the print media event of the fall in Quebec -- the Oct. 7 relaunch of La Presse, the Montreal broadsheet owned by Paul Desmarais's Power Corp. of Canada through its Gesca Ltée subsidiary.

Printed in a kaleidoscopic array of colours on new $100-million presses owned by Transcontinental Inc. -- another Quebecor nemesis that also happens to print The Globe and Mail -- La Presse hopes to "dérider" (unwrinkle) its readership.

Le Journal is overwhelmingly preferred by those under 35, while Montreal's four free alternative weeklies -- two of them Quebecor-owned -- are popular with the Nexters left over.

The 119-year-old La Presse has struck back with its own hipster insert, LP2, distributed on the same day as the alternative weeklies, and Actuel, a weekend magazine with a heavy emphasis on lifestyle -- it even has its own Leah McLaren or Rebecca Eckler in twentysomething stream-of-consciousness columnist Rafaëlle Germain. Actuel's inaugural feature on Saturday was on metrosexuals. Now how obvious is that?

This is not to suggest that the new La Presse is a dumbed-down version of the old. Indeed, long a wan-looking Toronto Star for suburbanites, La Presse has evolved into Quebec's newspaper of record since publisher Guy Crevier took over in early 2000.

Once navel-gazing, La Presse under Mr. Crevier sends reporters around the globe and has full-time correspondents in Washington and London. Readers of La Presse, unlike those of the other French-language dailies, did not have to rely on wire copy during recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prestige has its price. The spending at La Presse is a hot topic in Quebec media circles. Most observers believe the paper is in the red or close to it.

Story continues below advertisement

Just what is Mr. Desmarais thinking? Has the Power patriarch gone soft in his 70s and really given Mr. Crevier, 50, the mandate to turn La Presse into a quality newspaper regardless of the cost?

If he has, the competition hasn't ceded a centimetre. La Presse must contend not only with Le Journal, but with unprecedented attempts by the English-language Gazette to lure francophone readers, the endurance of independent high-brow daily Le Devoir, the arrival in 2001 of two free transit dailies -- one Quebecor-owned, the other backed by Transcontinental and Power -- and the local presence of The Globe and the National Post.

Le Journal, founded by Pierre Péladeau in 1964 during a strike at La Presse, is still the clear leader with 1.23 million weekly readers in Greater Montreal in 2002, according to the Newspaper Audience Databank (NADbank). La Presse had 837,000 readers and CanWest Global Communications Corp.'s Gazette had 632,000.

Métro, the subway giveaway produced by Transcontinental and Power in partnership with Sweden's Modern Times Group, claimed 432,400 readers, while Quebecor's Montréal Métropolitain paled with 148,500. Quebecor -- which unlike Métro cannot distribute its freebie inside subway stations -- promises to reverse those numbers. Watch for an announcement soon.

Among the traditional dailies, readership numbers fail to account for the distribution of free or reduced-price papers. There's plenty of that going on in Montreal these days, but no publisher seems willing to admit to it.

Still, one only has to stand on a Montreal street corner these days, where a free copy of La Presse is easily had, or pop into a Dunkin' Donuts shop, where there are suspiciously abundant copies of Le Journal, to realize thousands of readers are not paying for their paper. And how much of The Gazette's purported gains among francophones -- its readership was up 12 per cent in 2002 compared with flat numbers at Le Journal and La Presse -- was the result of freebies?

Story continues below advertisement

Advertisers apparently frown on this practice. But nostalgic Torontonians will remember that free papers are the sine qua non of a real newspaper war.

That is, free papers and expanded business coverage -- the latter to attract rich baby boomers. Hence, La Presse has doubled the size of its business section and adopted a more savvy tone. A daily feature called Fin de séance (End of trading) strikingly resembles Report on Business's Vox column.

Last year, Le Journal moved to boost its credibility with business readers by launching a beefy weekly pullout called Votre Argent (Your Money) and securing exclusive rights to run Wall Street Journal articles in French.

Still, nothing signals a newspaper war more than what's on the front page. Proving it can match Le Journal blow for blow in misérabilisme, La Presse published the story on Saturday of a reporter who infiltrated nursing homes as a temp to unveil the sad lives of overmedicated, undernourished and attention-starved elders. The piece made for horrific but irresistible reading for boomers grappling with the painful choice facing their dependent parents.

Manipulative? Maybe. But war is hell.

konrad@sympatico.ca

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Tickers mentioned in this story
Unchecking box will stop auto data updates
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter