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.
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.
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?
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.