Goodbye, La Presse — Thoughts on print journalism as a Montreal print publication disappears

Hungarians are more accustomed to the disappearance of major print publications than Canadians, particularly after the ruling party’s shuttering by proxy of the nation’s largest circulation daily, Népszabadság. Canadians have also been more avid readers of news in print than Hungarians, where even the nation’s largest national daily, the conservative Magyar Nemzet, has less than 22,000 subscribers and readers of the print edition per day. In comparison, at the time of the last print edition of Montreal’s French-language La Presse, the print publication boasted some 200,000 readers. Today, however, is a historic day, in that La Presse appears in print for the very last time, 133 years after its establishment. In fact, La Presse becomes the first major daily in Canada to terminate its print edition and rely strictly on digital platforms–in the case of La Presse, first and foremost on a free tablet edition.

When I was growing up in Montreal during the eighties and early nineties, my father–who spoke French fluently–would always analyse the stacks of La Presse and its English competitor, The Gazette in grocery stores and other shops, to see which one sold faster on any given day. He owned a commercial art gallery in a shopping mall and had plenty of opportunity to conduct these analyses. Despite his ease with the French language, the political and linguistic climate in Montreal was such, that he was clearly rooting for The Gazette.

Today, La Presse bids farewell to 49 employees who worked on the publication’s print edition, but it retains a staff of 235, who will now focus exclusively on the pioneering La Presse + tablet platform. Éric Trottier, the managing editor of the publication founded in 1884, says that there is reason for optimism. Each day, some 270,000 people read the digital edition–more than the number who read the paper in print in its last years. As well, he suggests that the international events of the last year may mean that 2017 was a watershed moment for media, in that a growing number of people realize the importance of reliable, professional and fact-based journalism.

“We are living through dark years,” said Mr. Trottier, but added: “2017 was a year that woke people up. I think people throughout the Western world became aware of the importance of major media.” The paper’s managing editor also noted that, as a sign of the times, not a single one of the paper’s staff of mainly thirty-something year old journalists subscribed to print dailies.

The last print edition of La Presse.

In today’s edition of La Presse, François Cardinal writes:

“This evolution will thus have transformed the newspaper of the ink to pixels. And it will have reminded us of a fundamental thing: the important thing is not the medium nor the platform, it is the content. The important thing, in other words, is the newsroom that feeds the media. It is the credibility of the journalists who work there. It is the reliability of the news that readers can consult each day. It is the trust that they give to what they read. The important thing, in short, is the rigor of the information artisans who assemble everyday life. Whatever its format.”

The era of print dailies in Montreal is not quite gone, of course. The Montreal Gazette, established in 1778, still has a weekday circulation of 116,000 and 133,000 on Saturdays. Then there is Le Devoir, with a circulation of around 30,000 and the tabloid Le Journal de Montréal, with 231,000. And there are some dailies in Canada that experimented with the model now chosen by La Presse, but gave up and stuck with print. The Toronto Star comes to mind, with a circulation of over half a million and their recent decision to discontinue their tablet edition.

Regardless, starting in 2018, Montreal’s shops will be a little emptier. Now it will be The Gazette that stands in piles, waiting for a dwindling number of readers to get their daily dose of news in print.

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