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Hour of Need

Hour of Need

Do alternative weeklies have a future? Inside the recent upheaval at a Montreal media institution.

Illustration by Karsten Petrat.

ON A SNOWY MORNING IN JANUARY, Jamie O’Meara was called into his publisher’s office for a surprise meeting. For the last seven years, he had been the editor-in-chief of Hour, one of Montreal’s English-language alternative weeklies. But that day, on the seventh floor of a glass tower near Place-des-Arts, the newspaper’s management announced that the entire staff was fired—including O’Meara. Three months later, he was officially out of a job, and the first issue of the renamed Hour Community hit newsstands.

The new alt-weekly was an emaciated version of its already-slim former self, just twelve pages long and re-staffed with journalists paid a fraction of their predecessors’ wages. “After reading the farewell columns of my esteemed predecessors Jamie O’Meara and Richard Burnett in last week’s issue,” wrote Hour Community’s new editor-in-chief Kevin Laforest, “I must say that, for a moment, I wished I could have started work at Hour in a different context.”

Sitting in a bar in the Plateau borough in June, in his first interview since the lay-off, O’Meara admits he saw the end coming for nearly a decade. An initial hint appeared in the early 2000s, when an edict passed down from publisher Pierre Paquet eliminated Hour’s news editor position. It was “the first time we saw the writing on the wall,” says O’Meara, who worked at Hour for almost its entire eighteen-year existence. Paquet had founded the paper in the early nineties as part of his Communications Voir media empire, but by 2004, when O’Meara became editor-in-chief, Paquet had lost interest, and Hour started its long decline. Between slumping advertising, the recession, disinterested management and competition from the internet, O’Meara says, Hour was led into a perfect storm of neglect.

“I would get emails [from readers] saying, ‘Sixteen-page Hour, nice job!’” O’Meara remembers, referring to the paper’s dwindling page counts. “I was dying, trying to get the sales staff to promote the goddamn thing. I was trying to motivate the editors and staff to keep working. I was begging the publisher for a working website. There wasn’t a lifeline, there wasn’t anything. And people blamed us for the decline of the paper.” Hour Community’s management did not respond to requests for comment.

HOUR’S STRANGE DEATH and half-hearted rebirth is only the latest in a series of closures, shrinkages and buy-outs that have rocked North America’s alt-weekly newspapers—the canaries of the press system. The current model of the alt-weekly began with the Village Voice in New York City. An arts tabloid created in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, the Voice’s edgy subject matter and opinionated reporting inspired similar papers across North America’s metropolises. From Vancouver’s Georgia Straight to Toronto’s NOW magazine, contemporary alt-weeklies tend to be free, completely reliant on advertising, and focused on arts coverage and left-leaning news writing.

Not long ago, Montreal had four alt-weeklies: Voir and Ici in French, and Hour and the Mirror in English. Today, it has two and a half: Voir, the Mirror and Hour Community. Hour may have never been Montreal’s arts-paper-of-record, but it helped nurture much of the city’s emerging reporting talent. “It’s not about breaking stories—it’s about developing good stories,” says Linda Kay, a former reporter who is now the chair of Concordia University’s Department of Journalism. Alternative weeklies “have produced many good stories, as well as many good, young investigative journalists as a result.”

Plenty of alt-weeklies are still doing well, and some are even going corporate—the venerable Voice is now the lynchpin in a conglomerate called Village Voice Media, which has acquired papers across the United States. But, like mainstream newspapers, many are showing signs of decay. Because they depend entirely on advertising, alt-weeklies are, in some ways, even more vulnerable than their mainstream counterparts: the crucial classifieds market has largely fled to online services like Craigslist, and free papers have no subscription revenue or newsstand sales to pick up the slack. “The Reader in San Diego is going through the same situation as Hour,” says Kay. “It is losing staff and seems primed to go down the tube. Hyper-local news sites have sprouted up, largely filling the role that alternative weeklies used to perform, but even they are having problems. The news situation is still being sorted out.”

IN THE EARLY NINETIES, Pierre Paquet, publisher of Montreal’s leading French weekly Voir, decided to purchase the Mirror and corner the local alt-weekly ad market. His bid was turned down. Feeling slighted, Paquet decided to run the Mirror out of town, and founded Hour in 1993. The new competition drove the Mirror into the arms of media giant Quebecor, which purchased the paper in 1997. Ad rates were slashed across the island, and both English newspapers were injected with new funding in a furious bid for dominance.

Flush with money from Quebecor, the publishers of the Mirror then founded Ici to drive Voir out of business. “Suddenly we had a full-on paper war, where Ici was trying to take out Voir, and Voir and Hour were trying to take out the Mirror,” says Matthew Hays, a former editor at the Mirror. Relations between the competing weeklies were tense. “There were a few occasions where it nearly came to blows,” O’Meara admits. He lets out a rare smile. “We each had our territories where we hung out. There was a line in the sand: these were our bars and those were their bars.”

O’Meara published his first article in Hour as a freelancer, in the newspaper’s second or third issue. “I quite literally bugged them to death to be an editor,” he says. “I showed up every day with computer in hand and told them, ‘I can work in that office, or that office.’ Finally, when they did need to expand, they gave me a job.” O’Meara was an editorial assistant for six months, then music editor, then senior editor, and, finally, landed in the editor-in-chief’s office in 2004.

By that point, Paquet had fought the Mirror for a decade, with little to show for it. Without the results he’d been hoping for, he simply lost interest in his English product—but instead of closing Hour down, Communications Voir started diverting funds elsewhere. (Today, Communications Voir is a division of media company Urbacom, which also owns an Ottawa alt-weekly and a number of other properties.) When O’Meara became editor-in-chief, he was immediately faced with the challenge of creating a product that seemed important enough to pick up, even when money was tight and talent was scarce.

O’Meara decided to target politically and culturally engaged urbanites, and ran strong covers to match: James Brown’s final interview was on the cover in 2006, four days before he died. In its retreat—and after the shuttering of its news section—Hour focused on music, dance and film. “We chose to fly under the radar so that [management] wouldn’t see us—that was a conscious choice,” O’Meara says. “Being in the shadow of Voir, they didn’t give a crap about what the Anglophone corner did. We had a lot more editorial freedom right up to the end than Voir ever did, and they were intensely jealous of that—in a good-natured way. They were really under the yoke.”

Paquet ensured that Voir’s editorial choices attracted the advertising he wanted. But as Hour seemed unlikely to be getting any more financial support, whether it pleased advertisers or not, O’Meara enjoyed editorial independence. He says the key to running a successful newspaper would have been to have both. “It comes down to having a publisher with a sales strategy and a long-term commitment to grow the paper,” he says. “Our publisher lost interest a long time ago, and he said as much to me. But when he was hands-on involved, marketing the paper with new creative solutions and making sure it got into people’s hands, that’s when we were doing great.”

The battle between the Mirror and Hour ended in the mid-aughts, with the older paper maintaining its crown. (Ici, for its part, eventually folded into the Quebecor-owned 24 Heures, which is distributed for free on the Montreal metro.) It had become clear that all of Montreal’s English-language media were at risk as the internet infringed on their territory; the scene shifted from fiefdoms to a more collective view, bent on saving the journalism jobs that existed at the time. But it was too late for Hour. While the Mirror’s circulation has been climbing over the past three years, Hour’s was halved over its last six months; during that period, its circulation was only nineteen thousand to the Mirror’s sixty-one thousand.

Hour’s page counts had also dropped steadily since it began its decline, and its final edition, like the first issue of Hour Community, was twelve pages long. That week, the Mirror was forty-eight pages. “With such low page counts, we were all left wondering why Pierre Paquet was doing it,” says Matthew Hays. “It almost seemed cruel. You should either fund a publication properly or part with it.” The discrepancy between the two papers’ circulation numbers is proof that the industry is still reimagining itself. “Many people in many sales departments have argued that the situation of four weeklies, two in each language, in a market as small as Montreal, has never made any sense whatsoever,” Hays admits. “With Ici and Hour going under, some people have said to me that this is only a correction.”

Some alt-weeklies are still flourishing elsewhere. Toronto’s NOW “has been kicking ass,” says O’Meara. Recently, the notoriously confrontational newspaper has been breaking stories and openly challenging the city’s right-wing mayor, Rob Ford, on its cover. It’s still living up to an older ideal of bold, political alternative media. (NOW’s chief local competitor, Eye Weekly, took the opposite approach earlier this year, transforming itself into an urban-lifestyle magazine called the Grid.)

The new Hour Community is nothing like NOW. Instead, Hays suggests, it’s attempting to tap into what might be called the Arianna Huffington effect. The founder of the online Huffington Post has been able to create a lively news website with content provided by a skeletal staff and bloggers working for free, and Hays thinks Hour Community’s publisher could be following her example. “Paquet is probably looking at someone like Arianna Huffington and wondering, ‘How the hell is she making all these people work for practically nothing?’” he says.

Without the pages to print the stories he wanted or the money to pay freelancers, O’Meara ultimately blames Hour’s failings on its publisher. “When you don’t have someone steering the ship, and you have a recession on one side and content migrating to the internet on the other, you are adrift. You are fucked,” he says. “No life preserver in the world is big enough to save your ass.”

See the rest of Issue 41 (Fall 2011).

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