In what will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, the Gazette is suffering through another round of staff losses. Print is dying, you see, as once-plentiful ad revenue has dried up, with more and more people going online when they need to find an apartment or advertise a garage sale.
As I watch more people leave the city’s English-language daily, I can’t help but be reminded of the late great journalist Molly Ivins’ lament about the crisis newspapers were facing: newspaper owners had an odd solution to the problem of evaporating readership, she argued, and that was to make “our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.” Indeed, newspaper and magazine publishers have been responding to the crisis by giving people less reason to pick them up.
And that’s precisely what’s happening this weekend, Friday being the last day on the beat for two Gazette writers, among the people taking the buyouts. Pat Donnelly and Sue Montgomery are signing off one last time, and from what I’ve heard, neither are heartbroken and both are fine with moving on.
But to be perfectly blunt, this is really bad for the Gazette and the city it serves. Donnelly has been an extremely conscientious and hard-working theatre critic. She dutifully attended every and any opening, she worked enthusiastically to support and gently critique an incredibly fragile milieu. The English theatre scene has always been especially vulnerable, as it inevitably pales in comparison to the much larger and more robust French-language theatre scene. I would bump into Donnelly at Stratford every summer when I was there to catch a festival show or two. She didn’t just do her job — like a truly solid, committed journalist, she lived and breathed her criticism. You could tell she took it extremely seriously. Losing Donnelly isn’t just a blow to the Gazette, it’s a blow to Montreal’s theatre community, and the artists in that milieu know it well. We’re losing a great deal of institutional memory as she moves on.
As for Sue Montgomery — and I’m writing about these two reporters in alphabetical order — she is one of the best court reporters I’ve read. I attended some of the Luka Magnotta trial of last year and the preliminary hearings, but Montgomery was there for each and every day of both, writing lucid, comprehensive reports and analysis of the lengthy, gruelling trial. But long-time readers of the Gazette will know that Montgomery has written on a broad range of issues and, again being a solid journalist, has taken them all equally seriously.
Some have wondered how the chain that owns the Gazette, Postmedia, manages to go on, given that all of its properties are money losers. But Toronto Star writer David Olive gave it a good go recently and, wouldn’t you know it, it smacks of foreign owners making money by picking over the bones of a dying newspaper chain.
In this moment of lament, I have a confession to make: for many years, I sneered at the Gazette. I found it mired in many of the problems that pervade daily newspapers: provincialism, a lack of creativity and a WASPy prudishness. I used to call it Southam disease, but it wasn’t just something that impacted Canadian journalism; the Village Voice was founded in New York in 1959 precisely because its founders saw so little of themselves reflected in the uptight daily culture.
But Montreal needs its newspapers. And we need the Gazette, despite all its flaws, because it’s pretty much all we have left en anglais. The Postmedia chain should be broken up and sold to local owners — the very people who would understand why it’s important that we have a paper to begin with. It shouldn’t come as a shock that the two cities that still have robust weeklies, Vancouver (The Georgia Straight) and Toronto (NOW) have those in part because those papers are independently-owned. Corporate investment didn’t help the Mirror nor Hour, Montreal’s ex-weeklies. If we really value and need a newspaper, and most agree that we should and do, then the Gazette should be free to continue on its own, and part ways with Postmedia.
These things are difficult to assess, but I’d bet that if it were independently-owned today, we wouldn’t be having to say goodbye to Donnelly and Montgomery.