After 130 years, the daily La Presse has ceased weekday hard-copy publication reverting to its digital platform only. The Saturday edition will still be printed. This is a societal failure on multiple levels.
Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that the "medium is the message." But part of a medium - and media - being effective, is that it must be "in your face." We cannot rely on people choosing to go to digital platforms to be informed if we want to keep a healthy democracy. The essence of a healthy democracy, where citizens are not lulled into passive acceptance of pandering political sound bites and fleeting electronic images so often manipulated on social media, is that they have a chance to be deeply informed. Without an educated populace we have only a pretense of liberty with the uninformed electing the unchallenged.
The strength of newspapers, more than electronic media, is that they are in people's faces. Whether people choose to pick them up is certainly up to them. But they cannot ignore them. Whether you are at the pharmacy, or the supermarket, or the depanneur or just walking down the street and come across displays and hawkers, those headlines - those dramatic front pages - are in your face. If you choose not to read, then the guilt rests with you. But at least you are given the chance to be informed.
And that is part of the great and overriding responsibility of media. It claims to want to be taken seriously as the "fourth estate" of government. That when the executive is too busy, and the legislatures don't care, and the judiciary too costly, the vulnerable and the put-upon can still resort to us. We are the people's tribunes. But for that to be true, media in the form of newspapers, must force itself into your line of vision. At least you won't be able to miss the headlines on the first page. Just as politicians get in your face, so must newspapers as the counter-veiling force to keep them honest.
But, you will say, everyone knows newspapers lose money. The reality is, that is an urban legend. I am not privy to La Presse' finances. I am fortunate that our newspaper has not only raised circulation but has increased top and bottom line growth. But here's another surprise. Several years ago we saw a spate of newspapers going into creditor protection. In the US, they included the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Los Angeles Times. Within six months of filing, the newspapers became profitable and have remained profitable. Why? Because all these papers were owned by holding companies engaging in other businesses. Those holding companies used profits from their component parts to go into other ventures. The failure of those other ventures drove the companies down. When the newspapers were segregated out, they did just fine. Another part of the legend is that digital advertising is a success. Industry figures demonstrate the exact opposite. There are only three digital news platforms that make money from advertising. Three, in all of North America. There are hundreds of newspapers that do. The latest North American industry figures released at the start of December demonstrate that newspaper advertising rose 16% last quarter, the third consecutive quarter of growth . Digital advertising dropped again by 33%.
I am not suggesting that was the case with La Presse. La Presse was demanding, and getting, close to $40,000 per page in ad dollars. The La Presse closure stems from a different malaise of our society. The demand of investors and markets for ever-expanding growth fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter. It matters not if you are making money, the demands are that you have to make more money. Well that may be a philosophy that a widget manufacturer can live with, but it is not one that a newspaper should have to live with.
There is a social responsibility to owning a paper that is as important as its fiscal one. Clearly everything must be done to assure that a newspaper at least breaks even. But to shut down hard copy editions completely without trying alternatives, does not meet that responsibility. If it is all about money, there are plenty of other businesses to go into. Economies can be realized by scaling down the format of a paper thereby reducing newsprint costs. A paper can publish five days a week instead of six. It can reduce color to save on production costs. It can limit the number of pages. And I could go on.
The irony is that most newspaper owners I have met, almost without exception, are not only rich, but are deeply engaged in their communities' public agendas. They are great philanthropists and many even support activist organizations that work to hold the wielders of power in our society to account. They get it! And the Desmarais family that owns La Presse is no exception.
When one accepts ownership of an element of the fourth estate, one bears the responsibility of keeping that particular flame of conscience burning bright. And the further responsibility of maintaining that particular mirror of society constantly reflecting the search for untainted truth. For that conscience and that search are the hope of mankind. Let us not descend to a life where our actions are governed by the pressure of price instead of the valour of value. We will have created a desert and called it peace.