Inside The Gazette newsroom in the heart of downtown Montreal sits a three-drawer file cabinet filled with colour: folders in bright shades of red, yellow and blue, each one filled with stories, contacts and studies on Montreal’s cultural communities. The cabinet’s owner, Jeff Heinrich, covers Montreal’s minority communities for the Gazette, although the words “diversities reporter” do not appear under his byline. Heinrich says he created the diversity beat for himself three years ago because of the more than eighty ethnic and linguistic groups that shape his city and form a demographic reality that neither he – nor the Gazette – can afford to ignore.
For thirty years, the Gazette has been shedding its “Anglo paper” image in favour of a more broad-based approach that offers the promise of survival in the face of an ever-shrinking core readership of anglophones.The Gazette‘s most obvious nonanglophone target, and the single largest group of potential readers, has always been English-speaking francophones who make up just over half of Montreal’s population. But francophones have consistently formed about fifteen to twenty per cent of the Gazette‘s readership, and today that number sits at around seventeen per cent. With three dailies in their own language, it’s unlikely francophones will ever make up a big portion of the Gazette‘s readership. Survival, then, depends on Montreal’s allophones – people who don’t speak either French or English as a first language. According to a 2001 City of Montreal census, allophones formed twenty-nine per cent of the city’s population, a proportion that seems certain to continue growing given that more than three-quarters of immigrants to Quebec settle in Montreal. But since 1977, Bill 101 has driven all children of Quebec immigrants into the French school system and made French the prerequisite language of government and business. If allophones can read the news in a language their children are being educated in and in which they operate every day, and if these disparate ethnic and linguistic groups do not see themselves reflected frequently and proportionately in theGazette, chances are they will never pick it up in large numbers.
Still, editor-in-chief Andrew Phillips says he doesn’t scrutinize demographics. He believes many of the methods used to cover diverse communities are second nature for Gazette staff. Instead, he’s focused on putting out the best paper possible, hoping to attract readers by virtue of good journalism. And while Phillips can hardly be criticized for focusing on excellence, the question remains: Will simply putting out a good paper draw readers to the Gazette? More to the point, will it attract the allophone readers the Gazette needs to survive?
On the morning of February 21, 2004, a West Indian black man named Rohan Wilson died in the emergency room of the Montreal General Hospital after an encounter with Montreal police. The story made the news even though the cops refused to comment on the cause of Wilson’s death. A week later, Gazette photographer Phil Carpenter, also of West Indian background, went for food as he often does at Montreal Caribbean restaurant on the corner of de Maisonneuve Boulevard West and Vendôme Avenue. While eating, he overheard another customer talking about Wilson’s death. Carpenter joined in and discovered the customer had been friends with Wilson and his wife, Lecita Audain. Carpenter got Audain’s phone number and called her that night. He was the first journalist in the week since Wilson’s death to contact the household. On March 2, 2004, the Gazette printed an exclusive story about Audain’s struggle to get police to disclose the cause of her husband’s death, a story the paper wouldn’t have broken without Carpenter’s serendipitous community connection – a connection unlikely to have been as easily made by a white anglophone reporter.
Carpenter is a member of a minority group in Montreal, but he’s even more of a minority in the Gazettenewsroom. Like most major newsrooms today, the Gazette employs mainly white, middle-class anglophone reporters and editors. “We’re not a bad reflection of our readership,” says Phillips, while admitting, “We’re not a great reflection of our community.”
Gazette management has expressed a desire to diversify the newsroom, and even added three new managers this year – all women, two from minority backgrounds – but it admits that given the limited number of openings and the lack of resources to create new positions, this process will be slow. What’s more, the already limited pool of potential employees with diverse backgrounds is even smaller for the Gazette because all of its staff must speak both English and French. Publisher Alan Allnutt says that while the Gazette seeks out people from different backgrounds, it hires the best candidates for positions and does not use quotas. Instead, he prefers hiring a range of staff and covering diversity “organically” rather than mandating the coverage of different communities. Such “organic” growth takes time, however; although today the ratio of men to women at the Gazette borders on equal, it took over two decades to strike that gender balance.
Still, while one of the advantages of having reporters from diverse backgrounds is their ability to push stories out of their communities and into the news, that doesn’t mean non-minorities can’t reach out as well. Sue Montgomery, a white reporter and columnist for the Gazette who focuses on immigrant and refugee issues, says reporters who come from outside certain cultural communities can still cover those communities if they are diplomatic and take the time to appear outside their roles as journalists. Montgomery spends free time with immigrant community members, building her reputation among them as a trustworthy journalist. Leading up to the municipal elections in the fall of 2005, for example, when the Gazette profiled every Montreal borough, Montgomery entered the municipality of Outremont and discovered a culture clash between the Jewish and francophone communities living there. Knowing it would be hard to win access to the Hasidic community but eager to pursue the story, Montgomery visited one of Outremont’s many synagogues, only to be turned away by the Orthodox men there who explained that they could not be interviewed on their holiday, Simchat Torah. Montgomery went next door to a deli and struck up a conversation with the deli’s Jewish owner who eventually brought her back to the synagogue to drink Scotch and hang out with the men outside. Montgomery tried once more to question the men for her story, and while again they refused to answer on account of their holiday, they offered her an interview for the next day.
Montgomery and Heinrich, like many Gazette reporters, say they reach out to minority communities because they choose to, not because of specific targets from management, of which there are currently none. “There’s nothing coming from up high like, ‘Here is your quota this week’ and ‘Why are all your sources white?'” says Heinrich.
“Allophones are an extremely important and valued part of our readership, and we can always do more,” says Phillips. But his top priority isn’t diversity, it’s focusing on what he likes to call “substantive journalism,” which he describes as work that increases people’s understanding of and involvement in public issues. To single out a couple of examples, he points to the Gazette‘s in-depth series in spring 2005 on Montreal as the capital of private health care as well as a three-part series on contract awarding at City Hall last October. “We want to do a good job in serving the community,” he says, “in terms of bringing important public things to light.”
Covering – and uncovering – Montreal are not new goals for the Gazette. As one of the world’s oldest newspapers, the Gazette has been a Montreal chronicle for well over two centuries. Founded in 1778 by French printer Fleury Mesplet, the Gazette began as a French-language paper under the name La Gazette du Commerce et Litteraire, although it was revived in 1785 in both English and French. In its early years, theGazette changed names and proprietors like characters in moveable type, going from a weekly to a twice-weekly publication and from bilingual to entirely English under the name The Montreal Gazette in 1822.
From before the creation of Canada until well into the 20th century, the Gazette was stalwart in its support of Confederation and of Montreal’s English community. Even the vast changes that took place during the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s were not enough to cause the Gazette to re-examine what it stood for. In 1976, though, the Parti Québécois gained control of the provincial government, sparking the beginning of an anglophone exodus. The bleeding of potential readers continued over the next two decades. Even with the death of its only English competition, The Montreal Star, in 1979, the Gazette still experienced a slow but steady decline in circulation throughout this period. As its core readership of anglophones withered, theGazette‘s management realized that a failure to soften its stance and cover the plethora of news in Montreal’s other communities would be akin to suicide.
“We wanted to be the best newspaper on the island of Montreal,” says managing editor Raymond Brassard, “and that means reaching out to everybody.” The Gazette conducted research and held meetings with writers on the importance of diversifying sources and putting different perspectives into the paper, and these efforts produced results – the Gazette‘s diversity coverage began to outshine that of most metropolitan newspapers. John Miller, then-chair of the diversity committee of the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association (now the Canadian Newspaper Association), noted that success when he conducted a content analysis of Canadian newspapers in 1993. Of the six Canadian newspapers Miller examined in his study, the Gazette was the only one to have a higher percentage of minority representation in news stories and photographs than the percentage of minorities in the local population.
Under Peter Stockland, who took over as editor-in-chief in 2001, the Gazette took more bold steps including printing a full-page press roundup every Sunday – in French. But while such gestures showed the Gazettewas open to all Montrealers, its slogan in 2002 – “The English Language. Daily.” – did not. The Gazette needed to re-brand itself, and in February 2002, CanWest Global Communications Corp. hired well-known Montrealer Larry Smith as publisher to do the job.
Claiming they’d been covering Montreal’s diverse communities for years, many reporters saw the attempt to reach out to Montreal’s various communities under Smith as redundant. “It was, in my view, a distortion of what we were and had been for a long time,” says columnist and university life reporter Peggy Curran. Lucinda Chodan, now editor-in-chief of the Victoria Times- Colonist and, in 2002, the Gazette‘s readership development editor, defends the efforts, however, calling them “groundbreaking” and “innovative.”
The Gazette relaunched in September 2002 with a fresh look, a new slogan and content that responded to the demands of potential readers. Its outmoded slogan was replaced with the more inclusive “The Gazette IS Montreal,” a phrase featured in different languages around the city and tacked onto bulletin boards on every floor of its St. Antoine Street offices. This “is not just a moral and philosophical stance,” wrote Chodan in a column just prior to the relaunch date. “In order for us to continue to thrive economically, we have to make sure we appeal not only to our traditional loyal – and valued – anglophone readers, but to anyone of any linguistic background who wants to read a lively, reliable, accurate and fair account of what’s happening every day in the city we share.” Allophones weren’t the only target; francophones, women aged 35 to 54 and youth aged 18 to 34 also warranted special attention. The Gazette developed ten to twelve content initiatives for each group, all designed to address feedback received in extensive marketing research.
Responding to feedback that allophones wanted coverage of their communities yearround, not just around festivals or holidays, the Gazette introduced a World Sports page in the Monday Sports section that covered international sports, with an emphasis on soccer. During the 2002 World Cup, the paper hired writers from various communities to report on the tournament in their respective languages, running copy in languages such as Chinese, Greek and Italian. It also added a rotating column of community news in the Sunday Insight section that corresponded to some of Montreal’s largest allophone communities – Spanish, Chinese, Greek and Italian. Like the World Cup coverage, the columns were written by representatives of those communities in their respective languages. The Gazette also increased the number of cultural community listings in its daily Arts & Life section and began actively soliciting listings from cultural communities for the daily What’s On page. While some of the initiatives didn’t last, overall the changes gave potential allophone readers a reason to take another look at the Gazette.
When Phillips took the helm in November 2004, the Gazette was in the best position it had been in for at least a decade. Circulation numbers even rose just slightly in the fall of 2005, something Phillips takes care not to overstate. But the efforts that in the 1990s moved the Gazette to the head of the class in diversity coverage have lately not been keeping pace with Montreal’s burgeoning allophone population. The proportion of today’s coverage of minority communities appears to be nowhere near their percentage in the population. While stories and photos of minorities do pop up, the coverage still leaves the sense that the communities are being covered from the outside in, and not the other way around. Far from leading the way, the Gazette has slipped back to haphazard diversity coverage. Many of the diverse faces appear incidentally, but most of those who do appear because of deliberate efforts to include them do not represent the everyday realities of their communities. Rather, too often, they’re either the underclass or the overachievers.
Last November, an article in the Gazette about Shimon Peres’s decision to join Ariel Sharon’s newly founded party, Kadima, was paired with a disturbing photo of a young boy caught between his father and a solider, his small body just inches from the soldier’s rifle. While Leah Berger, coordinator of government and community affairs for B’nai Brith in Quebec, generally approves of the Gazette‘s coverage of the Jewish community and issues surrounding Israel, she says it frustrates her when the Gazette pairs articles about Israel with unrelated and sensational photos. Yet while the lines of communication are open between the Gazette and Montreal’s minority communities, allowing people like Berger to express their concerns, minority voices within the paper remain faint. The Gazette‘s op-ed pages appear virtually minority-free, although they provide the perfect opportunity to include different voices and perspectives. Salam Elmenyawi, chair of the Muslim Council of Montreal, for one, says it’s impossible to challenge misconceptions about his community when he is allowed to respond in the op-ed section only once or twice a year. “Say what you want,” he says, “but give me the right to respond with equal space.”
So what should the Gazette be doing? Diverse staffs are a long-term solution, but only a part of the equation. While proportional representation in the newsroom is an ideal, Aly Colón, former director of diversity at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, says editors and reporters who want to cover diversity would benefit from conducting research and consulting extensively to develop a clear picture of the city they want to cover. Colón, who worked as a reporter and diversity coach at The Seattle Times, says it’s also of value to have an editor or reporter act as a resource on diversity. Having sought out that knowledge on behalf of theTimes, Colón took on the role of in-house consultant, holding sessions on reaching out to communities and offering suggestions and ideas – rather than orders – on how to do that. It was also his responsibility to monitor the paper’s coverage, “always thinking about areas that are not being covered, trying to say who’s missing from a story – being a sentinel of sorts.” He notes that there is no set job for a diversity monitor, though. “Every newspaper needs to find its own path that works best for it.”
Perhaps this is a job for the Gazette‘s own Heinrich, with his cabinet full of diversity resources and ongoing experience in the field. No thanks, he says. He’s fine with being the Gazette‘s go-to person for community phone numbers and census data, but he rejects the diversity coach label, saying he wouldn’t want to “formalize something that happens naturally.”
But that’s exactly the problem – whether or not it happens naturally. Poynter’s visual journalism group leader Kenny Irby says that while newspapers can never mirror the always-changing communities in their cities, “They have an opportunity to diversify and enrich the content of their publications.” In order to do that, he says, “Among the staff, there must be a commitment to include new voices, topics and faces.” And that won’t happen without commitment from the top. “If the management is not making it a priority and insisting that it be done,” continues Irby’s Poynter colleague Colón, “no single reporter is going to make it happen for the paper.”
Phillips stresses that the lack of specific, targeted plan is not because the Gazette takes Montreal’s allophones for granted, but rather, it is the result of his desire to fulfill one or a few goals at a time. “If you have too many priorities all over the place, your risk is you don’t get anything done.” He also disagrees that allophones are the only way to expand the Gazette‘s readership, pointing to the fact that there are still many anglophones in Montreal who are either not reading the Gazette at all or not reading it as frequently as he’d like. Besides, he says, he doesn’t look at the market and see just three silos. “This whole business about anglophone, allophone and francophone is just one way of looking at your audience. I mean, you can look at it by age as well or by gender or communities of interest. We don’t just slice it up by language.”
Phillips hopes his focus on journalistic quality will win out. “People will come after me and they’ll do their best and they’ll be doing it under different circumstances. I hope they don’t look back and say, ‘Those guys in 2006, what the heck were they doing?'” But the number of people who come after Phillips will depend on whether excellence is enough – and whether the Gazette can ever be truly excellent unless it reflects Montreal’s diversity as precisely as possible. The paper’s slogan – “The Gazette IS Montreal” – shows it knows what it can be. What remains to be seen is whether allophones – and the Gazette‘s management and staff – believe the slogan’s promise.