Métro Média suspends all publications, citing financial troubles

The newspaper company’s CEO blames Montreal’s decision to ban the Publisac.

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Métro Média, which owns the Métro newspaper in Montreal and community publications in Montreal and Quebec City, announced Friday afternoon it was suspending all its activities effective immediately.

According to a note from CEO Andrew Mulé, the company was told Wednesday “that we could no longer continue our operations with almost immediate effect due to the lack of continued support from institutions — Desjardins Culture, the Ministry of Economy and Innovation, Investissement Québec and SODEC — which we listen to and with whom we have communicated regularly and actively over the past few months.”

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In his note, Mulé specifically blamed Montreal’s decision to outlaw the distribution of the Publisac flyer bag, which Métro used to distribute its community newspapers in the city. He called the move “a particularly devastating blow” to Métro.

“It was obvious to anyone paying attention that Métro had already embarked on a major and significant digital shift and that we had invested everything we had in better editorial and digital products,” Mulé wrote. “We then showed resilience, agreed to deal with a situation that was imposed on us and decided that we were going to bet everything on our digital future with the vision of strong and lasting local information for both the Montreal market and that of Quebec City.

“The fact remains that we could not suddenly suffer a devastating loss of revenue and follow an ambitious and expensive digital roadmap without external financial assistance. We are after all a small business without funding, and the premature end of our print media has left us with no way to quickly fund our future without a significant investment.

“So I did what anyone would do in my place and I spent the last year knocking on every door in Quebec and Canada I could knock on to try to save our project and our business.

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“Time was my worst enemy and what I feared unfortunately happened, but abruptly and suddenly.”

“An atomic bomb” for local news

The loss of the newspapers and journalmetro.com website was “sad but expected,” said École des médias de l’UQAM professor Jean-Hugues Roy.

“It’s tragic … it’s an atomic bomb for local news in Montreal and Quebec City,” he said. “It is a part of the history of journalism, but also of certain districts, that is disappearing. Le Messager de Verdun celebrated its 110th anniversary this year. … These are communities that rely on these newspapers as sources of news.”

His colleague Patrick White called it “very, very bad news for local democracy” in the two cities. “It’s the end of the hyperlocal news model in Montreal and Quebec City. We will no longer cover borough councils.”

Éric-Pierre Champagne, vice-president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, said it was bad news for society in general. “When news doesn’t come out a winner, it’s the public that comes out losing.”

Annick Charette, president of the Fédération nationale de la culture et des communications union (FNCC), said she worked with Mulé for several months to pull the company out of its crisis.

“We worked hard with the owners, we tried to find parallel solutions, we had meetings with several investors, the city … I hope this closing is only temporary.”

In a statement issued Friday evening, FNCC demanded an “immediate and constructive intervention” from all levels of government to save local news on Montreal Island.

Métro Média had about 100 employees, with more than half unionized. There were some layoffs last winter and over recent weeks.

Mulé declined an interview request, saying he had said everything in his message.

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Montreal mayor Valérie Plante said she was saddened by the announcement. “It’s a major loss for the media ecosystem and daily lives of Montrealers,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

“The radical transformation of the media business environment requires urgent reflection and collective solutions. I salute the work of the entire Métro Média group team and its journalists who have covered Montreal news over the years.”

The statement did not sit well with Mulé, who replied that “the beauty of communicating on social media is total control of the message when you publish it, without the need for independent fact-checking. Good luck with that Montreal.”

Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand said “media are precious in our society and it’s an immense loss each time one of them closes down.”

Quebec culture minister Mathieu Lacombe, himself a former journalist, said the closing was “very bad news for citizens. Access to local sources of news is important. The Ministry of Culture and Communications will continue to support local newspapers, as it has done for several years.”

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Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said the closure is “another sad example of the necessity of Bill C-18. Google and Facebook receive 80 per cent of digital advertising revenues in Canada. Meanwhile, hundreds of newsrooms have closed their doors. A free, fruitful and independent press is fundamental to our democracy. Now, Canadians expect that the web giants pay their fair share.”

Company made “huge sacrifices”

Métro Média was formed in 2018 by Michael Raffoul when he purchased Métro and 29 other publications from TC Transcontinental as part of the latter’s exit from the news business. The publications included neighbourhood newspapers like Cités Nouvelles, Courrier Ahuntsic, Journal de Rosemont, Messager LaSalle and Beauport Express. They were eventually rebranded as Métro newspapers.

The sale also included Italian community paper Corriere Italiano, which Métro shut down in March.

“The strange and ironic part of this story is that Métro not only has a healthy balance sheet, but we’ve made huge sacrifices over the past year to show our commitment to the future,” Mulé wrote in his note Friday. “Our current suppliers should know that Métro has liquidity problems and financial institutions are afraid to finance our industry. Facebook certainly hasn’t helped our cause over the past month. But on paper, I assure you that I have been committed over the past year to operating a healthy and sustainable business with a realistic and viable business plan.”

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According to statistics published on its website, Métro reached 100,000 readers each week, and its website had 1.9 million unique visitors a month. Its community newspapers distributed 165,000 copies each month.

Mulé, who previously worked in sales at the Montreal Gazette, Benjamin News Inc. and Transmet Logistics before joining Métro in 2018, said the company had plans to form a cooperative “and be in line with our social mission.”

“Unfortunately this project was put on ice, following our liquidity crisis.”

Pelle Tornberg puts a Métro-branded hat on a laughing André Préfontaine with mockups of the Métro newspaper front page behind them
André Préfontaine, then president of Transcontinental Media, and Pelle Tornberg, presdient of Metro International, announce the new Métro newspaper in Montreal on Feb. 28, 2001. Photo by André Pichette /Montreal Gazette files

Métro was created by Transcontinental in 2001 as a free daily newspaper distributed in Montreal’s métro system, and quickly gained a competitor with Quebecor’s Montréal Métropolitain, later renamed 24 Heures. Two decades later, Métro was only printing once a week and 24 Heures had stopped its print product completely.

With commuters increasingly on their smartphones and wireless data available in the métro, the demand for a daily print newspaper declined over the years. Métro developed a plan for a digital transition but could not abandon print revenues in the meantime. In 2019, Mulé argued strongly against Montreal’s Publisac ban, saying the distribution system was critical to the survival of Métro’s community papers.

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Roy said the Publisac argument showed that the business model was tied to advertising. “That doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “Advertising can no longer constitute the sole or principal source of revenues to fund news.”

In his message Friday, Mulé said he was “proud of our long history” with some of the community papers going back decades.

“To the different communities that make Montreal what it is, thank you, you are the essence of Montreal and we are proud to be your voice. We know you are underrepresented in Quebec and I sincerely hope someone fills the obvious void we see as readers and employees. Being one of the last players in local news in Montreal, I can assure you that Montreal needs more journalists, not fewer.

“Those of you who know me well know that writing this message is very trying. Not only do I love Montreal, but I love what Métro has done for this city.

“From the bottom of my heart, I’m sincerely sorry that I couldn’t do more.”

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