La Presse's move to non-profit model signals 'historic' evolution for Canada's newspapers

A move by Montreal’s La Presse newspaper to become a non-profit entity could serve as an inspiration for other struggling Canadian media companies. But who will foot the bill?

Canada is still far behind U.S. and Germany in news media innovation

La Presse employees leave a staff meeting on Tuesday after plans to adopt a not-for-profit structure were announced. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

When Montreal's La Presse called an all-staff meeting on Tuesday, there were concerns it would mean another round of layoffs — or worse.

Instead, the French-language publication, home to one of the largest and most prestigious newsrooms in the country, announced it was becoming a not-for-profit, cutting ties with its longtime owner, the Desmarais family.

For Edward Greenspon, former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and author of a federal government-commissioned study earlier this year on news in the digital age, it marked a "historic day in the evolution of Canadian newspapers."

"It's an admission that the profit model doesn't work anymore, and if as astute people as the Desmarais family can't make it work, it's a very difficult future for everyone," said Greenspon, president and CEO of Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank.

Under the plan announced Tuesday, La Presse said it will use operational profits, any government assistance and donor funds to serve its goal of producing high-quality reporting.

It's an admission that the profit model doesn't work anymore.— Edward Greenspon , former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief

The Desmarais family is donating $50 million to the not-for-profit. The new setup, the company said, represents "a modern approach adapted to the realities of today's written media."

Greenspon said it's part of a period of experimentation in Canada "where people are trying mixed models — non-profit, charity, community-based models."

Last week, for instance, the Globe and Mail informed staff of plans to establish a foundation to support its investigative projects, he said.

La Presse stopped printing paper copies in December 2017 and went exclusively digital, featuring a website, mobile app and a daily tablet edition called La Presse+.

Who will pay?

In his report, Greenspon recommended the federal government encourage the establishment of non-profit media organizations by "allowing them to qualify as recipients for support from philanthropic foundations and, in some specific cases, become charities themselves."

Philanthropy-supported media, his report said, are "less likely to support highly partisan and counterfeit stories, given the structures of foundations."

Canada is far behind the United States, Germany and other countries when it comes to such innovative setups.

The U.S. is home to dozens of not-for-profit news outlets such as ProPublica and the Marshall Project, which have secured backing from charitable foundations and philanthropists.

CBC Montreal's Debra Arbec speaks to Ed Greenspon about La Presse's plan to go non-profit and what it means for Canadian media. 3:53

It's unlikely, though, that there's enough philanthropic money in Canada to support journalism on its own, Greenspon said.

La Presse president Pierre-Elliott Levasseur urged the federal government to financially support the written press by making charitable donations possible and by providing direct assistance.

In its budget earlier this year, the government allocated $50 million over five years to support independent, non-governmental organizations aimed at encouraging local journalism in underserved communities.

The government also said it will explore ways over the next year to allow private giving or philanthropic support for not-for-profit journalism and local news.

Government support at a distance

Tuesday's announcement puts pressure on the federal government to act, said Jean-Hugues Roy, a professor of media studies at Université du Québec à Montréal.

He suggested that rather than giving a direct subsidy, which would require picking industry favourites, Ottawa could make legislative changes that would ensure money being made by internet giants "is funnelled back to content providers like news media and cultural industries in Canada."

Greenspon, too, recommended the government set up a levy akin to the one in place for cable companies, where a portion of revenues goes into the production of television and films.

"We would like the government to set up a system like this, but get out of the way. We want as light and as short a touch as possible."

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly didn't go into specifics when asked Tuesday about how the government would support La Presse or whether she expects other legacy print media to follow its lead.

"This is a question you need to ask to the media groups themselves because obviously they will take these decisions," she said in the House of Commons during question period.

"Meanwhile, as a government, I've said it many times, our position is that we want to support the media sector, but at the same time, we want to respect the independence of journalism."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Debra Arbec and Sue Smith

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