ontario news watch

Québecor stops paying rent at legislature, says 100K fee a threat to democracy

MONTREAL — A major Quebec media company is at risk of becoming a squatter in the province’s legislature district.

Montreal-based media and telecom conglomerate Québecor has announced it will stop paying rent for the office its political journalists use in one of Quebec’s legislature buildings, in the provincial capital. The company, which owns television station TVA and newspapers Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec, says its rent amounts to $8,448 per month — more than $100,000 per year before tax.

In a letter to the legislature, Québecor vice-president Jad Barsoum said the company’s rent “goes against the principles of access and is detrimental to democratic life.”

Quebec’s legislature, known as the National Assembly, charges media outlets at an annual rate of $269.86 per square metre of office space they occupy — a “prohibitive” sum, according to Canadian Association of Journalists president Brent Jolly.

“I think it’s an incentive for people to move out,” he said in a recent interview. “It seems like quite an exorbitant cost, particularly for news organizations.” 

“I find that pretty, pretty alarming that they would charge that kind of money just for an office.”

Barsoum’s letter cites a “serious crisis” in the media sphere amid declining advertising revenue due in part to competition from platforms like Facebook and Google. That crisis, he said, has led to job cuts at Québecor and undermines “citizens’ access to information and, more globally, the health of our democracy.”

Facebook owner Meta’s recent decision to block access to news content on its platforms in Canada has further strained media companies.

In response to the struggles of news companies, Québecor is calling on the National Assembly to support local media by providing free office space for journalists covering politics.

Québecor’s demands aren’t outlandish, at least compared with the situation in other provinces, many of which offer free — albeit much smaller and often shared — workspaces to reporters.

In Halifax, the Nova Scotia House of Assembly has set aside three, single-person offices in the basement of Province House for members of the press gallery — the common term for political journalists who cover legislatures. Reporters also have access to a small common room upstairs.

Political reporters in New Brunswick’s capital don’t have dedicated offices in the Legislative Assembly building, but the press gallery, whose members pay a $100 annual fee, has a space with desks in a neighbouring building. 

The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has offices for print, radio and television media for press gallery members who pay the $150 yearly fee. Reporters who aren’t full-time members can use a common area at no charge. 

And on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, there’s a free-to-use, dedicated room with 25 desks for journalists.

Jolly says he agrees that legislative press offices should be more affordable for media given the public benefit journalists provide with their political news coverage.

But University of British Columbia school of journalism professor Alfred Hermida said Québecor’s claims of a media crisis are misleading given its gains in its other business lines. 

On Thursday, the company posted a revenue increase of $283.3 million, or 25.4 per cent, in the second quarter of 2023 compared to the same three-month period in 2022, despite a decline in revenue in some of its media operations. The windfall follows Québecor’s acquisition of telecom company Freedom Mobile.

“To say that there is an overall crisis in the media system is simplifying things,” Hermida said, “because what you have is a company like Québecor who … (is) still making money in other sectors, in its telecom and its mobile, in other areas, but not the same amount of revenue in producing news.”

But Québecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau said it’s “unreasonable” to assume one part of his company should subsidize another. 

“It is important to understand that Québecor manages each of its subsidiaries independently and is accountable to its shareholders,” Péladeau said in statement shared via email. “It’s unreasonable to expect Vidéotron or Freedom to finance the media crisis, just as it’s unreasonable for the National Assembly to demand staggering rental fees, in excess of $100,000 a year, to cover all the societal issues debated there.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2023.

— With files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City. 

Thomas MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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