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Little action on Ottawa’s promise to help struggling media sector

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OTTAWA—Nearly nine months after the federal Liberal government announced it would spend $50 million over five years to boost “local journalism in underserved communities,” not one dollar has gone out the door.

Nor has the government outlined how it intends to facilitate charitable support for professional “non-profit journalism and local news.” Nor how it intends to support “the transition to digital media.”

Unifor president Jerry Dias, whose union represents nearly 12,000 workers in the media sector, says there need to be some “dramatic changes” in the way local newspapers are funded.
Unifor president Jerry Dias, whose union represents nearly 12,000 workers in the media sector, says there need to be some “dramatic changes” in the way local newspapers are funded.  (Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)

All were promises made in last year’s budget and repeated in the heritage minister’s mandate letter.

It’s baffling to those in the journalism industry, newspaper publishers and the country’s largest media union, especially with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau championing the need for strong traditional media this past week.

In France, Trudeau emphasized his government’s commitment to supporting the need for a vibrant free press to hold government and their institutions to account.

However Jerry Dias, president of Unifor which represents nearly 12,000 workers in the media sector, says the time for talk is past, and it’s time for action.

“You’re not going to all of a sudden change people’s habits to buying print media, I get all that,” said Dias in an interview. “But we’ve closed over 200 local newspapers in Canada so there has to be a mechanism in which to fund them. There needs to be some dramatic changes.”

A 2017 report by the Public Policy Forum said from 2008 to 2016, 169 local media outlets closed and another 54 reduced services, a trend that accelerated in 2017, most notably with the swap of assets by Torstar and Postmedia. A subsequent followup report in September shows the quality of news coverage across the country has also declined.

Yet Dias said what the federal government announced in last February’s budget amounted to “nickels and dimes.”

“What they threw at it was no solution, it was more tokenism than anything else,” he said.

News Media Canada, which represents 800 daily, weekly and community newspapers, had urged the government to provide $350 million to support a Canadian Journalism Fund, and was disappointed with last year’s announcement of $10 million a year, for five years.

John Hinds, president and CEO of the industry association, said the association’s numbers show that from 2009 to August this year, 137 Canadian daily or weekly community newspapers ceased publication, 38 of which closed since January.

“It’s pretty chilling,” he said in an interview.

Yet the industry is still waiting for details of how the government will meet its nine-month old promises of support.

“We were told they would issue an RFP (request for proposals) at some point for a group to look at sort of managing the fund because they don’t want to do it on their own” in order to respect the independence of media outlets, Hinds said.

“Our view would be that we’d like to replicate the model that they followed in the U.K. with the BBC, where the BBC has funded 120 journalists to work in local newspapers,” he said.

News Media Canada has talked to Canadian Press, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and a Quebec media coalition about joining forces to submit a proposal, Hinds added. “We’d love to get working on it, as you know time is off the essence on this. But to date, we haven’t had any followup.”

Simon Ross, spokesman for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, insisted the government is moving “to quickly implement” the measures promised last winter, but he declined to provide any details “because I don’t want to scoop myself.”

“What I can tell you is we are working with organizations across the country so we can implement this as quickly as possible and to ensure that it respects journalistic independence because that of course is very important.”

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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