4 Mar 2011

Camelot

It's not that I'd totally lack sympathy for the media business. But its most annoying representatives certainly test my patience with their constant besieging. I'm not talking about snooping reporters here, although from what I hear those can be a real pain if you happen to be a member of the Canadiens hockey team. No, my battle is with the hand distributors of free newspapers that lurk on my daily commute. They represent the foot troops in the fierce war for readership raging in Montréal.

It presumably started 10 years ago, on March 1st, 2001, when Swedish media group Metro International launched the local edition of their free Metro daily, as a direct assault on the hitherto peaceful Montréal newspaper landscape. With its free and abundant distribution, as well as compact format, it quickly gained a strong foothold and a big chunk of the advertising market. Unsurprisingly, the incumbent media overlord, Québecor, struck back in force shortly thereafter by launching the equally free and compact 24 heures. It also opened a second front through the legal system, contesting the exclusive distribution agreement Metro had sealed with Montréal's public transit authority, which forced 24 heures to relay on hand distributors only. After a long campaign, Québecor ultimately lost the legal fight in 2005, when the supreme court upheld the exclusivity agreement.

So Québecor had to change strategy from courtroom to checkbook battle: When Metro's contract with the transit authority came up for renewal, Metro saw itself outbid and as of this January, it is 24 heures instead of Metro which is distributed en exclusivité in subway and bus stop dispensers. All that remains from Metro's long reign are its branded recycling boxes.

But of course Metro has not surrendered. It fell back on the secondary distribution tactic pioneered by 24 heures when it was in the same situation: An army of brightly dressed, shouting guys shoving the paper into your hand outside transit hubs. They wrestle for the best spots with their opponents from 24 heures, who are still there (thanks to unionized labor) despite the fact that their wares are now also available inside the station.

Where does this leave the traditional media? On the same battlefield, unfortunately. Trying to stop the defection of their readership, tabloid Journal de Montréal as well as broadsheet La Presse increasingly reach for the same weapon: Free hand distribution by a camelot, as the touts are known in French. And so it comes that, on my daily commute from one busy interchange station to the next, I have to overcome no less than 7 camelots, which much like their mythical namesake castle, do their best to stand in your way and resist. Therefore, when the new iPad 2 was recently annouced, my exasperation led me to consider buying one. Not to read some fancy e-paper, mind you. But to use the tablet as a protective shield!

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