Ladies and gentlemen of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, thank you for inviting us to appear here today.
My name is Francis Sonier, and I am the president of the Association de la presse francophone. Today I am accompanied by the executive director of the APF, Jean-Patrice Meunier.
The Association de la presse francophone is a group of French-language minority community newspapers. We currently represent 22 newspapers in eight provinces and two territories. French is one of Canada's official languages and an important part of our national identity.
There are francophone communities all across the country. Some are large concentrations of people who speak French, while others are small groups.
Manitoba is an excellent example. It includes Saint-Boniface, the real capital of Manitoba's francophone population, and other smaller francophone communities.
Community newspapers act as hubs for these communities. They are channels through which these French identities assemble and become informed about their own communities. Community newspapers are often the only direct link between these people.
The digital age has brought many people closer together, but reliable high-speed Internet connections are not available in all communities. Access to digital information can be difficult in places where the infrastructure is not present, such as northern Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, or even some areas of Newfoundland and Labrador.
These francophone communities often came out of the history of Canada. As we prepare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, it is important to note that community newspapers have chronicled that history.
Le Moniteur Acadien, based in Shediac, New Brunswick, will also celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2017. Winnipeg's La Liberté recently marked its centenary. Their respective archives reflect the events, the struggles, and the successes that these communities have seen over the years. Women in Manitoba won the right to vote in 1916, and La Liberté was there. These archives show the unique perspective of a francophone minority community.
Community newspapers bring these communities together and contribute to their vitality. They contribute directly to the local and regional economies by creating jobs, promoting local businesses, or just talking about them.
It would be a mistake to compare a community newspaper, which talks specifically about a given region, with a larger, more general newspaper, which has a broader scope and mandate. La Presse covers all of Quebec. The Globe and Mail is a national newspaper.
A community newspaper has a more limited scope. Certainly, it may talk about the larger francophone population, but only because that affects the local community. That is its mandate, its purpose. The major media and daily newspapers will not cover the lobster festival in Shediac, New Brunswick, or run stories on local issues in Hearst, in northern Ontario.
Community newspapers have news teams on the ground. Over the years, the publishers have learned what people want to know about their communities. These newspapers have a much greater presence than any other existing news infrastructure.
I would also mention that a community newspaper costs very little compared to other news infrastructure, considering its impact on the community.
Not all minority official language media can be compared to media in majority communities, where multiple infrastructures exist. If a newspaper, a radio station, or even a television station were to disappear from a majority community, the impact on the community would be minimal compared to the impact it would have on a minority community.
In a majority community, there is a whole range of alternatives. If the Toronto Star folded, that would have a huge impact, of course, but people would have a number of alternate news sources.
In a minority community, though, the situation is not the same. If L'Aurore boréale, the only French-language newspaper in the Yukon, were to fold, the community would have no way of getting local news.
That is the reality. If community newspapers disappear, who will talk about the latest municipal council decisions, the innovative projects done by local francophone students, business start-ups, works by local artists and the results achieved by young francophone athletes?
These are the things that help build a francophone identity and francophone pride.
Another important and worrisome aspect of our industry can be found in the consolidation of media by large corporate entities. Through happenstance, both APF and QCNA currently represent only newspapers that are not corporately owned. We have observed that when it comes to our particular paradigm of official language newspapers in minority situations, this is the best structure to guarantee access to information in our communities.
Corporations have a duty to their shareholders and not to their communities. Decisions are made on the basis of balance sheets and numbers. L'Express d'Ottawa, for example, our last corporate member, stopped its print issue as a business decision. In Quebec, The Westmount Examiner was shut down in October 2015, after 80 years of existence, as well as its sister publication, The West Island Chronicle. All three closures stem from business decisions by Transcontinental.
On the other hand, when L'Eau vive, the only French-language newspaper in Saskatchewan, announced that it was in financial difficulty and had to stop publishing its print edition last November, it did not disappear for good.
The APF met with the newspaper's managers and offered its advice. The community pulled together, and the newspaper will resume printing this week, which is good news.
Minority newspapers are in crisis. Some publications are in a very precarious situation, as the case of L'Eau vive showed. The decline in federal advertising hurt these publications badly, because revenue dropped very quickly, with no transition period.
The newspapers that belong to the APF have seen their advertising revenue from federal departments and agencies decrease by 73% since 2006. That's right, 73%. Together, the newspapers represented by the APF have lost $1.5 million a year in federal advertising. That total hides the fact that some newspapers have seen their advertising revenue fall to zero or close to zero as a result of these decisions and policies.
What is more, that is not the only source of lost revenue for community newspapers. The new formulas for the aid to publishers program and the Canada periodical fund have also affected the newspapers in the APF. Although some newspapers have seen their funding increase, others have suffered significant losses, and the APF has seen an overall reduction of more than 20% over the years. Four newspapers alone have had to absorb losses of roughly $178,000 a year.
Every drop in revenue has a serious impact on these communities. It may mean one less journalist, contributor, or proofreader. Advertising revenue and financial assistance programs guarantee quality editorial content.
The government mentioned the broader reach of television and the Internet to explain the reduction in advertising spending on minority community newspapers. However, statistics show that people in communities read their community newspapers. As was mentioned previously, not everyone has access to the Internet. Large regions of the country served by our publications have little or no Internet access. How can the government reasonably show that Internet advertising reaches these communities?
According to a study that community media conducted with the support of Canadian Heritage, community newspapers have an average readership ranging from 54% to 83%, depending on the region; 71% of communities appreciate their newspaper and consider it important. Community newspapers have an 89% credibility rating. Even though they may seem pervasive, the Internet and social media do not enjoy such credibility.
For example, in 2009, when the government wanted to tell Canadians about the dangers of H1N1 flu, it published notices in the newspapers, in the midst of the decline in advertising spending.
We are not here just to tell you about problems, but also to offer solutions. Regardless of its purpose, a minority community newspaper is first and foremost a cultural element of that community. It is a reflection of the community. In these newspapers, people in the community express themselves in stories, editorials, and opinion pieces.
We have come up with a few suggestions that are in the document you can read. Don't forget that newspapers are cultural businesses and should be considered as such with Canada Post's help. Canada Post offers preferential rates for books. We would like newspapers to benefit from such rates as well. In addition, we would like to have a fund equivalent to 1% of CBC/Radio-Canada's budget for community newspapers and media.