MONTREAL — Leaning over a table for an hour-long interview at the offices of Les Actualités, the weekly Côte des Neiges-based newspaper he has overseen for the last 25 years, Victor Afriat does not seem as busy as he actually is.
Yet, in reality, Afriat never stops much.
At age 67 (this month), the Moroccan-born and Paris-raised Afriat, along with a staff of nine, publishes one of the most successful biweekly – and bilingual – newspapers in the city.
While not overtly political or partisan, the free newspaper’s main focus is to keep the 180,000 residents of Côte des Neiges-NDG borough, the city’s largest, informed about the goings-on in their community.
While his Muslim (and largely silent) partner, Mourad Mahamli, works on his own priorities from his business office overlooking Plaza Côte des Neiges, it is Afriat who is the more hands-on partner.
The paper’s decade-old website, lesactualites.ca, brims with news about the borough, covering every possible beat: news, education, health, sports and the municipal council, along with reader feedback.
The older, printed version is slimmer (a maximum of 20 pages) and contains only a fraction of the website’s content, but the printed edition still manages to engage with its coverage of the borough’s most important news and its “cultural agenda” page.
“I started by selling ads,” said Afriat, referring to his paper that at first covered only Cote des Neiges. Five years ago, it expanded to the entire borough after The Monitor folded in NDG. It also became bilingual as a way to draw new advertisers from the more anglophone part of town.
All of which is not too bad for a self-described entrepreneur who once worked for the Sephardi community newspaper La Voix Sépharade and as a photojournalist for the Quebecor chain of newspapers and magazines run by the Péladeau family.
“I then created Les Actualités [until 1997 called the Journal Côte des Neiges], but it was subsidized, and when that stopped I knew I needed to develop real advertising revenue – and a business plan.”
In the first years, while still only a monthly, “I was working seven days a week, selling ads, finding writers, production – doing it all myself.” Afriat recalled. “There was no laser printing then.”
If anything, Afriat comes across as a canny businessman with good instincts as to what the people in his multi-cultural borough and advertisers would like to see.
It is a borough with so many cultures, in fact, but Afriat refuses to see it as an “ethnic newspaper.”
It is not a “political” newspaper, in the sense of being “engagé.” But Afriat does note trenchantly that after all his paper’s years of existence at the same location, only one local politician, the late Abe Limonchik, ever bothered to visit the paper’s offices personally.
Afriat was also prescient enough to see the value in creating a tourist guide for cultural communities who might like to visit other parts of the province.
“It never occurred to the Quebec government tourism ministry to do this,” Afriat said. “They had no idea that they would also want to see the attractions of the Gaspésie, or Iles de la Madeleine, or the Saguenay.”
Afriat also came out last year with the fifth edition of Réussir au Quebec, a career and study guide for immigrants and international students published by Emploi Québec.
Afriat noted that even though his paper is bilingual, it never translates article from French to English or vice-versa. The expansion into NDG increased visibility by 40 per cent, with distribution of 60,000 copies the “base number in the borough.”
On the Internet, visibility is theoretically infinite. “‘Visits’ have risen from 75,000 in 2012 to 100,000 this year,” Afriat said.
Working as part of a team has also made it easier on him compared to years ago.
Did he think the print edition of Les Actualités would survive along with the online version?
“I don’t think the paper will disappear,” he said. “Digital makes things more prominent, but it gives information differently,” he said.
On the other hand, on the website, “you can see the new news every day.
“It is more immediate.”