HALIFAX — It is either crazy stupid folly or quixotically brave to hit the bricks outside a daily newspaper these days.
Journalist jobs, especially in print media, are precarious — though I’m nowhere near as skeptical and doom-gloomy as many industry analysts, the Cassandras endlessly predicting that papers are dinosaurs lumbering towards extinction and bleeding out ad revenue splatter all over the place.
In any event, risking the jobs that remain by calling a strike — one nanosecond before management would have imposed an untenable contract or triggered a lockout — requires nerves of steel and a firm backbone. Pink-slip dread, sweeping restructure of staff, the jackboot march from print to digital: all have combined to sap newsrooms of pushback marrow, especially via emasculated unions.
The Halifax Chronicle Herald, Canada’s largest independent daily newspaper, is going for broke.
At 12:01 Saturday, after last-ditch negotiations proved futile, the Halifax Typographical Union — representing 61 editorial employees — walked out on the venerable old broad. Even before that happened, private security with dogs on leashes had surrounded the building. (Bite me.) And four-month contracts had been offered to freelance writers and J-students from King’s College for scab labour, despite union warnings that future careers might never recover for those who accepted their 30 pieces of silver.
What future careers? What newspapers of the future? cynics might ask. (Bite me.)
By Saturday afternoon, 18 layoff notices (since suspended, it seems) had been delivered to photographers, layout and design editors and support staff.
Earlier last week, reporters had withheld bylines, a common practice during short-stroke showdowns. One day later, it was management that pulled bylines and photo credits “indefinitely,” producing editions filled almost front-to-back with anonymous stories and wire copy — except for the CP files and columns seized from other papers, including the Toronto Star, as per standing syndication agreement. Dismayed writers with no dog in this fight found their names suddenly appearing in the Chronicle. The paper has also struck a deal with Brunswick News, which will make available stories for publication if they pertain to Nova Scotia.
Management is girded for war. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that media companies are struggling,” VP of administration Nancy Cook said in a statement released early Saturday. “Just look at the layoffs at Postmedia this week or the Toronto Star last week.”
It pains me that the Star — 13 job cuts announced, 10 from the short-term tablet team, three from the digital desk — is being cited by journo bushwhackers.
The Herald union had offered a five per cent wage cut, no raises for two years, 25 per cent reduction in starting salaries for new reporters and photographers, a cap on severance, and reducing vacation allotments and mileage allowances. “Not meaningful,” Cook retorted. The company wants to further reduce wages, lengthen working hours from 35 to 40 a week, alter future pension benefits and lay off up to 18 editorial staff. Workers had overwhelmingly — 98.3 per cent — given their union a strike mandate.
It won’t end well, not for anybody but especially for the unionized employees. They will be crushed. Newspaper unions have no power anymore. (I will state here my own objection to unionized editorial. I don’t think unions belong in newsrooms, which are always undemocratic domains. But other departments: yes.)
Turmoil in newspapers that once enjoyed freewheeling thump can be traced, firstly, to the emergence of online classified ad sites such as Craigslist which drained away money. Industry revenues, according to the Newspaper Association of America, declined by more than a third between 2005 and 2013. A survey by the American Society of News Editors found that the number of newsroom employees dropped by 40 per cent between 2006 and 2014. Fortune Magazine ranks “newspaper reporter” among the 10 most dead-end career paths in the next decade — along with the likes of mail carriers and meter readers.
If I had a gun (actually I do), I would shoot you, Craig.
Most significantly, the public just reads differently these days, gets its news from alternate sources, even as “Legacy” journalism — that’s us, newspapers — scrambles to catch up and diversify, devoting ever larger chunks of precious operating capital to the digital side of things, the tablet and smartphone eyeballs.
Layoffs and mergers have led to growing media monopolies, less competition, fewer reporters chasing important stories and original source content. We certainly saw this in Canada last year when Postmedia closed its deal to buy 175 newspapers and digital platforms from Quebecor Inc. Most worrisomely, Postmedia scooped the Suns outside Quebec that publish in cities serviced by rival papers already owned by the chain. CEO Paul Godfrey, who should never be believed about anything, promised the newsrooms would be kept apart; there’d be no merging and job reduction. The Competition Bureau did Postmedia a solid by concluding the sale of Quebecor’s English-language papers was “unlikely to result in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any relevant market.”
Tell that to the 90 employees who were just jettisoned across the Postmedia empire-with-no-clothes (money). Tell that to the two general assignment reporters left at the Ottawa Sun after the axe fell. Tell that to the previously rival and now bizarrely yoked newsrooms where anodyne stories will be shared — but spun by respective rewrite desks to reflect their un-likeness. So — you couldn’t make this up — there’ll be some mook in the slot putting copy through the roller so that it comes out sounding more distinctly Sun-ny. (Spelling errors inserted? Torturous columnist syntax?)
Godfrey should be ashamed of himself.
Voices are growing louder for government to step in with legislation or robust regulation to limit the concentration of media ownership. Some are advocating for government to subsidize newspapers, which is intrinsically wrong. That would make government our master and how can you speak truth to power while sucking on Ottawa’s teat? Another option is turning papers into non-profits as some already are endowed by foundations.
The bitter joke around One Yonge is that the Globe and Mail doesn’t seriously have to worry about seas of red ink debt. The Thomson family can just sell off a painting or two from their stunning art collection.
In truth, the Globe has been just as cost-cutting manic as its competition, both slashing staff and outsourcing its printing operation. The Star also recently announced that it’s selling its printing plant and contracting for presses from the same commercial printing behemoth that services the Globe — just 25 years after we snipped the ribbon at Vaughan, with its state-of-the-art presses. Now apparently obsolete.
I don’t know who to believe and who’s blowing smoke.
So, don’t ask me: whither the Star, whither newspapers? No genius ideas here. I know only what I wouldn’t do.
But the Star isn’t my dynastic legacy to gamble with.
Think I’ll go join some shivering colleagues on the picket line now — dead reporters walking.