by Jan Wong
A student of mine, a freshly minted journalism graduate, recently asked to meet for coffee to discuss her new job. In addition to her duties as weekend newsreader at a local radio station, she had begun covering Fredericton city hall.
She loved her work, but it didn’t take long for her to experience her first bloodbath: the station manager abruptly fired three veteran journalists. That left only one other reporter and my student—let’s call her Katrina.
The firings happened on a Friday. My student expected the worst, but Monday came and went, and she still had a job. Then she realized her survival might have been due to her pay rate. She made minimum wage, $10 an hour, while her unfortunate colleagues had been making $15 an hour.
Katrina did the math. The firings freed up $45 an hour in the budget, so she decided to ask for a raise. Yes, a raise. While I’ve tried to prepare my students for the harsh reality of the working world, I’ve also taught them chutzpah. Katrina figured $13 an hour was more reasonable for what she was doing. And besides, in order to pay her rent, she was already holding down two retail jobs at the local mall.
When she asked for a $3 raise, the station manager snorted. “He said, ‘You can have a raise, or you can have a job.’” Katrina swallowed hard and kept the job.
Minimum wage, shrinking newsrooms, slave reporting—no need to stop the presses. For several years now, news organizations have been cutting workers and slashing budgets as advertisers and consumers defect en masse to the Internet.
In the United States, storied media brands are on life support. This summer, the New York Times (where I once worked as a news assistant) announced it would sell a once-prized asset, the Boston Globe (where I once worked as banking reporter) to the owner of the Boston Red Sox. The price tag: $70 million. Twenty years earlier the Times had paid $1.1 billion for the Globe, the highest price ever paid for an American newspaper.
Also this summer, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, announced he would pay $250 million for the Washington Post. Many in the newsroom wept, even though Bezos promised to uphold the grand traditions of a newspaper whose investigative work on Watergate toppled an American president.
Last year a group of local business and political figures paid $55 million for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. To put that in perspective, six years earlier the price tag was $515 million. The sale was the newspapers’ fifth ownership change in six years; the previous time they had been sold at bankruptcy auction.
In contrast, in Canada media organizations aren’t on life support; they’re committing suicide by a thousand cuts. Facing the same trends as their US counterparts, media outlets here haven’t found any saviors in sports-franchise owners or website billionaires.
Instead, news companies have slashed staff or have simply shut down operations. Last July, Sun Media, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, closed eight newspapers and three free dailies—24 Hours in Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary. The corporation also wiped out 360 jobs, on top of 550 positions cut earlier in the year.
In the past five years, media jobs losses nationally have reached about 10,000 in Canada, according to preliminary data compiled by the Canadian Media Guild. Of this number, the print sector lost nearly twice that of the broadcast sector—6,000 jobs versus 3,700. Categories include journalists, printing-plant workers, technicians, mailroom employees, sales persons, accountants and managers.
In November, Rogers Media Inc. eliminated 94 jobs across the country, or two per cent of the division’s workforce. The losses come after 62 workers at the media division were fired in May, despite slightly higher operation profit.
In other newsrooms, the cuts have been so deep they have reached bone. Inconceivably, top positions such as that of editor in chief or publisher have been eliminated. And whole departments have been outsourced, including that of copyediting and layout. For instance, Postmedia Network Inc., which owns a chain of daily newspapers across Canada, including the National Post, last year moved much of its editorial production to a centralized location in Hamilton, Ont.
To cut costs, the Toronto Star, the country’s largest newspaper, and the Globe and Mail, have shifted editing and page-design work to an outside company, Pagemasters North America. Both the Star and the Globe own stakes in Pagemasters through the Canadian Press. At Pagemasters, the top union rate for an editor is $48,000, compared to about $85,000 at the Star.
Meanwhile the Star has slashed nine per cent of its workforce, including dozens of newsroom jobs. Quality seems to have no bearing on decisions. For example, two weeks after TorStar’s free weekly, the Grid, won five gold medals at last June’s National Magazine Awards, one-fourth of the editorial staff were laid off.
In 2012 the Globe and Mail (where I also have worked) asked for 80 staff to volunteer for temporary summer layoffs. Last February it again asked employees to volunteer for unpaid summer furloughs. These are in addition to a round of about 60 voluntary buyouts four years earlier.
Last spring, the Globe again sought a fresh round of buyouts. CEO Phillip Crawley indicated he wanted to eliminate another 60 positions, representing eight per cent of staff. Among the many experienced reporters, editors and designers who left in the second round of buyouts: Timothy Appleby, Rod Mickleburgh, Rick Groen, Trish Wilson, Beverly Smith, Michael Kesterton, James Christie, John Barber, David Pratt, Michael Posner and Gordon Pitts.
In another sign of strained financial circumstances, media companies are shedding real estate holdings. This fall Postmedia said it would sell its Calgary Herald building and its BC printing plant in a move to reduce costs and pay down debt. Earlier Postmedia sold Ontario facilities in Don Mills and Windsor.
The Globe sold its Front Street property in the financial district to a development consortium. After first announcing it would move to an as-yet unbuilt adjacent tower and then cancelling those plans, it finally said it would rent premises next to the Toronto Sun building on King Street East.
Meanwhile like many newspapers, the Globe is trying to stanch the bleeding with a paywall. It is also taking extraordinary steps such as occasionally declining to deliver the product. This past Labour Day, for the first time in its history, the newspaper announced it would not print the paper edition and only publish online.
“Just doing the simple math,” the publisher, Phillip Crawley, told an interviewer, “it cost us way too much to produce the paper.”
It’s hard to think of another industry whose survival strategy involves not producing its core product and not getting it to customers. The online Huffington Post swiftly recalled how the Globe mocked the National Post in 2009 when it stopped printing a Monday edition and confined itself to an online version.
“NEWS DOESN’T STOP ON MONDAYS. NEITHER SHOULD YOUR NEWSPAPER,” blared the Globe’s all-caps ad campaign.
For its part, Postmedia Network Inc., owner of the National Post, also announced that none of its newspapers would publish on the Labour Day Monday. Previously, six of its newspapers—the Vancouver Sun, the Vancouver Province, the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Windsor Star—had all stopped production on Labour Day. But now for the first time the rest of the empire followed suit, including the Ottawa Citizen, the Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Herald and the Montreal Gazette (where I’ve also worked.)
The Globe and Mail, which bills itself as “Canada’s National Newspaper,” announced last August that it would no longer deliver to Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as parts of British Columbia. It cited high costs.
The dilemma for old media is that, in seemingly no time at all, the product has become an anachronism. Imagine telling a child in ten years’ time what you once produced.
– At a certain, arbitrary moment each day, you decide the news has stopped.
– You write it all up
– You print it on big sheets of paper
– You roll this paper up and load it into trucks
– And the next day you toss it onto someone’s lawn
Journalism isn’t dead, but the business model sure is. As a professor now, I teach the craft of journalism, not how to be a press baron. Nevertheless, no one in our business can ignore the fact that print space is now just half as much as it was in 2008.
As advertising falls off a cliff, many CEOs think the obvious solution is to go online. What they don’t understand is that if your product isn’t even useful as fishwrap anymore, you’d better produce something good, like news.
Currently the pressure is on fewer and fewer journalists to produce more and more copy, many times a day. They must Tweet, blog, and Facebook, all the while constantly updating their stories.
The problem is, with zero barriers to entry, the frictionless Internet means anyone can put stuff out there. So many people are producing content that no one has time to consume it anymore. There’s so much noise that if you don’t have hard news, if you don’t write clearly and well and engagingly—in short, if you don’t produce quality—you won’t be able to break through for eyes and ears.
“The challenge for media is to fight your way out of the clutter,” says David Carr, the media columnist at the New York Times, who recently delivered the annual Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism at my university.
Carr, who claims to be “older than dirt” (he’s 57), thinks the way of the future is a merger of old media with new. He notes that the Times partnered with BuzzFeed in the 2012 US election and the resulting journalism was excellent.
Perhaps. But I think that, like dinosaurs, many of the old guys running old media won’t be able to adapt. They can’t visualize tomorrow. Instead they anxiously set up paywalls, the way the aristocracy in medieval times dug moats.
Instead, I think old media is doomed. The way of the future lies with the next generation of young journalists. They will forge a business model that works with, instead of against, today’s technology. After all, a few scant years ago, who would have thought Facebook was worth $1 billion?
As for my student, she stuck it out a couple more months at the radio station. Then she drastically reduced her hours and is no longer the regular weekend anchor. The catalyst for her decision, she says, was an eviction notice after she bought more than milk, eggs and bread for the first time in three months—and her rent cheque bounced. Instead, she’s now a maid cleaning rooms at a local motel. It pays better. I’ve told her to write about that experience, and she will.
– Jan Wong is a professor of journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.