Halifax Herald staff reductions result in 24 jobs lost, 24 lives disrupted. But their pain is only the beginning of the pain for the community.
by Stephen Kimber
March 19, 2009
If not for the lousy weather, Jennifer Stewart would have been in a downtown courtroom this afternoon, covering the opening arguments in a high-profile murder trial. But thanks to the slushy, slippery conditions outside, the judge sent the jury home at noon. So Stewart had returned to the Chronicle Herald newsroom to write a nothing-much-happened update, as well as a second story. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal had released its decision in a case involving whether a 48-year-old man—convicted of a string of violent offences, most recently, a vicious assault on another inmate—should be labelled a dangerous offender. The decision had actually come down the week before but had languished in Stewart’s to-do pile until the overworked Supreme Court reporter could find time for it.
Welcome to the New Herald Order. After the Daily News closed in February 2008, management had clamped a lid on staff overtime. At the end of their shifts, dayside reporters sometimes had to turn over cursory, in-progress notes to night reporters, who then had to cobble together some sort of article out of the bits and pieces. More than once, Stewart had spent a day listening to closing arguments in a trial only to be forced to hand off her story to another reporter “coming in cold” at the end of the day because the judge was announcing the decision at 4:30 and the paper “didn’t want to pay me an hour’s overtime.”
If the news wasn’t urgent—and with no daily newspaper competition, how many stories really couldn’t wait?—Stewart might hang on to her notes and write the story when she had time. Which was the case today.
She was just beginning work on the story—“Alexander Dean McLean has been declared a long-term offender and will be…”—when she noticed Kristen Lipscombe, the paper’s education reporter, approaching from the direction of the office of Dan Leger, the director of news content. Lipscombe was in tears. Rick Conrad and Greg Guy, two of the newsroom’s union reps, followed behind, ashen-faced.
It was February 3, 2009, shortly after 3:30pm. Less than an hour earlier, Frank De Palma—“the assistant director of newsroom” in clunky Herald management-speak—had summoned Conrad to a 3:15 meeting to discuss “a union matter.” Conrad assumed it was to meet with the paper’s new special projects editor, Andrew Waugh, whose appointment had been announced earlier that day. The union had argued the position was unnecessary in difficult financial times, and Conrad thought the meeting might be designed to smooth the waters.
But as he and Guy approached the meeting room near Leger’s office, Conrad noticed Theresa Williams, the Herald’s director of human resources, waiting with De Palma. She carried a box filled with envelopes.
Oh shit, he thought, this is it! The layoffs…
When Stewart saw Kristen Lipscombe returning to the newsroom a few minutes later, she knew what it meant too.
And, worse, what it would mean for her personally.
Three weeks earlier, on January 14, 2009, Herald management had summoned the newsroom’s full union executive to another meeting to formally lay out what everyone knew. The newspaper business was in free-fall, and the Herald’s fortunes were plunging.
There were so many problems it was hard to know where to begin.
Over the course of the past 15 years—while the internet was changing everything about everything—the newspaper industry had failed to figure out a financially sustainable digital-age business model. Many, including the Herald, had flirted with charging for their web content but quickly gave up, and began giving away for free online what other readers paid to read on paper. The result: More and more paying readers were cancelling subscriptions, preferring to get their news faster and for “free” online.
Meanwhile, the industry’s traditional cash cow—classified advertising for everything from jobs to jewellery—migrated to the more user-friendly online world, where the ads were not only searchable but also free.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, last year’s global economic meltdown melted down the newspaper industry’s most important revenue foundation: display advertising. Advertising traditionally generates 80 percent of a newspaper’s revenues.
Analysts began to question whether the newspaper—as a species—could survive. In the United States, big city dailies, including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and even the iconic New York Times, began to seem like so many past-their-prime dinosaurs. In Canada, CanWest, the country’s largest daily newspaper publisher, is now so deep in its own debt the future of the daily newspapers it owns in many major cities is in doubt. There have already been layoffs at Canada’s biggest dailies.
How could the Herald, one of the few remaining independent, family-owned newspapers, be immune to the forces ravaging an entire industry?
That was the message Sarah Dennis, the paper’s vice president and daughter of owner-publisher Graham Dennis, delivered to the union executive January 14.
In December alone, management claimed, the company had brought in $700,000 less in revenues than projected. And it had lost real money in 2007 and 2008. The paper had no choice but to shed $1.5 million in newsroom costs. Immediately. One option was to eliminate 25 positions—or about one quarter of the current newsroom staff. Dennis insisted “layoffs are the last thing we want,” which was why she had wanted to “consult” with the union about how to achieve the necessary savings with the least possible pain. The union had a week to come up with suggestions.
The union’s executive had a few immediate ideas, including: Don’t fill Jim Meek’s special projects editor job. Meek, a veteran journalist, recently quit to join Bristol Communications. Given earlier belt-tightening, the paper wasn’t doing many special projects, so not filling his position might save a couple of junior reporter jobs. Management rejected that recommendation outright. Just as it “pooh-poohed” the idea of reducing the freelance budget to retain more full-time staff.
The union also had a request of its own. Before suggesting ways to cut $1.5 million from the newsroom budget, it wanted to see the company’s books in order to satisfy itself the financial situation was really as grim as management claimed.
The Herald’s owners had certainly sent mixed signals about their financial health. During the past year—while restricting reporters’ travel and overtime, offering early retirement packages to senior staff, shutting down the Mayflower TV guide, reducing the physical size of the paper and increasing its subscription price—management also spent what the union suggested was $7 million moving from a downtown office building it had owned until 2002 and occupied for more than 90 years into new and lavish leased digs overlooking the Northwest Arm.
The company refuses to say how much the move cost. And it wasted no time rejecting the union’s request to see audited financial statements. “This is a privately held company,” Leger told allnovascotia.com. “We’re not going to broadcast our financials to allnovascotia, or CTV or Frank.”
Already sour relations between the managers and the managed curdled in the aftermath of the January 14 meeting. Somehow, word of the union-management session leaked to other media. Leger—a former executive producer of CBC TV’s local supper hour news show—openly accused business reporter Judy Myrden, whose husband, Paul Withers, is a prominent CBC news reporter, of being the source.1 After the leak and the union’s request the company open its books, Sarah Dennis stopped even meeting with union leaders.
And then things got ugly.
Dan Leger isn’t keen.
“Can’t we do this by phone?” he asks, then answers his own question. He acknowledges it’s a “magazine thing—staring down the crusty editor and all,” but adds: “the thing is, I’ve done six or seven of these [interviews] now and I’ve gotten burned on almost everyone of them.”
He’s too busy to meet me today. Or tomorrow. This week, in fact, is “crazy.”
We agree I’ll call back next week.
To understand why many Herald journalists are skeptical about the financial health of their employer, you have to understand the often fractious history of relations between management and its newsroom.
For much of the Herald’s 134 years, the Dennis family—which has owned the paper in all its various incarnations from the Halifax Morning Herald’s January 14, 1875 first edition—has had a reputation as a benevolent, if paternalistic, employer.
As recently as 2006, the Financial Post numbered the Herald among Canada’s 100 best companies to work for. The paper’s owners, the Post noted, had even “recently provided a cash subsidy—$200 for every employee—to offset high home heating and gasoline prices.”
But the flip side of that benevolence has always been a father-knows-best paternalism, coupled with a sense among many reporters and editors that the owners play favourites, protecting middle-management featherbedders while journalists do the heavy lifting.
In 1977, that discontent led to the first attempt to unionize the newsroom. The company fired 10 reporters and editors because of what it initially described as “financial difficulties.” Nine of the 10 had signed union cards. After the union retaliated with unfair labour practices charges, the Herald unilaterally reinstated them all just days before the scheduled hearing, but then assigned them all menial duties. Most quit. The Herald’s remaining—and very rattled—newsroom employees decisively rejected joining the union a few months later.
It wasn’t until 1999 that The Newspaper Guild finally succeeded in unionizing the newsroom. It then took months of legal wrangling over who should be included—and excluded—from union membership and another six months of exhausting, difficult negotiations to finally conclude a first contract. In 2004, it took strike threats and the help of a federal mediator to nail down the terms of a second four-year contract. The key issue then was the company’s pension plan, which the union claimed was “so horrible that a 47-year employee retired a few years ago with a $13,000-a-year pension.” The company did propose sweeteners to the plan, but the union argued they would primarily benefit managers while leaving union members “out in the cold.” The union eventually won.
Last year, after the paper and its newsroom union reasonably and amicably concluded another four-year contract, which included further improvements to the pension plan, union negotiators began to hope management had finally accepted their existence.
But then, days after the two sides signed the new contract, Transcontinental shut down the Daily News, effectively ending a 20-year competition for local readers and advertisers.
That dramatically changed the newsroom dynamics.
Within days, management sent out a memo, outlining draconian newsroom travel and overtime restrictions as part of “widespread, ongoing efforts to find ways to trim costs.”
And now this.
If the paper was really in such trouble, the journalists wondered, why was there no talk of management layoffs? There were 16 non-union newsroom “managers,” none of them in the cost-saving crosshairs. In fact, the paper still planned to replace Meek. Why hire even more managers if they’re going to have 25 percent fewer employees to manage?
On January 23, just over a week after the initial meeting with Dennis, Terry O’Neil, director of news administration, emailed the union executive to break off discussions. “It is unfortunate that the union did not have any recommendations to put forward,” he wrote. “We will be in touch in the near future regarding next steps.”
The union executive quickly replied management must have misunderstood. Even though the company hadn’t opened its books, the union was prepared to sit down at any time to discuss how to deal with the situation.
Ominously, management didn’t respond. That is, until Frank De Palma informed Rick Conrad he wanted to meet to discuss a “union matter.”
“In a decision released last month, the Appeal Court…” Stewart stared, uncomprehending, at the words she’d just written.
No one from management had even come into the newsroom to explain what was happening. It had been left to the union reps to break the bad news to their fellow journalists.
“Um, could everyone gather round?” Conrad spoke into a suddenly silent newsroom as everyone watched Lipscombe make her way back to her desk. “The company today…”
Conrad was too upset to continue. Greg Guy took over. He told the reporters and editors what De Palma had told him: Today, the Herald was giving redundancy notices to 24 newsroom employees, the first step in a 45-day process of eliminating their positions—and, most likely, them.
Twenty four! Stewart knew she had been the tenth last person hired in the newsroom, which meant…2 She tried to force herself to write her story, but she couldn’t help but be distracted as friends and colleagues made their “perp” walks with De Palma. Daniel Bonner!…Bonner had started the same day Stewart had. Kristen Lipscombe the year after…
Stewart knew it was only a matter of time before De Palma came for her.
Ironically, De Palma had hired her six years before.
Stewart, a Dartmouth girl who always knew she wanted to write but was unsure whether to become an English teacher or a journalist, had opted to take the four-year journalism program at King’s College partly because it meant she could stay at home. She is, she jokes, “a hometown girl.”
The Herald was her dream job. On her first day at the paper, she recalls, newsroom veteran Joel Jacobson offered her his usual newbie’s greeting. “He comes up to you and takes your hand in his, then kisses his own…” She smiles. “I was made to feel very welcome in the newsroom.”
Stewart became full-time in 2004, in part because management forgot to let her go when her initial one-year contract expired, so the union invoked a clause in the contract requiring anyone employed continuously for more than a year be considered permanent. But that was only part of the reason. Stewart was a damn fine young reporter, and everyone knew it.
In November 2006 when the courts beat opened up, she jumped at the promotion. “I really like covering courts,” she says now. “The courts are the last stop at the end of the road for many people, and I wanted to be there to tell the end of the story.”
“Jennifer?” It was De Palma. “I know this stinks,” he said quietly as they walked together to the meeting room.
Inside, Stewart half-listened to the spiel—“above and beyond,” “great work,” “wish it could be different,” “financial situation…”—and wondered if this was what they said to everyone. She looked at De Palma. He was staring at his feet. Teresa Williams, the human resources manager who’d once told Stewart she pictured her as a lifelong employee at the Herald, handed her the letter. There were tears in her eyes.
And then it was over.
For once grateful for the Herald’s restrictions on overtime, Stewart handed off her unfinished dangerous-offender story to a night reporter and left.
“The atmosphere,” Leger tells me on the phone, “has become such that it would be just adding fuel to the fire to talk publicly.” It’s been a week since I first called for an interview, and he’s no more keen today. “I’ve been asked—and I agree—to put the kibosh on any further public statements until there is a clearer picture about the state of the paper going forward,” he explained.
What about after the buyouts and bumping finish?
Sure, he says without much enthusiasm. Call me then.
This is more than just a story about a talented young reporter losing a job she loves. Or even about her colleagues who are being bought out, squeezed out, retired out or bumped out.3
This is also a story about what could be the beginning of the end of daily newspaper journalism in Halifax.
While the union is probably right, Management is unfairly—and unwisely—targeting its members, that doesn’t change the larger reality. The Halifax Herald, like all daily newspapers, is in serious, life-threatening trouble.
Leger is wrong. The day the layoffs were announced he claimed in an interview with CBC TV’s Elizabeth Chiu4 that readers wouldn’t notice any difference in the newspaper, declaring the lost reporters mere “bells and whistles.”5 Staff retaliated a few days later by bringing bells and whistles to the newsroom and making noises with them whenever Leger or another newsroom manager was within earshot. The reality is that those reporters and editors are not bells and whistles; eviscerating one quarter of your frontline staff will inevitably affect how much—and how well—you report the news. At a certain point, you can only do less with less. Ironically, cutting the news makes the paper less relevant—and less likely to attract the readers it needs to survive.
But Leger is right about something else. “When the news is free,” he wrote in a column five days after the first union-management meeting, “there will be no news. Reporters aren’t volunteers. Someone has to pay them or they can’t carry on.”
If nothing changes, it is conceivable the Herald—at least as a print-on-paper newspaper, and possibly altogether—could disappear.
Don’t believe me? Last month, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, which began publication 16 years before the Herald’s first edition, became extinct.
Why not the Herald? And why does the Herald’s survival even matter if—as many blog posters were quick to note—people can now choose to get their news free online instead.
“Paying for a newspaper in 2009 is like being served leftovers in a restaurant,” someone who called himself jamesgreene wrote dismissively on the CBC’s website. “Everything you want to read, watch, or listen to is just a click away…traditional media,” he declared with ill-concealed glee, “you aren’t extinct yet, but if you look up in the sky, that bright object is www.asteroid.com and it’s headed for you.”
The problem is that that asteroid could easily take out the “news” along with the newspaper. And while it might take readers a while to notice its global absence—if the New York Times disappears, you can still find international news on the website of the Washington Post, or the Guardian, or Haaretz, or Al Jazeera (at least until they too go the way of the Times)—the consequences locally would be immediate and disastrous.
Consider March 10, 2009, a not untypical day. That morning’s Halifax Herald contained 28 locally-generated news stories, along with 17 more local items from business, sports and entertainment sections—and that’s not counting editorials, columns, obituaries and the rest.6 By comparison, CBC Radio’s prime-time newscast at 7:30 that morning contained just seven local news items. CBC-TV’s supper-hour news—which covers the same provincial turf as the Herald—included 10 local stories in its 60-minute package.
There isn’t a news organization in Halifax—including The Coast—that doesn’t depend to some degree on the Herald’s superior news-gathering resources—for news, story ideas, background, occasionally for outright scalping.
No other news organization staffs the courts full-time or attends school board meetings regularly. The other media—and those of us who consume it—depend on the Herald to cover routine news so we’ll know when something out of the routine happens.
Bloggers are no substitute for trained, paid journalists. Most don’t report; they comment on what they read elsewhere—and their work is rarely edited or vetted before publication. Bloggers also don’t have the wherewithal to fight the broader battles over issues like access to information: It was the Herald that took the provincial Workers Compensation Board to court to force it to reveal the names of companies with poor safety records, and the Herald that lifted the lid on restaurant health inspection reports.
One of the problems in coming to terms with what the latest cuts at the Herald really mean, however, is that we may not immediately notice what’s being lost. The irony is we won’t know what we don’t know because no one will be covering it.
That makes it easier, of course, for politicians and bureaucrats who prefer to operate without anyone looking over their shoulders. Consider that it was reporters at the Daily News—defunct—that broke and pursued the provincial immigration scam scandal, and the Herald—reporting ranks routed—that told us about the Atlantic Lottery Corporation’s lavish executive expenses.
There is a reasonable Darwinian counter-argument that states print-on-paper newspapers are long past their best-before date, that there is no longer any logical rationale for continuing to gum up the environment with dead trees, ink, waste paper and delivery exhaust to deliver day-old news and information when computers can do it more effectively and at far less cost.
The problem is no one has yet figured out how to make online journalism pay—or at least not cost.
With the old media hurtling toward self-destruction, there are plenty of—increasingly desperate—suggestions of new economic models. Creating an iTunes-style micro-payments system for news content, for example, inventing a variation of Amazon’s Kindle book reader to take news sites out of the free-for-all web world, transforming the traditional, mass-market-something-for-everyone printed newspaper into a tightly focused print daily aimed at an elite audience that can—and will—pay for it. Some even argue the smartest thing is to let the old media—and their corporate owners—collapse of their own ineptitude, hoping something new and better will emerge from the ashes.
Last month, in fact, The Dominion, a left-wing national media network that publishes in print and online (dominionpaper.ca) and “seeks to provide a counterpoint to the corporate media,” staged a series of meetings around Halifax to drum up support for its plan to “build a working [local] alternative to mainstream media that’s reader funded and member controlled.”
Even if it succeeds, however, it is likely to be more an alternative than a prime source of news and information. Which brings us back to the questions. Why? What if?
Dan Leger still can’t talk to me. It’s now a week before the layoffs. “Sorry I can’t be of more help,” he emails, “but going on the record now would probably just complicate life.”
Life for others is complicated, too. Including close to two dozen Herald journalists, most of whom have spent their entire careers at the paper and no longer have jobs.
Some—like entertainment editor Greg Guy and veteran columnists Peter Duffy and Joel Jacobson—reluctantly accepted buyouts rather than see younger colleagues lose jobs. But they take decades of vital community history out the door with them.
Others, equally reluctantly, remain, bumping juniors because they have to pay for mortgages or kids in college, or just because they can’t conceive of a life beyond the Herald. But most no longer feel the loyalty they once did to the place that pays their salary.
Some of the paper’s brightest younger journalists—including health reporter John Gillis and city hall reporter Amy Pugsley Fraser—opted for buyouts rather than wait to be pushed out the door. It felt like “a weight lifted,” Gillis explained in a Facebook posting, “but I’m still gutted to see my colleagues treated the way they are.”
Colleagues like Chris Lambie, who won a National Newspaper Award for the Daily News in 2002 and was a finalist for the Herald in 2008, and Kristen Lipscombe, a finalist for the Atlantic New Journalist Award in 2005, and, of course, Jennifer Stewart.
When word leaked that Stewart was among those to be cut, several crown attorneys signed an open letter, describing Stewart as someone who is “highly admired by all lawyers in the Halifax region for the accuracy of her reporting, her diligence and her balanced reporting,” adding there is something “fundamentally wrong with aborting the careers of the dedicated young stars in the newsroom. They are the future of the Herald…”
If, that is, the Herald has a future.