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When newspaper owners go scroogey

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
When newspaper owners go scroogey

What is it about some newspaper owners in this country that transforms them from decent employers to Scrooge on steroids?

Since business ethics involve a newspaper proprietor’s personal ethics, bad behavior on the part of senior management seems to be closely linked to those managers’ (or that owner’s) outlook and way of doing things, and their questionable principles.

A few media companies do right by their commerce-related contacts: consumers, advertisers, suppliers, employees, etc. But others don’t.

The newspaper industry isn’t the only one operating during tough times, yet it appears to be among the least considerate when it comes to personnel matters. And union shop, or no, labour relations can be strained at times. (This is purely a viewpoint, not a scientific study, based on the following personal anecdotes.)

My journalism career began in the fall of 1985 at a community paper in the Toronto region, a newspaper that published three times a week and that’s part of a chain of titles owned by Torstar. It’s a small paper belonging to a big company with deep pockets.

I was hired as a general assignment writer and was one of two cub reporters added to the newsroom’s modest roster of staffers. Around the time we got our jobs, the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild was signing up journalists in the entire chain and planning to get certified as the employees’ bargaining agent.

In order to keep the numbers down in the potential bargaining unit, which came to fruition and still exists today, the other rookie reporter and I were sent packing not too long after we started our jobs. Here was the sequence of events, to the best of my recollection.

  * Was hired by a supportive editor who was never critical of my work and was looking forward to collaborating on assignments.

·      * Told by that same editor, weeks later, that my full-time job was actually a “contract” position. There was no contract (or any other document) for me to sign.

·      * Shortly after that, was informed by my editor (who was fighting back tears) that it was the company’s policy not to employ contractual workers. This notification came without warning, on a Friday, after the newspaper collected and stored a 30-paragraph district profile I’d prepared for an upcoming municipal election.

·      * Before being shown the door, was given the chance to keep contributing to the paper that had just turfed me. (Desperate for any kind of income, I accepted the offer to file freelance stories.)

·      * The union took the company to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, alleging management had violated provincial labour legislation.

·      * On the day of the hearing into the allegations, just prior to initial testimony, a tentative settlement was reached. My co-worker and I accepted the terms of the agreement: We got our jobs back, but agreed to forfeit the retroactive pay we were claiming for months of lost wages. (Significant earnings to two young guys just starting out; nothing more than chump change for Torstar.)


That former colleague and I worked together for about three years and then went our separate ways. But we’ve stayed friends ever since.

My next newspaper job was during a 1988-1995 stint at a now-defunct, Dartmouth-based daily that had a slightly larger newsroom than the Toronto-area one. This paper was not unionized.

If I recall correctly, the mid-point of that career experience saw a successful salary revolt led by a couple of the newspaper’s more experienced journalists. Our pay was poor compared to our peers at other media outlets, the hours were long, there was no compensation for overtime and morale was suffering as a result.

I don’t remember what I was earning before the staff rebellion, but I do recall taking a pay cut to leave the paper in Ontario for my job in Nova Scotia. (That’s a scenario that would likely be rare today.)

During internal negotiations with management, which resulted in phased-in, double-digit increases for many staffers during an economic downturn, we were told this by an executive: “If you check across the country, and look at newspapers of a similar size in markets where the population is about the same and the papers have similar circulation figures, you’ll see that you folks are essentially in the middle of the pack.”

Well, it turns out he was misinformed. Or, as politicians have been known to acknowledge, he misspoke.

I did a cross-Canada checkup on my own time and my own dime, during a couple of days off, and discovered that our dedicated news staff was at the very bottom of the ladder of the aforementioned comparison group. Management was busted, and further talks prompted pay raises.

Luckily for me, I resigned from my post at the paper years before new owners and managers helped send my former co-workers’ morale right down the toilet.

At the end of my seven-year tenure there, my wife and I decided to switch parenting/breadwinner roles. She went back into the labour force and I became a stay-at-home parent for our three children. When the kids got older, I joined The Chronicle Herald in 2000 as a general assignment reporter.

Nine years later, The Herald’s executives took a knife to the newsroom’s budget. I barely survived cuts that axed the positions of about one-quarter of the staff in the room. Little did we know, more job losses were about five years down the road.

Late in 2014, management’s cutbacks in our newsroom happened to coincide with the expiry – partially self-imposed, partially caused by an unchanging work climate – of my shelf life at The Herald. I had had a good run and it was time to go. (I’m fortunate: It was not absolutely necessary for me to stick around.)

As I told my ex-colleagues in a thank-you note, I was on management’s initial 20-member layoff list and remained on its pared 11-person list. I had made it known to company and union officials I wasn’t going to “bump” anyone with less seniority out of a newsroom job, but certainly didn’t volunteer to be placed on either pink-slip list.

Like any semi-retired journalist pushing 60, who had a newspaper career lasting almost 30 years, there are things I miss. Breaking news, election nights, educational and entertaining assignments, a life-affirming human-interest story, workplace camaraderie.

What I don’t miss are employer favouritism, office politics, ass-kissing, multiple layoffs, management heavy-handedness, internal and external emails from two-faced individuals and low morale among the news staff.

In a good-bye note I sent to Herald management, in December 2014, I said this:

“It’s been a challenging and an intriguing 14 years.

Good luck battling your competition, and handling the economic and technological forces challenging the newspaper industry.

I believe in newspapers. A newspaper is a business, of course, but should also be an alert watchdog, a seeker of truth.

Newspapers matter in a free society. Communities depend on them.”

I still believe that. Always will.

But do the owners of The Chronicle Herald?

Freelance reporter Michael Lightstone lives in Dartmouth, N.S.


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