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Work Outsourced from Sun, Province Newsrooms

Sun editor: union concerns over local control 'pretty silly.'

Tom Sandborn 5 Nov

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee with a special focus on labour and health policy issues.

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CEP's Bocking: Blames debt.

Work traditionally done in the newsroom at the Vancouver Sun is now being sent by e-mail across the country to be done by non-union staff of the CanWest empire in Hamilton, Ontario, union sources say, claiming the result will be further erosion of the paper's local character and erosion of the unionized work force here.

An announcement of similar in-house work transfer at the Province is expected any day now, and both newsrooms are buzzing with rumors of upcoming cuts to newsroom staff, expected to be announced in the next two weeks.

"Our members are extremely concerned," says Mike Bocking, local 2000 president at the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) which represents workers at both the Sun and the Province. Bocking told The Tyee that work usually done by copy editors laying out pages in the Vancouver Sun newsroom was being sent across the country to a Hamilton, Ontario operation, CanWest Editorial Services, a non-union shop, for lower cost completion of the lay-out .

He said that work from the Province newsroom was soon to be added to the cross-country work transfer, and that similar shifts were taking place at other CanWest papers, including the Ottawa Citizen, where the Newspaper Guild represents newsroom workers.

'Local control, local voice'

"There are important issues here of local control and local voice," Bocking said. "What we're seeing here is an increased homogenization of the news that makes the paper tedious.

"This isn't classic outsourcing because the work is going to another CanWest entity, but the impact on the newsroom and on the quality of the paper is bad," Bocking said.

"Layout might seem like a mechanical or packaging issue to a layperson, but it isn't really. It determines the play you are giving to a particular story. The layout of content is very important, and we think it should be done in the local newsroom. That's why we've launched a grievance about this matter at the Sun, and will soon at the Province," Bocking added.

Sun editor-in-chief Patricia Graham characterizes Bocking's concerns about preserving local control and voice as "pretty silly." She says the transfer of Vancouver layout work to Hamilton is essentially "in the family" and calls the layout being done there "essentially a mechanical function."

"For years," Graham told The Tyee," we've had some stock and sports, movie and TV listings done outside the newsroom. More recently we've started to have other pages done in Hamilton, but all the important decisions are made here in Vancouver."

In addition to the union concern about newsroom work lost to Hamilton, Bocking said that the CEP was hearing very credible rumors that both the Sun and Province would be announcing newsroom layoffs at staff meetings Wednesday, Nov. 7.

"I have heard from reliable sources that layoffs are coming," Bocking said, "and if these predictions are true, they only represent more erosion of the newsroom, a trend we've seen for a long time now at CanWest. There used to be a lot more unionized workers in the two newsrooms than there are now, and the threat of more job losses and the current moves to send our work across the country both suggest the trend is continuing. This is a product of insane levels of media concentration in Canada."

Concentration and debt

Sun editor Graham, asked on Nov. 2 about these accounts of upcoming lay-offs in her newsroom, told The Tyee, "I never comment on rumors."

Province editor Wayne Moriarty said "I can't give you any information. I can't have my staff reading something in The Tyee before they hear it from me."

On Friday the company reported losing over $50 million on operations in the last fiscal quarter. On Wednesday the publisher of the CanWest-owned Montreal Gazette announced newsroom staffing cuts through "voluntary" measures, and last month CanWest cut 200 jobs at its television stations across Canada, a move the company said would make it "more leading edge."

Bocking told The Tyee that big Canadian media companies repeatedly merge and create huge debt in the process, and then management tries to make cuts to journalists and other media workers to pay off the debt. There is a continual churning of sale and purchase in Canadian media, he said, with control consolidating in fewer and fewer corporate hands.

"It is important that the Canadian Radio and Television Commission and the Competition Tribunal act to stop this process of concentration", he said.

Dwindling newsrooms

The size of newsroom staff at the Sun and Province has been cut in half since the early 1990s, Bocking said, leaving approximately 275 journalists now at the two papers.

The cuts, he emphasized, were not exclusively the work of CanWest. A process of downsizing and attrition has reduced the newsroom under Southam, Hollinger and CanWest ownership since the early 1990s, and has been driven by the perceived need in management circles to address the debt created by corporate mergers by reducing payroll costs, he said.

CanWest is a prime example of the process of ownership concentration that concerns Bocking and many other observers of the Canadian media scene.

Since it was founded as Canwest Capital in the early 1970s, the company, controlled by the Asper family, has expanded both nationally and internationally, with 11 major daily papers in Canada, 20 weeklies and TV operations that claim to reach 100 per cent of the Canadian market.

Currently, CanWest is putting the finishing touches on a takeover of Alliance-Atlantis (which has a big share of the cash cow CSI crime show franchise) with financial backing from New York investment giant Goldman Sachs, a deal that many see as problematic in terms of Canadian policy that prohibits off shore control of Canadian media.

All these deals create debt, as the CEP's Bocking points out, and debt creates pressure for changes that may or may not serve the interests of local viewers and readers, let alone local journalists and media workers. That's what's got many observers worried about changes like the work shifting away from the Sun newsroom.

'Competitive journalism' threatened: UBC prof

Beth Haddon is an adjunct professor at the UBC School of Journalism and a veteran of both print and broadcast media. She sees the news of editorial content work being sent out of town by CanWest management as symptomatic of corporate concentration and that, she says, is reason to worry.

"This sounds like more of what comes when a few companies control media right across the country," Haddon told The Tyee. "Despite all that is said about the benefits of what some people call convergence but I call corporate concentration, it is certainly not good for original and competitive journalism. It just doesn't seem to be working out in the way promised by the enthusiasts."

Outsourcing versus local expertise

Penny Gurstein, a UBC professor who studies job outsourcing and the social impact in the workplace and beyond, also is concerned about the effects of concentrated media ownership in Canada.

"I wanted at one point to do a case study of these impacts at the Vancouver Sun," Gurstein told The Tyee, "but management there wasn't willing. The argument being made by the union about how sending their work out of town decreases local voice and input has some merit. As companies get larger, they end up not knowing about local conditions."

Outsourcing is taking some surprising forms in North America's fast changing media landscape. One California online news source,, has hired outsourced journalists from India to monitor Pasadena City Council meetings on the Internet and file city hall coverage from Asia.

On its website, CanWest Global Communications describes itself as "Canada's largest publisher of English language daily newspapers [which] owns, operates and/or holds substantial interests in free-to-air and subscription-based television networks, out-of-home advertising, websites, and radio stations and networks in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Turkey, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States."

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