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Inside the Ugly Unravelling at the Vancouver Sun and Province

Fear, grief and turmoil rock newsroom after latest surprising and deep round of cuts.

David Beers 1 Apr

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

It’s been a brutal three weeks of dread, tears, and colleagues suddenly forced to see each other as threats to their own jobs. That’s the picture painted by sources who were inside the recently merged Vancouver Sun and Province newsroom after layoffs were announced and the sorting of survivors and casualties began to unfold.

The cuts are nowhere near done, and with each round the newsroom is getting older, whiter and less versatile, said the sources.

The season of fear opened with word from Postmedia headquarters on March 10 that 54 employees, including 29 journalists, would be cut from its Vancouver-based operations, the Pacific Newspaper Group (PNG). The announcement was a startling blow, say inside sources, because when the last cuts — 20 per cent of positions across the company — were achieved with 38 buyouts at PNG just two months earlier in January, management gave the impression that would be it for a good while. “No one expected this so soon,” said a source. “We thought we’d hit the targets.”

When Postmedia trimmed positions at PNG before, it was through attrition, speeded by offers of buyout packages tied to years served. That tended to remove older, more financially secure workers from the ranks while retaining opportunities for younger journalists who were tending to handle heavier workloads as everyone kept getting told to do more with less.

This time was different because the cuts included outright layoffs. Editor-in-chief Harold Munro was instructed by headquarters to terminate newsroom workers if enough wouldn’t volunteer to take a buyout. That put journalists with least seniority most squarely in the crosshairs, as stipulated by the union contract.

A newsroom can’t function without a lot of different job titles, but without reporters to cover stories, there is nothing to publish. Sources said Munro attempted to keep aboard as many reporters as possible by issuing the bulk of layoffs to journalists doing other jobs such as handling copy and web posting.

But if those non-reporters had ever worked as a reporter under the union contract, they could reclaim that status and “bump” reporters with less seniority, taking their jobs. The prospect of such power plays made the grim mood inside the newsroom even more toxic, as colleagues eyed each other and wondered who might bump whom out of a job — or perhaps save their job by taking the voluntary buyout.

Those given layoff notices on March 24, or “Black Friday” as staffers came to call it, included five reporters, two photographers and the papers’ only two librarians.

The reporters, whose time at PNG averaged just under five years, included Dan Fumano, who’d just completed a lauded series on water issues; Bethany Lindsay, whose coverage included legal affairs; Stephanie Ip, reporter and assistant city editor at the Province; Nick Eagland, who’d been closely covering the fentanyl crisis; and Chuck Chiang, who wrote for the papers’ Chinese language pages as well as in English.

Yesterday Matt Robinson, a young reporter recently made the city columnist at the Sun and therefore immune to the layoffs, volunteered to be laid off. The result: Dan Fumano is back on the payroll. He will take over Robinson’s column.

Yesterday also, the company and union announced the last day of work for laid off workers was pushed back from April 7 to April 21 in “in order to create an opportunity to negotiate a resolution,” leaving in limbo those holding pink slips.

‘A horrible day for journalism in BC’: Mason

If the latest cuts do happen, say insiders, the sparse newsroom will be populated mainly by grey-haired veterans with few around them to mentor. There will be fewer people under 35, and fewer people of colour. Of those left, a larger percentage will be what one source called “the unassignables” — writers who, because they have columns, or by some other arrangement, cannot be ordered by an editor to cover a news story.

Tossing overboard its younger, more diverse journalists will only hasten the slide of quality at PNG’s papers, observed one ex-staffer. “The industry has shifted so dramatically and the newsrooms have not kept up,” the source said. “They are mired in the past, and management has been ill-prepared and unwilling to adapt. There have been multiple waves of newsroom restructuring and never at the core of these conversations has there been any talk about content. That has created a chasm between the newsroom and its readers.”

In the days before the layoffs, sympathizers from media outfits, labour organizations and small businesses sent stacks of pizza, donuts, bagels, beer and premium bottles of liquor to show support.

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason, once a Sun reporter and editor mourned the losses.

“This is shocking!” tweeted veteran Sun reporter Kim Bolan, referring to the elimination of the librarians who “do research for ALL our investigative journalism.”

“I hope none of you EVER have to face losing your dream job + understand that we don’t do this to get rich. We do this because we believe,” tweeted laid-off reporter Ip.

A colleague who’d been spared spoke of feeling “survivor’s guilt.”

Postmedia is not done melting away news expertise in Vancouver, said several inside sources, who claimed they’d been told headquarters intends to whittle the Sun/Province newsroom down to 55 employees in the near future. There will be about 70 employees if these layoffs all go ahead.

In 2010, more than 200 worked in the two newsrooms.

When the casualties were named

On Black Friday at 11 a.m., everyone on shift in the Sun/Province newsroom was staring at their computer monitor waiting to learn whether they’d been given the axe. “Oh, I got one,” and similar sad murmurs made it seem like a perverse game of bingo. The losers were instructed to assemble in the boardroom one floor up.

There, editor-in-chief Harold Munro, who had been a Sun reporter, choked up, his hands shaking, as he told the group, “You all know why you’ve been asked to come here,” and, “I don’t want to do this,” before a member of the human resources department handed each an envelope with their termination papers.

Munro has appeared distraught to staffers more than once in the past few months. “He really believes in journalism,” said one source facing lay-off, who added, “The old white guys in Armani suits in Toronto don’t.”

By this time, Munro faced another problem. Many staffers believed the company had misled and betrayed them because the layoff announcement came so closely on the heels of January’s cuts. Some inside the newsroom noted that Postmedia offered a better deal for people leaving in January. More people likely would have taken that offer if they’d known they would almost immediately face a worse deal, plus the threat of being laid off, they said.

The net result is that Postmedia lowered costs on the total number of buyouts in January and March, they calculated. Did the company hide its imminent lay-off intentions on purpose to achieve the savings? That is one of many questions and rumours swirling around the newsroom now.

Munro declined to be interviewed for this story, saying all comment had to come from a Postmedia spokesperson.

A Postmedia spokesperson emailed to say all staff had been told when buyouts were offered in January that if the “target salary expense savings wasn’t reached, layoffs would follow and… the layoff program would pay out less severance than the voluntary program.”

But reporter Bolan reflected the feelings of many who assumed the targets had been safely reached in January. She added: “Guys in their 70s plotting to cut those needed for future of journalism. Just wrong.”

Employees are also upset at the size of the severance payments for those laid off in this round. The union contract requires four weeks’ severance per year worked if layoffs are due to “restructuring,” but only two weeks per year if the cause is “economic.” Postmedia is claiming the latter and paying accordingly, even though it reported a $17.8-million profit last quarter.

That profit is an anomaly due to a debt restructuring and doesn’t reflect the company’s steep, ongoing revenue slide, Postmedia’s spokesperson explained in an email to The Tyee: “Cost reductions are necessary in order to survive. We must transform our business operations to align our cost structure with our revenue outlook. We’re certainly not alone as you look across the media industry.”

But Unifor, the union representing PNG workers, cited Postmedia’s “robust profits” in declaring there was “no reason” for the layoffs and vowed to take the company to court. Quoted in the release is Unifor Local 2000 president Brian Gibson: “We’ve received no explanation as to why $2.3 million has been paid out in executive bonuses while hard-working staff are being shown the door.”

‘They might run spell-check’

Journalists recently or still employed in the Sun/Province newsroom say their decimated ranks are reflected in the look and feel of the workplace. Two crowded, lively newsrooms once occupied separate floors of the skyscraper at the foot of Granville Street overlooking the cruise ship bays of Canada Place. Now the combined newsroom is largely empty.

Wires hang from holes in the ceiling. Plywood bins are parked around the room so leaving staffers can toss out their files. On many days, there are only half a dozen reporters available for general assignment. Unlike times past, hardly ever does an editor lean over a reporter’s shoulder to guide the crafting of a complex story, or even submit detailed comments via email, said sources.

Pages once assembled in Vancouver now are done in Hamilton, 3,400 kilometres east of the news they are packaging. Mistakes result. Presentation of one recent in-depth report published by the Sun and Province was botched when someone in Hamilton accidentally put an important part of the headline not at the top of the piece in large letters, but tacked onto the end of the story in small italics.

“We used to have careful copy-editors giving close reads and valuable feedback on our stories,” said one reporter facing potential lay-off a week ago. “Nowadays we just have a few old men sitting in the corner where copy editors used to be. They might run spell-check. Beyond that we reporters get almost zero story development, or editing to speak of.”

As Black Friday approached, sources said, various people in the newsroom compiled and shared lists calculating who, based on the union contract, was most vulnerable to layoff and who could bump whom to keep their jobs. Knowing that four years of experience likely would not be enough to protect them, less senior reporters nervously waited to find out how many members of the old guard — some of whom are over 65 — would take the buyout. The more who did, the more jobs might be left for colleagues wanting to stay. When Friday came, many in the newsroom breathed a bittersweet sigh of relief to learn old timers like Stephen Hume and Brian Morton and Steve Whysall had decided to call it a day.

There was some relief too that more than five reporters had not been cut. The expected number was higher. But any left who dwelled near the bottom of the seniority ladder were in no mood to celebrate. It still wasn’t clear whether they could be bumped, so they waited for a tap on the shoulder from a colleague that meant they’d lost a very tough and high-stakes game of musical chairs put in motion by decisions made at Postmedia headquarters.

One of the reporters laid off could not keep from breaking down and crying in front of peers on Black Friday.

That day, and after the layoffs were announced weeks before, PNG publisher Gordon Fisher was nowhere to be seen, sources said. He has rarely been present in the newsroom and reportedly is leaving Postmedia this month. If so, he will be the third of five Postmedia top executives who collectively received $2.275 million in retention bonuses, to leave the corporation.

‘Last bit of money’

On the eve of Black Friday, a note from editor Munro said: “Tomorrow will be a very difficult and emotional day. Many talented colleagues will receive layoff notices for reasons beyond their control. PNG, Postmedia and our entire industry face financial challenges that must be confronted.”

But some of those working under Munro questioned the business acumen of Postmedia’s leadership. Some, for example, wondered why the company merged the Sun and Province, which depend on paying subscribers, with 24 Hours, which is free. The result is that Sun/Province reporters might break a story only to see it run in the competing 24 Hours, which is given away for no charge. “It’s crazy,” said one reporter. “A meaningful story I write will be published in 24 next to a story about Kim Kardashian’s butt. And readers don’t have to pay a cent to read it.”

Another source wondered why the company spent a lot of money on a two-year project redesigning the Province newspaper but never unveiled the new look. The Postmedia spokesperson would not comment on the fate of the redesign. “They just killed it,” insisted the source, adding, “And the paper’s new website redo keeps getting pushed back. They aren’t really digitally focused like they pretend they are.”

Another newsroom source did not mince words. “Postmedia’s bosses know exactly what they are doing. They are vultures, circling around the carcass of Canadian media, picking off the bits. They know subscribers and advertisers will hang on a bit longer, so they can get the last bit of money out of the company before it folds.”

A month before the latest lay-offs were announced, Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey was asked by Toronto Life: “At what point are you diminishing the print product so much that you’re hastening its decline?”

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Godfrey replied, adding, “Are our papers as good as they used to be? No, but they haven’t become unacceptable.”

Godfrey’s pay has risen 50 per cent to $1.7 million, plus $180,000 in entertainment expenses, while running Postmedia, which is deeply in debt to U.S.-based hedge funds that took the lead in forming the company, and have a history of acquiring firms and “milking them of their assets” according to the Toronto Star.

On the Thursday after Black Friday, the Vancouver Sun featured a cover wrap with a note signed by editor Harold Munro declaring the newspaper to be “built on trust.”

[Disclosure: The writer of this article was laid off by the Vancouver Sun in 2001 and subsequently founded The Tyee.]  [Tyee]

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