Opinion| Burning the Newspaper, Watering Down the News

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Although I am now looking in from the outside, my having spent more than 60 years connected with the newspaper business still means I die a little each time I read of another hit taken by newsrooms across the nation.

The latest is the announcement that 54 staff, including 29 from the newsroom, will be losing their jobs at the Vancouver Sun and The Province, according to Postmedia spokeswoman Phyllise Gelfand who was quoted in a story by the media outlet The Tyee forwarded to me by former Sault Star reporter Joe Warmington.

Unifor Local 2000, which represents the 54 employees, said in a statement it anticipated more cuts from the struggling newspaper chain and will challenge the layoffs. The union will contact members about its legal strategy.

Challenge the layoffs? I would say good luck with that. Postmedia, which owns The Sun and The Province, is awash in red ink and that isn’t about to get better. And any industry facing such conditions surely has a right to lay off workers, even though by doing so any journalist will tell you they are irreversibly damaging the product they want you to buy.

I, for the record, am one of those journalists.

I recall shortly after Postmedia bought Sunmedia that Lou Clancy, senior vice-president of content with Postmedia, talked in a story in The Sault Star, a member of the Sunmedia group, about what this would mean for the paper.

Postmedia would be coming into town to visit the city’s coffee shops, he said, to find out what people wanted in their local paper.

What a crock.

Think about it. Newspapers have been around for a long time. The people running them, editing them, reporting for them, have also been around for a long time.

They know what people everywhere want. It is news, and in the case of newspapers the size of The Sault Star, they want local news.

Clancy, who has since retired, was out of touch long before his retirement if he didn’t know that.

However, I have no doubt the B.S. he was feeding us was scripted for him, by those at the top more concerned with the business aspect and company shareholders than with content and concern for the readers.

There is no doubt they are in a Catch 22 situation. They have to make staff cuts to help the bottom line but in doing so the bottom line is affected adversely by the defection of both readers and advertisers because of the decline in product the cuts have brought about.

How will it end? Badly, I would think, for the print edition. The cost of putting out a newspaper on paper, because of the preparation required and the getting of the actual product to the reader, is just too great in comparison to digital news outlets, where about the only major costs are for staff.

I note Postmedia’s National Post, which I subscribe to online along with The New York Times and Washington Post, has a far cleaner look on its online edition than does our local paper. I would suggest for starters Postmedia should change the cluttered appearance of the online editions of such papers as The Sault Star to match that of its flagship.

However, it will take more than a remake to keep readers. It will require staff.

According to the story in The Tyee, Postmedia is not done melting away news expertise in Vancouver. Several inside sources 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 when the present layoffs all go ahead.

In 2010, more than 200 worked in the two newsrooms

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the rot in the news business began to take place, The Sault Star’s news operation had 39 employees, 35 in town and four in the district.

It now has five, an editor, three general reporters and one sports writer.  For the size of the staff it has, it does well, but it is not enough in a city of 75,000 people.

“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 (Vancouver Sun) reporter.

This comment carried by The Tyee resonated with me because it catches me at both ends of my career.

I became interested in journalism when I was only nine years old, being steered to the Police Reporter page of the Chicago Herald-American by my grandfather. I became so incensed with the stories on vivisection that I wrote so many essays on the practice when in high school that I was eventually told no more would be accepted.

It was while I was in high school that I began covering sports in my hometown of Dryden for The Dryden Observer. I submitted a story about a juvenile hockey game to the paper, which didn’t have any sports coverage, and it was so well-received by the public that the paper said it would accept more. No offer of pay was made.

As I was in high school and getting my three-squares at home, I didn’t much care, moving on to cover both the juvenile and intermediate teams and write a weekly column, all simply for the fun of it.

And I am now doing that again.

When I retired from The Sault Star in 1993, publisher Bob Richardson wanted me to keep writing my weekly column. I gave up some holidays in return for keeping my company car for the three years remaining on the lease. Following that, in 1996, I simply asked for $100 a column for the two years I thought I would still be writing it.

Twenty years later I was still writing it and still getting that same $100 when I quit writing for the paper last year.

Now I am back where I started, writing again for nothing, but this time it is by choice.

Steffanie Petroni, editor of The Northern Hoot, wants to pay but I don’t need the money and am just happy she gave me a voice. I am having fun, with no pressure to produce.

At the age of 85, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Postmedia failed to reach a target set to reduce its salary costs by 20 per cent. Since then it has laid off employees at the Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and the Windsor Star.

Other papers outside the Postmedia group, such as The Toronto Star, have also been trimming newsrooms.

It will be a truly sad day if papers like the National Post, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star in this country, and The New York Times and The Washington Post in the United States ever melt away because the online websites such as The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and The Daily Beast are not equipped to carry the load required.

The loss of such papers would mean a sharp deterioration in the watchdog role of government such papers have long held.

I believe this holds locally as well and Postmedia should be looking at turning some of its smaller papers into thrice-weekly operations before they are forced to fold.

Once a print man, always a print man. I abhor the thought of losing an industry that has given people like me so much fun and provided so much information to so many others.

Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com.

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