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Is it a big deal, the new normal, or both?

Image via flickr / angietorres

You might call it the night of the long knives, if it weren’t merely an unhappy confluence of events that have become the norm in news rooms across the city.

On Monday, the Toronto Star fired five columnists (and killed yourhome.ca), the Globe repurposed its Books staff, and the National Post decided to finish the work it started in October and fold the Toronto part of the Weekend Post into the front section of the paper.

These are all big deals. Consolidation of pages is always a sign of shifted priorities in light of the sort of thing that tends to get described as “harsh new realities,” as it was when the Globe folded its Arts section into Life. Martin Levin and Jack Kirchoff had run the Books section, even in its current drained form still the hub of literary critical culture in the country, since the 1990s. And five columnists at a stroke? That just doesn’t happen.

At least, it didn’t used to.

David Hayes was one of the terminated Star columnists. His column about people who rent rather than own their homes ran in the paper for six years, but before that, he was a media columnist, several times in fact, for Toronto Life. And before that, in 1992, he wrote a history of the Globe and Mail. He’s also one of Canada’s most successful and experienced freelance journalists.

“The big picture is that nothing’s getting better at newspapers,” he says, “and newspapers, like book publishing, still haven’t figured out how to deal with the new reality, the modern world.”

Hayes points out that even when he was researching his book in the late 80s, big changes were already afoot in the newspaper biz, which he says was one of the first to computerize beginning as early as the 60s (which makes it especially odd how long it’s taken them to figure the Internet out). By the 80s, he says, “they were getting rid of old time editors more and more and not replacing them. Those were the really experienced hands. They acted as teachers to the young journalists who were coming on board, they were the repository of the institutional knowledge of how everything was done.”

Hayes’ story reminded me of a conversation I had with a Globe staffer at one of my first journalistic lunches (I can’t remember the occasion) in the mid-90s. He was sitting at my table, and told me all the proofreaders had just been let go. There hasn’t been a proofreader at a major Canadian newspaper since.

So, things have been shrinking for a long time. What makes these more recent winnowings different, though, is the end-times timbre. These big lugs can only shrink so much before they cease to exist as major media entities, with all the advantages major media entities possess in the marketplace, like depth, experience, money to put someone on a story for six weeks and eat the cost if nothing comes of it, or send someone to Jordan or Azerbaijan instead of relying on someone they don’t know who’s already there. At a certain point, they will have levelled the playing field to such an extent that they no longer have any advantages whatsoever. That’ll be the day they die, or metamorphose to such an extent that they’re no longer themselves.

From where I sit, that looks like a it’ll be a bad day. But who knows? Maybe a little forging and smithying as a result of the reality of this experience is what they need to recreate their journalistic conscience and soul.


Bert Archer writes for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter @bertarcher.

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