Front page of today’s Toronto Star. Journalists withheld their bylines to protest management’s decision to cut 55 jobs.
There’s a byline strike at the Star today. You’ll have trouble noticing it online, as most of the stuff upfront there is either from the wires, or was written yesterday. Ellie’s column is dated today, but was probably submitted ages ago, and she apparently did not send in instructions, as per the memo that went out yesterday, to swap out her regular column with one devoted to the subject of the 55 firings of layout, editing and ad staff announced on Monday. Joe Fiorito did, and lamented the shrinkage of his professional family. Curtis Rush’s byline’s on his Wednesday work, but he’s an online writer, and the memo exempted online work.
What came to light Monday is dispiriting to anyone concerned with old economies eroding before new ones step in. It’s also crap news for the 55 workers. The decision looks like managerial desperation, and this byline strike is the desperate response of a disheartened staff worried about their jobs, and those of their colleagues. This is completely understandable, and I sympathize with the strike.
But in more general terms, the ones we use to describe the state of the industry and of journalism as a whole, the raw, exposed state we print journalists and former print journalists are in, there is a tendency to overstate things, to see signs of the apocalypse where there are only innocent men in melodramatic robes riding on coincidentally pale horses.
Print journalism is straitened, there’s no doubt about that, and things will get even more painful before the contractions are over. The business and craft are changing as the entire enterprise wakes up hazily, rubbing its eyes and slowly focusing on this brave new world that has such software in it.
The fact is, this new world is a networked world, a world in which intra-office functions and communications are conducted over the same lines that connect the London bureau with the home office. In such a world, the way a paper and its online familiars are put together change. There is no reason for the layout person to sit next to the copy editor, because they’re both too busy to talk, and what they would have handed back and forth to each other in previous times is now sent over the wire. So why not hire folks who can do it for less because they’re not only laying out pages for your paper, but for the others, too?
Though there’s an argument to be made that the identity and valuable brand of a paper is made up largely of the words written by writers employed by it, the same cannot be said of the work of page editors and layout people, the job description that makes up the lion’s share of those 55 soon-to-be-lost jobs. I’m not saying what they do is not valuable, or that they are not equal partners with writers and what the Star calls team editors, the ones in charges of section who do the assigning and the substantive editing. It’s just that the work they do is not what business types might call a market differentiator. My guess is that even if the print media world were in a much healthier state than it is, papers would have tried to do this anyway to maximize profits instead of, as they are now, mitigating losses.
The work currently being done by those page editors and layout people will be outsourced to Pagemasters North America, a Canadian Press-owned operation I only learned about recently when I got an email from an old friend, a page editor who had been laid off (or taken a buyout, I’m not sure) from the Star a year or two ago. She was in the Pagemasters office on King Street just east of Yonge in the CP building, editing a story I wrote for the Globe‘s travel section. She’s one of 22 editors and page layout people they have on staff, handling work for about 20 titles across the country including the Star and the Globe. The National Post and the Toronto Sun work the same way these days, outsourcing (or “nearsourcing” as these operations prefer to call it) similar work to other offsite operations in Hamilton and Barrie respectively.
It would be easy to see Pagemasters North America as a leech, offering lower-pay jobs in place of the ones being lost. But it’s more complicated than that, I think. Those 22 jobs, as well as the ones in Hamilton and Barrie, have to be subtracted from the jobs-lost count we’re all so rightfully upset by, and that we’re taking as signs it’s all going to hell. And according to Pagemasters honcho Ed Brouwer (ex of Metroland, Canwest and Postmedia), they’re growing, offering work to at least some of the newly unemployed in a unionized company owned by the papers who laid them off (as well as a subsidiary of Power Corp, which owns seven French-language papers).
These are not happy times for print journalism (or for journalism at all, for that matter, as online journalism, thriving by numbers, is still anemic when judged by pay rates), but something journalists have that, say, autoworkers do not, is that we own the means of production. With my trusty laptop and some cafe-provided WiFi, I have everything I need to be independent. I could even, were I considerably more pulled-together than I am, start my own business, an especially likely prospect in these turbulent, disrupted, disruptive times. I can also do three (or indeed five, or seven) jobs at once without working the hours people in other industries, other professions would have to.
None of this is to say that a freelance, non-unionized worker has the same clout in the world as one who is part of a bargaining unit, which ultimately may mean there are fewer big-dollar jobs, and my ability to negotiate with any given potential client is less than it would be were I to have a mass of sisters and brothers at my back. But neither are we powerless, and it’s unbecoming to behave as if we are.
This is also not to say that there isn’t inestimable value to our big news organizations, like the Star, continuing to exist. They carry a heft that, as they’re showing more and more often of late, can get things done in a way that I, as a lone journalist, could not. There’s a powerful gravitas to these big operations, one that’s being eroded by the particular kind of shrinkage that’s going on these days, but it still exists, and let’s hope that, despite what seem in the middle of it to be not only painful but imprudent cuts, they retain it.
So let this be a note of hope, then, to those about to lose their jobs, from one who did long ago, and who continues to make a living, and enjoy his career choice, as well as to those who are listening in on this massive family crisis.
We complain often and loudly, as much because we have the tools and the means to do so as for the fact that we have something quite real to lament, but in the face of announcements like the Star‘s, it might be of some comfort to us (and to those tired of hearing our keening) to remember that as individual workers we still, in these darkest of days, have it better than many. And those painful industry-wide contractions? Sometimes, they lead to re-births.
 There are obvious union ramifications, which will have to be the subject of another piece, in another publication, perhaps by another writer.