The Vancouver Sun: Death by a Thousand Buyouts
Twenty-five years ago, my career ambition was to become a reporter for the Vancouver Sun. Before I had the slightest idea what that meant (i.e. whether the paper’s quality and reputation even then matched my inflated sense of its gravitas), I was seduced by romantic notions of the Big City Investigative Reporter. Like most other young idealists of my generation, I was taken in by the Woodward/Bernstein model of the muckraking journalist: I saw newspaper reporting as a noble calling. Armed with nothing more than an undergrad degree and a fresh journalism diploma, I thought the Sun would be a perfect place to launch my career as a writer.
When I was the last of ten candidates chosen for the 1989 summer internship (a group that included Justine Hunter, Lindsay Kines, and Wendy Stueck), I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Not only had I landed the dream job after only six months of reporting experience in Hope, B.C.; my byline would now appear beside those of Denny Boyd, Marjorie Nichols, and other Sun big shots I admired. I would be working in one of the largest newsrooms in the country, with one of the best library and archive services in the Pacific Press chain, and resources galore. (Even when my old Honda Civic broke down and I found myself without a car, the Sun had it covered: if I had to leave the office in South Granville to go on assignment, City desk would provide taxi slips—including for a trip to Port Moody.) There was rarely a dull shift, and there were plenty of good assignments where I got to interview civic leaders and other prominent folks on important issues of the day.
But it wasn’t easy. Before long, my lack of experience in the trenches was clear. A few weeks into the job, on the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre, I was sent to the Chinese consulate to get reactions from grieving and desperate relatives. This was classic “ambulance chaser” material: as I waded through the chaos of a large and angry sidewalk demonstration, cutting through the placard slogans, the shouting and the megaphone blasts, my assignment was to find out how people actually felt about having their teenaged children slaughtered by the Chinese army. Most of the men and women willing to talk to me were still trying to reach their relatives in Beijing and could only speak of their fears and their hatred of the ageing Communist leaders. For what it was, I thought the piece I turned in was not bad. But my superiors begged to differ: I was told I hadn’t worked hard enough to find someone who could provide more blood-and-guts detail about the crackdown.
A few weeks later, I was thrilled to share an all-too-rare front-page byline for a story about the nurses’ strike. But there was a problem: the total number of BCNU members I had quoted somehow became the figure used to describe the total number of members on the picket lines. For this blunder, I was banished to the Sports section. After putting in a few months there, I got one more extension in the News department working the night shift on City desk. Then, when January rolled around, my time at the Sun ran out. Others told me I could have stayed on, if I had called up the city editor every day to beg for a shift. But I didn’t want to do that, so I opted for the freelancer’s life—a decision I would never regret. Throughout the 1990s, when I would drop by the newsroom on occasion to deliver a book review or an essay for the weekend arts section, former colleagues would marvel at how relaxed and happy I seemed as an outsider, despite the financial uncertainty of freelancing and the fact I was missing out on the salary and benefits they enjoyed. Given the corporate culture that had already entered the newsroom and was beginning to strangle independent thought among the staff, that was no accident.
Conflicting cultures in the newsroom
The thing I recall most about my brief time at the Sun was a growing tension between the conservative element that dominated senior management and the sense of mission that had always been a guiding principle for serious reporters; the sense that newspapers should stand for something more than how much advertising revenue they get. Back then, there still seemed to be space for those who were different. This was a space where Terry Glavin could tell the assignment editor to go fornicate himself; a space where Arts and Entertainment could provide job opportunities for beautiful misfits like John Armstrong; a space where Lloyd Dykk could write some of the best prose in the city no matter what condition he was in; and a space where Elizabeth Aird could inject left-wing opinions into a film review without getting a slap-down.
But it could also be an oppressively conservative, macho space, as well. The senior editors were all straight white males of a certain age (well-lubricated Brits, or Canadian men of good Anglo Saxon stock), who spoke the same right-wing corporatese, drank at the same exclusive watering holes, and practiced the same art of intimidation. Management hated the newspaper guild and could browbeat shop stewards while limiting their advancement as journalists. Some reporters seen to be vulnerable were disciplined for minor offences, while others were reassigned or demoted to less challenging beats.
One senior executive whose staff memos were notable for their patronizing cheek was managing editor Gordon Fisher. The essence of Fisher’s approach to this form of communication was a touchy-feely, New Age accessibility that treated his intended readers as friends despite the enormous power he wielded over them. A memo from Fisher typically employed an upbeat and chatty tone to appeal to staff members’ sense of reason—sometimes to enlist their support for policies that chiefly benefited the company whether or not there was any upside for the workers. After I left the Sun, it would be more than twenty-three years before I read another memo from Gordon Fisher. But when I did, the same whiff of bullshit that had so offended my nostrils as an employee came rushing back with the full force of recognition.
Fisher’s April 24, 2013 memo to staff—leaked and then posted on Facebook—was written in his capacity as president and publisher of the Pacific Newspaper Group, the parent company of both the Sun and The Province, Vancouver’s largest tabloid newspaper. Employing the same chatty tone I recalled from his 1989 memos, Fisher informed Sun and Province staff that the business they were in would soon be “unsustainable” if PNG did not “find ways to dramatically reduce costs,” since recent efforts to cut costs and reduce expenses had “come nowhere near closing the gap.” He wanted staff to support “solutions” for PNG to get out of its current mess. He noted that PNG’s production costs were higher than those for other members of Postmedia, and that PNG was not only “not keeping pace” with the other newspapers’ cost-cutting efforts but was, “in fact, an anchor on the company.” And yet, he added, switching back to the upbeat: “These are great, trusted brands and we can together create a more promising future.”
Fisher’s April 24 memo is notable for a number of reasons. First, the notion that the Sun is still a “great” or “trusted” brand strains at credulity, given the marked decline in its content and quality over the past decade in particular. Although there are still good reporters and writers employed there, the talent pool is much thinner than it used to be. Since those who remain have fewer resources with which to do good work, quality investigative articles by staff are few and far between. So today, no serious reader of broadsheet newspapers would claim that there is anything “great” about the Sun.
On the contrary, the overall product is provincial and third-rate, dominated by page after page of recycled wire copy, banal suburban fluff, mind-numbing “slice of life” features and thinly-veiled “advertorial” promotional copy, no section immune to the kind of typos and lazy or unimaginative headlines that would have been unthinkable in 1989. And yet, even after the ownership changes (from Southam & Pacific Press to Conrad Black, to the Aspers and CanWest Global/Postmedia); even after the desperate rebranding exercises (“Seriously West Coast” is the latest lame attempt, after several other, forgettable campaigns); even after “convergence,” with articles reprinted throughout the chain and reporters turned into multi-tasking automatons forced to carry notepads in one hand and cameras in the other; and even after all those job losses and buy-outs, Fisher—from his alternative universe, or fish bowl—cheerfully suggests that there is still a brand worth saving and that “we can together create a more promising future.”
Turn the lights off on your way out
His solution? The Voluntary Staff Reduction Program. Fisher enthused about the “several opportunities” to “take advantage” of such programs in the past, adding that the latest round would be “open to everyone interested” and followed by “an economic layoff of other employees” which, he admitted, would result in the loss of “senior employees with valuable experience as well as more junior staff with future potential.” (In another memo to staff on July 8, Fisher backed off from the lay-offs “for the foreseeable future.”) Despite acknowledging the Sun and Province’s “legacy of powerful writing, among the best photography in the world and—over the years—packaging and design of distinction,” he insisted that employees “must focus not on the nostalgic past, but on the urgent need for change.” This meant buying into Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey’s vision of “a smaller company, with reduced costs to deal with continuing declines, while working toward an improved and lasting business model.” This would not, of course, include a reduction in Godfrey’s base salary of $950,000 a year, or those of Fisher or any other senior managers.
So what was Fisher’s ask? “Please do your best to ignore the noise and put aside the fear of change,” he counseled. “The mindset within our universe should always be consumer facing: we need to be thinking of the reader and the advertiser as a first priority every day.” Apart from the arrogance of expecting employees to waltz down the plank for the sake of corporate financial goals, this was all fine sentiment. But it appeared not to recognize how radically the Sun’s treatment of those always-competing interests—readers and advertisers—had shifted in favour of the latter over the past decade. Fisher’s diagnosis of financial bleeding at the Sun suggested that the problem was entirely the result of external market forces beyond the Sun’s control—as if the newspaper’s current predicament had nothing to do with the decisions and priorities of senior management and ownership over the years.
He concluded the April 24 memo with the following plea to employees. “If you do anything every day of the week let it be this,” he said. “Ask yourself if you are part of the solution or are willing to be part of the solution. If you aren’t part of the solution, ask yourself why that is. We are all in this together and we are all fighting not only for the future of The Vancouver Sun and The Province, but for the lives and well-being of our families.” What the president and publisher of PNG appeared to be saying, in effect, was that employees—but not senior management—should fight for the lives and well being of their families by giving up the jobs that enriched the lives and well being of those families. Thanks for your many years of service. Now fuck off.
Walking the plank for profits
Last month, voluntary retirements resulted in the reduction of 100 employees at the Sun and Province, some 17 per cent of overall staff. Among the many Sun veterans who took the buyout were David Baines, an award-winning business reporter who had arguably done more than any other reporter in the city to afflict the comfortable of Howe Street, and veteran foreign correspondent Jonathan Manthorpe. Others included reporters Janet Steffenhagen, Scott Simpson, Gordon Hamilton, Craig McInnes, Peter McKnight, and Darah Hansen; vice-president of digital (and former editor-in-chief) Patricia Graham and digital staffer Chris Parry; copy editors Mark Falkenberg and Carol Volkart; arts and entertainment editor Maggie Langrick; and photographers Les Baszo and Stuart Davis (plus photo assignment editor Cheryl Shoji). A few weeks later, it was announced that editorial pages editor Fazil Mihlar’s last day would be July 12. As a result of the reductions at both the Sun and Province, two full floors in PNG’s waterfront office tower were empty and seeking new tenants. Morale was at an all-time low. For several weeks, little work got done as the Sun newsroom morphed into a kind of journalistic funeral home, with several tearful goodbyes and tributes to prematurely amputated careers.
Last week, in response to a CTV news report on the staff reductions, Sun reporter Jeff Lee made a valiant attempt to argue that the sky is not falling. “In fact the print medium has stabilized with a core of over-45 readers who prefer to get their news on paper,” he wrote on CTV’s website, adding—in a comment sure to endear him to Gordon Fisher: “But what about all the other platforms we’re developing: tablets, mobile phones and the Internet itself? There is no question that our newspaper advertising model, based on something of a monopoly, has changed as people get their information in diverse ways. But we—like television, which is also undergoing the same economic stresses—are trying to find ways to pay for the delivery of quality journalism.”
In their obsession with the bottom line, however, PNG senior management have lost sight of what quality journalism actually means and what once, very long ago, made the Sun such a respectable newspaper. Another Sun reporter, Daphne Bramham, offered a hint with her own alternative approach to being part of the “solution.” What if, she wondered on Facebook, instead of eliminating staff positions to save money the Sun and Province took an approach more like that of the Orange County Register, which has replaced its mantra of “cut, cut, cut” with “grow, grow, grow”?
A revolutionary concept: paying for quality content
Last year, the Register’s parent company, Freedom Communications, was acquired by the private equity firm 2100 Trust. Aaron Kushner, the Register’s new publisher, summarized his philosophy thus: if you provide quality content, subscribers will come, and then the advertisers will come. It’s a variation on the you’ve-got-to-spend –money-to-make-money approach. Putting his money where his mouth is, Kushner added 175 journalists to the Register’s payroll and 768 new pages of content per month, including new sections, pages and features with an emphasis on investigative and enterprise reporting. “Imagine spending money on content to save a newspaper,” Bramham mused, commenting on the Kushner approach. “To keep cutting in order to survive was likened by the Register’s publisher to going to Starbucks and every time finding that the cup is smaller and the coffee weaker.”
A small jab at her employers? Maybe, but I doubt they’d hear it. Gordon Fisher and the like-minded suits of PNG/Postmedia appear no more committed to quality journalism than National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman is to quality product on the ice. It takes courage and creative thinking to embrace the kind of real change that guarantees quality. And it would take a paradigm shift of monumental proportions for PNG/Postmedia to abandon its philosophy of cost reduction as the route to financial viability. Few of us are holding our breath waiting for that to happen.
Meanwhile, in his July 8 memo, Fisher appeared to be mending fences with existing employees. “Those of you who chose not to accept a buyout have clearly made a decision to stay and contribute. And I thank you for that,” he wrote, adopting a significantly more conciliatory tone than on April 24. “In my letter I asked all of you to ask yourself if you wanted to be part of the solution. That you are still here tells me your answer was yes. I thank you for that as well. As I would frame it, we are now a smaller but more focused team going forward together to complete the evolution of our business. And I look forward to working with you to do just that.”
However he frames it—and “complete the evolution of our business” does have a certain eerie finality to it—Fisher is going to find the Sun’s decision to increase its subscription rates a hard sell. The increase, to take effect on August 1, was announced with a full-page letter to Sun and Province subscribers on July 4 in which Fisher outlined the economic reasons for the change. Rafe Mair, for one, isn’t buying it. In an online column and open letter to Fisher on July 8, the popular radio talk show host announced that he will be cancelling his subscriptions in September.
“Mr. Fisher,” Mair began, “If I don’t want a critical look at fish farms; if I don’t want a critical look at highways tearing up farmland; if I don’t want sharp investigations into the private river power policy that has driven BC Hydro to the brink of bankruptcy; if I don’t want an evaluation of what is called ‘fracking’; if I don’t want a sharp-eyed evaluation of pipelines; and if I don’t want a careful and questioning evaluation of tanker traffic, then I don’t need to pay you for not getting these things when I can sit in front of my turned-off computer and not get the same non-coverage for free.”
Couldn’t have put it better myself.
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Daniel Gawthrop is grateful for the positive review he received in the Vancouver Sun last month for his latest book, The Trial of Pope Benedict: Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican’s Assault on Reason, Compassion, and Human Dignity (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013).