The Calgary Herald told its striking workers they were about to “jump off a cliff.” By the end, the Herald had gone over the edge, too ~~
Excerpted from Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way From Dublin to Canada, by kind permission of Rocky Mountain Books
I never envisaged it would end the way it did. I had always expected that when my career in Canadian daily newspapering came to a close, I would write a farewell column thanking the readers for taking the time to look at my stuff, and sometimes taking the time to phone or write. I would gather with my colleagues in the centre of the newsroom, the managing editor would make a nice speech about me, and I would respond in kind. I would tell my colleagues that during my time as the Calgary Herald’s theatre critic I “gave my best jeers to Theatre Calgary.” There would be laughter, cards, cake and a chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” My colleagues would present me with a framed replica of a dummy front page, filled with photographs of me, and mock news stories about my journalistic achievements. It would be a splendid send-off.
None of this happened, of course. Instead, I found myself, a few weeks after my 56th birthday, scurrying down the back stairs of the Herald’s red-brick fortress, clutching my well-thumbed copy of The Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the framed photographs of Zelda and Nicole that had been sitting atop my desk, held vertical by little cardboard flaps covered in fake velvet. There had been no fireworks, no marching band, no tickertape parade. This world was ending not with a bang or whimper, but with a step into the unknown. The first strike of newsroom employees in the 116-year history of the Calgary Herald was about to begin and I was about to end a 27-year career in Canadian daily journalism.
For more than 20 years at the Herald I had looked forward to going to work every day. I had gone from one enjoyable writing assignment to the next and felt appreciated by my bosses. But now I dreaded the thought of entering the red-brick building. I no longer felt appreciated; I no longer felt respected. Why? Maybe it was because I was getting older and the bosses were getting younger.
I told my family doctor about it: “As soon as I get to Memorial and Deerfoot and the Calgary Herald building comes into view, I can feel a dull ache rising in my chest.” He could tell I was feeling very stressed. He asked me some questions and gave me his assessment. “You’re working in a sick building,” he said. “Buildings get sick just like people get sick. If you can cure it, great! If not, start working on your exit plan. Give yourself three, five, however many years it takes to get out.”
I was 53 years old. Not yet ready for early retirement. But I also didn’t have the power to cure whatever sickness plagued the Herald building and infected some of us working there. I told a colleague about my dilemma, and she put it to me bluntly. “They just want you to bugger off and die,” she said. If that was indeed their desire, I thought, then, damn it, I was going to thwart them. I had no intention of giving them the satisfaction of seeing me leave before I was good and ready.
Then, unexpectedly in the fall of 1998, the promise of a cure arrived. My fellow editorial staffers and I did what many of us would have considered unthinkable, even laughable, a decade earlier: we voted to bring a union into the Herald newsroom. Most of Canada’s other major metropolitan dailies already had unionized newsrooms; the Herald, the Edmonton Journal and the tabloids in the Sun chain were among the few exceptions. We had never felt the need for a union. At the Herald, we had watched from afar while our unionized colleagues in Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal weathered strikes and lockouts to win pay increases and better working conditions. Then we held out our hands, asked for the same deal and usually got it.
Up to the mid-1990s most of us had thought the Herald was a great place to work, and we enjoyed salaries and benefits comparable to those in unionized newsrooms. Our bosses asked for nothing more than that we get the stories and tell them truthfully, and that we not be dull. They spent the money necessary for us to produce the best journalism possible in a market of our size. When I worked as a theatre critic, my travel budget was the envy of colleagues across the country.
Between 1975 and 1995, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who left the Herald newsroom hoping to find a better deal in Vancouver or Toronto. In a newsroom of 160 staffers, that low departure rate suggested most of the employees were generally satisfied with their lot. But eventually, discontent began to simmer.
By the early 1990s, we knew the industry was in trouble. For the longest time, daily newspapers had been a guaranteed source of profit, a licence to print money as we used to say. Now they were printing in red ink. While the Herald continued to generate profits of between $30- and $40-million annually because it is located in one of the most affluent cities in Canada, its sister newspapers in the Southam chain were posting total annual losses of more than $150-million. To alleviate the losses, the Southam bosses began siphoning profits from the Herald and ordered the paper to cut costs.
Publisher Kevin Peterson, a former reporter and editor who had worked at the Herald since he graduated from the University of Calgary in 1969, tried to develop a business plan to meet Southam targets for spending, circulation and advertising. Peterson’s Toronto bosses entrusted him with the task of doubling the Herald’s profits: from between 12 and 15 per cent annually to between 25 and 30 per cent. Why? Former Herald managing editor Gillian Steward wrote in a Globe and Mail article on November 10, 1999, that the aim was to raise the share price, thereby making it more difficult for Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. to take over Southam. Peterson cut the total Herald workforce from 850 to 625 and slashed expense accounts and travel budgets. Then, with the hope that collectively we might find the right way forward, he organized staff into think-tank units known as “visioning groups.” To some of the editorial staffers, however, this smacked of desperation, and we viewed the process with a certain cynicism. We had never been consulted or included in management decision-making activities in the past, and we didn’t believe our suggestions would be taken seriously now. As it turned out, all efforts aimed at improving the Herald’s bottom line came to naught. Peterson never told us what the actual revenue targets were, but it was clear that we were not meeting them. On December 13, 1995, Peterson resigned.
A couple of months later, Ken King, previously the publisher of the rival Calgary Sun, took the helm as the Herald’s publisher. A few months after that, as feared by the Southam bosses in Toronto, Hollinger Inc. assumed a controlling interest in the company. For some of us editorial staffers, however, this actually seemed like a positive development. Hollinger owned some of the best newspapers in the English-speaking world, including London’s Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post. For as far as we could tell, Conrad Black seemed to care as much about quality journalism as he did about making money, which could only bode well for those of us who worked for the Southam newspapers.
Ken King, a big bear of a man with a successful background in advertising sales and marketing, brought a TV pitchman’s approach to the job of fixing the Herald. Using the same networking and promotional acumen that had worked well for him at the Sun, he set out to raise the Herald’s profile in the community through corporate liaisons and marketing partnerships. Editorially, he oversaw the transformation of the Herald from a moderately liberal paper into a paper that leaned more to the right. Adding conservative columnists Peter Stockland, Barbara Amiel, Giles Gherson and Andrew Coyne to the editorial pages helped create what King described in a Herald article on October 14, 1996, as a “wonderful environment for political and social debate.”
The paper became a reflection of King himself, just as Peterson’s Herald had mirrored his personal style. Peterson, a left-leaning, university-educated intellectual, had worked his way up from political reporter in 1969 to the Herald’s publisher from 1989 to 1995. He often went to the theatre, boasted a fine collection of paintings and had a library full of Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies novels. During his tenure as publisher, the paper exuded intelligence and middle-class values. It revealed a social conscience and told the truth even when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so. It was also clear from the coverage that Peterson’s paper considered arts and culture to be a significant part of Calgary’s community life. A review of a Theatre Calgary production always occupied a more prominent place in the entertainment section than the reviews of that week’s Hollywood movie releases.
King’s Herald, on the other hand, reflected the values of this street-smart glad-hander from small-town Saskatchewan who smoked Cuban cigars, drank with oilmen and played old-timer’s hockey. Taking commercial television as its model, the new Herald promoted the interests of corporate Calgary, gave generous space to crime and sports coverage, and sponsored rock concerts. King worked long hours and liked his people to do the same. “He’s a dynamo,” said one senior Herald manager. “I can barely keep up with him.” Before King’s arrival, newsroom department heads came to work late and left early, ate lunch at the club, spent their summer afternoons on the golf course and were home in time to watch Seinfeld. Reporters filed their stories after the bosses left for the day and the night crew of deskers, assistant managers and deputy editors put out the paper. If a senior manager had appeared in the newsroom during the evening when the stories were being edited and the pages were being laid out, the staffers would have wondered what he or she was doing there. The job of the bosses, it seemed to us, was to set editorial policy and decide what should be in the next day’s paper. Our job was to take care of the nuts and bolts.
With King’s arrival, the newsroom turned into a white-collar sweatshop. Senior managers remained on the job scrutinizing copy, rewriting leads and changing headlines, until the paper went to bed. Reporters had always expected to see some changes made to their stories, especially when a story was chosen for front-page display and the editors wanted to incorporate material from the wire services or from other Herald journalists. But increasingly, reporters opened their papers in the morning to find their stories altered beyond recognition. This was top-down interference of a kind never seen in the newsroom before. The “drive-by editing,” as we dryly dubbed it, saw changes made without consultation with reporters, without re-interviewing people quoted in the stories and without checking facts. The published results included misquotes and embarrassing inaccuracies that regularly called for corrections, apologies and retractions.
My own stories emerged relatively unscathed from this process, but I too had to deal with some unwelcome editing changes. The most bizarre of these came when I wrote a first-person feature series entitled “Brian Brennan’s Canada” and a manager added in such mawkish lines as “Canada had seized my heart and wouldn’t let it go.” Cardiac arrest, anyone?
At the root of some editing changes, it seemed, was a desire on the part of newsroom managers to advance King’s goal of putting out a Herald that reflected Calgary with “fairness, accuracy and balance.” He elaborated on this concept in an interview with a Herald reporter published on October 14, 1996. The relevant questions to be asked by editorial staffers, King said, were: “Are the facts right? Are the quotes in context? And is this story being told fully and not with bias on behalf of the writer, be that either personal or political or with any other agenda?” He added that a policy of fairness, accuracy and balance did not suggest that every story in the paper should have a positive spin. “I’m not talking about boosterism here. I’m not talking about cheerleading. We do, in fact, have roles and obligations in those areas too. The greatest acid test is the response you get from people who are in the news.” If that response was positive, King said, the Herald was doing its job. If not, the paper was failing in its obligations to its readers. In his view, the Herald had become increasingly unpopular in the marketplace and thus disconnected from its readers. “It was not reflective of the city. If Calgary was an entrepreneurial, enthusiastic, upbeat city with a robust economy, the newspaper was not reflecting that.”
King professed not to know anything about news gathering and reporting, and declared himself happy to leave that to the professionals in his newsroom. “I’m like the administrator of a hospital,” King said. “I know how to run the business, but you wouldn’t want me doing open-heart surgery.” In King’s hospital, however, the triage process seemed to dictate that the only hearts that really mattered were those belonging to the Herald’s corporate and political friends. Among the paper’s most valued clients were those who occupied the executive offices located within a two-kilometre radius of the Calgary Tower. “It’s time we started supporting free markets and entrepreneurship,” said one of the editors who had previously worked at King’s Sun. “It’s time we came down off the hill and back into the city.” Also favoured were Premier Ralph Klein and his provincial Tory colleagues, who had long complained of unfair treatment at the hands of the Herald.
At most newspapers, reporters and editors come to believe there are written and unwritten rules about what stories get ignored, what get covered and how they get covered. At the Herald, the unwritten rule after King arrived was that articles critical of big business and big government were out and that civic boosterism – notwithstanding King’s public statements to the contrary – was in. The paper would no longer be infected by what one manager cynically referred to as “left-leaning groupthink.” If a picture of the Calgary Flames appeared on the Herald’s front page after a routine home game during the regular NHL season, it would do so because the paper had formed a marketing relationship with the team’s owners. The same held true whenever a big pop star came to town. If the Shania Twain concert was a Herald promotion, the country diva would appear prominently on the front page in all her navel-baring glory. If her show was sponsored by the Sun, the story would rate little more than a two-paragraph advancer in the back of the entertainment section.
By the spring of 1998, the newsroom staffers had endured about as much of this second-guessing and top-down interference as they could stand. Reporters had come to expect every piece they wrote would be routinely rewritten to make the stories more palatable to the Herald’s friends, who now seemed to include just about every business leader and important political figure in the province. Copy editors had been led to believe that they could never get a headline right and that the stories and pictures they chose for front-page display would never be the right ones. Dignity went out the window, along with respect. Some staffers quit in disgust. Others were pushed out the door because they dared to be defiant. What the bosses perceived as a “bad attitude” became grounds for constructive dismissal and firing.
In one instance, a respected left-wing editorial writer and international affairs columnist was encouraged to leave the editorial board to make way for a new right-wing commentator. He was told he could move to the newsroom and become a “senior features writer” with privileges – such as a semi-private office and no weekend shifts – not granted to less favoured writers. Only problem was, the newsroom didn’t have such a “star” system in place and wasn’t about to create one. After struggling unsuccessfully to satisfy the hard-news demands of an assignment editor who didn’t want the former columnist’s “point-of-view” feature stories appearing in the paper, the columnist was left to languish as a general reporter until eventually he took a severance package and left.
To add to these frustrations, Herald management systematically eliminated all structured means by which newsroom staffers could express their concerns. When the paper’s human resources director – a popular manager sympathetic to employee problems – left the Herald to seek other employment opportunities, we lost one of our most important allies. When members of the newsroom staff association tried to hold meetings on-site to discuss shared concerns, a manager told us such meetings were now considered an expensive drain on the company’s resources and should be ended forthwith. This left the employees with no way to collectively voice worries about such issues as the unfair application of the newsroom salary grid, the rescheduling of holiday shifts to avoid overtime costs, the hiring of contract workers to replace full-time staffers, and the increasing of workloads without additional compensation. If ever there was a workplace ripe for the union picking, this was it.
Next page: “By September, it was clear that the paper was actively preparing for a stoppage. The managers had beefed up security inside the building, and rented a dozen Ryder trucks to move papers out of the building.”
Excerpted from Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way From Dublin to Canada, by kind permission of Rocky Mountain Books