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Responsible journalism is under attack in Nova Scotia.
Unfortunately, it's an inside job.
The Chronicle Herald and its husband-and-wife leadership team of CEO Mark Lever and publisher Sarah Dennis have forced nearly 60 newsroom staff into a defensive strike.
The Herald rejected outright the Halifax Typographical Union's concessionary offer of a five per cent wage cut, a cap on severance pay, reduced mileage rates and fewer vacation days.
Instead, Mark Lever and company demanded a total rewrite of the existing collective agreement, insisting on more than 1,200 changes that included a 17 per cent cut in hourly wages, a longer work week, drastically reduced severance provisions, the elimination of job security and the removal of a
pay equity clause.
The company's plan to impose those working conditions forced the newsroom reporters, photographers, editors and support workers to strike on Jan. 23.
In a series of open letters to Herald readers, Lever has painted an exceedingly bleak picture of the media business in this country. He then presented himself as a true champion of journalism, as an innovator who bore the courage to make the tough but necessary cost-cutting and job-slashing decisions that he says would save the newspaper.
Bereft of any practical news experience, Lever joined the Herald in 2010 and ascended to his executive position in 2012. He brought to the paper a resume of presiding over two business bankruptcies and marriage to Dennis, the Herald heiress.
Now, Lever claims that austerity is the only way forward for the Herald. The drastic changes that Lever deems necessary to fulfil his innovative plan will result in 18 layoffs, slashing to 40 the number of newsroom staff that just seven years ago topped 100. Remaining newsroom employees will have their salaries and pensions cut significantly.
To justify his regressive demands, Lever points to an average newsroom salary that he says is 60 per cent more than the average salary in Nova Scotia. In contrast to the wages earned by experienced journalists, Lever's starting salary as a neophyte newspaperman with the Herald in 2010 was $12,000 per month, a full 340 per cent more than the average Nova Scotian earns.
Under the guise of cultivating a more flexible business plan, the Herald plans to bust the union and to strip away the job security and workplace benefits that long-standing employees have laboured long and hard to accrue.
But the real loser in the Dennis and Lever strategy is the reader and the citizen who depend upon responsible journalism.
The importance of the Chronicle Herald, a 140-year-old business, to Nova Scotians has never been more pronounced. Unionized newsroom journalists have written, photographed and edited the local stories that readers rely on to stay informed about their community and their province. While the work stoppage persists, managers, advertising writers and freelancers, often from other provinces, continue to produce the paper, an inferior product that illuminates the skills of the journalists on the street.
Regular Herald newsroom staff give readers the true stories about health care, medical wait times, politics, sports and education, holding government and businesses accountable so that readers get a fair shake.
Newsroom journalists require the freedom to do important stories, no matter how much those stories might disturb or anger governments, advertisers or other stakeholders. That essential newsroom independence is safeguarded by the union.
Striking newsroom employees have asked advertisers and subscribers to suspend their support for the Herald until real journalists are back to work with a fair contract. We journalists ask for your support in our battle to maintain good-paying and high-quality jobs in Nova Scotia instead of having them shipped out of the province, as is already the case with Herald website content being processed in Toronto.
In his open letters to readers, Lever talked about taking an obscure path to get to an undetermined destination.
Look out your seventh-floor windows, Mark and Sarah. The experienced and professional employees on the picket line below walk the path to preserving fair, accurate and accountable journalism in this province.
The path back to responsible journalism depends on getting real journalists back inside, on the job.
Ingrid Bulmer is the president of the Halifax Typographical Union.
Francis Campbell is the vice-president of the Halifax Typographical Union.
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