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From Calgary Herald strike to death of Star Metro -- the decline of Alberta's newspapers

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Image: Connor Turner/Flickr

The bad news was delivered on social media yesterday by employees of Star Metro newspapers in cities outside Ontario.

Whatever was behind the Toronto Star's decision in April 2018 to hire real journalists and publish free print newspapers in five major cities across Canada, including Calgary and Edmonton, apparently it didn't go according to plan.

The little free Star dailies in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and Toronto had their flaws, but they were infinitely better from a journalistic perspective than the wretched propaganda sheets and their attendant websites published by the foreign-owned Postmedia chain. Which means, in Alberta's two major cities, Postmedia is all we'll be left with in print, again.

The last Star Metros will be published on December 20. Merry Christmas to Star Metro's excellent young journalists!

A bolt-from-the-blue memorandum to Star Metro employees yesterday began with the traditional Orwellian formula of stating the polar opposite of the truth. "Today we are announcing two major developments in our national expansion plan." (Emphasis added.)

A total of 73 employees will lose their jobs as a result of this "expansion" -- or, as the creative writer from the Star's human resources department put it, will be "affected." Just in case the "affected" employees were wondering what this meant, the memo continued: "Affected employees have been given written notification of this decision along with an explanation of their severance entitlements." (Emphasis added, again.)

The Star is opening bureaus in the four cities outside Ontario that had Star Metro newspapers, but they will be smaller operations, run out of the main newspaper's offices in Toronto -- with a Toronto sensibility determining their choice of stories, no doubt.

So this is terrible news for a key contributor to any healthy democracy that was already in dire straits here in Alberta.

Indeed, it was 20 years ago this month that the strike at the Calgary Herald began. The strike by journalists at what was once one of Canada's great metropolitan newspapers began November 8, 1999, and continued until June 30, 2000.

In its heyday, the Herald was known by insiders as "The Velvet Coffin" for the easy life it offered its many employees who chose to stay but not work very hard, and for the career death it seemed to promise those who wanted to work hard but felt the frustrations of creative people in any big bureaucracy. Still, it was a pretty good rag, all things considered, and lived up to its self-billing as the "newspaper of record for Southern Alberta."

The strike at the Herald began at a moment in history when the long slide of the newspaper industry into irrelevance had barely begun. It resulted from a unionization effort by journalists who feared the coming decades held nothing but cuts, the abandonment of the principles of ethical journalism, and tears -- which was pretty much what has happened over the subsequent 20 years.

In the end, the company busted the union -- but lost its most experienced and hardest-working journalists, and chased away thousands of its readers.

Looking back, the Herald strike was the first nail in the Velvet Coffin, not just for the Herald, but for the newspaper industry and, indeed, the practice of quality journalism anywhere in Canada.

I'm not sure if anything can bring it back. I am certain, though, that federal subsidies, for which the Star may or may not have been angling when it set up its national mini-chain of free newspapers, won't do it.

At the start of the strike -- a beautiful fall day I still remember clearly -- the Globe and Mail described the strikers as "fuming over what they say is the loss of their paper's integrity." If only we had known what was yet to come, not just in Calgary but everywhere, we might have turned in our notebooks and pencils right then instead of trying so hard to keep the dream of quality journalism alive.

At this stage in history, there is only one way to revive honest journalism in a place like Alberta and that is for progressive democrats with access to funds to put up the money to found a major internet news site employing real journalists.

And the only institution in society that could do this -- and has done so in other jurisdictions -- is the labour movement.

That's a still-unfulfilled challenge to the organizations for which the Calgary Herald strikers risked, and in many cases sacrificed, their careers.

One of the lowest moments in the political history of the province

It was one of the lowest moments in the political history of the province. During a raucous debate on the conservative premier's vicious austerity program -- a collection of bills that slashed civil service jobs and social services, attacked union rights and human rights, and centralized power in the hands of ethically challenged conservatives in the capital city, the NDP opposition leader, a former premier, was tossed out of the legislature.

I speak, of course, of Dave Barrett, former premier of British Columbia and NDP opposition leader in the legislature in Victoria. The date was October 6, 1983.

So Rachel Notley, former premier of Alberta and NDP opposition leader in the legislature in Edmonton was in good company when she was tossed out of the House yesterday in similar circumstances for saying un-parliamentary but entirely believable things about the veracity of certain statements by the government's House leader.

At least, unlike Barrett, she was not physically dragged out of the legislature by the sergeant-at-arms.

Barrett went on to serve the federal Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca riding in the House of Commons from 1988 to 1993. In 1989, he ran for the leadership of the federal NDP, losing narrowly on the fourth ballot.

Had he won, it is said here, the NDP would have become the natural progressive voice of Western Canada and might well have checked the destructive rise of the neoliberal Reform party of Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, which haunts us still.

Barrett died in February last year at the age of 87.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He was vice-president of Local 115A of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada during the Calgary Herald strike. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Connor Turner/Flickr

Editor's note, November 20, 2019: This post has been corrected. Dave Barrett was a federal MP from 1988 to 1993, not from 1998 to 1993.

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