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The other shoe: Why the Globe's 'temporary leaves' are likely to become permanent for some

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Globe and Mail Publisher Phillip Crawley

In the 21st century, corporate bosses aren't opposed to journalists making a fortune -- as long as they make it for someone else.

So while the Toronto Globe and Mail struggles with technological and social changes that have driven its business model toward obsolescence, it is also launching an attack on its unionized journalistic workforce under the cover of Internet-caused hard times.

This is the story behind Part II of Globe Publisher Phillip Crawley's announcement last Thursday that not only would "Canada's Toronto Newspaper" erect a paywall around its journalists' work, but it is encouraging some employees to take "unpaid furloughs" while it attempts to get its financial house in order.

The first shoe to drop was the furlough announcement. "Mr. Crawley also told employees that the paper would ask staff to take unpaid leaves this summer in an attempt to temporarily reduce costs," said the Globe's report of the announcement. "The company has given employees a week to decide if they want time off."

This was followed by hopeful commentary by a spokesperson for the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild -- the branch of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union that represents 400 or so Globe editorial and advertising employees -- about how temporary layoffs are better than the real thing.

Unfortunately, the other shoe will likely drop at the end of this summer when many of the people who have taken unpaid leaves -- at least if they happen to work as copy editors -- face being laid off permanently.

Before going further, readers should note any the bald statement that this is the Globe's plan is mere deduction by an unpaid blogger based on what little we know, not anything Crawley or his minions in Globe management have actually said. So you can take it for whatever you think it is worth. You'll need to pay attention, and possibly read between the Globe's thin grey lines of type later in the year, to see if this supposition is correct.

But count on it that the Globe would love to eliminate its remaining cadre of unionized copy editors, which from Globe management's perspective would have a number of advantages -- among them weakening SONG's influence in its newsroom, allowing the Globe to fully transition its editing operations to low-cost outsourced editorial services, and further devaluing the work of journalists, thereby cutting costs and enhancing short-term profitability.

As it happens, almost exactly two years ago, the North American arm of an Australian company called Pagemasters announced it had inked a deal to take over editing some of the Globe's copy. Just how much was not clear to outsiders, as the press release making the announcement was extremely light on details.

At the time, Pagemasters North America was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian Press, another news organization that to a significant degree had lost its reason for existence because of the social and technological shifts that have plagued newspapers like the Globe and the Toronto Star, which also uses Pagemasters to edit its copy.

Pagesmasters NA says in its pitch to potential customers that it "provides U.S. and Canadian newspapers with a complete range of editorial production services, from copy editing and headline writing to design and layout of features, supplements, customized news pages and 'common' pages similar across most papers such as national and world news pages."

Unspoken, of course, is that if possible Pagemasters will pay its editors far less than senior employees who have been on the staffs of established newspapers for years. By the sound of it, smaller numbers of them will also do much more work. Nevertheless, some Pagemasters employees did succeed in forming a union at a plant in Toronto.

Not surprisingly, Pagemasters NA's June 2010 news release almost exclusively focused on how great the Canadian Press is, how great the Globe and Mail is, and how great an idea it is for North American newspapers to be freed up from the nuisance of having to deal with those cranky old copy editors so they can "focus more on creating content." (Read: underpaying most writers and overpaying a select few.)

In addition, naturally, there was no mention of the deleterious effect this kind of outsourcing is bound to have on the writing in the papers that utilize it. Pagemasters hilariously refers to this activity as "nearsourcing," presumably to distinguish the company from people in faraway places like Bangalore who want to do the same thing. But then, the newspaper industry has been taking its readers for granted for decades. Why change now?

So the sound of the other shoe dropping this fall will no doubt be accompanied by another vague news release announcing that Pagemasters is about to take over more of the Globe's copy editing work -- if they bother telling readers anything at all. More Globe staff editors, who tend to be senior employees with links the paper's once-unique style and long editorial tradition, will be declared redundant.

Like most of the last half-century's schemes by the brainiacs who run the newspaper industry, if this happens as predicted it will certainly result in short-term profit gains. In the longer-term, however, the quality of daily journalism will suffer, driving even more readers guiltlessly away.

It is mildly ironic that a major concern of papers like the Globe in its efforts to build paywalls has been finding ways of preventing news aggregation sites like the Huffington Post, which even as this is written is busy setting up new Alberta and B.C. news sites, from profiting from its copy without paying for it.

Fair enough. But at the same time, Globe managers are in effect working hand in glove with HuffPo and its ilk to ensure journalism is so unprofitable to writers that no sensible person would pursue it as a career. This too has not been helpful to the long-term survivability of traditional daily newspaper journalism.

Well, this situation isn't going to go away. The communications industry is in the midst of a tectonic shift that won’t end any time soon.

We are certain see more paywalls that don’t work at the online editions of traditional news organizations, more union busting, more lousy journalism and more newspapers going broke.

We will also see more organizations start offering news services to fill the gap left by traditional news companies that can’t figure out how adapt to a business model that is different from what it used to be.

Shift happens!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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