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Latest news layoffs show Ottawa's betting on the wrong horses

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Image: Creative Commons

The Toronto Star has never been good at saying goodbye. Not only that, it has a long and disturbing tradition of choosing to do it just before Christmas.

I was reminded of that this week, when parent company Torstar announced the closing of its five free commuter newspapers across Canada and cynically characterized the move as part of "our national expansion plan." Seventy-three employees, mainly reporters and editors, were told they're losing their jobs when the papers stop publishing five days before Christmas.

Actually, Torstar's press release didn't tell them they were losing their jobs. It just said they will be "affected."

It took me back to 1973, when I was a young editor at the Toronto Star. Just before Christmas that year, management issued a similarly ham-handed announcement. The Star Weekly, a slick weekend magazine that the Star had published for 64 years, was being shut down. The staff was given two weeks' notice. At its peak, in the early 1960s, the magazine averaged 108 pages and sold over one million copies a week. Its distinguished roster of writers included Ernest Hemingway, Greg Clark, Robert Service, Morley Callaghan, Sylvia Fraser and Nellie McClung. Its editors included Canadian icons like Pierre Berton and Peter Gzowski.

The announcement of its closing began thus: "Circumstances allow us to wish you merry Christmas, a happy New Year and farewell all at the same time." It was so outrageous that I remember taking it down from the bulletin board at One Yonge Street and copying it for posterity.

Torstar's latest move to shutter StarMetro tabloids in Halifax, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver -- which are the country's last free English-language daily commuter newspapers -- caps a miserable two years of losses and failures for the company, which has suspended dividends and seen its stock price fall to an embarrassing 50 cents a share. Much of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of John Boynton.

When Boynton was named publisher of the Toronto Star and CEO of the Torstar in 2017, his leadership qualities were hailed in glowing terms: "Mr. Boynton is widely recognized for his experience and expertise in social, digital and mobile strategy and execution, with an emphasis on generating revenue and providing meaningful content for customers."

He adopted a "digital first" strategy. But ironically, one of his first steps was to pull the plug on the paper's first ill-advised attempt to put its toe in that water. Star Touch was a tablet-based app purchased from La Presse in Quebec. It was launched in 2015 at a cost of $23 million and the hiring of 60 staff, but it flopped just two years later as tablet use and resulting revenues didn't reach the levels predicted.

A few months later, Boynton took an important step away from print. Torstar and Postmedia swapped 41 newspapers and shut down most of them at the cost of 290 jobs. That trade, announced less than a month before Christmas, is still being investigated by the Canadian competition bureau for "alleged anti-competitive conduct." It left Torstar and Postmedia with local monopolies in areas where they still published papers.

Boynton's next step was a surprise. In 2018, he doubled down on print, launching and rebranding a new chain of newspapers. StarMetro capitalized on the free dailies it acquired from Postmedia. Torstar hired 20 journalists and posted them across the country. Boynton hailed it as "a major investment in journalism." Although Torstar promised to "rebrand and upgrade the digital offerings" of its five commuter newspapers, it was betting on the survival of print as its principal news platform.

That seemed misguided from the start. For one thing, the Toronto Star has always been a Toronto or Ontario newspaper. Its brand was likely to be shunned elsewhere, especially in the West where most of the StarMetro papers were located. For another, the mission was demonstrably unclear. Commuter papers have always served as a quick read for people travelling to work on subways and other transit, but Boynton announced a key feature would not be hard news but investigative journalism.

Cathrin Bradbury, Metro's Toronto-based editor-in-chief, said at the time, "It's also about giving our customers something they can sink their teeth into after their morning commute -- meaningful local news, exclusives, investigations and in-depth coverage they can follow throughout the day."

Well, that didn't work. People may read a newspaper for something to do on the way to work, but they're not going to spend much time "following" it when they're on the job. A good indication of that is all the StarMetro newspapers you find abandoned on subway seats. Two months after launch in 2018, there were layoffs, and this week Torstar pulled the plug on the whole shebang. Boynton's last bet on print lasted merely a year.

Another 50 or so Torstar employees are losing their jobs in Hamilton, where the editing of the StarMetro papers had been centralized. Total job loss, according to the newspaper union Unifor, is 121, with even more to come as Torstar is reportedly planning voluntary resignation offers at its other Ontario papers.

Boynton bravely claimed "StarMetro newspapers have been editorial successes and have developed loyal audiences" but he said print advertising has decreased significantly in recent months to levels "below those required to make them commercially viable."

It remains to be seen whether his decision now to switch to "a pure digital play outside of Ontario" will work. The Torstar brand outside of Ontario is weaker still and the number of journalists the company will hire for its digital bureaus in Halifax, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver will be a fraction of those it is laying off.

Besides damaging local journalism, Torstar's purge of journalists calls into question the effectiveness of the federal government's $600-million bailout for legacy publishers, announced last year. Those outlets, including Torstar, are receiving tax credits to employ news gatherers -- something that is forfeited when they're laid off to fatten a corporation's bottom line. One publisher called the federal assistance "a turning point in the plight of newspapers in Canada," but the layoffs in the newspaper industry have continued.

The evidence so far is that Ottawa may be betting on the wrong horses.

The failure of legacy news managers like Boynton to figure out a new and sustainable business model for local news suggests that more federal aid will be more money down the drain. Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor, a union which represents media workers and more than 350,000 others in the private sector, called the Torstar layoffs "stunning" and said the financial situation for local news "is going from bad to worse." He called on Parliament to do more.

I'd rather see federal money being directed elsewhere, to entrepreneurial digital start-ups with fresh business plans that do not carry the burden of paying for past mistakes.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This column originally appeared on John's blog.

Image: Creative Commons

Editor's note, November 23, 2019: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Unifor's president. He is Jerry Dias, not Gerry Diaz.

 

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