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Striking Herald workers up pressure on bosses as rival publication grows

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Striking newsroom workers of the Chronicle Herald relaunched their free news site, LocalXpress.ca, as a non-profit organization on May 19. They made the move in order to expand news coverage and compete with their employer for ads. As a business model, Local Xpress is offering an unexpected test of worker-owned and controlled digital-first journalism.

"As middle-aged people who had been fairly set in our careers, it's been both frightening and fun to do this," wrote Local Xpress editor Pam Sword in an email. "As someone who grew up in the women's liberation era, I also get a chuckle out of the fact that a digital news startup is led by a 59-year-old single mom, which kind of flies in the face of the geek guys and men-in-suits thing."

The name Local Xpress is a play on words -- "ex" (or former) press. The workers have been running the news site since January 30, one week after the strike began, with the support of the Halifax Typographical Union and their parent union CWA Canada.

CWA Canada president Martin O'Hanlon said Local Xpress has been taking readers away from the Herald. The union anticipates Local Xpress will put economic pressure on the company to settle the labour dispute now that the news site is selling ads.

"I think the company is going to find out in the next few weeks and months -- if the strike lasts that long -- that we're going to be kicking their ass on news and taking ad revenue away from them," he said in an interview. "This launch is going to ramp things up and we're going to become a serious rival to the Herald. We're certainly out-performing them and we're going to take away their readers."

Although Local Xpress describes itself primarily as hyperlocal and independent in its approach, the news site receives wire copy from The Canadian Press, providing readers with national coverage, along with international entertainment and business news. Wire copy and access to a new web platform are among the services Local Xpress gets now that it has entered into a revenue-sharing partnership with Village Media, an Ontario-based company that operates various online local news and community websites. Local Xpress has also launched a crowdfunding campaign on Patreon to cover expenses and further expand the news site.

The union requires the 57 Herald workers to spend at least 20 hours of their time per week supporting the strike effort to earn strike pay, which is about $600. While some of the workers write for Local Xpress full time, others do a combination of picketing and editing, or writing and editing, or just picketing.

Sword said the revamped news site has about eight full-time writers, four photographers who regularly contribute, at least 10 additional writers whose contributions range from frequent to occasional, and about a dozen editors. By comparison, the first version of Local Xpress had a lead web editor (Sword), an assignment editor, a photo editor, and about a half-dozen other web editors.

More opportunities for freelancers and students

The Herald has hired replacement workers -- scabs -- to keep the paper running since the strike began. In response, the Halifax Typographical Union, CWA Canada, and the Canadian Media Guild Freelance Branch have arranged for regular Herald freelancer contributors to get paid for submitting their work to Local Xpress instead during the strike. Sword said one freelancer is even donating her work to them as a sign of support.

Now that Local Xpress has expanded, the union hopes to create more paid work opportunities for freelancers.

"I anticipate that soon we'll be looking for freelance workers in some of the areas we can't cover because we have a limited number of reporters available and they're covering their beats," said O'Hanlon. "If we don't have a settlement in the coming days, weeks, or months, I think you can count on us to hire more freelancers, and we can probably look at an arrangement with students, too."

Until now, Local Xpress's only contributors have been the striking Herald staff and freelancers. The news site hasn't had the resources to offer a work experience program for students.

"We haven't had the money yet to pay for anything like a journalism student internship, but I wouldn't rule that out in the future," said Sword. "Most journalism students have shunned the Herald and many have picketed with us from the local journalism school at the University of King's College. So, to their credit, the vast majority of J-school students get what this is all about and have decided not to scab."

A better business model 

As an experiment in hyperlocal online news publishing, Sword said Local Xpress has marked a milestone for workers who started their careers in print journalism. However, she recognizes it wasn't the first web-based news site to be launched during a labour dispute.

"We were inspired to create the Xpress by other strike papers, such as Rue Frontenac in Quebec," she said. "We thought it would be a way to remind the public that we do excellent work, and that having experienced, professional journalists should matter to a newspaper. We also hoped to give people, in a small way, an alternative to the Herald."

RueFrontenac.com was an online French-language news site that newspaper workers started during the 2009-2011 labour dispute at Le Journal de Montréal, a Quebecor-owned daily. The workers eventually created a print edition of Rue Frontenac and launched an iPhone app.

The Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild (now Unifor Local 87-M) acquired the publishing system and templates for RueFrontenac.com to use as models in the event of a strike at The Globe and Mail in June 2009. At the time, the union said the striker-run news site globenation.ca would have competed with the Globe. However, the workers and the company settled, averting a strike, and didn't use the site.

"Any worker who's faced with this situation again, do this," said O'Hanlon. "Produce an online publication that's going to focus on top-quality news, do what you do best, and hopefully companies in the future will see how easily workers can fight back and start their own publication with just a computer terminal, and they'll think twice about declaring war on their employees."

Likewise, Sword said employers could learn a big lesson in bargaining from the Herald strikers:

"Negotiate with your talented staff and treat them fairly because if any significant part of your business can be done by them online, they can and will do it," she said. "When and if you get them back, you'll have better workers because, hey, we launched not one but two websites in three months. Also, journalists are stubborn, so you're not going to get a short strike unless you're willing to meet a media union partway."

While strike-born news sites could serve as models for future generations of workers during labour disputes, Sword said such online publications could also inspire workers to create a better business model for journalism.

"As one of our members recently explained at a meeting, I think a great opportunity is that we can take all of the good and bad that went with working for a private company and try to come up with a better model," she said. "It could be a model for anyone else finding themselves in this situation or even if a whole bunch of journalists got laid off from somewhere, you might look at a model like this if you thought you wanted to keep going."

Errol Salamon is a freelance writer. He's co-editor and contributor to the forthcoming book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press). You can find him on Twitter @errolouvrier.

This article originally appeared on Storyboard.ca.

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Image: Facebook/Local Xpress


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