Postmedia layoffs condemn Canada's largest cities to 'news poverty,' say critics

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News of significant staff cuts at some of Canada's largest media outlets in recent weeks has reignited debate about the future of journalism.

Postmedia Network Canada Corp., the country's largest newspaper chain, announced yesterday it had laid off about 90 editorial staff to restructure its Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton newsrooms.

The company, which owns two daily newspapers in each of the cities, says it will no longer have two separate newsrooms. Instead, staff will operate from one major newsroom that will generate content for both of the company's papers.

In a memo to staff, Paul Godfrey, Postmedia chief executive and chairman, said the layoffs are part of the company's cost-cutting program aimed at finding $80 million in savings by the end of the next financial year.

Just last week, the Toronto Star announced the closure of its printing plant along with the removal of 13 people from its news department and 300 others who worked in printing, as part of cost-cutting measures.

Ivor Shapiro, chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism and founding editor of the Canadian Journalism Project says cities like Edmonton and Calgary will likely be deeply impacted by the Postmedia restructuring.

"National news is still being very vigorously covered in this country, but it's on the local front when restructuring happens in those communities [that] you're actually seeing a community which is now no longer going to have access to the information it needs in order to function as a community and a democracy," he says.

Having fewer local journalists will inevitably mean sacrificing the bread and butter of local community news.

"If you're living in a community, that's what you want to know: where was the fire that was blazing downtown and which blocks were affected? Are my kids safe? Are they coming home from school early?" Shapiro says.

"You do need a critical mass of journalists to cover a community and when that critical mass isn't there anymore, then it's known as news poverty."

Outside of the cities where Postmedia cuts are shrinking media outlets, there remain similar concerns about the future of news. In Halifax, the Halifax Chronicle Herald is expected to lockout its unionized editorial staff over significant changes proposed to its newsroom.

Small markets with one or two daily newspapers are particularly susceptible to news poverty because of the lack of local news outlets, Shapiro says.

"When Postmedia makes decisions like that, it is making decisions for Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Vancouver.

"If the Toronto Star shut down tomorrow, we'd still have three papers in this city. It's a different ball game with Postmedia."

However, Shapiro believes all is not lost for local news in these communities, with new and innovative outlets likely to develop as people turn elsewhere for information.

"It is very likely that this is just one step on the road to Postmedia actually failing in these cities," he says.

Whether the newspapers are sold or closed, "somebody else is going to step into that void."

"There is still advertising to be sold in Edmonton, and probably, there are still papers that can be sold, or better still, something other than paper itself as a news medium. 

"There are opportunities there for young, bright, motivated, energetic journalists to grab that piece of market and actually do decent journalism," Shapiro says.

British Columbia's The Tyee and Vancouver Island's employee-run CHEK are examples of what happens when journalists branch into outlet ownership. The Tyee, which began operating in 2003, formed after restructures in the Vancouver media landscape.

"The Vancouver Sun laid off some really good journalists and they banded together to form this other organization which has a much different voice, certainly a very particular mission -- not the big general mission that a big city paper has," Shapiro says.

"That's I think what we're going to see the transition to -- citizens turning elsewhere for their information, and getting the information from journalists with more of a stake in the game because they own the organization."

CHEK News, which was bought by employees when media giant Canwest threatened to shut it down in 2009, is a great asset to its local community, Shapiro said.

"It was a Victoria radio station that was in danger and the employees bought it for probably $3 and ran it as an employee-run organization.

"I would think that union locals could be well-served by doing this kind of thing: 'sooner or later this company is going to close this place down and we should be ready to take it over'" he says.

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/ graham

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