Watching the movie Spotlight is a bittersweet experience for many journalists. Here was a movie that made us salivate for the days when publishers and editors actually gave reporters time and money to dig into hidden injustices and produce stories that their readers would talk about for months and years afterward. But the movie also left a bad taste in the mouth. At the same time it was in theatres,
Canada’s largest newspaper chain was laying off dozens of experienced journalists, and the squeezing the ones that were left into one newsroom where there had been two.
Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa still have two daily newspapers, but really there is only one, and a small one at that. And given Postmedia’s perilous financial situation, most media watchers believe it is only a time before there are none.
In Calgary the staff that were left at the Calgary Herald moved into the Calgary Sun newsroom to work under a Sun editor. In Edmonton, the Sun staffers moved into the Edmonton Journal’s newsroom. Once fierce rivals, the tabloids and broadsheets are now completely cozy with one another.
There are still two daily newspaper in each city but they are virtually the same – the same stories, the same bylines. In fact, all four of Alberta’s largest daily newspapers are mostly the same. A couple of different columnists are the only thing that distinguishes them. David Climenhaga, a former journalist and now a blogger in Edmonton calls them “the four-headed Franken daily.”
Each newsroom has about 25 to 30 people. Hard to believe that when I was managing editor at the Herald in the 1980s there were 185 people in the newsroom and Calgary was a much smaller city then.
I never thought it would end like this,” said Sheila Pratt, a veteran Edmonton Journal reporter who accepted a buyout after the Edmonton newsrooms were combined.
Not that long ago, the future looked so bright that both the Herald and the Journal built new multi-million dollar plants. It was 1981 when the Herald moved into a palace of a new building in Calgary’s industrial area because it needed bigger printing presses. Also, the snarled traffic in its old location in the heart of downtown made it impossible to get the afternoon papers to subscriber’ doorsteps on time. In those days the newspaper was so fat with advertising a small children could hardly carry it. Today, the building is empty and up for sale.
The reasons for the move seem so antiquated now. Not only so last century, but completely oblivious to the notion that the future might not be so profitable for newspapers as the past.
It also serves to show how fast the changes came upon us. Twenty-four-hour news channels. The Internet. The tsunami of personal computers, mobile phones, and tablets that would forever change how we distribute and receive the news of the day.
In 1985 the Herald became a morning newspaper because it became more than apparent that by the time an afternoon newspaper was delivered, the news in it was so stale no one needed to read it.
But even with that dramatic change, those of us paying attention in the mid-1980s, and if you were in management you couldn’t help but pay attention, certainly that subscription numbers were flat even though the city was growing.
I can’t remember exactly how many consultants were brought in to boost the newspaper’s ratings. But there were lots. And they all focused on content. We should do more human interest stories. We should write shorter stories. We should pay more attention to working mothers, etc.
Neither the people in Southam’s head office, not the consultants, nor the newsroom journalists had any inkling of what was about to hit us. In the meantime, the Herald’s newsroom was an exciting place to be.
Patrick O’CAllagan was the publisher at the time. He was a feisty Irishman who came up the ranks via journalism, and he wanted a feisty newspaper. The Herald was among the most profitable newspaper in the Southam chain. And, O’Callaghan used that money to hire strong reporters, photographers and editors. He wasn’t afraid of unleashing reporters on investigative pieces and then hiring the necessary lawyers if anyone threatened to sue. He sent entertainment writers to world capitals so they could keep Calgarians informed of the latest trends. The fashion went to shows in Paris and New York.
Money was no obstacle when it came to thorough coverage of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, a project that spanned two years. But by 1990 the Golden Years were over. O’Callaghan had retired. Conrad Black was in the wings.
I left in 1990 because Southam head office was insisting on layoffs, even though the Herald was very profitable. They wanted it to be even more profitable, although they would never be told the real reason for their dismissal.
We still had a strong newsroom at the time. Most newsroom employees were confident they didn’t need a union because pay and working conditions were good. So I was shocked in 1999 when the majority voted for a union and then walked out on strike. The Herald was never the same after that.
Black made cuts at the Herald and the Journal, as well as other newspapers in the chain, so he could pour money into his pet project, the National Post. His successors, the Aspers and CanWest shrunk the newsroom even further. And then Postmedia and its hedge funds got into the game. Everything just got worse and worse for journalists trying to earn a decent living and produce a product worth reading, whether it was in print or online.
Postmedia is in deep financial trouble. But then most newspapers, even the ones that have a strong online presence, great investigative work, and lively columnists, aren’t what they used to be when it comes to profit margins.
Despite all that, journalism will always be with us. It’s an irrepressible force. But journalism is much weaker without money to pay journalists for their work and to provide them with the necessary resources to do their work.
That’s why Spotlight means so much to journalists. It is a potent reminder of what journalism was, or what it could still be. [Not surprisingly the film went on to win the Oscar in 2016 for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay].
As for those of us who experienced the Golden Years of the 1980s at the Herald, we know without a doubt that under the right circumstances journalism will once again flourish, just like it did then.
About the Author
Gillian Stewart has been fascinated by journalism for over 40 years. She was a reporter, assistant city editor, and managing editor at the Calgary Herald. She has also freelanced for the Canadian Business, The Financial Post, Maclean’s Magazine and CBC radio. In 2014, Gillian was awarded the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy and wrote a series of articles on the Alberta oilsands. She currently writes a regular column for the Toronto Star’s op-ed pages.
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