After the Buyout

Times to cut newsroom staff and pages published.

Torstar to cut 160 jobs.

Canwest cuts 560 jobs Canada-wide.

Multiple rounds of newspaper buyouts across the nation and south of the border have provided steady fodder for gloomy headlines. Paper Cuts, a site that tracks layoffs and buyouts at American newspapers, reports that the total number of jobs lost in 2008 is well over 15,000. Many veteran reporters have been let go, draining even the most respected news outlets of much of their institutional memory. But while the industry suffers, most who took severance packages some time ago—of their own volition or not—say they have landed on their feet.

“I didn’t miss it nearly as much as I thought I was going to,” says Mike Jenkinson, formerly of the Edmonton Sun and now the communications manager for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. Jenkinson began at the Sun in February 1997 as a freelancer, writing a weekly “grab bag” of a column on topics ranging from federal and provincial politics to technology. Four months later, he’d become a full-time editorial writer. By 2001, he was running the editorial department, writing most editorials and still maintaining his column.

“I would have made a career at the Sun forever,” Jenkinson says. “I enjoyed working there, I enjoyed my colleagues and I was good at what I did.” In retrospect, though, he sees his first years at the paper as the tail end of good times there. After Quebecor bought Sun Media in 2001, he says, the Sun became more bureaucratic, more like a corporation than a group of journalists running a paper. By 2007 he could see his dream career dissolving: chunks of his role had already been farmed out to others within the company. He began looking for work—and hoping for a severance package.

Jenkinson found a job and got a cheque (two and half weeks’ pay for each year of service). Let go on April 16, 2007, he began a new role as public affairs officer with Alberta’s department of Sustainable Resource Development only two weeks later. Then, in October 2008, he moved into the premier’s office.

In his case, the emotional trauma of the transition happened prior to leaving the Sun. “My big struggle the last year was, you know, all I ever wanted to do in my life was be a journalist and now I’m being forced to give up this dream against my will,” Jenkinson recalls. So after months of wondering when his last day would come, he felt relief when it did, knowing that he could move on to do something else with his life.

He discovered that he could thrive in another environment—even in a government job, the sort of career he’d always intended to avoid. Although he no longer considers himself a journalist, he uses the skills he developed at the Sun daily: gathering and filtering information, listening to people and writing down what they say and condensing their words into reports for the minister or deputy minister. He appreciates regular hours, better pay and more time with his kids. “My wife’s happier because I’m happier,” he says. “A lot of my friends in journalism joke that I went to the dark side, but I tell them it’s not that dark, believe me.”

Maryanna Lewyckyj, assistant Business editor at the Toronto Sun until January 2007, concurs. When her job and many others were eliminated, she decided to take the buyout package (about a year’s salary) rather than wield her seniority to oust a younger, award-winning journalist with a family to support. She took her time finding a job she could commit to long-term. By the end of that year, she had found a new job as a communications officer at the Ministry of Energy—a position for which more than 400 people had applied. Like Jenkinson, Lewyckyj says while she misses her colleagues at the newspaper, she loves her new job and the supportive work environment. “I can honestly say that getting laid off turned out to be a huge blessing,” she says. “I have many fond memories of my 22 years at the Sun, but if I were offered my old job back tomorrow, I wouldn’t take it.”

Other newspaper reporters who have taken buyout packages continue to practise journalism. After theToronto Star began a voluntary buyout program in mid-January 2008, Bernadette Morra, fashion editor for 15 years, asked for a leave of absence. She wanted to spend a year working on Firstwater News, her online magazine about fine jewelry, now seven months old. When a manager proposed that she take the buyout instead (the most common package at the Star was 90 weeks’ pay), she initially resisted but soon found the idea making sense. After 20 years at the Star, she needed a change. “I’ve learned more in the last six or seven months—so much I can’t even tell you,” Morra says. “And I’m really happy, really busy.”

Since leaving on April 18, Morra has been writing freelance pieces for FlareFQ and Fashion. She also contributes regularly to the Star. And she’s tackling the problem of how to make money from the web, having recently signed a deal with InterLuxe Media, an American advertising alliance. Through InterLuxe, Firstwater News gets ad space on sites about wine, travel, fashion, cars and other topics that attract affluent audiences. In November, Morra launched a new site design that lets Firstwater carry ads from JustLuxe.com and—for this Christmas season—Tiffany & Co.

Though Morra still finances her site through her freelance work and the buyout package from the Star, she’s confident the project will succeed: “Down the road I don’t know what will happen, but I can tell you I see nothing but opportunity on the web.”

Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild (CEP Local 87-M) president Brad Honywill cautions that although people tend to see the buyout package as a windfall that makes new opportunities possible, it’s still a gamble. Honywill cites the example of someone who took a buyout but found himself unemployed for several months. He wasn’t getting the pension he’d have had under normal circumstances, and when he did find a job, it paid $20,000 less per year than he made at the newspaper. “He got $70,000 in buyout money, which seems like a lot,” Honywill says. “But he lost pretty darn close to that.”

The people most attracted to a buyout are those with seniority who have built a solid reputation. But as the industry shrinks, and with the impact of age, finding steady, well-paid work can pose a challenge. “You don’t want to spend the last 10 years of your working life going from contract job to contract job, begging for work,” Honywill says. “Then that windfall is a downfall.”

Sometimes, too, those left behind may resent increasing reliance on ex-staffers for freelance work—an arrangement that prevents younger reporters from filling the roles their predecessors enjoyed. The ones who leave may lament the decline of the newspapers they helped build and the loss of their dream careers, but life, even the good life, goes on after a buyout. “I wanted to be editor-in-chief. That’s not going to happen now,” Mike Jenkinson says. “Now I’m a little less concerned about career goals. I’m enjoying what I’m doing, so I’ll do it. It’s a big, wide world out there outside of journalism.”