Down to ZeroIn early February 2009, staff reporter Rick McGinnis walked intoMetro Toronto, mentally preparing for the meeting he’d scheduled that day with editor-in-chief Dianne Rinehart. Several of his beats and columns had been eliminated since Rinehart had taken over the paper the previous May, and the seven-year veteran of Toronto’s most-read free daily was wondering what Metro even wanted him for anymore. Morale in the newsroom had been low for a while, and had continued on this course since the previous December, when publisher Bill McDonald had informed the crew that the company was bleeding money and he was going to cancel their holiday party as a cost-cutting measure. McGinnis was beginning to pull away from the paper; he had interviewed for another job before coming into work that day.

But before McGinnis got the chance to speak with Rinehart, he was called into a different kind of meeting, one that involved Rinehart, McDonald, an HR person and a union rep. They told him that his position had been eliminated, that they were sorry, and that he should wait in the lobby while someone packed up his desk things. As bad as McGinnis knew it was at Metro, he hadn’t seen this coming.

Before the day was out, two more reporters and a managing editor from the newsroom found themselves toting away their belongings, leaving just one reporter on staff: a woman on maternity leave. She later learned that her position had been eliminated also. Rinehart would later defend the move by saying the poor economy had forced the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail to cut jobs, so what were four reporters?

Well, in this case four reporters equalled the paper’s entire reporting department. Though McDonald said at the time that the plan was to beef up the content with extensive use of freelancers, Metro Toronto became little more than a news aggregator, overwhelmingly filled with information from wire services and content partnerships (namely from the Toronto Star). Whether this move was a sad reality of the recession or just a publisher trying to protect profit margins is a moot point. The question remains, is Metro capable of putting out a strong paper without a staff of writers?

The uproar over the firing of the four reporters rivalled, if not surpassed, whatever cutbacks the Globe and theStar had been facing at the time. By the Monday following the layoffs of McGinnis and the others, news of the move appeared in Patricia Best’s “Nobody’s Business” column for the Globe. Best wrote that Metro “won’t be without copy for its pages because it will be using non-paid interns instead.” The Globe later published a clarification explaining that Metro’s internship program had not changed as a result of the layoffs, and that a group of news interns had been taken on days before the layoffs was simply a matter of bad timing. However, few saw the clarification and the news hit the blogosphere fast. J-Source and BlogTO, among others, wrote scathingly about the layoffs, while Torontoist mocked the paper for printing an egregious error (the word “breasts” appears out of nowhere in the middle of a Friday the 13th movie review), blaming overworked copy editors having to deal with inexperienced interns and freelancers. This wasn’t necessarily true, but once the information was out there, it was difficult to take back.

Despite Metro’s protestations that it was the victim of bad timing, its union, the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild, launched grievances over the issue, which are still in arbitration. “The union felt that there was work being done by interns,” says Brad Honywill, president of SONG. “We felt that the contract restricted their use of interns and freelancers and they went against the provisions of their contract.” He continues: “It’s just shocking to think that a newspaper would get rid of its regular writers and fill that with temporary workers.” Honywill adds that regurgitating stories that appear elsewhere doesn’t provide in-depth coverage. It’s the journalistic equivalent of fast food.

Meanwhile, Metro scaled back its pay rates for freelancers in May. Originally, Metro had paid a flat rate (usually about $175 for a 350- to 400-word story) and then an extra fee if a story got published in any other edition (it isn’t uncommon for a story to run in all seven editions, which might double the writer’s original fee). In May, it raised the flat rate slightly but no longer offered reprint fees. Nevertheless, Halifax-based freelancer Jon Tattrie, who has been a regular contributor to Metro Halifax for more than a year (and writes for Metro Canada’s other editions, including Metro Toronto), says the difference wasn’t much and he really enjoys working with the paper. Not surprisingly, Tattrie has seen a lot more work coming his way from Metro in recent months.

Raf Brusilow, a Toronto-based freelancer who’s been writing for Metro for more than five years, doesn’t buy into the notion that unpaid interns are picking up the slack, and says that he’s been getting more work than ever since the layoffs. He does, however, suspect that as the market continues to change, more publications will veer away from the staff-writer model and toward the “cash-and-carry” style of working with freelancers. Most magazines shed their staff writers long ago, if they had staffers to begin with, and the system has worked out well for the magazines.

Not surprisingly, morale inside Metro continued to decline. McGinnis suggests one reason may have been Rinehart’s editing style, which he says was “inconsistent,” and whose management approach could make staff feel alienated—a perspective echoed by some people currently or formerly involved with Metro who would only speak off the record. Rinehart refuses to comment on the specifics of her time at Metro, but says that it would be difficult to find anyone in a management position—especially during a recession—who receives only accolades from her employees. She says she was very proud of the staff she worked with atMetro, calling them an “energetic, principled, dynamic lot.”

Prescient, too. After McGinnis was let go, he thought of all the things he wished he had said to Rinehart before he left. “I should have turned to her,” he says, “and said, ’This is going to be you before the year is out!’”

Rinehart and Metro parted ways on October 28. Former Homemakers editor Charlotte Empey has been hired to replace her, and will assume her post in January.