Dead editor

Dan Smith, chief steward, editorial, for the Toronto Star, and Kathy Vey, an active member of the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild, are handing out black-and-white stickers to staff on December 3, which SONG has declared Core Values Day. Some of the stickers say, “Star to the core!” or “Editors are core!” or “I’m hard core!” Others are blank for people to fill in. The “core” theme comes from the bombshell memo Star publisher John Cruickshank sent to staff via e-mail on November 3: “The Star’s strategic plan calls for a fundamental transformation from a newspaper company into a multi-platform news and content organization. We must find the best way to operate our business at the lowest possible cost, including contracting out non-core functions where there is a sound business case to do so. Changes will affect every job in every corner of the organization.” Ironically, the date was the 117th birthday of the paper whose history is strongly rooted in the Atkinson Principles, a set of values articulated by Joseph E. Atkinson, the publisher from 1899 to 1948, which include a commitment to help the common man and support the rights of workers.

Cruickshank’s message suggested that workers’ rights perhaps didn’t extend to its editors: “[W]e are exploring the contracting out of some or all of copy editing and pagination work, and the scopeïmay expand to include other editorial production and related activities.” In other words, editors aren’t “core.” In total, theStar may eliminate 78 of approximately 390 editorial staffers, who perform such jobs as copy editing, web work, pagination and photo assigning. The plan is to either outsource the work to Pagemasters North America, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Canadian Press, or have the work absorbed by remaining staffers, or some combination of the two options.

Pagemasters North America, launched this past August after nearly two decades of success in Australia, handles any aspect of editorial production a newspaper wants. When articles appeared in the Star saying the company was launching in Canada, staff became nervous. Their anxiety only grew on November 23 whenStar editor Michael Cooke sent a memo saying the paper might contract out jobs to Pagemasters. Whether it ultimately does this, the Star hopes to save between $3- and $4-million annually. Some staff members bitterly compare that sum to the controversial $9.6-million-plus severance package paid out to former CEO Rob Prichard earlier in 2009.

The same day the November 3 memo was sent, Smith held two meetings for newsroom staff about what was going on at the paper. Reporters, photographers and editors streamed into the old smoking section of the fourth-floor cafeteria at 1 Yonge Street, overflowing into the next room. A somber Smith explained the union had until December 23 to present plausible alternatives to outsourcing—otherwise, the jobs would be eliminated. The team appointed to come up with this alternative consisted of Vey, page editor John King and Bill Dunphy, a former columnist for The Hamilton Spectator who is now working on a new content management system for Torstar papers. Since the meeting, 166 Star employees—12 percent of its 1,350 total staff—have accepted a voluntary severance package. In mid-December, Vey and others printed T-shirts for those targeted by the layoffs, enough for all of the editors and page editors, of whom there are about 150. The front of the black, long-sleeved T-shirts read either “Dead editor walking” or “Dead pre-press walking” with a “-30-” encircled by crosshairs on the back. The plan was to have the “core” editorial staff buy the shirts for their “non-core” coworkers, a sort of adopt-an-editor program, in hopes of reaffirming that they are a vital part of the Toronto Star ecosystem and show solidarity in the newsroom. The editorial shirts sold out in less than a day, and that afternoon the newsroom was overrun with black T-shirts.

Stewart Muir, managing director of Pagemasters North America, currently one of two full-time employees, would not divulge what its staff might be paid or whether any Canadian papers are in active negotiations with the company, but said a number of papers are considering the possibility. While some Star editors believe Pagemasters jobs would be filled by people with limited experience, Muir says employees will have the same level of training and skills as those in newsrooms. On the wage issue he becomes coy, saying Pagemasters will save papers money because “it’s about specializing and centralizing and focusing on just the act of production and leaving the creation of content for newsrooms, where it belongs.”

The idea for Pagemasters North America arose after Eric Morrison, president of The Canadian Press, spoke with the president of the Australian Associated Press, which acquired the 11-year-old Pagemasters Australia in 2002. In September 2008, Morrison took a trip to Oz to see how the company worked, and any skepticism he had about the company performing quality work was dispelled. What he found were enthusiastic, well-trained employees who impressed him.

Surprisingly, Paul Tolich, senior national industrial officer of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union in New Zealand, seems equally positive. He says that in 2007, when Pagemasters took over 70 copy-editing jobs for papers owned by APN News & Media, including The New Zealand Herald and smaller papers like the Wanganui Chronicle and, Bay of Plenty Times, the union was concerned there would be a decrease in quality. But he says those qualms have disappeared, and, in fact, the approximately 70 Pagemasters employees, who are now unionized by EPMU as well, are paid about the same as staffers at the papers involved. The total number of jobs has dropped, though: savings came from fewer doing the same jobs as there were before, and maximizing efficiency. The fact that papers such as The Daily Telegraph in Britain,The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, and The New Zealand Herald are all Pagemasters customers may suggest that jobs integral to a polished finished product may be destined to leave Canadian newsrooms, if not the Star“s specifically.

It’s unclear what Pagemasters North America will charge for editing services, but according to an August 2009 article in The Guardian, it billed a minimum of 45 per page, about $77. No one seems to know what the current rate is at the Star, but the team working on alternatives to is trying to figure out a way to reduce costs without decimating staff. (Editors in the full-time positions that may be eliminated started at $55,848 as of January 1, 2009; the same scale gives a page editor with four years’ experience $86,840.)

Outsourcing editorial work isn’t new in Canada. Canwest has been running its own centralized editorial service in Hamilton since 1997, where employees provide full pagination services for papers including theVancouver Sun and Ottawa Citizen.

Is that outsourcing? Is that what the Star may be planning? Pagemasters sets up custom centres that can be as close to a paper’s location as the paper wants. Pagemasters calls this “nearsourcing.” While the Canadian Association of Journalists doesn’t really have a definition for outsourcing, from its perspective, once jobs are sent out of the newsroom, to Mangalore or a location 20 minutes away, that counts as outsourcing. Mary Agnes Welch, a Winnipeg Free Press reporter and president of the CAJ, adds while the association knows there is a need to cut costs, ripping apart the team that puts together the paper leaves room for err ors. In a newsroom you can yell over four desks to the copy editors and say, ’What’s the style on this?’ or ’Anybody remember this?’ That kind of teamwork disappears when you start sending those jobs out. This cohesive team that kind of miraculously puts the paper out every day begins to disintegrate.

Another kind of team was the main preoccupation for Cooke, Muir and a Pagemasters Australia representative the night of the November 3 announcement. From the Torstar corporate box in the Air Canada Centre, they watched the Maple Leafs disintegrate against the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing 2-1.