Vancouver Newspapers in Crisis: Not Only the Industry’s Fault

This week, a shock went through the Canadian media world with the leak of an internal memo predicting a very dark future for Vancouver’s two daily newspapers, the Vancouver Sun and the Province. The memo, entitled “Next Steps”, was written by Gordon Fisher, the newly installed president and publisher of Pacific Newspaper Group (PNG) – the division of Postmedia which publishes the two papers. The memo called the business “unsustainable” because of declining revenues, announced yet another voluntary buyout program for employees, and warned that the new “audience-first, four-platform organization” would “continu[e] to aggressively cut costs”.

Full disclosure: I am a former employee of both the Sun and the Province (my last stint with Pacific Press, as it was then, was in 1984), my husband is a former Sun employee, and many of my friends work or have worked at either the Sun or the Province. So when I read Fisher’s memo, I was struck not so much by its doom-and-gloom scenarios, but by its complete failure to acknowledge that PNG’s problems might not just be part of the industry’s problems, but might also have something to do with the organization itself.

When I worked at Pacific Press, I had the good fortune to learn from some wonderful writers and editors who were serious about journalism – and who were also very generous and patient in helping me develop my own skills as a writer and as a professional. However, these positive experiences took place within the context of one of the most dysfunctional and poorly managed organizations I have ever had the misfortune of interacting with.

I didn’t start attending university until after I left Pacific Press, and I sometimes think I ended up studying organizations as an academic because Pacific Press gave me so many examples of how not to manage an organization. Highly talented writers were routinely ignored or passed over in favour of extremely untalented writers whose main skills were brown-nosing and back-stabbing. Incompetent managers would be transferred to other managerial positions, or, even worse, promoted – rarely retrained or demoted – and replaced by someone equally incompetent who would continue to wreak the same havoc, or maybe even worse. And whenever I hear someone rant about how useless unions are, I think about how even more horrible it would have been to work at Pacific Press without our union and collective agreement offering at least some protection against the ridiculously poor decisions that were made on a regular basis.

Newspapers' problems are piling up, but some newspapers have caused some of their own problems. (credit: Daniel R. Blume/Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Newspapers’ problems are piling up, but some newspapers have caused some of their own problems. (credit: Daniel R. Blume/Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The Sun and the Province could get away with running their papers very badly for a very long time because they had a monopoly on Vancouver’s newspaper market, and a reliable flow of advertising/marketing revenue because of that. And that made them complacent when competitors entered the market, such as the daily British Columbia edition of Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper; when the Internet emerged as an increasingly important source of news and advertising (“Craigslist? Ah, it’ll disappear in a few years”); and when newspapers for ethnic audiences started attracting readers who were fed up with the two papers’ focus on white, upper-class readers. The Sun and the Province also suffered through a series of corporate owners – most notably, Conrad Black and then the Asper family’s Canwest – who forced their own ideological biases into both papers’ news coverage, while cutting costs to make themselves as wealthy as possible.

Now to be fair to Fisher, although his memo does occasionally read like a lively round of Buzzword Bingo, he’s right that the Canadian newspaper industry as a whole is suffering very badly. However, the memo is very un-specific about the problems of the poisonous workplace culture at the Sun and the Province, which also affect the company’s effectiveness and productivity. I left the organization nearly 30 years ago, so I have had lots of time to see if things got any better. And they haven’t. I know that from my friends who still work there, and also from my many friends who have left in frustration and anger. The same dysfunctional patterns of terrible management are still there – and if anything, they have been intensified by increasing demands and pressures on the workers remaining after the many staff buyouts over the past decade.

Fisher’s memo proposes “dramatic staff reductions” as the first step in “stop[ping] the bleeding”, and threatens that if enough employees do not take advantage of the next Voluntary Staff Reduction Program, “it is likely that the program will be followed by an economic layoff of other employees”. I still read both the Sun and the Province every day, and given that much of the ever-shrinking news content is from wire services and other external sources, I’m wondering how much excess staff there is left to cut.

Also, buyouts are usually targeted at the most costly employees, who usually are also the most experienced employees. In my opinion, the last thing either the Sun or the Province needs at this point is to lose even more organizational expertise. Fisher states that “[i]f our content is not unique, and impossible to do without, we must change that”. How does getting rid of the most knowledgeable employees, or reducing the total number of employees, support that goal? Who will be left to produce “unique” content? And how can “impossible to do without” content be produced by an organization that consistently refuses to address its own internal problems?

Fisher concludes his memo by stating “[i]f you do anything every day of the week let it be this: ask yourself if you are part of the solution or are willing to be part of the solution. If you aren’t part of the solution, ask yourself why that is.” I understand that the Sun and the Province are in a severely challenged industry – but many of the problems at both papers are ones that the organization has brought on itself. PNG management should be “asking itself” what it plans to do to address that.

RELATED POSTS:

John Gordon Miller: Gordon Fisher, Don’t Blame Reporters and Editors for the Problems of the Newspaper Industry

Daniel Gawthrop: The Vancouver Sun: Death By A Thousand Buyouts

19 comments

  1. Advent of the internet, digital media has been a reckoning phenomenon for the print industry! specially the news. It’s a sad thing! but then we just need to go with it, unless the news papers can give us something that the digital media cannot. for example your blog is more entertaining that the news paper (the Sydney Morning herald, that is). Very nice post, keep up the good work.

  2. Nice work, Fiona.
    Some people are quick to blame the unions, and there are certainly some issues there, but my 40+ years in the place, watching successive owners and managers systematically loot and devalue their “properties”, informs my opinion that PP/PNG management got exactly the unions they deserved. And the unions made a very convenient scapegoat for bad management to blame.

  3. Interesting post. I’ve heard similar from print journalists I’ve known wherever they worked. Is there an example of good newspaper management? But then bad management exists in many other realms too, I see, and interact with that, regularly in my work.

  4. the boardroom is full of people with no real knowledge of the digital world making decisions about things they dont know based on what competitors did five years ago. fisher is hardly the sort of person you bring in to shake things up and bring aboard new thinking. hes an old school hatchet man brought in to cut bodies out. postmedia is full of those types. old white guys with no new journalism experience paying consultants to lead them in the wrong direction. the sort of people who think people want to read christie blatchford.
    And when theyre done ripping the properties they claimed to value so highly when they bought them, theyll get their golden parachutes and leave us all bailing water on a sinking ship.

  5. This is a very insightful post. As much as I feel for the journalists in their team who are truly exceptional, it doesn’t surprise me that the Sun and the Province are facing difficulties.
    I’ve thought about paying for online access to the Vancouver Sun, but the typos, bad grammar in many of their online articles, and the cliché images that they use as bait (for example, of female models) have quickly changed my mind.
    The Province is even worse: I often joke that one can wring that newspaper and blood would drip from it.
    This is not to say that there’s nothing of value in these publications, but that’s becoming the exception.
    I’d love to see Vancouver have a newspaper with information at par with The New York Times, for example. That, I’d pay for.

  6. I am saddened by this announcement. Layoffs and buyouts. Seasoned and senior reporters not likely to survive the cuts … I am struck, though, that this decision is being made, quickly, (apparently) by the new hire, Gordon Fisher. Rather than figure out how to keep publishing this newspaper, meaningful to its audience, he is here to deliver the standard message that has been delivered to many communities in the last few years: the local paper with local writers is not sustainable. (subtext: we will continue to publish as a newspaper without the reporters that make the paper meaningful. (experienced, thoughtful and enlightened individuals.))

    The logical conclusion is that the newspapers will close.

    The Vancouver Sun and Province are the only “local” province-wide papers British Columbians have. These papers deliver national and federal news that we can obtain elsewhere, but none have the interpretation and analysis that can enlighten British Columbians.

    A subscriber since 1980, I have enjoyed many years of excellent reportage. I continue to subscribe to the Vancouver Sun to enjoy reading the opinions of those who still write on important local and provincial issues. I know where to look for the information, and the voices that can inform.

    If the buyouts and cuts are as deep as it sounds (and there isn’t much left to cut), I am at a loss as to where to find the news that is important to me. When the Vancouver Sun stops the voices of its reporters and columnists; they who are easily accessible, constrained by a (mainly) accessible editorial viewpoint, British Columbians are bereft of a source of relevant, intelligently delivered information, a platform for debate, and a means to participate.

    Shame on PNG for buying into the emptiness of Gordon Fisher’s vision.

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