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.
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.