Thursday, January 29, 2009

Quebecor locks its doors … again

You’re probably reading it here first: Quebec media giant Quebecor has locked out yet another group of workers, this time at its most profitable newspaper, the flagship Journal de Montréal. The lockout was imposed on 253 Journal workers last Friday night, but there’s been virtually no reporting on it in the English-language media. [And, really, why should we expect any different, given that it’s a story about the media and a labour-management dispute, a double-whammy against making into the lineup.]

While it will surely be tempting for some to dismiss the dispute as yet another case of greedy workers overstepping their bounds during an economic crisis, it is worth taking a closer look at reality.

This is the ninth lockout imposed by the company on its various employee groups since 2002. Barely six months ago, workers at Quebecor’s Journal de Québec went were allowed back inside after a 14-month lockout.

As in the Journal de Québec dispute, the company is continuing to publish the paper, ostensibly using “management personnel.” It should be noted that the union at Journal de Québec recently won its case before the Quebec Labour Board, where it argued that Quebecor used scabs to continue producing the Quebec City paper.

The Journal de Montreal workers were resisting 233 management demands at the bargaining table when the company walked away and locked the doors. The union hadn’t even held a strike vote. But they were ready for Quebecor’s strong-arm approach and almost immediately launched a competing news website called Rue Frontenac, which is already blinking with ads from banks and cell phone providers. It’s an echo of the strategy their comrades used in Quebec City, launching the city’s first free daily newspaper and distributing an impressive average of 40,000 copies per weekday throughout that lockout.

Quebecor is no fledgling media company. It owns the Sun newspaper chain, TVA (Quebec’s biggest private TV network),, as well as Videotron Cable. Its wireless aspirations also got a boost last year when Quebecor spent $555 million to pick up spectrum in the federal government’s auction. The union estimates the company drew $50 million in profits from the Journal de Montréal in 2008.

Meanwhile, Canwest’s negotiations have long been stalled with employees at the Montreal Gazette, where the collective agreement expired last June. On Sunday, two groups of Gazette employees rejected Canwest’s latest offer and are urging the employer to come back to the bargaining table. The main sticking point has been Canwest’s wish to deny the union any jurisdiction over the work of its members, which would open the door to unlimited contracting out. Canwest has already started to centralize some functions at a non-union shop in Hamilton. The union is encouraging people to sign a petition to “keep the Montreal in the Montreal Gazette.”

In a strange twist, Gazette subscribers in East-end Montreal got the scab edition of Journal de Montreal wrapped in their Sunday paper. Make of that what you will.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Let’s hope there’s no devil in the details…whenever they come

I feel like I have federal budget hangover. I drank in all these numbers last night, and all I feel this morning is confused.

Why? The budget brew had a lot of stuff in it, but in the cold light of the day, nothing that really matters. And the people directly affected by the recession, the unemployed? They got nothing. It’s no easier today to qualify for employment insurance than it was yesterday. In our industry, that means all those people who are casually employed and, because of the recession, no longer get a call to come into work will likely get nothing.

I’m equally puzzled by the approach to the CBC. Canadians still don’t know what this government is going to set aside for our public broadcaster, the centerpiece of any national culture policy.

There are some signs that things are ok. Heritage minister James Moore promised there would be “no cuts” to the CBC’s allocation in an interview he gave to CBC radio. But that’s all we really have to go on.

As CBC president Hubert Lacroix wrote in a staff memo today: “The questions of our base parliamentary appropriation and the $60 million in non-recurring funding for programming initiatives, which we we’ve received each year since 2001, remain unanswered.” (CBC employees can find the full memo on iO!).

In my ten years of doing this job, this is what I’ve seen when it comes to the federal budget and CBC: sometimes the CBC is mentioned directly on budget day, sometimes it’s an item in the “main” line-by-line budget documents that come out weeks later, and sometimes it’s in the supplementary departmental estimates, the numbers that come out months later. And no one, outside of Finance, seems to know which it will be in any given year.

And there’s another trick. In 2001, the then-Liberal government recognized that mid-90s cuts went too deep and that the CBC needed more money if the country’s broadcast system was going to boost Canadian programming. As we know, none of the other broadcasters were going to do it. So, in the context of heady surpluses, they handed the CBC a “one-time” $60 million for Canadian programming. Now the $60 million has been there every year since, but you can never tell if, when and where you’re going to find it. Especially this year.

Here’s what someone on Parliament Hill told us last year about the history of the budget and the $60 million: “In 2001-02 it was in the ‘supps’ (the supplementary estimates), in 02-03 it was in the ‘mains’ (the main estimates), in 03-04 it was in the supps, in 04-05 it was in the mains, in 05-06 it would have been in the supps but there were special circumstances, I’m not sure but $10 million had to come out, but then in 06-07 it was in the mains but initially frozen, in 07-08 it will be in the supps.”

Ahh. Thank you. Much clearer now.

What’s even more disappointing is that the government missed an opportunity to take a pragmatic, bold and relatively cheap step to renewing culture right across the country. For less than $50 million this year, it could have enabled the opening of 12 new CBC radio stations in high-growth places like Barrie, Ontario, and Red Deer, Alberta. The stations would create good-paying jobs while providing a platform to promote what’s going on in those blossoming cities. Talk about win-win.

But the sad reality is that the CBC question was dodged and, given the rumours and the economic climate, a promise of “no cuts” is gratefully accepted, even if there’s nothing to back it up.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why let Canwest off the hook?

It’s not surprising that Canwest announced this week that it will drop its noon newscast at its Global Toronto station, on top of the cancellation of the morning newscast announced last fall. Just last week, the company announced it lost $33M in the quarter ending November 30, 2008.

In the meantime, Canwest has gone and asked the CRTC to loosen restrictions on integrating its TV and newspaper newsrooms designed to maintain diversity of editorial voices from news sources owned by a single company.

After Canwest’s purchase of the Hollinger newspaper chain in 2000, the CRTC bought the company’s argument that it needed to grow and cross media lines to be “competitive.” And Canwest didn’t stop there. Around that time, it also bought up a bunch of local TV stations to create a second TV network, now called E! And last year, Canwest got permission from the CRTC to buy 13 specialty channels from the former Alliance Atlantis with the help of U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs.

For those of you keeping score at home, the Canwest Global juggernaut now owns: the country’s biggest chain of 13 daily newspapers (including the Vancouver Sun and Province, the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and the National Post) and two freebie newspapers; the Global TV and E! networks (14 local stations); CW Television (a total of 21 specialties) and the website. It has paid dearly for expanding its holdings, so dearly that the company is being crippled by debt repayments and – to come back to where we started – has cut more than 1,000 jobs in the last 12 months.

Now, as local reporting is being whittled away across the company, Canwest is seeking more deregulation from the CRTC. It wants to be able to combine its TV and newspaper newsrooms, despite the fact that all the centralization in the world is unlikely to save Canwest from its debt load.

Where does this leave the public? Ask the people of Hamilton, Ontario. Under Canwest, local TV station CHCH (now part of the E! network) lost 30 minutes of its noon-hour show and suffered a loss in newsgathering capacity. To help pay for the buying sprees.

Hamilton, a city of more than 500,000 people, has no other local TV station. The CBC has floated a plan to establish a local radio station, but that plan is stalled for lack of public funding.

Ironically, there is one area of growth for Canwest in Hamilton. Over at “Canwest Editorial Services,” they’re hiring, despite or because of the company’s financial tough times. You see, it’s all non-union. These employees don’t provide local news to Hamilton. They produce the pages for Canwest newspapers across the country. Taking jobs out of some communities, and news out of others: that’s Canwest’s latest record. Why should anyone, especially our regulator, support any more breaks for this company?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Take a cue from Obama and get organized

In honour of today’s inauguration of Barack Obama, I’d like to celebrate his past as an organizer. The new president of the United States made his mark by showing people that when they get together, they have more power and more chance to really change things.

It’s amazing to me that CNN repeatedly shows a short film, From MLK to Today, in which Obama points to the picket line as he traces the history of the civil rights movement. Images that at one time seemed almost heretical are now lauded because of Obama’s personal story.

We who work in the media should take this narrative to heart. If you’re working for a troubled company right now, your best hope is to work with your colleagues to find out what’s going on, get smart about it, and then make sure you’re part of the solution. Fast. Because – in the vast majority of cases – employees have the on-the-ground knowledge that a workable strategy needs.

And to be honest, it’s much better if you’re part of a certified union. Don’t have one? It’s not too late and you can call mine or another one. Just take it from Obama. It’s what organizing is all about.

“We employees are now the adults in the room,” Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild, is fond of saying. We tend to be in it for the long haul, unlike the owners. We are the ones that know what our audience or readers want. The business has been our career, not a step on the corporate ladder.

Can employees really save some of these companies? At a minimum, they can inject some new ideas that save money. But more importantly, employee interests can be completely over-run in a meltdown or bankruptcy proceeding unless there’s a union in place. Unions can ensure pensions are intact or, in the case of the Tribune Co., they can be on the creditor committee to speak up for employee assets. More on that in a future post.

In the meantime, let’s hear from you. Have you got any stories that illustrate people power on the job? Seems trite – but if you don’t have some functional group in place, you’re on your own in this troubled economic time.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Radio silence on media crisis

Question: what’s the one part of the economic crisis that’s not getting covered in the media? Answer: the crisis in the media itself.

Canwest’s announcement this week that it lost $33M in its first quarter is only the rather large tip of the iceberg. A Canwest executive even admitted the company could walk away from the E! television network that serves eight Canadian cities. Along with Canwest, Torstar, Quebecor (Sun newspaper chain) and CTVglobemedia have cut a total of about 1,300 jobs in the past three months.

Each announcement is reported in the middle section of the business pages with no elaboration on what the cuts mean, why they are necessary and what’s being lost. Over the years, reporters have told us that they are discouraged from telling the story because of the fear of butting up against the corporate interests of their bosses. What we get is the boring stuff: the quarterly loss, the revenues, the share price.

What’s not being told is that a perfect storm is battering virtually every North American media company. And bigger is not really better. Many that went on acquisition frenzies over the past decade (see Canwest, Tribune Co.) are so mired in debt they can’t deal with either the recession or the declining ad market for traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers). No one knows when and if they’ll ever be able to “monetize” the internet to make up for the massive losses in their bread-and-butter advertising.

South of the border, Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection in early December. Gannett, which owns USA Today and 85 other newspapers in the United States, has announced that it is forcing thousands of employees to take an unpaid week off this quarter. Detroit’s two newspapers announced they’re going to cut home delivery to only three days a week.

The only glimmer of hope on the horizon is the few people on both sides of the border who are starting to think about ways out. About 150 media union members met last weekend in Baltimore to discuss the collapsing industry. We heard from academics and analysts about why it’s happening and new ways to change the business model and finance public information.

Chris Benner, of the University of California at Davis, mentioned:
- non-profit organizations taking ownership of parts of the media -- such as the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times
- public paying directly for content – such as Spot Us, where the public can pay for the stories they want to see done
- the public can also pay to get documentaries done at Reel Changes

There are also programs that provide tax incentives for no-profit and low-profit companies with socially-beneficial mandates and there are models floating around in Canada, one of them championed by none other than Paul Martin. One expert, Robert Lang [link fixed] believes such programs could be used to finance news and information organizations.

These things alone aren’t enough (a well-funded public broadcaster is still a cornerstone of a healthy media environment) but the fact that people are thinking about separating the commercial interests from the information is a good thing.

The first step in this country is to properly acknowledge the problem and to understand that it is in everyone’s interest to make sure that quality newsgathering and reporting can continue.

Please share your thoughts on what needs to be done.