From 40 years ago: The fight over the future of newspapers

Forty years ago, fights were breaking out on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean on how to run newspapers and how much the people who produced them should get paid.

Despite high demand for newspapers, the industry faced rising costs and unrest about change

In 1978, the newspaper business faced rising costs and unrest from newspaper staff. 1:45
Forty years ago, fights were breaking out on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean on how to run newspapers and how much the people who produced them should get paid.

Strikes had shut down three New York newspapers for lengthy periods in 1978 and across the pond, the Times of London was about to suspend publishing, due to labour issues, as the year came to a close.

Similar stories were unfolding in Canada, where weeks- and months-long strikes had occurred at papers in Montreal and Vancouver.

"The daily newspaper — an institution," said the CBC's David Bazay, when laying out the issues to viewers of The National, at the end of November in 1978. "And like other institutions nowadays, it has its problems."

Jobs 'no longer there'

Back then, Canadians were buying millions of newspapers each day, but the industry was still struggling to contain costs, despite the demand for its product.

Computers were having a major impact on the way newspapers were put together, after they were implemented into the production process. (The National/CBC Archives)

Newspaper publishers were therefore looking for ways to make their papers more efficient and that meant using labour-saving technology like computers to make that happen.

And while labour unions accepted that implementing new technology was a necessary step, they also saw the human cost to the changes being undertaken.

"The computer has revolutionized the newspaper field," said George Plummer of the Typographical Union, when speaking with The National.

"For instance, we used to have — in the Montreal Star — 19 apprentices in the composer room. We're down to four," he added. "In other words, the work opportunities are no longer there."

'The losses are mounting'

Aside from the technology issues, there were compensation issues unions and papers were fighting over, too.

A long strike at the Montreal Star was among the factors that management cited when it shut down the paper in 1979. (The National/CBC Archives)

According to Bazay's report, the craft unions representing workers at English-language newspapers, starting at the Star, were then seeking contracts in line with a lucrative deal that La Presse workers had landed, following a seven-month strike at that paper.

"Management is resisting, saying it just can't afford contracts like the one at La Presse," said Bazay. "The losses are mounting and the battle here appears to be far from over."

Indeed, steep losses and the months-long strike at the Star would be among the factors that ownership would cite when the paper was shut down the following year.