Fears grow at newspapers amid recent CanWest layoffs

Tensions are running high in CanWest newsrooms from Montreal to Vancouver in the wake of recent layoffs at the company's television stations and fears that more cuts are ahead amid an apparent push to centralize editorial operations.

Tensions are running high in CanWest newsrooms from Montreal to Vancouver in the wake of recent layoffs at the company's television stations and fears that more cuts are ahead amid an apparent push to centralize editorial operations.

"Everybody in the newsroom has received a letter with the buyout offer," said an editor at the Vancouver Sun who didn't want to be identified.

"And in the case of the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal— those are non-unionized newsrooms so the company can do whatever it wants to do in a non-union situation. People are very fearful not just about layoffs but for the industry; deskers are quite depressed about the future of newspapers in general."

CanWest, Canada's biggest media company, is defending its decision to centralize some of its television operations and lay off 200 people at local Global stations, saying it was part of an effort to make their newsrooms more "leading edge."

Buyouts have also been offeredand takenat some of the chain's largest daily newspapers, including the Montreal Gazette and the Vancouver Sun and Province.

CanWest, based in Winnipeg, employed 10,645 people at the end of its 2006 fiscal year at newspaper, internet and broadcast businesses in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

"The media landscape has changed fairly dramatically and traditional newsroom structures have not evolved enough to be able to fully respond to this new 'always on' environment," Dervla Kelly, CanWest's corporate communications officer, said in an e-mail.

"Our papers are each looking at how they need to evolve their newsrooms to be more… fluid in their approach to content.Each of them are deciding locally what changes make the most sense for their paper, but a key focus for all is to look at how they can place more resources on delivering 'hyper-local' news, creating unique content, as well as place more resources focused on the web."

Contrary to fears inside CanWest newsrooms, Kelly said, the company is not centralizing its newspapers and cutting back on local coverage— the goal, in fact, is to bolster local coverage and simply defer some pagination duties to CanWest Editorial Services in Hamilton, Ont.

"This will allow them to put more focus and resources on generating content and less on packaging and moving content around. This does mean that some production-type jobs have been eliminated, but new positions have also been created that are focused on content and on the web."

Many aren't buying it, suggesting CanWest is making a dramatic attempt to prove to their debt-holders that it can afford to buy Alliance Atlantis and its array of successful specialty channels.

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union filed a complaint with the CRTC on Friday against CanWest, saying it will be in breach of its broadcast licences if it moves ahead with plans to centralize its Global television operations without the federal agency's approval.

'Same old bugaboo'

"Why are they doing this? One reason is because they have that same old bugaboo of a lot of debt, but also on Nov. 19 they begin hearings about their purchase of Alliance Atlantis," the union's Peter Murdoch said in an interview.

"They're squeezing every which way they can in order to scrape up the change to buy Alliance Atlantis."

CanWest is only putting up 30 per cent of the money involved in the $2.3 billion Alliance Atlantis purchase. The rest is being provided by its U.S. partner,Goldman Sachs.

Centralizing news operations in an attempt to cut costs is nothing new— Quebecor has been doing it for years, for example— but it's a risky gamble for a media company, observers say.

"There are some real el-cheapo stations in the States that tried it and it was quite a flop," Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, said in an interview from Florida.

"At the very least, newspapers and local TV stations are really the sources of local news information. They're still the strongest game in town, and usually the only game in town, and the one place where newspapers have the internet beat," Edmonds said.

Erosion of local news coverage a concern: CAJ

"Centralizing is really a dangerous experiment. The viewer or the reader is smart enough to figure out the difference between locally originated news and something that's put together at a distant point, and then you risk losing that reader or that viewer forever."

Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says her organization's members are frustrated by the lack of clear information being provided by CanWest about its future plans. A steady erosion of local news coverage is the most worrisome potential scenario, she said.

"That's our No. 1 concern," she said. "If it does shake out that there are fewer reporters in newsrooms across the country, we see that as being really detrimental for the quality of local coverage. You have to invest in good-quality journalism and it's really hard to do that when you're shrinking newsrooms."

The entire CanWest situation, others say, is symptomatic of the slow death of newspapers as media companies attempt to compete against YouTube instead of focusing on producing quality journalism.

"You'd like to think there's a breaking point, just like there was for nurses and teachers," Murdoch said. "I think at some point, journalists are going to say: 'Wait a minute, we have a real problem here in terms of own craft, our own ethics, our own standards.' And we're going to have to say and do things about it that are a little more activist than we have been in the past."

The Vancouver Sun editor said many in his newsroom are pondering taking the buyout, not because they fear they'll be laid off eventually anyway, but because of declining journalistic standards in the newspaper business.

"We were told that we're not a newspaper anymore, we're a newsroom," he said with a sigh. "We care a lot about our craft, and the standards are going out the window.

"The quality is secondary, as far as the people who are our bosses are concerned. They really don't seem to care anymore about the things that we care about. That's why people are taking the buyouts."