As It Happens

Halifax Chronicle Herald's strike publication gets twice as many award nods as paper itself

A news site staffed entirely by journalists on strike from the Halifax Chronicle Herald has been nominated for twice as many Atlantic Journalism Awards as the newspaper itself.
Newsroom employees at Canada's largest independent daily newspaper held signs and waved to honking cars on the first day of a strike Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. (Aly Thomson/The Canadian Press)

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A news site staffed entirely by journalists on strike from the Halifax Chronicle Herald has been nominated for twice as many Atlantic Journalism Awards as the newspaper itself.

Local XPress is nominated for six AJA awards, including one for business reporting and five for photojournalism. The Herald, which is the city's flagship paper, is up for three. 

"It feels like vindication," said Frances Willick, who is nominated alongside colleague Michael Gorman for their scoop about a Cape Breton mining operation. Both reporters are now working for CBC.

"All along, the union has said that this strike is about protecting quality journalism, and so to see our work nominated and recognized just reminds us during a pretty dark time that what we are doing is important and that journalism is valued — even though the circumstances that we find ourselves in may not make us think that."

'We kept on trucking'

LocalXPress got up and running about a week after Chronicle Herald staff went on strike in January 2016. They've been on strike ever since, even after the newspaper bought up 28 other Atlantic Canada publications.

"Basically, we kept on trucking with what we always have done — so reporting, editing, photographing, doing all of that," Willick said.

"Obviously we don't have an office, so yeah, working from home a lot by phone, or just going out on our own dime in our cars and interviewing people. Some of us did interviews on the sidewalk on the picket line in front of the building that we used to work inside."

Local Xpress is run entirely by staff on strike from the Chronicle Herald. (Screengrab)

Willick will head to St. John's, N.L., next month alongside her fellow Local XPress nominees — thanks to the support of readers. 

The publication couldn't afford to send its staff to the award ceremony in Newfoundland, so a former Herald colleague created a crowdfunding campaign, which has since surpassed its $2,500 goal. 

Willick, who accepted a position at CBC Nova Scotia last week, will pay part of the expenses herself, while Gorman, who joined the public broadcaster not long after the strike started, will fund his own trip. 

Big mining scoop

Willick and Gorman are nominated for their story about the planned reopening of the Donkin mine in Cape Breton. Local XPress revealed that Chris Blanchard, a high-ranking Donkin official, had presided over a West Virginia coal mine when it exploded in 2010, killing 29 workers. 

During the reporting of that piece, Willick was facing more than one labour issue.

"When the strike started in January, I was heavily pregnant, so I was walking the picket quite heavily pregnant for a couple of months and working on this story at the same time," she said. "I was working on this story right up until the day that I went into labour."

Chronicle Herald staff walk he picket line on Joseph Howe Drive in Halifax. (CBC)

And she kept working on it afterwards, too.

"When I came home from the hospital with a two-day-old baby — my husband, he was very understanding — I said, 'I'm really, really sorry, I just have to go and look at the story one more time or deal with these emails or give it one last edit."

The work paid off off — and not only in the form of an award nomination.

"We can't claim with certainly that it was our report that caused a change in leadership, but basically after we started asking questions of the company and questions of the government here in Nova Scotia, he did resign," Willick said. 

The Chronicle Herald was nominated for three Atlantic Journalism Awards. (Cassie Williams/CBC)

Local Xpress editor Pam Sword praised the efforts of the site's journalists and photographers.

"The depth of reporting that went into Frances' and Michael's story is exemplary and may have resulted in a change of management at the Donkin mine," she said on the Xpress site

Photojournalists Ryan Taplin, Christian LaForce,Ted Pritchard and Tim Krochak were also nominated. 

 "The fact that five out of the seven nominations for photojournalism went to Xpress photographers is hugely rewarding and a testament both to our photographers' talent and their tenacity."

The AJA ceremony takes place May 6. The Chronicle Herald did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment.