Wednesday 19 September 2012

Free Press & unions

There are many things to say about the layoffs at the Winnipeg Free Press yesterday. I recommend you read Melissa Martin's personal thoughts on the matter (stay tuned for more from her) as well as Adam Wazny's. Also read John Dobbin. I have a few things to say of my own.

I understand the realities of the business, at least from a high level. It's no secret that the newspaper industry is struggling both to retain it's traditional readership, as well as in finding ways to capture revenue from the growing on-line readership. This challenge is illustrated in a now-ironic tweet last week from John White:

John White of course being one of those let go yesterday.

If the future of the industry is on-line, then the Free Press shot itself in the foot yesterday when it got rid of John as well as Lindsey Wiebe, their social media guru, and a web developer. They also let go of some of their younger and more promising journalists and writers including the aforementioned Melissa, a talented writer whose expressive writing sometimes seemed more appropriate for a glossy magazine than a black and white paper.

Why would the Free Press choose these people of all people? Well, they didn't. That's the short answer. They chose to lay off people from certain job classifications, but at that point the victims were defined by the union agreement that stipulates that the least senior must go first. I would say that seniority is an out-dated concept, but that implies that there was a time when it made sense. I'm not sure there was.

I give Aldo Santin, local president of the jouranlists' union (Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada), cudos for spending half an hour on Winnipeg Internet Pundits today to talk about the layoffs. He was questioned on the aspect of seniority, and he was adamant in his support of it. It's so ingrained in the union psyche that it's simply not up for debate. It should be.

Seniority provides a simple and unequivocal method of choosing winners and losers in a union environment. Some may perceive this as fairness because it's black and white. There is no personal judgement involved. It values longevity above all else.

This is terribly misguided, especially for a business that is in transition, but really for any business. Seniority is a poor proxy for quality of work. Years of service do not necessarily correspond to talent. Fair is not laying off those who are newest, but retaining those who add most to the organization, and have the greatest potential to lead the organization into the future.

From the business' point of view, the Free Press in this case, their potential for future success has been harmed as a result of this policy. This could have been an opportunity for renewal, in a way. They could have shed some high-paid old-timers, and retained the lower paid (presumably .. I don't know their salaries) staff with the fresh approaches to journalism. This cycle is good for a business. Instead the Freep got older and more stale, and has a higher average labour cost than before.

I'm not clear on why journalists and associated media workers need to be unionized to begin with. Santin spoke about how the union protects the workers, but tell that to the workers who got laid off yesterday. Unions don't prevent people from losing their jobs; they just ensure that job loses are not based on merit. They also add a burden to companies that need to be flexible in order to survive in an environment of dropping revenues.

I don't want to speak for the employees of the Free Press -- perhaps some or most of them appreciate being in the CEP -- but I feel it's damaging to the business; and I personally, as a reader of the Free Press, am not pleased with what transpired yesterday.


Anonymous said...

Aha unions..... I have worked in both union and non union shops and I prefer the non union ones. But hey to all my old co-workers making ~$50/hr good on you, will not tell you that I make < $30 more per hour and that my employer treats me better. To each his own and you have chosen the brotherhood over personal gain.

Melissa Martin said...

Thanks for the wonderful words. I think we all always knew I was a better fit for magazines than newspapers; still, sometimes I think I managed to make it work. ;)

As for the other stuff -- well, I'll just be over here in the corner, minding my own business. ;) These are topics I've been wrestling with for a number of years, and frankly I'm sort of enjoying the fact that it's not my problem anymore.

However, I appreciate that you've asked the questions here. These are discussions that need to be had. The world has changed, is changing, and every institution must decide how it should change to adapt.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Powerful stuff Mr. Cherenkov.

Anonymous said...

So who needs to get laid off until we get rid of Gordon Sinclair?

Anonymous said...

This entire blog post is based on a false assumption: that the rpesence of a union leaves management no other options than to layoff younger reporters. It's not true. Management can offer buyouts, can reassign people, can target certain types of reporters. I've seen this happen first-hand in a unionized media workplace THREE TIMES. Management at the Free Press chose not to exercise those options. It's not the union's fault.

Anonymous said...

The union is a total red herring here. Bottom line is the newspaper business model is broken and time is running out before the industry crashes. Wpg is among the smallest cities in NA with two full fledged dailies and at the rate things are going something has to give.

But to the main point: if the union disappeared it's not like it would usher in some enlightened age of promoting strong young talent. Management is too nearsighted for that. It would still be basically the same thing. A few big names with a following (love him or hate him, GS Jr and his ilk get attention) and a succession of j-school and cre-comm grads willing to work cheap in exchange for a few years of valuable experience before getting the axe. There are obvious flaws in this model but for some reason newspapers across Canada are determined to stick to it.

Getting laid off sucks, but I would not worry about those affected. They will be fine in the long run. Their futures are much brighter than the newspaper they are leaving behind. The FP's problems are much bigger than any union rules about who gets laid off first.

Anonymous said...

The Freep isn't in the news business. They are in the advertising business, and their goal is to provide a maximum return on investment to it's owners and stake holders.

They have far too many in house columnists and writers doing op ed and opinion pieces. They should all be turned out to cover hard news.

Hard news - news that isn't filtered because it could affect advertising revenue or someone in an elite social circle.

It's my opinion that most of the people laid off have too much of an attitude of elitism and cronyism as if social media is the be-all and end-all of communicating with people of all stripes.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last paragraph of the last Anon poster. I followed some of those people who were laid off, and really didn't find the material they generated all that interesting. Now they're out of work and the Twitter/Freep pity-party is more than I can stomach...

Colin Corneau said...

I recall David Simon, creator of The Wire, talking about his time in newspapers in Baltimore. He mentioned how the shortsighted quickie-profit nature of modern management has (de)evolved newsrooms into places filled with newly-graduated writers with little experience.
That's great for a career start, but the real effect was to have people who don't have the contacts and the real-world knowledge that veteran beat reporters do. I mention this as an argument in favour of seniority, or just as devils advocate if you want to look at it that way.

As for the need of media workers to be in unions....well, you haven't dealt with owners of media outlets much, have you?
I can assure you that unless there is some serious backup to a demand for even basic levels of fairness that newsrooms would be even more gutted than they are, and that the few people remaining would be working for peanuts. IE not able to afford to be active functioning members of the community the media outlet purports to serve.
If you think someone is going to pay someone else fairly just because it's the right thing to do, you're dreaming in technicolour.

Above all else, my empathy and best wishes go to those affected by this layoff.

cherenkov said...

"If you think someone is going to pay someone else fairly just because it's the right thing to do, you're dreaming in technicolour"

You could apply that statement to any industry, yet people get paid fairly anyhow. The notion that only unions can ensure a living wage doesn't hold water.

A better argument for unions in this industry, as I was reminded in an email, is that they protect journalistic freedom to some extent. A writer does not have to worry about getting canned for publishing something the owners of the paper may not like.

Stephen Gillies said...

12 ursecuesThe Free Press layoffs suck, but it is wrong to suggest that all unions worship the idea of seniority. Unions are democratic organizations and ideas vary.

My union for example, TEAM-IFPTE Local 161 at MTS, does not have seniority provisions, and the members have to my knowledge never requested that seniority language be incorporated into our collective agreement.

The members of a union can't always prevent layoffs, but they can fight arbitrary dismissals, bullying, demands for unpaid work, and other unfair labour practices which sometimes accompany layoffs.

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