Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Job cuts at the Ottawa Citizen

There's a story I like about the demise of the newspaper business in Canada and it goes like this.

A Montreal Star editor back in the 70s decided to take a vacation. When he returned from his rest week, he discovered the newspaper had folded. So he and a group of editors and reporters got in their cars and drove down the road to Ottawa where they took jobs at the Ottawa Journal. A year or so later, the guy decided to go on vacation again. When he returned, he discovered that The Journal had been closed along with the Winnipeg Tribune.

Needless to say, the poor fellow never wanted to go on vacation again.

I've been up close and personal with the abrupt endings of several newspapers in Ottawa. The first, in the late 70s, was the closing of Ottawa Today. I had been assigned by my editor at the Ottawa Journal  to verify rumors that the troubled newspaper was on the slow slide; I had a couple of rogues in the newsroom who kept me posted on the paper's rapid decline and its ultimate demise. On the day Today locked its doors, Journal employees joined our fallen comrades at the National Press Club to commiserate, never once thinking our fate would be sealed months later.

How could it happen, we thought? The Journal had been around for nearly a century. It was as Canadian as Confederation.

Over the next year or so, we in the newsroom watched the changing of the guard as a number of "fixers" came in to revamp The Journal to make it more competitive with The Citizen. It's true, The Journal was a bit stodgy compared to the flashy Citizen with its new color printing presses and its fancy offices in the west end. But our paper had a loyal following and we had what the Citizen lacked, at least in our view. The Citizen may have had flash, but The Journal had heart.

But close it did on a sweltering summer night in August 1980, leaving a hole in the centre of this community. The Citizen never filled that hole with its emphasis on Neighborhood News and cheesy features. It could never quite live up to the title of the Capital's newspaper.

Most of the people who worked at The Journal eventually got jobs at The Citizen and some of those veterans are still there today, the few stragglers who have yet to receive their packages. Those few who are left must have seen the writing on the wall yesterday, as PostMedia announced 20 layoffs in the newsroom, the closing of the Sunday paper, the establishment of a paywall on the website and worse, the movement of most of the editors and pagemakers to Hamilton. Some Citizen employees will do what my friend from the Montreal Star did and move to Hamilton, though it's not clear whether they might end up stranded there when PostMedia goes through more cutbacks.

All I can say is they better not take vacations any time soon.

Sometimes in life, journalists becomes the story. When that happens, it's never good. And as with most Canadians affected by the changing nature of our economy, their story is about more than numbers.

Writers and editors have raised their families here. Some married newsroom colleagues and put all their eggs in one basket. A move to Hamilton -- not the greatest city in the world -- may not be palatable. But considering the number of jobs already lost here in Ottawa in the news media along with a bucket full in the public service, there may no be a choice. Add to this the fact that PostMedia is cutting jobs in all its other newspapers across the land, and it spells disaster for anyone hoping for a job in journalism or communications.

They should be reminded of what Jim Flaherty said about all jobs being good. Welcome to the call centre.

The real tragedy is that pretty soon, there will be no one to cover the real news or dig up the real stories. An emphasis on happy news and cheap video has replaced solid news reporting; and when big stories happen, we don't always know about them because there aren't enough reporters digging out there to find them.

Citizen journalism is replacing the Fourth Estate for good or for evil. Bloggers are being quoted instead of legitimate news sources. Gossip has replaced factual reporting.

Pretty soon nobody's going to know the difference.

Maybe they don't know the difference now.

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