The Little Paper That Shrank
After the resignation of editor-in-chief Jim Jennings, Sun Media is set to rationalize editorial with its "Centres of Excellence," producing identical content for Sun papers in different cities
Right now, I’m still your editor-in-chief, replied Jennings. Wait until 10 a.m. tomorrow morning. Then we’ll talk.
At 10 a.m. the next morning out it came: Jennings had resigned. “It was like a funeral in there,” says Granatstein. Jennings was a respected editor. He fought for the newsroom. “You don’t want to see someone like Jim Jennings leave.”
The news spread quickly and hit most people hard. One person had even heard about Jennings’s resignation before they got to work and called in “sick.” Granatstein says, “It was not good.”
Sun Media Corp., which owns the Sun, was quick to deny any connection between the top editor’s resignation and rumoured layoffs. “His resignation was his choice, and we respect that,” said publisher Kin-Man Lee in several articles, “and had nothing to do with a cost reduction or restructuring exercise that we have here at the Sun.”
Jennings stood for certain kinds of newspaper values. “Our goal is to produce a useful, relevant and compelling newspaper which closely matches your—our readers— needs and that champions our community with pride and passion,” he wrote in the Sun on December 2, 2005. As one former employee says, “Jennings is not the kind of guy who would do a hatchet job.”
But Jennings’s values have faded into the background in the time since that declaration, and he has left a troubled newspaper, an anxious newsroom and a corporate parent fearful that unless the Sun adapts to the aggressive force of the Internet, its papers might not survive.
Just four months after Jennings laid out his goals for the paper in print, his ultimate boss, Quebecor Inc. president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau told the Canadian Media Directors’ Council, “Everyone in this room would agree that newspapers are not, and cannot remain what they used to be—the newspaper formula must change.” This is the same Pierre Karl Péladeau who more recently told a Report on Business magazine reporter: “My daughter is on the Internet already. Will she one day read newspapers? There’s a good probability she won’t.” The problem with Quebecor’s latest solutions for change at the tabloid newspaper chain it owns – more cuts, more rationalization of resources and more consolidation of editorial sections – is they may do more than fight the Internet’s pull, they may accelerate Sun Media’s decline.
Quebecor’s call for a new formula to retain eyeballs is a familiar refrain. Change for Sun Media in the 21stcentury has meant substantial cutbacks more than once. In 2001, Quebecor – which purchased the group of tabloids in 1998 – eliminated 302 positions across the chain. Last June, there was another round of layoffs at Sun Media that meant another 120 jobs lost, including 30 at the Sun in Toronto. This move alone will save the company $4.6 million a year. Now there are worries of yet more layoffs across the board. “I was told it’s a fact,” says a former staffer. “The rumours are about when and who.” Many employees are already looking for work elsewhere.
“Right now we’re waiting for the second shoe to drop,” says Maryanna Lewyckyj, unit chair and associate business editor at the Sun. She says it’s like a hockey game: it’s harder to score when you’ve got fewer players. “We’ve already been trying to play catch up.”
After the June 20 layoffs, 137 unionized editorial staff members remained at the Sun. While the paper has never had as many editorial employees as its cross-town rivals – The Globe and Mail currently has about 350 and The Toronto Star has about 400 editorial staff – fewer reporters and editors, fewer sections and a greater advertising-to-editorial ratio all suggest the reductions are now affecting the Sun newsroom’s ability to compete effectively with the other paid dailies.
However, Quebecor believes these cuts will actually help the Sun. They’re applying the money saved towards a $7 million restructuring plan “to improve the quality of content in its newspaper operations as part of a plan to introduce new technologies and streamline production of newsgathering,” according to a press release from June 20. But Lewyckyj is unsure this is the best way to achieve journalistic integrity. She says critical coverage of the Sun in 2002 questioned the paper’s ability to bounce back from reduced circulation numbers and devastating layoffs. “It hasn’t gotten any better,” she says.
When the Sun began in 1971, it had one goal. “Surviving,” says founding editor Peter Worthington. “We were going to be Toronto’s other voice.” But the tabloid upstart has passed through the hands of five owners since inception, and the emphasis is bound to change over time. Now, with Quebecor at the helm, Worthington says its main goal is not so much to be the other voice, but to make money. “Which is valid,” he adds.
Luc Lavoie, executive vice-president of corporate affairs at Quebecor, wouldn’t disagree with Worthington’s assessment. He says the problems at Sun Media newspapers are not unique to the chain, but rather industry wide. “Our philosophy is that we want to win the game,” he says. “The solution is not in nostalgia – it’s in the future.”
For Lavoie, the future means new products and new ideas. One of those new ideas is Sun Media’s “Centres of Excellence.” According to Lewyckyj, the model was created when the chain combined all of its individual circulation customer service call centres at one central location in Kanata, near Ottawa. The goal was to serve people better, but Lewyckyj says too many calls were left on hold or simply dropped. The thinking is that these centres will now be adapted to editorial environments. On October 12, Sun Media announced the appointment of Glenn Garnett to a newly created position of executive editor-in-chief for Sun Media’s English papers, with the task of consolidating the chain’s resources. Each of Sun Media’s papers would be responsible for providing content in particular departments on particular days, then sharing its content with the sister papers. The life section has already been consolidated. Production of Lifestyle pages are shared by the chain, and then reproduced across the chain – and it shows. On Monday, October 9, a story called “Tie the knot or hit the pub?” appeared in the Lifestyle section of the Toronto Sun. That Sunday, the same article popped up in the Ottawa Sun. Even on the Toronto Sun’s website many Lifestyle stories are linked to a Lifewise section hosted by Quebecor’s nationwide Canoe Network.
Producing homogenous content across the Sun Media chain might be thrifty, but the strategy could accelerate the death of local news coverage. With Toronto’s demographics – more than 200 ethnicities speaking about 125 languages – a paper without a sense of community just won’t cut it, especially since its chief competitor, the Star, announced in September that it intends to expand its GTA section. “That doesn’t bode well for the future of the Sun‘s circulation in a big city like Toronto,” says one observer.
Lewyckyj calls it “cookie-cutter journalism.” The same information will appear in all Sun Media papers, with a smattering of local news from each individual community. “It’s a really boring read because there is no local news,” says a former Sun staffer. The consolidation of news is demoralizing editorial staffers who feel they’re losing ownership of their own newspaper. As section after section is taken away from them, editorial staff feel less and less connected to the paper.
According to one source, morale is already low in the newsroom. “People complain openly,” says a formerSun employee. Staff are frustrated by Sun Media’s changing philosophies and about the persistent rumours of another round of layoffs. According to Pat Currie, president of the London City Press Club, Sun Media’s cuts and consolidations are driven by one motive: profit. “It only benefits the suits at Quebecor,” he says.
Paige Magarrey was the Visual Editor for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.