Alison Rose
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Team Dispirited

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The London Free Press may have the most miserable newsroom in Canada. Why? Don't ask the editor

IN JULY 1992, THE GLOBE AND MAIL carried a 65-inch article by John Partridge on the first stage of a reorganization of The London Free Press newsroom that had begun two months earlier. The story’s headline was a clear indication of the largely uncritical tone of the piece: “Bold Experiment Shatters Newspaper Stereo types.” The Free Press’ editor, Philip Mcleod, was heralded as a “revolutionary in a business where even evolution is highly suspect.” Mcleod himself was quoted as saying that the new system was providing “flashes of what tomorrow might look like.”

The bold experiment that the article described was the cluster system, a radically different approach to the way stories are developed, reported, and presented. In the conventional newsroom one assignment editor directs 40 or so reporters. By contrast, under the cluster system, editorial employees belong to one of a half-dozen or so small groups, each of which generates stories under broad themes: “work/wealth,” for example, or “applause.” The theory is that working collaboratively leads to better story ideas and better stories. In the case of the Free Press, there were other goals too: according to Mcleod, these were a happier, more flexible staff and a “more responsive, attractive, and useful paper.”

Mcleod hoped this “responsiveness” would stop the paper’s circulation slide that had accelerated in the late 1980s.

Now, almost two years later, it’s apparent that Mcleod’s revolution has collapsed into chaos. Not only is circulation still soft-daily sales declined from an average of 113,000 to 111,000 between 1992 and 1993-but the Free Press newsroom is arguably the most miserable one in the country. last year, some reporters had taped a kind of mantra across the top of their computer monitors. It said, “Set me free in ’93.” Why have clusters been such a disaster at the Free Press when similar systems have been both popular and successful at other papers in Canada and the U.S.? The answer lies partly in the tumultuous recent history of the Free Press. But the heart of the answer is Philip Mcleod himself.

Some reporters say the collegial spirit of the Free Press died with Walter Blackburn, the last real newspaperman in the dynasty that had run the paper since 1853. An owner in the old-style paternalistic tradition, he rarely fired anyone. After his death in 1983, his paper passed to his daughter, Martha. From the start, she seemed to be more interested in circulating the family art collection paintings in the Blackburn building were rearranged every three months than in circulation figures, but her husband, Peter White, was happy to run the paper. When her marriage to White disintegrated in 1986, however, she had Blackburn Group executives ask him to leave. Associate publisher Jim Armitage took control of the paper. less than a year later he fired editor Bill Morley, who had been at the Free Press since 1959 and in the top editorial job for three years. Chip Martin, a reporter at the Free Press for 20 years, describes the shock wave as “seismic.”

Armitage hired the deputy managing editor of The Toronto Star, Philip Mcleod, to replace Morley. Mcleod was welcomed like a new stepparent: with hurt, jealousy, and mistrust. “He didn’t know anything about London; he didn’t know anything about a monopoly newspaper,” Martin says. Mcleod, who admits he isn’t gregarious, didn’t help

matters. He often communicated with his staff by memos. “I’m not interested in this, but you made me read it to the end,” reads a typical one-and that one was supposed to be positive. Or he would simply post his critiques in the newsroom.

Immediately upon his arrival, McLeod began planning a redesign to, as he said at the time, “put us on the cutting edge of new-wave journalism.” The result-a USA Today-style look with eight-inch stories, fact boxes, and lots of charts that was phased in starting in late 1988-was about as popular with the editorial staff as McLeod himself. Management employee relations continued to deteriorate. In early 1989 the paper unionized and the next year the staff went out on the first strike in half a century. Meanwhile, the redesign hadn’t fixed the Free Press’ circulation problems: the paper continued to lose readers. McLeod turned his attention from layout to the newsroom itself. As he explained to the Globe in mid-1992, “Unless we make a new and better connection with our readers, this paper…is going to go down the toilet.” In his view, the way to make that better connection was through changing the way his staff gathered and presented the news. But by the time clusters were fully launched in January 1993, the staff was mutinous. Under the circumstances, it would have been astonishing if the reorganization had been anything other than a failure.

Yet The Ottawa Citizen had smoothly moved to a system similar to the Free Press’ in 1987. Randall Denley, then the city editor, broke the city section up into a set of “pods,” each with its own assignment editor. The move had one practical goal: to respond to the reporters’ complaint that they weren’t getting enough feedback from their assignment editor, a harried individual responsible for assigning about 35 reporters. The pods are still in place and, as one reporter says, “I would be surprised if anyone would argue that the old system worked better than this.” The Vancouver Sun’s shift to newsroom teams in 1990 was equally successful, although the system has since been dismantled because staff cuts made it both an unaffordable luxury and some what unnecessary. As at the Citizen, the goals were purely practical: better feedback for reporters and better stories in the paper. To sell his fractious newsroom on the idea, city editor Gary Mason struck a committee to review team-style management. Mason made sure there was a representative from every faction in the newsroom on that committee, so when its members unanimously recommended the Sun try teams for a year, his selling job was done. Unfortunately, Philip McLeod is no salesman. The man who vowed to mould his newsroom into a superlative communication machine is himself a lousy communicator. This is the editor, after all, who says his door is always open, yet he once asked a reporter’s supervisor to tell the reporter to stop dropping in. McLeod says his goal this year is to head out into the newsroom. One section editor responds sadly, “That’s been Phil’s goal for seven years.” Whatever McLeod’s problems of talking to his staff, the message that clusters don’t work has been forcefully communicated to at least one other paper in the country. In January 1993, when The Hamilton Spectator management proposed studying the system as one of a number of possible solutions to its own circulation crisis, there was so much resistance that management immediately took clusters off the list. Deputy managing editor Gerry Nott says categorically, “We are 10,000 miles away from the cluster system.” The word about the disaster at the Free Press has even reached the west coast. Gary Mason says, “I’ve heard more about complaining at the Free Press than I have about complaining at any paper in Canada right now. It seems to be the newsroom that’s in the most turmoil.” It would be unfair to say that the entire Free Press newsroom hates the system. Richard Hoffman, who has been at the Free Press for four years and leads the community cluster, likes the collaborative aspect of the system and believes it has handed more power down to reporters. And people who fill the editorial/forum pages give credit to the cluster approach for allowing them “to try wacky stuff.” Hoffman says, “If people set aside their rage, sometimes the cluster system allows you to create the best stuff possible.”

But Hoffman also faults management for interfering with the system by continuing to hand down orders as if the old newsroom were still there. The senior managers at the paper were known collectively as the “G- 7 ,” or as one staffer called them, the “G- 7 Fortress.” Recently someone in the fortress decreed that after 22 years as drama critic, Doug Bale would instead sit by a phone each night and take amateur sports scores. He tried to find out who had made the decision, and why: “I was told it was a decision of the editorship.” The message seems to be that dissidents like Bale are supposed to leave. “The buyout packages came six months after clusters, so it’s not as if there was no way out,” says Mary Nesbitt, the associate editor, matter-of-factly.

Given McLeod’s unshaken commitment to clusters, it seems that quitting will continue to be the only way out for unhappy staff. Even McLeod acknowledges the reorganization is failing. “In some cases clusters are not working at all. They appear to be largely dysfunctional.” No matter. He also says, “I’ve got a stubborn streak-some goddamn determination to make the thing work, regardless of whether or not it should. That may be my fatal flaw.”

Dave Dauphinee, a member of the planning committee that conceived the cluster system, maintains the system does not exist today. “Clusters exist on the pieces of paper that were collected during the two years the committee existed. They don’t exist in fact. I guess you could equate the theory of clusters with the theory of communism: It seemed like a good idea at the time

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