Chaos, betrayal, and espionage, at a charity for children
A deep dive into the past and present of one of the strangest personalities to ever emerge from the country’s media
A plan to muffle moderate voices at Canada’s largest newspaper company has created confusion and uncertainty in newsrooms across the country.
Two dozen former employees open up about WE.
And how one podcast is trying to change that.
Canadian newsrooms are taking advantage of the job drought to make young people work long hours, handle heavy responsibilities, but deny them benefits for years. Federal and provincial employment laws do little keep anyone safe. What gives?
“This is not slave labour,” Randy Lennox, Bell Media president of broadcasting and content, told me. He turned to a room full of media students to continue his address, but I stumbled on the metaphor. It was fitting.
At a September information session for Bell Media’s new leadership program, the room was full of media students who collectively leaned forward, salivating at the mention of jobs. After a few minutes of patting themselves on the back, Bell Media executives, Lennox among them, took questions. I was second to speak.
“So we talked about Workplace Health as part of Bell Let’s Talk, but reality is that a lot of Bell Media newsrooms hire young people under ‘As Needed’ or three- to six-month contracts and these people work full-time hours with no benefits and no security for years,” I said. “So as a company looking to hire young people, what are you doing to improve their actual working situation?”
A few people fidgeted in their seats. Lennox took a second to consider. “Great question,” he said. “So, you’re saying that in the news area of Bell Media, specifically? That work for Bell? Or just work in general?”
“Nope, work for Bell.”
“OK, so we would never hire anyone with the intent of being part-time and make them work 60 hours a week, that would never be our intent, so I’ll start with that, because this is not slave labour,” he said. “What this is is balance. We’re a balanced company, particularly in light of the fact that Let’s Talk and mental health is very very important to us. And not just because we work there, it actually means something.”
I clarified: “I am talking about people who are on contract, and they are working full-time hours … they’re basically permanent freelancers, and for years they work without benefits or security.”
“The nature of news itself is intermittent,” Lennox replied. “In other words, news requires a heavier staff at times of heavy news and a lighter staff at other times. If your question is, why don’t we hire everybody full-time, there’s not a business model there. To employ thousands of people is very challenging so we have to go the freelancer route.
“But where we can, we hire someone full-time because of the substance of the job — that’s why we’re here, by the way.”
He didn’t seem to understand I wasn’t talking about freelancers, but full-time workers who are contracted as if they are freelancers.
These people aren’t taking on brief gigs, but show up for regularly scheduled hours. Yet their often short, often shitty contracts list them as freelancers. Or maybe he did understand, but avoided the question. It’s one of the most tabooed conversations in modern journalism, after all.
With dozens of newsrooms using loopholes to keep some staff on freelance contracts without benefits, this reality has become standard. Though it’s not clear how many Canadians are on these contracts, Statistics Canada reports that in the last two decades temporary work is on the rise.
In the ever-shrinking news industry, which has been bleeding money for years, this has blurred the line between “freelancer” and “employee.” Now, there’s a new class of employee: “permalancers.” As I learn more about this reality, I keep asking myself, ‘How is this legal?’
Legality seems like least of Lee Richardson’s concerns. Having cycled through the National Post, MSN, BNN and the Toronto Star (where he got health benefits for the first time, until the layoffs in August) since 2012, he’s familiar with the permalancer contracts, insecure employment, and dismissals that plague young journalists.
“I get why they’re doing it, but it’s like a whole industry is basically propped up on these people who are just interns — just paid interns,” Richardson told me.
Though he’s never had a contract shorter than 12 months, he also doesn’t usually comb through his agreements.
The eight young journalists I’ve spoken to for this piece said they feel grateful to have a job in the industry at all. They see questioning their contracts as being ungrateful. Most said they wouldn’t bring up issues with their employers for fear of burning bridges.
Richardson said a lot of people in journalism have to deal with the instability. “They’re all going through this, they’re all trying to get benefits because they haven’t been to the dentist in years, or they’re … thinking about buying a condo and they’re like, ‘Well, is my job going to be there in six months’ time?’”
To get to the bottom of how these contracts mesh with government regulations, I spoke to Don Genova, the Canadian Media Guild organizer for freelance workers.
In a unionized place like the CBC, Genova explained, temporary workers who replace absent employees are paid the same base rate as regular employees. Thanks to the collective agreement, if they are hired on a contract longer than 13 weeks, they are also automatically enrolled in the medical plan. These rules don’t apply in non-unionized newsrooms.
Genova said these contracts are “a way of keeping the workforce disposable.”
While the law doesn’t prevent short-term contracts, there are standard protections for employees. The rules differ between federally regulated employers like CBC and other TV channels, or provincially regulated workplaces like print and online outlets. The distinction defines which rules apply: the federal Canada Labour Code or provincial employment laws like Ontario’s Employment Standards Act.
“But they don’t provide any restriction from the contract itself,” explained Arleen Huggins, an expert in employment law and a partner at the Toronto-based law firm Koskie Minsky.
“Oftentimes in these types of contracts, the employer tries to say [workers] are not employees. That the individuals are contractors. But the Employment Standards Act takes a very wide view of who is an employee. For the most part if it looks like a duck, it’s a duck, no matter what you call it.”
Short-term contracts are most often used by employers to keep employees from “acquiring service,” Huggins said, “As though the employee’s being hired fresh each time.”
This would make it easier to bypass minimum standards like probationary periods, termination notices, statutory severance pay, or pay in lieu of termination notice.
“When you have four or five contracts that are continuing for three months each, it looks like a duck,” she said. If employers only take the last of several consecutive contracts into account (in calculating, for example, notice for termination) courts tend to side with the employee.
But the problem is that many workers don’t know or fight for their rights, Huggins said. “Many employees wouldn’t know anything about what I’ve just spoken to you about.”
I emailed Bell Media six detailed questions about freelancers and contract workers. I also wanted to know how these contacts mesh with their mental health initiative. This was their full response:
I spoke to a Bell Media employee, who asked to stay anonymous for fear of repercussion, about her current contract. Having started on a three-month agreement, she has worked for almost two years in one of the company’s many newsrooms as a permalancer. She’s not technically self-employed, given that both she and her employer pay EI and CPP.
She said she doesn’t know the details of her current contract.
“It might not be the fact that it’s my employer’s fault, it might be that I was just so excited to get a job, that I didn’t even care to look,” she said. “I honestly don’t ask questions … and I don’t want to piss anyone off. This is a massive, massive company that has so many different streams of television. You want to kind of make these people happy.”
She thinks the turnover rate at Bell is high enough to make her easily replaceable.
“It doesn’t matter how good of an employee you are … someone else is right behind you,” she said. “If someone came to my role and said, ‘I want benefits, I want health care, all these things,’ they would laugh and then give the job to someone like me.
“The most depressing part of it is that we think this is a great thing. I honestly don’t think they’re trying to be malicious,” she said. “I think it’s just been done for so long.”
Following the April 2015 release of the Rubin Report, which detailed workplace abuse and institutional failures at CBC’s Q, many internal changes are being championed by the public broadcaster. Bullying awareness posters are plastered throughout the halls and every employee must take online training to help prevent bullying and harassment.
In media interviews, CBC executives and spokespeople assure the public that institutional changes are taking place. They said they are doing everything they can to make sure the “toxic atmosphere” described by the team at Q can never happen again. In internal memos to all CBC staff, management said they are now “responding to complaints with renewed discipline and rigour” and CBC Head of Public Affairs Chuck Thompson said the CBC has “filled the gaps” that allowed Ghomeshi’s workplace transgressions to occur and go overlooked.
Thompson said, “I would like to believe that that would not happen ever again at the CBC, we have zero tolerance for it, and if it ever did we would be moving on it much, much more swiftly.”
But CANADALAND has learned of serious bullying, harassment, and workplace abuse complaints at the CBC, throughout its departments. Through conversations with over a dozen CBC employees, our investigation revealed that CBC Radio One, CBC TV Sports, and CBC human resources have all experienced, or are experiencing, allegations of workplace bullying and abuse.
As it Happens
CBC Radio’s flagship current affairs program As It Happens is known for its aggressive accountability journalism and for asking unflinching questions, sometimes posed to the CBC itself. This past winter, As It Happens producers began approaching the CBC’s union, the Canadian Media Guild, with serious workplace complaints. Soon, CMG Toronto President Naomi Robinson compiled a list of 21 allegations from “about a dozen” current and former As It Happens producers. No official union grievances were filed.
This document, taken from an email sent by Robinson, was provided to CANADALAND by two sources who asked to stay confidential to protect their careers. The CBC denies all of the allegations that follow.
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Naomi Robinson
Date: Fri, Jan 8, 2016
Subject: Re: response
Complaints coming from several staff at As It Happens (current & former)….
– Micro-managing work & a lack of trust in a way that undermines confidence
– Rude dismissals of story pitches (passive aggressive behaviour like eye-rolling)
– Yelling & accusations – verbal abuse & aggressive behaviour by senior team members
– Threats to not involve the union
– Being told not to take lunch breaks
– Accusations of not making the show a priority
– Racist and sexist attitudes
– Manipulative behaviour
– Preventing opportunities (outside AIH) & control over career development
– AP’s doing exactly the same thing as producers
– Favouritism of certain staff (especially those friendly with sr. team)
– Integrity & abilities questioned
– Culture of abuse within leadership team for more than a decade
– No thanks or congratulations given on work
– Stress coming not from workload but working conditions that have lead to both menatl & physical health problems
– Isolated by constant critiquing
– Blame placed on producers in a non-constructive fashion
– Not treating staff with respect deserving of professional journalists
– False accusations of work issues
CMG Toronto President
We spoke to seven current and former employees of As It Happens, all of them aware that human resources was reviewing the program. One of them was surprised about the severity of the allegations, but six others said they were familiar with the problems on the show.
None of the seven sources allowed us to use their names or include specific stories, fearing reprisal from the CBC. Speaking on background, we have confirmed the personal experiences they describe are in line with the complaints outlined in Robinson’s email. One said As It Happens “can be an abusive, terrible, manipulative workplace.”
Many of the sources were torn about speaking to CANADALAND, unsure of whether it will improve the work conditions. They said they were committed to their work and expressed their love for public broadcasting and a desire to help, not hurt, the CBC.
“I do understand it’s a deadline-driven workplace, tempers are going to flare,” one of our sources said. “That’s totally normal when you’re on air every day and stress is running high. But I don’t think that by itself it’s something people would really have complaints about.”
This was a common sentiment among sources we spoke to. They have all previously worked in journalism and said the problems at As It Happens went well beyond the high-pressure, stressful environment of a typical newsroom. Behaviour on As It Happens “crossed the line,” according to several people we spoke to. All were aware of employees who, as a result of these issues, left the program, went on stress leave, or left the CBC entirely.
Once HR found out about the severity of the complaints, they gathered the AIH team and informed them about the review taking place. At the time, CMG was gathering complaints made by former and current employees, spanning years into the show’s history.
Soon after the team was informed that As It Happens was under HR review, co-host Carol Off took three days off the show. She was absent February 3–5.
CANADALAND wasn’t able to confirm whether her absence was planned, but immediately afterward the HR review was drastically scaled back to only include current employees, and participation became voluntary.
Earlier this month, HR concluded that As It Happens is a “typical workplace,” a result senior staff learned about a week before the rest of the show’s employees. No word was given to complainants about whether their specific claims were found to be valid or not. Some of the staff who participated in the initial, full review, were never notified about the outcome.
We asked As It Happens co-host Carol Off, Executive Producer Robin Smythe, and Senior Producer John Perry about the allegations in Robinson’s email and posed individual questions to all three about specific allegations against each. One of the questions to Off was about her February absence. They responded together, in one email, saying they had never seen the allegations until CANADALAND brought them to their attention.
In that collective email, they said, “We had no knowledge of this list, and we have no idea what purpose it served, if any. We have never seen it nor been presented with these allegations.”
They categorically denied the complaints, writing that “The allegations in this note are hurtful, untrue, baseless, damaging and defamatory. To disseminate these allegations, or any similar allegations, would be indefensible from an ethical point of view, and libellous.”
Their full response can be read here.
We also reached out to CMG and the CBC. Emails from all three parties arrived within minutes of one another.
CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson directly contradicted Off, Smythe, and Perry’s claim that they were “never presented with these allegations.” He confirmed to CANADALAND that conversations were held about the allegations “which included Carol Off, Robin Smythe and John Perry.”
Thompsons’s full response to us can be read here.
Thompson also wrote that because no official grievance was filed, there was no official investigation into As It Happens. He said there was no “formal review” and instead called it a “series of informal conversations.” However, CMG union president Carmel Smyth characterized it as a “review.” In contrast to Thompson’s claim, she said the union has a “strict policy” and urged the CBC to conduct this review as a matter of “process.”
Smyth’s full response can be read here.
Other discrepancies emerged. As it Happens’ show leaders and the CBC’s Chuck Thompson deny all 21 of the allegations made by more than 10 of their colleagues, writing that they are all “baseless and untrue.”
Yet Thompson also said that as a result of the As It Happens team’s complaints, the CBC “found some areas we could work on” (he did not specify which). As It Happens leadership will receive additional management training as a result of the complaints, and CMG tells us that after the review of the complaints “CBC management committed to holding quarterly check-in meetings,” increasing the level of management scrutiny on the show’s workplace conditions.
Thompson stressed repeatedly that there has been no official grievance filed, saying those measures will be implemented “because we’re always looking to improve and strengthen our workplace culture. It’s precisely why we had these conversations, even in the absence of any formal complaint.”
But four of our sources said filing an official complaint can be dangerous. “I think the general understanding is filing a grievance is gonna bite you on the ass,” said a producer who worked on the show. To go through formal channels, they said, means to give up time and anonymity for an outcome that’s not guaranteed, putting a stain on your record.
CANADALAND asked the CBC why they think no official grievance was filed despite “about a dozen” complainants making 21 allegations, many of a serious nature. Thompson pointed us to CBC policy and said, “CBC remains committed to fostering a safe and respectful working environment and any matters that we do deal with are handled in a fair, thorough, and confidential manner.”
Pan Am Games
Last summer, after a year of scandal and in the midst of dire cutbacks, the CBC got an exclusive opportunity on a prestige event: they were the host broadcaster of the 2015 Pan Am Games. But after going to air, they faced immediate criticism from viewers and the media about their television coverage.
Behind the scenes, production was haphazard and chaotic, and workplace conditions were brutal. In at least one case, tempers boiled over.
CANADALAND spoke to three former TV contractors who worked on the games about the conditions. They all asked to remain anonymous for the fear of losing future work at the CBC.
Working long hours is nothing new for those in TV and film, but all three contractors told us the Pan Am games went beyond what they expected. It was common to work 16-hour shifts with no breaks, working on the footage late into the night.
All three sources said it was hard to access adequate food and water while working on-site. Because Pan Am security didn’t allow outside food or even water bottles to be brought in, workers had to fend for themselves. Many weren’t given food vouchers, had no access to the meal services designated for Pan Am workers, and didn’t take lunch breaks, so they only ate apples and granola bars provided by the venue. All three contractors said their experience wasn’t unique to them.
Because of the heat, the provided water bottles ran out quickly, leaving staff with purchasing water at expensive Pan Am prices as the only option to stay hydrated. One source reported developing a temporary health issue as a result of the conditions, only to be shrugged off when brought up to superiors.
Two of our sources expressed to us concern for the safety of a young female colleague who would end her shifts as late as 3am, after the public transportation she relied on for her commute to work had closed. No taxi expenses or alternate arrangements were made available by the CBC until the issue was repeatedly raised.
There was a general understanding that complaining about the conditions was futile and could endanger future contract opportunities. When one contractor brought up the lack of availability of food and water in the media tent, CBC management promised to see what they could do but there was no improvement until Parapan Am Games began.
One of the contractors who spoke to CANADALAND complained about both the working conditions and an instance of verbal abuse. Though CANADALAND has confirmed that the incident resulted in a formal apology, the employee accused of verbal abuse disputes the accuracy of the complainant’s recollection of the incident.
The alleged incident of verbal abuse, according to the complainant, took place in a cramped video editing booth, when she asked one of her CBC managers, Derek Furlong, for work-related help. She said they got into a back-and-forth and Furlong lost his temper, became enraged, encroached on her personal space and allegedly yelled at her “you know what? go fuck yourself bitch, fuck you, who do you think you are? Go back where you came from! You don’t know what you’re doing here. Fuck you!” The contractor said she felt threatened.
A witness of the altercation confirmed the manager screamed at the contractor, who immediately got in touch with HR.
The contractor filed a formal grievance with the union, triggering a human resources investigation. After a lengthy process, HR told the complainant she would receive an apology either in-person or over the phone. She told HR she didn’t want to be alone in the same room as Furlong but HR would not provide her with a written copy of the apology. The matter is now considered closed.
CANADALAND reached out to Furlong to ask about the allegations. He told us, “I can confirm that there are massive inaccuracies throughout your note. In fairness to my self, the matter in question was thoroughly looked after and closed last year following a full HR investigation.”
We followed up to ask what specifically was wrong or inaccurate but Furlong did not respond. Instead, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson wrote in an email “I can confirm there was a written apology from Derek Furlong shown to the other individual involved in the exchange.” We asked Thompson why the CBC did not provide her with a copy of the apology when she asked for one. He did not answer.
The complainant, who despite having extensive experience both within the CBC and outside it, is not optimistic she will work at the corporation again. She had verbal agreements to work with the CBC in the future, she said, but was not asked back.
We asked about CBC policy on employees and contractors facing retribution for complaining. Thompson linked us to the policy on their website, which says, in part, “If an employee raises a concern relating to discrimination, including harassment, in good faith, s/he will not be subject to retaliation or reprisals for bringing forward his or her concern.”
The CBC’s human resources department, tasked with handling all workplace bullying and harassment claims, is itself facing workplace bullying and harassment claims.
The CBC’s Director of HR is facing a formal workplace bullying complaint and has been on leave for seven weeks, pending the outcome of an investigation.*
The validity of the claim against her is disputed.
The former top executive of the department, Todd Spencer, was fired months after the Ghomeshi scandal surfaced. The announcement of his termination was made in tandem with the release of the Rubin report – although the CBC denied the decision to fire Spencer was related.
In his place, CBC hired longtime employee Serena Thadani-Anthony as director of human resources.
CANADALAND confirmed Thadani-Anthony is no longer working at the CBC. After she was put on leave, she filed a counter-grievance against her accuser.
CANADALAND confirmed this information with two individuals who have knowledge of the conflict. While one of our sources said they witnessed unrelated abusive behaviour by Thadani-Anthony, another source said she is a stellar employee and a victim of an internal political battle between CBC’s Ottawa bureaucracy and its Toronto headquarters.
Serena Thadani-Anthony did not respond to CANADALAND’s request for comment.
CANADALAND also learned the law firm hired by the CBC to deal with the complaint is Toronto-based McCarthy Tétrault, where CBC President Hubert Lacroix was a senior partner for almost 20 years.
CORRECTION: (Oct.27/2016) We have since learned that the law firm hired was in fact Matthews Dinsdal. We regret the error.
*UPDATE: June 3, 2016. An internal CBC document dated June 2 confirms that Serena Thadani-Anthony has “left the organization.”
Despite all the measures taken by the CBC and their many public statements that they have implemented all nine recommendations of the Rubin report, one trend remains unchanged. No matter how severe the complaints, many CBC employees are hesitant or unwilling to file official grievances with HR and the union.
But unless a complaint is made in the form of an official grievance, no formal process or investigation is triggered. In fact, a complaint made outside of the grievance process is not even recognized by the CBC as a complaint, as Chuck Thompson confirmed by writing that “there was no complaint brought forward” by the As It Happens team or by CMG.
With two exceptions reported in the story, none of those who said they faced a toxic work environment have filed official grievances. The two who did are no longer working at the CBC.
DISCLOSURE: Jesse Brown has worked for the CBC from 2005-2008. He did not work for any of the shows or managers discussed in this piece, but he did work in the Radio Current Affairs department.
It is excruciating to watch someone you care about testify in a sexual assault trial. That difficulty can only increase when you have an assault in your own past, when you did every “wrong” thing in the aftermath.
DISCLOSURE: One of the authors of this piece, Jesse Brown, once wrote an article for the Walrus. He experienced no professional conflict with any of the people mentioned in this piece.
A public dispute between a freelance writer and a recently terminated managing editor at the Walrus has motivated a series of allegations and revelations about the chaotic inner workings of the national literary magazine. Employees past and present described an organization in disarray. As Walrus publisher Shelley Ambrose herself put it in an internal email sent to editor-in-chief Jon Kay last month and provided to CANADALAND, “we have never been this disorganized,” and “we are in a bit of a melt down.”
CANADALAND spoke with 19 current and former Walrus employees, ranging from unpaid interns to former editor-in-chief John Macfarlane. Our discussions reveal allegations of workplace bullying and verbal abuse, an accusation of editorial theft, a rash of exits from the magazine by a trio of senior editors and others, controversial firings, and a widely felt “toxic” work environment known to management who disregarded frequent pleas for an end to an intimidating and exploitative office culture.
Sarah Taggart was supposed to work at the Walrus until April 17, 2015. But, she was fired. Kyle Wyatt, her supervisor and managing editor of the Walrus, told her she “just wasn’t a good fit,” and “wasn’t working out.” Taggart was never given more concrete reasons for her dismissal, but she thinks she knows why she was let go.
Taggart was hired into the competitive Chawkers Fellowship program, created to provide junior-level, fixed-term fact-checking jobs at a rate of a bit more than $11/hour. The Chawkers Fellowship was initiated in 2014 to replace the Walrus’ unpaid internship program, which was abolished after a labour board crackdown.
She said her first couple of weeks, while Wyatt was away, were like “a vacation” compared to the rest of her tenure. She had a good team of three other fellows led by former copy editor Carol Hilton and she enjoyed the job. But when Wyatt returned to the office, Taggart said “it got scary.”
As a fact-checker, Taggart had to make sure every detail in an article was correct before it was sent to the printer. It’s meticulous work which got more demanding when Wyatt came back to the leading role. Taggart said Wyatt’s expectations went beyond reasonable. Because the Walrus wouldn’t pay Chawkers fellows for more than 35 hours work per week, Wyatt berated the young fact-checkers if they were in the office too early or too late, and berated them again if they failed to complete their tasks. According to Taggart, his demands were impossible to meet.
She saw herself and her colleagues being bullied and victimised. There were yelling, lecturing, and intimidation, she said. Eight of CANADALAND’s sources for this story said the words “verbally abusive” and “bullying” are accurate descriptions of Kyle Wyatt’s behaviour. Four sources say they cried at the office because of him. A different former employee tells CANADALAND “I felt personally bullied by [Wyatt]” and that “I heard him say rude, insulting, threatening things to unpaid interns,” including a threat to one intern that he would disparage her to her future employers if her work did not improve.
When another Fellow came to work a few hours early to finish a demanding assignment from the day before, Wyatt yelled at her. Taggart found her co-worker at a nearby cafe, in tears and ready to quit.
When later that day, at a team meeting, there was an invitation for discussion on how the workplace can be improved, Taggart took the opportunity to stand up for herself and the other Fellows. She told Wyatt “We can’t work with this kind of treatment and if you’re nicer we’d probably produce better work.” Taggart said Wyatt’s response was, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to change but if you have a problem with the way things are around here you’re going to have to think about that.”
That was on October 10, 2014. On October 14, Wyatt called Taggart into his office, told her she wasn’t “working out,” and terminated her contract. She never received an explanation.
Kyle Wyatt was fired last Thursday, October 22. No official reason was provided and the Walrus management did not respond to the question why he was fired. In an interview with CANADALAND, Wyatt said “the position changed,” but did not give concrete grounds for his dismissal. He said the managing editor position was different going forward and the editor-in-chief is free to reimagine it as he sees fit. Jon Kay declined to comment for legal reasons.
Including Sarah Taggart, eight of Wyatt’s former co-workers have described him as abusive and a bully. Long-term colleagues say they have approached management about Wyatt’s behaviour on multiple occasions, including publisher Shelley Ambrose, then-publisher and editor-in-chief John Macfarlane and current editor in chief Jon Kay. Four sources said Wyatt treated women more harshly than men. It is unclear whether the Walrus management spoke to Wyatt about his behaviour, but they were aware of the complaints.
Taggart informed Jon Kay of Wyatt’s behaviour at a lunch meeting on December 7, 2014, and another source tells CANADALAND that several employees complained to Macfarlane about Wyatt years ago. Others still told CANADALAND management learned during exit interviews that Kyle Wyatt was a motivating factor in some employee’s departures.
Wyatt himself denied the allegations. He doesn’t think he treats women differently than men and describes himself as a tough but fair boss. He provided CANADALAND with names of former colleagues he feels he got along with.
Three of these former Walrus employees do indeed speak well of Wyatt. Michael Strizic, a former intern and now a marketing professional, said he was a “fair, capable, and competent boss” and two female former interns said he took on a mentorship role. They do not deny he was tough, but said as their superior he took their education seriously.
Trouble at the Walrus wasn’t isolated to Taggart’s story. Over the course of the last year, at least 10 people left from both the editorial and foundation sides. The words “toxic work environment” came up in many interviews CANADALAND conducted. It’s not just employees who complained, but writers too.
Alex Gillis, a seasoned journalist and a university instructor, is one of those writers. He worked with the Walrus on an investigative 6,000-word cover story about cheating in Canadian universities. Gillis said the first draft was well-received but after submitting the second draft he got an ultimatum, “They’d kill the story unless I let them rewrite the piece.” According to Gillis there was no explanation of why the story was killed or what was wrong with the draft.
Gillis was told that Wyatt and Kay wanted to turn the article into an essay and reluctantly agreed. This investigation took months and Gillis didn’t want his work wasted, “but Wyatt said that he and his colleagues would completely rewrite my story, turning it into an essay from start to finish, with no input from me, even though my name would be on it. It was hands-down the weirdest experience I’ve had with an editor in 20 years of writing,” Gillis told CANADALAND.
During the kill fee negotiations, Wyatt asked whether the Walrus can retain research done for the story for an extra 25 per cent on the kill fee for a total of 75 per cent of the price of the article. Gillis provided CANADALAND with a part of the phone call discussing the article.
This is the transcription:
Alex Gillis: I don’t know, it sounds kinda weird, but if that’s how you guys do it, then that’s fine.
Kyle Wyatt: Yeah, I mean, it’s–
AG: I’ll sell it somewhere else. I mean, it’s my material. I’m gonna write a book about it. I’m assuming you’re not gonna publish a story like this in the next nine months or twelve months? I mean, it’s my story, so. I mean, are you guys writing a story like this, or running something?
KW: Uh… I mean, as I said, if you were interested in a slightly higher kill fee, we would retain your research and–
AG: Well no, that’s not worth it. I can– I’m have to– I’m gonna retain my material cause I have to resell it.
AG: I’m taking a huge loss– I mean, the $6,000 wasn’t even covering my time. I put more time in than that. So, yeah, I’ll take the kill fee and keep my material and publish it somewhere else in some form.
AG: But I’m asking you, are you gonna take my idea and write your own story? Assign it to someone else?
KW: Uh, that’s not our plan.
AG: No? Okay, thanks.
“Six weeks later,” recalled Gillis, “the Walrus comes in my mailbox. I open it up, and there’s my story on the cover, but Kyle Wyatt wrote it… They cheated on a story about cheating.”
“Instead, I chose the harder path: honesty. … Upholding a time-honoured scholars’ code filled me with pride.”
– from “Busted” by Kyle Wyatt, Walrus magazine, November 2015 issue.
Frustrated by his experience, Gillis posted about it on a Toronto writer’s forum where others weighed in. At least three writers responded with complaints about the Walrus’ kill fee — an issue then picked up by writer advocacy groups and on Twitter.
I had a story killed by the Walrus before. They weren’t happy with the draft (which is cool) but I’d put months + $100s of cash into it.
— Justin Ling (@Justin_Ling) October 29, 2015
The following is a part Kay’s response to Gillis’ concerns (you can read the full response here):
“Hi everyone. Walrus editor Jonathan Kay here. I am the fellow whom David Hayes (our moderator, yes?) seems to have been referring to when he alluded to “people who aren’t magazine professionals run magazines.” Guilty as charged, alas. I was a newspaper guy for 16 years before I got picked to run the Walrus. It has been a steep learning curve for me. But thanks to the efforts of seasoned colleagues such as my friend Matt McKinnon (hi Matt!), I like to think I am getting up to speed.
Mr. Gillis — I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. My understanding of events is different than yours. But I have been reporting on news long enough to know that people of good faith often see and remember things in a different way. (Moreover, I was one editor removed in the process, since your point of contact was my then-colleague Kyle Wyatt.) If you have the time and inclination to meet, I’m guessing we can address your concerns in a less adversarial way. I’m sure I have plenty to learn from the episode. The world of magazines and newspapers have different unwritten rules governing the interaction between writers and editors. I need to make sure I know them.”
One thing I would like to add: Whatever may have been the role of the handling editor in this episode (who parted ways with the Walrus as of yesterday), 100% of the responsibility for what happened lies with me. I was the EIC who okayed the decisions at play here.
Alex Gillis has spoken to both Wyatt and Kay since posting to the forum on October 23. He said Kay admitted to “unethical” behaviour by the Walrus in the handling of his story, and reiterated his apology. CANADALAND asked Gillis whether he felt satisfied by Kay’s response.
“I sort of don’t, actually,” he replied.
THE EDITOR IN CHIEF
Jon Kay was a controversial hire for the Walrus. His politics veered to the right, and many staffers worried that he would impose them on the magazine. But many expressed relief about Kay to CANADALAND, recalling that once he was established, he proved himself to be an open and friendly manager. He is well-regarded for seeking input broadly and breaking down the internal elitism that excluded many employees from story meetings. He encouraged new ideas and pitches from all employees, and was humble about the challenge he faced as a newspaper editor learning how to edit a magazine.
Well, there goes The Walrus.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) October 29, 2014
In an interview Kay conducted with CANADALAND in January 2015 at the Walrus’ offices, shortly after assuming his post as editor in chief, Kay described his priorities as increasing the online presence and bringing to the magazine a more personal, ironic tone, to counter the conception of a dull periodical. Most staffers welcomed the changes.
Yet Kay’s tenure has been a rocky one. According to Kyle Wyatt, Kay killed more stories in the last ten months than his predecessor killed in four years prior, a claim that jibes with what CANADALAND has learned from other sources. All three of the magazine’s senior editors left since Kay joined, along with at least eight other employees from various departments. In addition to Alex Gillis, other freelance writers and one writer’s agent have expressed frustration and concern with how the magazine has been dealing with external journalists. Staffers told CANADALAND their eyebrows were raised over how many pieces ended up being written by Jon Kay and Kyle Wyatt themselves, and how these decisions made everyone’s work more difficult.
Last month, Walrus publisher Shelley Ambrose sent Kay the following stern email about his performance. CANADALAND was provided this document by recently terminated Managing Editor Kyle Wyatt:
Editor’s note: “Shipping” a magazine means sending it to the printer.
On Thu, Sep 10, 2015 at 3:06 PM, Shelley Ambrose <*********@walrusmagazine.com> wrote:
Dear Jon – I hate to do this by email instead of in person but we are in a bit of a melt down here…we have never been this disorganized and late shipping……at least half the mag should have shipped by now – and the art department and editors are melting down. It is just not possible to ship everything at the last minute. All kinds of deadlines are being missed and we are lacking in forward planning – which means this is likely to happen again for the next issue. Half the magazine should have shipped by now (which allows us to deal with last minute stuff…like a whole new cover story). I know the sced has been thrown out the window…but the result is no one – from the fact-checkers to the art department – knows what is coming down the pipe when…and the pipe is only so wide – it simply cannot accommodate everything at once. And, we cannot tax people (unless it is you and Kyle) so much that they are working nights and weekends…only to wake up next Wednesday and be behind on the next issue…..and do it all again.
Kyle is, of course, confident that we can get this done but this cannot be the new normal. We’ve got to get back on track for assigning out early and often, getting the pieces in on time and early enough to move through the pipe. It is fine to have one late breaking piece – or maybe even two…but not the whole issue. It just won’t work – we don’t have enough hands on deck to do it all in five days. We have to keep our standards very high – and that takes time during production. Careful editing (much more careful than newspapers – plus tighten and polish – we are the best magazine in the country so the quality for the writing and editing must be superb and that takes time and talent), careful design and a lot of advance planning time for art is necessary for a magazine like The Walrus. Kyle can get us back on track but we’re going to have to have a proper production schedule with enough lead time – on the assignment front and on the production front – or the whole thing will derail and fast. We cannot be late shipping. And we can’t edit everything at one, fact-check everything at once, ship everything at once. And we can’t ship second rate stuff…….
And, sorry to repeat, you need to be here during production week (which goes from Wed to Wed). It is not possible to do this remotely…..
I know this is a big learning curve but my bells are ringing. We are short staffed as it is – and some of the editorial staff is new so slow – so the pressure – as I know you know – is enormous……..but we need to make this work….yes, we’ve been turning our head to the website (which is great) but we need to turn our head back to print.
And we can’t have the managing editor writing the cover piece in five days while also shipping…even if he says he can do it…it is not a good plan.
The next one cannot be like this……I understand you are trying to build in flexibility and also to be as current as possible …but we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.
Meantime, we need all hands on deck.
Shelley Ambrose is herself a controversial figure among Walrus employees past and present. According to former copy editor Pamela Capraru, the forceful Ambrose is “like a bull in a china shop” among the mild personalities on staff at a literary magazine. Two former employees say Ambrose is prone to irrational fits of yelling and blame when stressed. She is accused by one former employee of interfering in editorial matters, in one instance overruling fact-checkers and inserting a correction when an influential contact of Ambrose’s called her to demand one.
Yet Ambrose is regarded by employees past and present as the Walrus’ saviour. When she joined in 2006, the magazine was in dire financial shape. As a registered charity, the Walrus Foundation had but one donor: the Chawkers Foundation, the philanthropic organization run by the wealthy family of Walrus co-founder Ken Alexander.
Ambrose, a dynamic and forceful personality, expanded that donor list to include Enbridge, SunCor, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, RBC and other major corporate players.
She evolved the Walrus into a multi-platform brand encompassing online content, Walrus TV and the Walrus Talks event series. According to the alumni magazine of Ambrose’s alma matter, Western University, “she is the Walrus. Really.”
Ambrose has reportedly been rewarded accordingly. Two former Walrus employees with credible knowledge of internal budgets tell CANADALAND that when John Macfarlane left the Walrus in 2014, Shelley Ambrose went from co-publisher to sole publisher and gave herself a raise of at least $70,000, bringing her total compensation to over $200,000 per year. In an organization that was fined by the Ontario government for exploiting unpaid interns, and where the staff increasingly under resourced and underpaid, this disparity has bred resentment.
Shelley Ambrose did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
THE EDITOR EMERITUS
Kyle Wyatt was hired by John Macfarlane, a magazine industry veteran and former Walrus editor and co-publisher who, since retiring, is now listed as the Walrus’ “Editor Emeritus.” Multiple sources tell CANADALAND that Wyatt was a protégé of Macfarlane’s.
We approached him for comment. Here are those emails:
Jesse Brown <email@example.com> wrote:
Two questions I must ask you on the record:
When you were with the Walrus, did you at any point learn that Kyle Wyatt was considered abusive by any employee?
When Chawkers fellow Sarah Taggart was fired and asked to meet with you, why did you decline?
John Macfarlane <**********@gmail.com> wrote:
I’m not going to be dragged into this ,Jesse. But, off the record, it’s my experience that the word “abusive” is thrown around rather carelessly these days. John
Jesse Brown <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
As you must know John, off-the-record status is something that must be agreed to by both source and reporter.
I asked you a question and explicitly specified that it was an on-the-record inquiry. You answered, but asserted that your answer be left off-the-record.
I did not and would not agree to this, and I consider your answer to be publishable and attributable to you.
That said, if you would like to add-to or revise your reply, you certainly have an opportunity to do so.
John Macfarlane <**********@gmail.com> wrote:
As you wish, Jesse.
Whatever complaints Walrus staffers have about Jon Kay, many expressed relief and admiration that he accomplished one thing his predecessor could (or would) not: parting ways with Kyle Wyatt.
Others worry about the repercussions of a possible scandal — donors and corporate partners fund the Walrus in order to benefit from the association with a perceived intellectual brand, a worthy forum for arts and letters. How will banks and oil companies feel if the Walrus instead becomes synonymous with workplace abuse of underpaid grad students and theft of intellectual property?
One former employee expressed uncertainty.
“Either Shelley and Jon are both in big trouble,” they said, “or nobody’s going to care. I can see it going either way.”
Our coverage of the Walrus continues in the Monday, Nov.2nd episode of CANADALAND, where Sarah Taggart, Alex Gillis and Kyle Wyatt will be interviewed.
email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
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