After more than a decade of deep cuts to staff at the Montreal Gazette, many felt the incisions simply couldn’t go any deeper. But in January, the Postmedia chain (which owns the Gazette as well as the National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, and Calgary Herald, among many other newspapers) announced cuts across the board.
Already down to just 40 newsroom staff at the Gazette, employees were not told who would be getting laid off and who would stay. A backlash ensued that included a “reverse the cuts” petition, followed by some businessmen suggesting the paper should be bought out from Postmedia so as to preserve its local news coverage.
Postmedia has responded by establishing an advisory council that will attempt to come up with solutions to enhance community engagement and ensure the paper’s future.
One Gazette staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions at work, granted this interview to Canadaland. This reporter said the Gazette is, understandably, not a happy place to be at the moment: “It’s an atmosphere of absolute fear and loathing.”
Postmedia did not respond to our requests for comment. This interview is edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you first learn of the cuts?
We learned there would be impending cuts not long before that news became public. Postmedia said we had a bad quarter, and said 11% cuts were coming across the chain. It was devastating, obviously. But we don’t know who, where, how much at the Gazette would be cut. Weeks later, we still don’t know. Who does that? The level of anxiety is off the charts. They’re not all union jobs, but some are. So much will be decided by seniority. If you’re at the bottom of the list, and you don’t know whether or not you’re going to make it, that’s unreal. Then they finally come and say that the cuts would be 25% of the Gazette’s staff. They never explained why we were getting hit harder. We have 40 people. They were talking about 10 people gone. We used to be 300 about a dozen years ago. Things are already absurd, at what is supposed to be a major metropolitan daily newspaper. Then the protests began.
Were you surprised about the protests?
No, because Montrealers really do care about the news and what goes on in our city. There was the petition, and the MP Anthony Housefather got involved. Postmedia was genuinely shocked by what happened.
When some local businessmen suggested buying the Gazette from Postmedia, that’s when Postmedia announced the formation of the advisory council.
The advisory council is a charade, and everyone at the Gazette knows it. The answer to this problem is to stop laying people off. I’ve used this metaphor for years: it’s like you have a jar of peanut butter, and you sell it for four dollars. Then you start selling it for five dollars and it’s half full. That’s what everyone says about the Gazette: there’s no content. The advisory council is an attempt to deflect all of this anger. It’s like if Putin were to succeed in Ukraine, and after it’s over, he sets up an advisory council of prominent Ukrainians to set up the new Ukraine. They’re collaborators. I told the people I know, ‘You should not work with these people.’ I’m not working with the council. It’s obvious bullshit. Nothing’s going to happen. What are they going to do, exactly?
The reason The New York Times is now succeeding is because they invested in the paper. If you lay more people off at a newspaper, you’re giving people less reason to pick it up.
That’s the brutal reality. When you read the Times or hear their podcasts, you can tell they have put money and resources into them. That’s how you create good journalism. The reality is, the media is going to hell in a handbasket, it’s a shitshow. But Postmedia is a particularly bad case, because it’s owned by this hedge fund [Chatham Asset Management]. And they’re dealing with a significant debt.
Postmedia just sold the Calgary Herald building for over $17 million. Are they putting any of that money back into the business?
No. Postmedia CEO Andrew MacLeod has said that once revenues increase, we’ll reinvest. Of course they’re not going to reinvest any of this money. They’ll cut and cut and cut.
Is there another country where so much of the print media is so concentrated and owned mainly be a foreign company? I think the federal government needs to step in and break up the monopoly. Providing local news is a vital, essential service.
What’s the likelihood of the government intervening? At the end of the day, they cut less people due to the protests. But there’s no guarantee they won’t cut more positions in the future. Why is it they are allowed to own these papers, when you’re not allowed to own CTV or CBC as a foreign company? Rogers, CTV, they have to be owned by Canadians. But it’s okay for most of the newspapers to be owned by a foreign vulture-capitalist company? Makes no sense. I think the government should intervene, but I don’t think it will happen. Trudeau certainly believes in intervention. CERB was one of the most generous pandemic programs in the world. But I don’t think it’ll happen.
What’s your sense of how the new editor, Bert Archer, is handling this?
I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, but he had no experience at a daily prior to this. Bert has this plan, called “The Four Pillars.” We can’t cover everything, is what they’re saying. We’ve been told we’re going to do less with less. How’s that for a new mantra? So Bert says we have four pillars: four topics. Let’s play a game: What do you think the four are?
Okay, one would be healthcare.
Yep, that’s one.
Nope. It’s all about clicks. It’s about what our readers want.
I can’t stand the suspense! What are the four pillars?
Okay — Habs, crime, health, and English. The last one is about angryphones. We had a town hall on Monday, and we talked about this new approach. People were asking about city hall, and they said, no, we’re not doing it. People asked about the National Assembly, and we were also told no. Arts? Environment? Also, all no. You can’t ignore clicks, but that can’t be all a newspaper is. We’re a legacy newspaper. It’s got to be about more than that. If you don’t cover the National Assembly unless it’s about Bill 96, people will stop reading the newspaper, obviously.
Is there any sense of a future among staff at the paper?
Journalists are very pessimistic, even at the best of times. People have always thought it was going out of business. When the payouts and buyouts first happened a dozen years ago, everyone thought it was going out of business, but it didn’t. Some think it’ll become like The Suburban, a much smaller thing. But the attitude towards the advisory council is that it’s just smoke and mirrors.
There’s already a content problem at the Gazette.
I know lots of people who want to subscribe to the Gazette, but they say the same thing: There’s now almost nothing local in it. There might be about seven articles per day. Then there’s a lot of Postmedia content that comes with the chain. It’s what I like to call “Postmedia garbage.” It’s all rightwing anti-Trudeau stuff, which the vast majority of people in Montreal don’t really agree with. Even pretty conservative people in Montreal tend to vote Liberal. It’s coverage of the Blue Jays, coverage of TV shows from the rest of Canada, and Ontario politics. We don’t care about that. People want local news. The entire second section of the paper, which is called “NP” for National Post, is of no interest to our readers. People often write stories that can’t fit into the paper, and we can’t even adjust that section to make room for local stories, because those pages of the paper aren’t produced here. We end up putting the additional stories online. There are about 18,000 editions of the Gazette sold now. It was 140,000 a decade ago.
You don’t sound optimistic about any of this.
What’s to be optimistic about? People running Postmedia have been talking doom and gloom for a long time. What kind of business does that? If you’re running a hardware store, you don’t tell everyone not to come to the hardware store. You can’t ask people to pay for something when you’re giving them so much less. This is a tragic situation. The most hardcore anglos have given up. I hear from people who say they want to get the Gazette, but they can’t get it delivered. Are any of these cuts reflected in the salaries of Postmedia executives? Postmedia are both assholes and idiots. They’ve given themselves bonuses at the same time they’ve publicly stated that the papers are losing money.
Are Gazette staff talking about possible action they can take?
Air Canada got money from the federal government during the pandemic. After, the unionized employees went to the government and said “Why are the executives getting these bonuses?” Air Canada got into trouble for that. Our union should be mounting a similar campaign. During the pandemic, the federal government gave Postmedia $30 million in subsidies. Why not go back to Postmedia and demand that they give back that public money? They’ve lined their pockets while laying off the people who actually create the content. The government has effectively subsidized the executive bonuses, and sending the money to New Jersey. Not only does this make no business sense, this entire situation is actually really bad for Canadian democracy.
Matthew Hays teaches media studies courses at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, VICE and The Montreal Gazette.