Layoffs v. buyouts: the manager’s dilemma

Bethany Horne

When the time comes to lay the axe to newsrooms that owners consider bloated, an editorial manager must make many tough choices, one of which goes like this. Experienced journalists have institutional memory, a fine-tuned news sense, and a larger base of knowledge to draw on. Younger journalists come to the job with experience in newer forms of journalism, and web-ease.

As the “perfect storm” of financial difficulties and Internet-age expectations blows at the door of traditional media, newsrooms managers are hedging their bets about which age group to value most.

The top four Canadian media conglomerates – Quebecor, CanWest, Torstar and CTVglobemedia – have cut thousands of jobs in the past months. CBC also recently restructured, eliminating 800 jobs across Canada in the process. Sun Media, of Quebecor Inc., cut 600 jobs on Dec.16 alone, a day now known as Black Tuesday within the company. These cuts affected reporters and editors, as well as other departments of the Sun papers.

In unionized environments, job cuts typically take one or both of two forms: buyouts aimed at veterans who earn big salaries, and layoffs that target those with least seniority. Or, a bit of each.  

It’s not easy to estimate how many of the positions eliminated recently have taken each of these two forms. The Spectator in Hamilton has been offering buyouts for the past two years while still hiring new people; then it laid off 35 employees in February, including 15 in the editorial department. That number included two “young journalist” positions that had been created only a year before. But at the Ottawa Citizen, one recently laid off copy editor said that management has offered a few rounds of buyouts since Christmas, each one less attractive than the last. Does each buyout translate into a layoff avoided? He didn’t think so.

As for the merits of the two kinds of loss for a newsroom, that’s a case of naming your poison. “I can’t answer the question of which is worse,” says Ann Rauhala, director of the newspaper stream at the Ryerson School of Journalism, ” because I think there are serious problems with both.”  

While younger workers are less expensive and bring fresh perspectives, they do not have the news sense and context that middle managers can provide and shape into a story. Rauhala predicts that as newsrooms are overwhelmed with younger, greener talent, and older newsroom members become unable to cope with the mentorship demands, stories will make print without going through in-depth editing. In the early days of the National Post, she says, “I thought it showed in the pages that they didn’t have middle managers.”

As news readers begin to value interactive platforms and innovative delivery techniques, the measure of what is valuable in a newsroom may be changing. But it’s not just young and new staff who are comfortable with the new reader-established prerequisites of journalism. Jim Poling, managing editor at the Spectator, says some staffers with the best grasp of social media are in their 40s. “The industry has changed,” he says. “I don’t know that it is a question of young, old, middle-young or middle-old, but about what are the skill sets that are necessary and who’s doing it.”

When the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, an independently owned daily, eliminated 24 positions in early 2009, all of them were from the newsroom. The editorial department at the Herald is unionized, whereas management positions are not. Some of those affected suggested that the layoffs were a union-breaking strategy.

Veteran columnist Peter Duffy, and the union president at the time, told the Halifax Commoner that if only union workers are targeted by cuts, “one has to wonder.” Duffy was president of the union at the time of the layoffs, and was one of those who took buyouts to save a co-worker’s job.

Meanwhile, Metro Toronto, a free commuter daily that regularly takes on journalism students as unpaid interns for short stints on the news team, laid off four salaried writers in February. Publisher Bill McDonald says the four writers were “essentially columnists” whose jobs were not required for the paper’s primary business, and one of them was later re-hired as a copy editor. McDonald says that interns bring more energy, enthusiasm and less baggage to the table than older workers.

The Brantford Expositor, owned by Sun Media, has fired six editors and reporters in the past five months, the equivalent of half of its staff.  Community editor Jim Fleming’s last day was May 1, after 41 years at the paper. Fleming wrote in an email that some of the Expositor‘s work was “being moved to a ‘centre of excellence’ in Woodstock.”

The Toronto Sun also lost jobs to the Woodstock centre. Rob Lamberti, chair of the Sun‘s union, confirmed that the centre is a non-unionized workplace.

Bethany Horne is a third-year student in the journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the co-author of the travel blog,
White Bus, Black Dog, and the news editor of the Dalhousie Gazette.