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Halifax Matters

Tristan Cleveland is an urban planner who has also worked in Montreal, Guyana and Venezuela. Cleveland grew up in the south shore of Nova Scotia and has been an advocate for sustainable planning in Halifax since 2012.

The Chronicle Herald's labour strife is bad news for the public, and journalism in general

These are extremely tough times for so-called legacy media, which are buckling under the burden of last-century printing and distribution infrastructure in a world overflowing with inkless news and instant circulation.

File photo -- A stack of free newspapers are shown in a central London street.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

File photo -- A stack of free newspapers are shown in a central London street.

Downhill fast.” The caption over Wednesday’s Chronicle Herald front-page photo — of skateboarders zipping down Citadel Hill — said it all. So too did the management-mandated absence of a photo credit.

The Herald, which bills itself as Canada’s largest independent newspaper, is hurtling downhill, ever faster toward its own oblivion.

That’s bad news for all of us.

News, especially local news, matters. Having professional journalists — whose job is to pay attention to what’s going on, to ask pointed questions, to hold public officials to public account, to report back to us — is critical. Citizen journalists are valuable too, of course, but they can’t replace an organization whose job is gathering and disseminating, however imperfectly, all the news that matters.

We will miss it if it we lose it.

The latest Herald flashpoint is a new collective agreement with the paper’s 61 newsroom employees. Management wants to slash one-third of the editorial staff — after cutting 20 positions last year, and two dozen more in 2009. Those who survive will be paid less to work more. The union calls that a “total rewrite of the contract that would set us back 20 years.”

Last week, union and management traded insults and byline strikes/blockouts. This weekend, management will likely lock out its journalists and replace them with no-name-credit freelancers working from home on four-month contracts to break the union’s will — and possibly the union.
But the result may break the newspaper.

These are extremely tough times for so-called legacy media, which are buckling under the burden of last-century printing and distribution infrastructure in a world overflowing with inkless news and instant circulation. To most publishers, still reluctantly weaning from pre-Internet cash cows like classifieds, real estate and auto sales and smacking up against newly disloyal readers no longer willing to pay, the future must seem a maze of dark tunnels with no light visible.

That is the reality the Herald’s publishers confront. They are not alone among traditional newspapers in failing — so far — to find a formula for publishing success.

But the ironic flip side is that more people are reading more news than ever. They’re just getting it in different ways from different sources. And mostly for free.

Someone will someday — soon — figure out how to monetize that.

The news has a future.

My fear is that Herald management — by cutting back on the quality journalism that is its only significant “value proposition” while transforming those who create that value into undervalued enemies — will only make the situation worse.

If there is less and less material of substance to read, readers will stop reading, and subscribing. Many already have.

And then the newspaper that bills itself as Canada’s largest independent newspaper may not be around to reap that future.

Stephen Kimber is a professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax and an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster. Halifax matters runs every Monday.