By Robert DeVet, rankandfile.ca East Coast correspondent
Chronicle Herald newsroom workers have been walking the picket line since management left them no choice but to go on strike more than seven months ago.
The Local Xpress, a news website run entirely by striking reporters, photographers and editors, saw the light of day just one week after the strike began.
“We talked about doing a strike paper before we went on strike. It has been done in other places. We thought of it as another weapon in our fight for a fair contract,” says Pam Sword, editor and driving force behind the venture.
The workers are up against an owner that want to cut salaries and increase working hours, significantly reduce benefits in the defined benefit pension plan, and eliminate seniority considerations when staff are targeted for layoffs.
The company also wants to lay off 18 newsroom workers, reducing to 40 the number of newsroom staff that just seven years ago was hovering around 100.
Local Xpress, subscribers and advertisers boycott all part of union strategy
The Local Xpress is just one weapon in an arsenal that also includes pickets to discourage advertisers and efforts to convince readers to cancel their subscriptions.
“Every day we hear about people cancelling their subscription,” says Frank Campbell, vice president of the Halifax Typographical Union (HTU), local 30130 of CWA Canada.
“And if you look at the Herald, the advertising has dropped significantly. We also heard from advertisers that ads are being discounted, so not only are they selling fewer ads, we suspect they’re also not generating as much revenue off the ones they do sell,” Campbell says.
Meanwhile, the news website is a novel and very effective weapon, says Sword.
“When Halifax Water went on strike they couldn’t set up an alternative water main and be a competitor. But without too much effort we can set up an alternative to the Herald and be a force to be reckoned with, and be in the Herald’s face a bit every day,” says Sword.
It keeps us sane
It also allows reporters and editors to keep their sanity.
“The union requires that we all work at least so many hours to get our strike pay. For some that means picketing. And for others it’s the Local Xpress,” says Sword, who explains that it’s a matter of individual choice.
“Every once in awhile people will say they’d go crazy if it weren’t for the Local Xpress. For a lot of us, journalism is part of who we are. You see a story in the news, and your instinct is to write about it,” she says.
This is what bad journalism looks like
The Local Xpress acts as a reminder of what good journalism is supposed to look like.
These days the Chronicle Herald reporting is done by scab writers, typically young, inexperienced, and often not from here. And it shows. Its stories are riddled with bad grammar and factual mistakes.
Provincial NDP politicians, labour unions and many members in the arts community refuse to have any dealings with scab reporters.
A racist and xenophobic story the Herald ran in April, about Syrian refugees attacking fellow students at a Halifax elementary school while yelling “Muslims rule the world!,” was widely criticized and ridiculed.
More recently the Herald set social media abuzz when it hired New Brunswick scab James Risdon to report, among other things, on the business impact of Halifax Pride events. That’s the same Risdon who earlier tweeted that he “never understood why anyone would be particularly proud of a sexual orientation set from birth.”
This is what good journalism looks like
In contrast, stories in the Local Xpress are filed by experienced reporters, who know their beats inside out, and, liberated from the size constraints imposed by publishing in print can dig a little deeper.
It’s not just news. In terms of quality Local Xpress arts and local sports coverage run circles around the Chronicle Herald and still win the race.
“We can’t do it all, but we do some really good stuff,” says Sword. “Through the writing and reporting we do, compared to what is offered at the Herald now, even people who might not be so keen on unions see the need to support good journalism.”
A force to be reckoned with
Sword is happy about how the Local Xpress has been received, especially since May, when the website started leveraging the infrastructure of Village Media, operator of several local news sites in Ontario.
“In the early days we were ok, but the old site wasn’t very discoverable by search engines, and it didn’t have the bells and whistles. Now we have a much more powerful backend, and immediately we almost doubled our reach,” says Sword. And that trend continues all through the dog days of summer.
These days the news site runs its own advertisements. Tellingly, the Local Xpres obituary section is the largest in Nova Scotia. That’s pretty significant in a small province.
Compromising on quality the wrong thing to do
The success of the Local Xpress sends a message to the Herald’s management all on its own.
The striking newsroom workers understand that print journalism is facing tremendous challenges these days. In fact, the HTU has offered up major concessions to management. But to lay off newsroom workers and compromise on quality is exactly the wrong thing to do, the strikers believe.
The news industry is evolving, and organizations that remain successful are the ones who offer a quality product. That’s what people will pay for, says Sword.
“I’ve heard secondhand that other news organizations are looking at our model too. Maybe we are paving new ground,” says Sword. “It certainly has been an adventure.”