Why Sun Media Must Divorce Quebecor Or Die

In 1989, Peter Worthington had enough.  He was fed up with the direction The Toronto Sun was taking and he could stay silent no longer.  He decided to pen a highly critical column.  He said, in no uncertain terms, that The Sun wasn’t a serious newspaper anymore.  Next thing he knew, Doug Creighton had fired him.  (3 years later, Creighton himself would be forced out by the board of directors.  Nice way to treat one of the founders of your newspaper.)
 
And while Worthington would return (he remains a columnist, as of this writing), there’s a sense of deja vu quickly creeping back into the picture.  I can’t help but wonder if he’s having those rebellious thoughts again, even though he has never supported the idea of unionizing Sun employees.  I’ll say what I’m sure he is thinking again:  The Toronto Sun is not a serious newspaper anymore.
 
Now, I’ve never been an admirer of this guy.  (I prefer the more astute Eric Margolis.)  But there is one thing I do respect about him:  his courage.  From his war record, his tireless advocacy for a free Tibet and respect for animals, one never associates cowardice with Peter Worthington.  Who better than him, then, the original editor, to speak out about Sun Media’s current troubles in his column?  Isn’t it about time he realized that the longer he stays silent, the less credibility he will possess as a Day Oner?  He’ll be 80 in 2 months.  What does he have to lose by defending his fellow employees and lashing out at Quebecor and Sun Media for its shabby treatment of them?
 
As I noted in Part Two of my Winners & Losers Of The Year series earlier this month, this has been an awful year for the company.  Embattled and increasingly unhappy employees have been subjected to round after round of layoffs (a regular occurrence since Quebecor officially took over the company in 1999), a number of columnists have disappeared without any clear explanations, and there have been an unusual amount of “retirements”.  Writers have dropped hints in their columns about the days when things were better, leading one to believe there will be more exits.  Loyal readers of the paper are being kept in the dark about the upheaval behind the scenes.  (My mom had no idea that Bill Brioux was canned, for instance.)  Fortunately, The Sun’s competitors as well as blogs like Fading To Black and Toronto Sun Family, and even union websites are filling the enormous information vacuum.  Generally, they’re all painting a dreary picture.  From what I’ve read and heard, it’s very likely to get worse unless Sun Media files for divorce.  Now.
 
The latest news is a brewing war between unionized employees and Sun Media.  Toronto Sun editorial workers were sent a message yesterday by Maryanna Lewyckyj, the outspoken Toronto Sun Union Unit Chair (and recently dismissed employee) who informed her fellow comrades that the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild (SONG) had filed “a ‘related employer’ application with the Ontario Labour Relations Board regarding Sun Media.”
 
She said the application was “a legal argument that Sun Media is playing a corporate shell game by eliminating jobs from its unionized workforce and creating a parallel non-unionized workforce to avoid union jurisdiction.”  The union is fighting back in this manner in order to prevent the company from “attempt[ing] to circumvent our collective agreements by stealing jobs from our bargaining units and putting them into a new, non-union entity.”  What a mess.
 
Sun Media “has two weeks to respond” to the union’s grievance and afterwards, a “mediation hearing” will be scheduled by the OLRB “likely by about February.”  What are the chances of this important story getting tremendous play in the Sun papers?  If you’re thinking “fat, slim and none”, you’re not alone.  Perhaps it’s time for Sun employees to expand its Save Our Sun publicity campaign.  The public needs to know how they’re feeling and how badly things have deteriorated.  (Perhaps a full page ad is in order?)
 
It’s becoming increasingly evident that the marriage between Sun Media and Quebecor has reached the point of no return.  Maintaining the status quo will only make things worse.  Sun Media needs to be independent again.
 
Back in the late 90s, besides Quebecor, Sun Media was courted by TorStar, the owner of their longtime rival, The Toronto Star.  They offered the 2-year old corporation roughly 750 million dollars which was ultimately (and unsurprisingly) rejected.  One can’t help but look back at that offer and wonder how different Sun Media’s situation might’ve been if they had accepted that deal, rather than the one they signed with Quebecor.  Then again, considering the upheaval at TorStar these days (85 employees were recently and coldly laid off, just days before the Christmas holiday with even more to come next year), it seems more than likely that Sun Media would be in the same situation, or they might’ve been even worse off.  Regardless, the good old days are long over.
 
It should be noted that Sun Media remains a profitable company, which makes all these employee dismissals puzzling.  (The company can more than afford all the people it has hired over the years.)  It still generates hundreds of millions of dollars in steady profits every year, even if there is no significant growth of any kind.  But its sense of greed has overtaken its sense of reason and humanity.  It also has a credibility problem.  (More on that, shortly.)
 
The fact is Sun Media and Quebecor are a bad match.  Sun Media has long had the human touch despite my problems with them on issues of honesty and correcting the record.  Quebecor is a typical corporation where the bottom line appears the central focus.  Its leader, Pierre Karl Peladeau, is not well loved and a Google search explains why.
 
It wasn’t always this way. 
 
Out of the ashes of the defunct broadsheet, The Toronto Telegram, arose the city’s first successful tabloid.  It didn’t need a union because workers were treated just as well as management.  (Toronto Sun Family Blogger John Cosway has written that he never once had to request a bigger paycheque during his 19 years with the paper.)  The success of The Toronto Sun led to all the offshoots in other major metropolitans:  Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton and Winnipeg.  Gradually, these newspapers would become part of the second biggest newspaper conglomerate in the country. 
 
But Sun Media has aligned itself with a company that has no understanding of Sun Media readers or its employees, in particular.  By constantly shuffling the decks, the paper has alienated a number of its loyal readers.  With columnists and reporters coming and going at alarmingly frequent rates, it can expect even more readers to tune out and get their fix of news and opinion elsewhere. 
 
Newspapers depend greatly on the loyalty of their readers.  There’s an unusual bond between them, something Quebecor doesn’t understand and probably doesn’t care to understand, either.  All they care about is money.  And it shows.
 
When you remove beloved columnists who have enjoyed feisty, tug-and-pull relationships with their readers, without offering any legitimate reason why, is it any wonder that your circulation starts to decline?  (According to one report I read, readership has dropped 25% since Quebecor took over.  That’s a staggering number.)  By relying on columnists with enormous credibility problems (Michael Coren, Rachel Marsden, Licia Corbella) to increase their readership, curious moderates will not be convinced to remain loyal customers.  When you hire a readership editor who has been truly critical exactly once, how is that assuring the public that your company represents the epitome of honest journalism?  And when that same readership editor has been missing in action for almost 2 months now, how is that a positive sign?  The secrecy is scary.
 
One of the dumbest decisions Quebecor ever made was to start producing a free transit tabloid called 24 Hours.  It is so widely read it has eaten into the readership of The Sun.  Not smart and no wonder there’s so much resentment from longtime Sun employees. 
 
Unlike The Sun, Quebecor’s idea of a non-unionized workforce is a defeated workforce, a workforce unwilling to buck the system and fight for their rights, a workforce that places Quebecor’s needs over those of its readers and the truth.
 
That is why Sun Media should re-consider its association with this company.   
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, December 21, 2006
9:16 p.m.
 
UPDATE:  I forgot to acknowledge The Toronto Sun Family Blog for posting Maryanna Lewyckyj’s message to Toronto Sun Editorial Members.  My apologies for not including this in the original piece.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, December 21, 2006
11:36 p.m.
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Published in: on December 21, 2006 at 9:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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