The Edmonton Journal’s darkest day

2021.01.19

Karen Booth Karen Booth says much of her life has changed for the better since the dark days at the Edmonton Journal.

Editor’s note: CWA Canada represents workers at nine Postmedia dailies, including The Ottawa Citizen, The Gazette in Montreal and the Kingston Whig-Standard (as well as at the CBC, The Canadian Press, Thomson Reuters and many other media companies). While the newsroom at the Edmonton Journal has never been unionized, many current and former members once worked there or with someone who did.
This powerful essay by Karen Booth was posted on her Facebook page this morning. She has given her permission for it to be published here. Those people she references have also granted permission for their full names to be used.


 

KAREN BOOTH

How fitting that the fifth anniversary of Black Tuesday, as it’s known in Canadian journalism circles, actually falls on a Tuesday. Much in my life has changed since then, virtually all of it for the better. But leaving it at that — jumping from beginning to end of this particular chapter of my life — doesn’t do justice to that grey and often ugly territory, the muddled middle. It glosses over the sadness, anger, fear, denial, soul-searching, and eventual gratitude and acceptance. In short, the stages of grief.

After watching a steady stream of talented colleagues either take voluntary buyouts or be laid off, I knew my number was bound to come up. Beholden to U.S. hedge funds, Postmedia had been hemorrhaging money for years. Cutting costs (read: staffers) was the low-hanging fruit, and the company consistently picked it. Yet knowing all of this intellectually was cold comfort when the abstract became reality.

The job had lost much of its lustre starting in 2007, with the first major round of voluntary buyouts. Responsibility for page layout and editing was centralized in Hamilton, Ont. — and for a brief but bizarre period, subcontracted to the Philippines. Crafting a witty, funny or succinct headline, depending on the tone of the story? Yes, you could offer suggestions, but it’s not your job anymore, we were told. Working with a graphic designer on an eye-catching layout? Again, not your job anymore. To make matters worse, proofreaders and librarians were made redundant. Staff grew weary of the mantra, “Do more with less.”

I used to say I knew when it was time to leave the party. When yet another round of buyouts was offered in early 2014, I put up my hand — only to be turned down and told I was too valuable to the organization. That value somehow diminished over the next two years, but someone forgot to inform me.

I was grateful not to be in the newsroom on Jan. 19, 2016, but I grieved for those who were. Friends and colleagues later described a cruel and drawn-out process, as people waited for hours to learn their status. Many tears were shed. The word “clusterf—k” came up consistently. One person recalled that the woman tasked with showing him the door “couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.”

As I was on vacation, Janet Vlieg filled in as letters editor. Even after she learned she was being let go, she went back to her desk and finished the day’s work. Now that’s class and professionalism.

Steve and I were staying at his daughter’s house in Australia, packing for a week of beach camping where there would be little or no cellphone coverage or Wi-Fi. I decided to take one last look at social media, and was stunned to read that nationwide, 90 editorial staff were being laid off — more than one-third of them in Edmonton — mere months after Postmedia absorbed the Sun newspaper chain. My gut feeling? After nearly 36 years of reporting and editing, I was toast.

I checked my email to see if any of my superiors had reached out. Nothing.

I quickly emailed my boss, only to find out she wasn’t in that day. I was then advised to email a former Journal editor, who was back in Edmonton that day to carry out the layoffs. I waited, then waited some more. (The time difference between Alberta and Western Australia didn’t help.) Finally, I got the terse reply that she regretted to inform me I was no longer employed at the Edmonton Journal.

Though not named specifically, I made the news — and not in the way I would have liked. I was a casualty of the largest single day of job cuts in Canada’s newspaper history.

Over the following days came a trickle of emails and texts. I learned the paper’s editor and managing editor were also gone.

There was no “hit list,” current and former managers would insist, but one colleague was shocked when I told her I bet I could name every city-side reporter who got the axe. (I take no pleasure in saying I was right. On. Every. Single. Count.) Were they bad at their jobs? Not in my opinion. How did I know who was targeted? Well, I don’t believe in coincidences or conspiracy theories, and I’m certainly no psychic. When I was on City desk, those very reporters were badmouthed by the boss and his predecessor.

To those who insist, “It wasn’t personal,” I call bulls—t. Yes, for some of us who were at or near the top of the pay scale, at or near retirement age, it may be argued it simply came down to numbers. But even that wasn’t entirely true, and it certainly wasn’t true for everyone.

Some who were spared left in protest — quitting, retiring or asking for a buyout. I’ll always remember the talented Jana Pruden expressing her disgust, and remarking that day drinking was involved in her decision to go. (The drinking part was a joke — I think.)

The cuts clearly went too deep as some who were laid off were later asked to return. I know of two people who took them up on the offer, while a third told them where they could stick their job.

Some who I considered friends pulled a vanishing act, and that hurt most of all. It was a reminder that as much as we think we know them, people are unknowable.

As a group, we were promised a farewell party at some unspecified date. We got nothing — not so much as a coffee or a lunch.

There ought to be both Human Resources and Public Relations case studies of Postmedia’s handling of the situation that day, and in the following weeks, as a classic How-Not-To.

That February day I came to sign off on my severance package and clean out my desk, Paula Simons gave me a big hug as I approached the elevator. But others looked at me with pity — or like I was kryptonite — if they looked at me at all.

Those painful first months were a time of considerable soul-searching. I eventually forgave those who couldn’t look me in the eye, as I asked Keith Kobylka’s forgiveness for not reaching out when he was laid off the previous year. I confessed my cowardice and fear; he countered with kindness, compassion, and the reassurance that there’s life after The Journal.

For every disappointment, there was a revelation. Co-workers who I liked but didn’t feel particularly close to reached out and offered encouragement. When I see-sawed between hope and despair, they grounded me. I treasure them, and at every opportunity I endeavour to pay it forward.

In less than a year, I had lost my mother and my job. And if coping with those two stressors wasn’t enough, Steve and I began the process of moving to British Columbia.

I’m on the outside looking in these days, but I think it’s given me an even deeper appreciation for journalism. Certainly in this era of “fake news” and “murder the media,” we need journalism more than ever. As humans, we’re hardwired to construct narratives to help us make sense of the world. The vital work of storytelling in general — and comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in particular — will endure.

It simply has to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: