Pressing on: life after the Daily News

By Stephany Tlalka

What happens when you fire 42 journalists in one day? KJR sees how Daily News journalists fare post shutdown.

By Stephany Tlalka

When you search for David Rodenhiser’s column on Halifax News Net, you’re immediately redirected to a picture of stuffed beef and cheddar burgers.

The word “columnist” still appears in red block letters, but you won’t find Rodenhiser’s name on the page. Recipes and a half-empty screen remain a sort of afterglow of his two decades at the Daily News, a Halifax newspaper that shut down in February 2008.

Rodenhiser says it’s just the way the business works.

“When you shut something down, you shut it down.”

Rodenhiser sits tall, hands folded. His eggplant polo shirt is tucked in, revealing a retractable swipe card on one hip and a Blackberry on the other. It’s a big change from the furry beige parka and knapsack he wore while taking interviews in the Daily News lobby eight months ago.

He’s now communications advisor for Emergency Management Operations (EMO), a government agency based in Woodside, N.S. The job was an easy switch: he’s still in the public eye, informing Nova Scotians, except now it’s about hurricane or flood warnings, or how to assemble an emergency kit.

EMO wasn’t his first choice, but the Chronicle Herald, Halifax’s other daily newspaper, wasn’t hiring and other prospects were grim. Staying in journalism — at the right price — meant leaving Halifax.

“I think you had to decide if the decision for you was going to be what you want to be or where you want to do it.”

That was the big question for the rest of the Daily News’s newsroom. Of the 42 journalists at the paper, 32 stayed in journalism. Of those 32, only 10 work full time in Halifax. The rest are scattered across Canada, some in steady jobs, others on contract. Some are still looking for work.

What happened at the Daily News is an exaggerated display of what’s going on in Canadian journalism right now: newspapers are stretched for cash and newsrooms are slimming down to bare bones.

The State of the News Media 2008, an annual report produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in the United States, predicts losses in revenue and jobs for newspapers. According to the Canadian Newspaper Association, newspapers are seeing 11 per cent cuts in advertising in 2008, making for a loss of about $300 million. Already, the Toronto Star has sheared 160 jobs, one-third of its newsroom staff. And CanWest cut 200 jobs across Canada in 2007.

Paul Schneidereit, former president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says journalists can still make a go of it despite job cuts.

“The best journalists are the ones who are driven,” says Schneidereit. “They’ve always found a way.”

Joe Grimm thinks differently. He’s a career advice columnist for the Poynter Institute and a journalism professor at Michigan State University who until earlier this year recruited for the Detroit Free Press. He says journalists face unprecedented challenges and they’re not prepared.

“Journalists are, I would say, good at reporting about what’s going on
around them but not good at divining [what] might happen to them,” Grimm says.

No red flags

Daily News owners complained for years that the paper didn’t make money. Despite this, the paper chugged on, so staff were surprised at its abrupt closure on Monday, Feb. 11, 2008.

“There were no red flags,” Rodenhiser says. But he knew there was something wrong when a group of well-dressed business types herded staff around the office that morning.

Staff vacated hours later after receiving severance packages. They headed to Celtic Corner, a bar in Dartmouth.

Paul McLeod, a contract reporter at the Daily News for about a year, still doesn’t know how to feel about that day at Celtic Corner.

“It was this orgy of drinking and self pity, but also one of the most fun things I’ve ever been to,” says McLeod. “It was bizarre in that one moment everyone would be crying and the next everyone would be laughing.”

McLeod says the following days panned out the same way.

“I think maybe a few of us might have become alcoholics,” says McLeod, half-jokingly, “because there was this really palpable clinging to the community.”

It took McLeod weeks to shake off “feeling complacent, feeling stuck in the past” after the shutdown. Now he’s a full-time reporter with a $30,000 salary and benefits at Metro, a free commuter daily of which Transcontinental — the company that shut down the Daily News — is part owner. McLeod says he felt bitter about the chain replacing the Daily News — the first issue of Metro Halifax hit streets just days after the paper’s shutdown. Now, he feels differently.

“It’s like the Daily News thing, where it’s a small newsroom so you get to do a lot of really cool, fun stuff,” says McLeod. “If I was working at the Herald right now, I wouldn’t be writing about the election. I’d be writing about some dude picking up garbage.”

Moving on

Despite forecasted job losses for Canadian newspapers, most Daily Newsers found jobs within the first six months of searching — some within days of the shutdown.

Jack Romanelli, the managing editor of the Daily News, was on the phone hours after the shutdown, finding jobs for staff. By the end of the week, Romanelli had a job at the Toronto Sun as assistant managing editor.

“Another day, another paper,” Romanelli says, laughing.

Brian Flinn traded his legislature reporting gig at the Daily News for another. He was offered a job working the political beat for, an online business publication in Halifax.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” says Flinn. Most Daily Newsers who found jobs said the same thing.

Rachel Boomer is one of them. A reporter for 10 years at the Daily News, Boomer is now managing editor at Metro Halifax. Perched in front of her computer, she has a Daily News mug on one side of her monitor, holding her pens. On the other is a phone that won’t stop ringing.

“I would never have been a managing editor at the Daily News,” says Boomer. “There were a lot of people ahead of me in line.”

Robyn Young, one of six Daily News staffers hired directly to Metro, didn’t feel lucky. She left in August and is now job hunting in Toronto.

“From day one, I didn’t want to be there,” says Young. “It’s like someone putting a gun to your head and asking, ‘So, do you want to not have a job like all of your friends?’ It wasn’t really a choice.”

Lindsay Jones, a reporter at the Daily News for five years, fit the demographic for Metro readers (young, female) and won a spot at the paper. She started working the day after the Daily News closed.

Jones says she had to take the job. “I don’t even think I stopped to think about it,” says Jones, “I did what I had to do and I’m still doing it.”

Jones shares a cubicle wall with Matthew Wuest, a former Daily News sports reporter now covering the beat for Metro. Ryan and Jennifer Taplin also work at Metro Halifax.

The changing newsroom

Nine staffers ended up at Metro across Canada. Metro is an example of the changing industry: a chain that distributes free, ad-heavy papers with fewer pages and fewer journalists. It centralizes jobs like editing, layout and national news reporting at its mother paper in Toronto.

In a report released in July called The Changing Newsroom, the PEW Research Center for Excellence in Journalism observed that newspapers “are narrowing their reach and ambitions and becoming niche reads,” learning to do more work with less hands. Metro, 20 pages shorter than The Daily News, aims at a younger, speed-reading audience. And the centralization shows: former Daily News entertainment reporter Dean Lisk is now the movie editor at Metro Toronto, co-ordinating what reviews will run in each city across Canada. Daily News copy editor Chris Clements now works for Metro in Toronto, editing stories from Halifax to Vancouver.

Brent Butcher, a former Daily News copy editor, notices fewer hands in the newsroom too. He was hired as the rim editor and wire desk worker at the Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay.

“I was working as a copy editor in Halifax and six other people were doing the same job,” Butcher says. “[In Thunder Bay], we don’t even have six editors in total.”

Butcher, 23, says he wanted to stay in Halifax, but it meant competing with dozens of other qualified journalists for the few jobs available. In Thunder Bay, Butcher’s pay increased substantially from the Daily News, where he made less than $30,000 per year. In early November, he’ll move to Guelph as the night news editor at the Guelph Mercury.

Butcher’s not worried about other Daily Newsers’ job prospects.

“That’s the thing, when you’re educated to that level, you’re not going to wind up on the street.”

Jobs in the field hard to come by

“I still don’t have a job,” says Jerry West, a former Daily News copy editor who now works casual shifts at CBC Radio in Halifax.

He wants to find full time radio work in Halifax or put his MBA degree from Saint Mary’s University to work.

“Copy editing is a thankless job,” says West, “I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing because it was going to drive me nuts.”

Chris Kallan, a sports reporter at the Daily News, is job hunting in Monteal, and Young in Mississauga and Toronto. Both say they’ll settle for a decent job, regardless of whether it’s in journalism.

Richard Cuthbertson, a Daily News reporter originally from Halifax, landed a one-year contract at the Calgary Herald. Cuthbertson, 30, assumed he would have to move to stay in journalism.

“The idea of moving wasn’t daunting to me,” says Cuthbertson. “You can’t imagine that 42 people are going to get a job in journalism within Halifax.

Journalism vs. Halifax

Some Daily News staff traded journalism for Halifax.

“I used to be Hollywood Heather,” says Heather Clarke. When the paper closed, Clarke says there was nothing she wanted to do in journalism other than have her old job back, as the entertainment reporter and blogger at the Daily News.

Now a project manager at Absolute North Design Group, Clarke says her organization and creativity translated well. From her new pink Blackberry to the pink Dell laptop her company just bought her, Clarke says the job fits her much better.

“If I work really hard, I have chances to be promoted and I have chances to make more money,” says Clarke. “Journalism’s so limited around here; I’m glad to be out of that.”

Rodenhiser, the Daily News’s most widely read columnist, wanted to stay in Halifax. He was offered a senior reporting gig at CTV Halifax shortly after the shutdown, but turned it down.

“Some people thought I was crazy not to take it,” says Rodenhiser, adding he needed some time to reflect on the loss of the Daily News.

Rodenhiser ended up at EMO, a $5,000 pay decrease from his $70,000 salary at the Daily News. But he says there’s room for moving up. Ryan Van Horne and Skana Gee, both longtime Daily News employees, left journalism for communications jobs.

Photographer Paul Darrow says he never wants a staff job again. Now freelancing in Halifax, Darrow shoots everything from “non-eventful storm shots” for Communications Nova Scotia to news assignments for the Globe and Mail, Reuters and the National Post.

Despite offers of high-paying jobs in Ottawa and Abu Dhabi, Darrow chose to stay in a city he loves, doing work he loves.

“We don’t come into this job because the hours are good, because the pay is good. I came in because I want my two eyes to document things around me,” says Darrow. “It’s like a narcotic, you can try to leave, but it hauls you in. I have gotten enough opportunities to have jobs that pay me double and have less stress, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same.”