Sarah Dennis never thought she would run the family newspaper on her own
By Chelcie Soroka
On a hot and hazy summer morning in August 2002, Sarah Dennis walked from her house to her parent’s house next door on Bloomingdale Terrace in Halifax. She was on maternity leave with her third daughter, and was getting ready for her father’s 75th birthday party later that day.
Looking up, Sarah saw two of her colleagues from the family business, the Chronicle Herald newspaper, standing in the driveway. This was unusual.
They had just received a phone call about William, Sarah’s younger brother. He was a director at the Herald and had helped launch the Sunday Herald four years earlier.
While in London for a friend’s wedding, tragedy had struck: William unexpectedly died. Sarah’s colleagues brought her father home from the office and were trying to figure out how to break the news. They told Sarah first.
“I just crumbled,” she says. “My whole world came crashing down.”
A terrible day then became more awful. It fell to Sarah to tell her parents their only son had died, at the age of 30.
Sarah says she and William planned to run the family business together.
“We had good discussions and could lead a heated discussion and still be brother and sister.”
With Williams’ death, the plan changed.
[pullquote]But life goes on; you’ve got to somehow pick up the pieces. There wasn’t much of an option.
– Sarah Dennis, Herald president and CEO[/pullquote]
The company is still owned by their 84-year-old father, Graham Dennis; he’s the official publisher. Sarah is president and CEO.
The paper is the largest of the four independent daily newspapers left in Canada. Sarah started working at the paper taking classified ads when she was only 14. Now she’s 41, and has been running the place for almost a year. She’s the fourth generation of her family to lead the biggest newspaper in the Atlantic provinces. She never thought she’d be running it alone.
It has been a tumultuous couple of years at the Herald. When Sarah was vice president in March 2009, the paper laid off a quarter of its newsroom. This spring, it lost many of its freelancers after they refused to sign a new contract. Weekly readership of Canadian print newspapers has risen for the past three years, according to a 2011 NADbank study. But current daily circulation for the Chronicle Herald is 114,000. That’s 24,000 fewer copies than 25 years ago, when daily circulation was 138,000.
William’s body was found by a maid in his hotel room in London. Post-mortem and toxicology tests did not show what killed him, but it’s believed he died of complications from an epileptic seizure.
“William had been having seizures in his sleep,” Sarah says. “It had been misdiagnosed many times.”
“He had a seizure so severe that he got concerned. He went and saw a neurologist who said he might have epilepsy. He had made an appointment for a CT scan and EEG.”
Because William chose to attend his friend’s wedding, he never made it to that appointment.
“I had a hard time sleeping after that. Your head keeps going. You can’t stop thinking. But life goes on; you’ve got to somehow pick up the pieces. There wasn’t much of an option.”
Sarah’s father never pushed her to work at the paper, but she always wanted to.
She graduated from Dalhousie University in 1991 with a BA, majoring in political science. She also graduated with an MBA from Saint Mary’s University in 1997 that focused on marketing.
SMU professor Dr. Cathy Driscoll taught Sarah a course on social issues in business. Dr. Driscoll says she was “very inquisitive and very much a critical thinker. Often times she would be the student that would make me be on my toes a little bit and she would challenge me.”
Sarah’s friends in the program were high-achievers. “One of them went on to get a job on Wall Street; one is very successful in the financial services industry here in Halifax.”
Sarah says as an independent newspaper, the Chronicle Herald isn’t controlled by a publicly-held company that expects quarterly returns. “Being an independent paper, we’ve got a longer term view; we can take a longer approach on things.” This means there’s not as much pressure on staff to get results, since some projects can take a year to get up and running.
“The fact that we’re not controlled by someone in Ontario makes a big difference in what we can do.”
Sarah says the newspaper is distinctly Nova Scotian, and by not having someone in another province telling it what to do, or print, it can focus its efforts on being a paper Nova Scotians, and Atlantic Canadians, want to read.
“We want to remain independent for as long as we can.”
Graham Dennis, who fended off countless offers from media corporations over the years, echoed similar sentiments: “I think it’s got to stay independent rather than put up with all these so-called people in Upper Canada.”
Sarah thinks her brother would have liked the portrait because it shows him with more hair. William was balding.
It’s a lot of work to keep the newspaper running, but Sarah says she has a tougher job: being Mommy. She has three daughters from her first marriage. Gillian is nine, Alex 11 and Abbie almost 14.
Sarah married her second husband, Mark Lever, in August. Lever has two children that also occasionally live at Sarah’s house. With five kids living in her house sometimes, Sarah has almost five times the national average, which is just 1.1 children per family (not counting children who have grown up and moved out), according to the 2006 census.
Family is a big part of Sarah’s life. Every morning, after dropping her children off at Armbrae Academy and Halifax Grammar School, she phones her mom. “She’s one of my best friends.” Sarah calls her to check in, and to see how her parents are doing.
Before Sarah’s children can work at the paper, they have to work somewhere else first. “I think that will help them so much in understanding what people go through in trying to get a job.”
Sarah’s only job outside of the family business was in the hosiery department at Eaton’s. She regrets not working at other places.
The future of newspapers is uncertain. There are budget cuts and layoffs even though Halifax, compared to the largest six Canadian cities, had the highest percentage of its population reading print newspapers last year, according to NADbank.
When the Herald cut 24 people from its newsroom almost three years ago, they were the first layoffs in its 136-year history.
Sarah says firing people was necessary to keep the Herald going.
“It was something that was required for what happened to advertising, it just fell off a cliff. Our two biggest costs are the two P’s: people and paper.”
The Herald and Freelancers
The Nova Scotia journalism community is still abuzz from a spat in spring, 2011, that ended with many freelancers cutting ties with the Herald because of a copyright dispute.
The newspaper wrote a new, mandatory contract, giving it the right to freelancers’ work forever. Freelancers didn’t get any extra money for signing over the paper and digital copyright. Twenty to 30 freelancers refused to sign it, Michael OReilly, president of the Canadian Freelance Union, said in an email. Sarah Dennis says only a few freelancers refused to sign.
Silver Donald Cameron was a regular freelancer who didn’t sign. He wondered if the Herald “wanted to solve the problem or whether they were just as happy to get rid of their expensive, older freelancers.”
Ralph Surette also refused to sign the mandatory contract. “I think right now, it’s almost about survival with all the newspapers going under… I think everything they do there has an eye to cutting costs.”
Dennis says the contract came about after talks with Herald managers and lawyers, looking at newspapers across the country, and doing “something that’s very similar to what they’re doing.”
Stuart Robertson of Toronto is a leading lawyer on Canadian media law. He says there is no consensus among publishers about what is needed in freelancers’ contracts.
Dennis says despite the contract the Chronicle Herald still attracts more freelancers then any other Atlantic Canadian publication.
Paul Benedetti, coordinator for the journalism program at the University of Western Ontario, says the Herald’s newsroom chop and new freelancer contract are moves other news corporations have also made. “What you’re seeing happening at the Chronicle Herald is merely a reflection of what’s (happened) across the country over the last (several) years. The Herald’s just following in the footsteps of other media organizations.”
This trend is also present in American media, where the number of newsroom employees dropped to its lowest point in over 30 years in 2009, according to the PEW Research Center.
Sarah’s office is on the top floor of the Chronicle Herald building, aptly located on Joseph Howe Drive. Her office is big. One side features a large desk showcasing numerous photos of family and friends as well as plaques and awards she’s received. This includes the Top 40 Under 40, a national award that honours significant levels of achievement in the business world.
There’s no mug on her desk. She says she limits herself to one cup of coffee a day and tries to drink water instead.
Her brown, oversized Louis Vuitton purse rests against the side of her desk.
The other side of her office has a couch and two chairs surrounding a table. The sculptured tripod-style legs made of light cherry support a thick piece of glass with the name Isamu Noguchi etched subtly into the edge. The iconic table, produced since 1948, costs just over $1,400 on highbrowfurniture.com.
Sarah is a no-nonsense person. Her business meetings are efficient and quick. She wears a headset when she talks on the phone, leaving her hands free to answer emails on both her computer and BlackBerry.
Sarah says her father has always had his number listed in the phone book; it still is today. She remembers “getting a call Christmas Day from an upset reader… they were upset about something and they called the house that day. Dad was very patient and listened.”
“I’ve always known that people are watching because of my last name. I want to be successful in this job. I don’t want to fail. I work very hard. The pressure is really on me to sort of shepherd this along.”
In September, Sarah decided to try and strengthen the content side of the paper. To do this she hired her uncle, Ian Thompson, as associate publisher.
Thompson is also there to help Sarah’s father and provide an outside perspective on what the Herald does and how it operates.
When she was 22, Sarah caught her first salmon. Thompson was in the canoe with her. It was 15 or 20 pounds, Sarah says, and the fishing rod ran out of line as she reeled it in.
Like Thompson, Dan Leger is also involved with content: he’s the director of news content at the Chronicle Herald. Leger says, for the most part, Sarah leaves the journalism side to him.
Sarah doesn’t make editorial decisions. She says she never considered becoming a journalist. But she does have a favourite newspaper legend: Katharine Graham.
Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post for many years, including in the early 1970s when it uncovered the Watergate conspiracy that led to President Nixon’s resignation.
Sarah’s favourite author is murder mystery novelist Kathy Reichs, her favourite wine an Italian red and she enjoys watching American football. “I like the Indianapolis Colts but they lost their quarterback this year. He had neck surgery and he hasn’t thrown a pass yet so it’s not looking so good.”
Playing games with her children relaxes her, even though the last game they played was Battleship.
Her best family vacation was in Cuba “because the BlackBerrys didn’t work.”
Sarah spends a lot of time on her BlackBerry. It’s with her throughout the week at the office. She uses it to keep in touch with work in the evenings and on weekends. She says her children are good at reminding her to put it away, and to not answer it during dinner.
“Nobody ever died saying they wish they worked more. They died wishing they spent more time with their family.”
William’s ashes are interred in a family grave. The tall, rectangular, pink granite tombstone is sheltered by a tall maple tree and has engravings on all four sides honouring past generations of the Dennis family. It’s in Camp Hill Cemetery in central Halifax, where Joseph Howe is also buried.
William has been dead for nearly 10 years. Sarah doesn’t mind talking about her brother, but when she does her eyes turn red and she pauses sometimes for a shaky breath between sentences.
She says her family had no idea William would die from epilepsy. “We never thought this was going to happen. We hadn’t had those conversations.
“We now have those conversations.”