Alberta Politics
Striking Calgary Herald journalists and supporters walk their first picket line on Nov. 8, 1999, with Local 115A President Andy Marshall in the foreground (Photo: Herald Strike Archive).

From the first nail in the Velvet Coffin to the death of Star Metro — the decline of Alberta’s newspapers

Posted on November 20, 2019, 1:52 am
9 mins

The bad news was delivered on social media yesterday by employees of Star Metro newspapers in cities outside Ontario.

Whatever was behind the Toronto Star’s decision in April 2018 to hire real journalists and publish free print newspapers in five major cities across Canada, including Calgary and Edmonton, apparently it didn’t go according to plan.

The author and the late Brock Ketcham, a hardworking journalist with whom it was a great privilege to work, on the Herald picket line (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The little free Star dailies in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and Toronto had their flaws, but they were infinitely better from a journalistic perspective than the wretched propaganda sheets and their attendant websites published by the foreign-owned Postmedia chain. Which means, in Alberta’s two major cities, Postmedia is all we’ll be left with in print, again.

The last Star Metros will be published on Dec. 20. Merry Christmas to Star Metro’s excellent young journalists!

A bolt-from-the-blue memorandum to Star Metro employees yesterday began with the traditional Orwellian formula of stating the polar opposite of the truth. “Today we are announcing two major developments in our national expansion plan.” (Emphasis added.)

A total of 73 employees will lose their jobs as a result of this “expansion” — or, as the creative writer from the Star’s human resources department put it, will be “affected.” Just in case the “affected” employees were wondering what this meant, the memo continued: “Affected employees have been given written notification of this decision along with an explanation of their severance entitlements.” (Emphasis added, again.)

The Star is opening bureaus in the four cities outside Ontario that had Star Metro newspapers, but they will be smaller operations, run out of the main newspaper’s offices in Toronto — with a Toronto sensibility determining their choice of stories, no doubt.

So this is terrible news for a key contributor to any healthy democracy that was already in dire straits here in Alberta.

Rachel Notley in 2014, shortly before her election as premier (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Indeed, it was 20 years ago this month that the strike at the Calgary Herald began. The strike by journalists at what was once one of Canada’s great metropolitan newspapers began Nov. 8, 1999, and continued until June 30, 2000.

In its heyday, the Herald was known by insiders as “The Velvet Coffin” for the easy life it offered its many employees who chose to stay but not work very hard, and for the career death it seemed to promise those who wanted to work hard but felt the frustrations of creative people in any big bureaucracy. Still, it was a pretty good rag, all things considered, and lived up to its self-billing as the “newspaper of record for Southern Alberta.”

The strike at the Herald began at a moment in history when the long slide of the newspaper industry into irrelevance had barely begun. It resulted from a unionization effort by journalists who feared the coming decades held nothing but cuts, the abandonment of the principles of ethical journalism, and tears — which was pretty much what has happened over the subsequent 20 years.

In the end, the company busted the union — but lost its most experienced and hardest-working journalists, and chased away thousands of its readers.

Looking back, the Herald strike was the first nail in the Velvet Coffin, not just for the Herald, but for the newspaper industry and, indeed, the practice of quality journalism anywhere in Canada.

I’m not sure if anything can bring it back. I am certain, though, that federal subsidies, for which the Star may or may not have been angling when it set up its national mini-chain of free newspapers, won’t do it.

At the start of the strike — a beautiful fall day I still remember clearly — the Globe and Mail described the strikers as “fuming over what they say is the loss of their paper’s integrity.” If only we had known what was yet to come, not just in Calgary but everywhere, we might have turned in our notebooks and pencils right then instead of trying so hard to keep the dream of quality journalism alive.

At this stage in history, there is only one way to revive honest journalism in a place like Alberta and that is for progressive democrats with access to funds to put up the money to found a major Internet news site employing real journalists.

And the only institution in society that could do this — and has done so in other jurisdictions — is the labour movement.

That’s a still-unfulfilled challenge to the organizations for which the Calgary Herald strikers risked, and in many cases sacrificed, their careers.

One of the lowest moments in the political history of the province

It was one of the lowest moments in the political history of the province. During a raucous debate on the conservative premier’s vicious austerity program — a collection of bills that slashed civil service jobs and social services, attacked union rights and human rights, and centralized power in the hands of ethically challenged conservatives in the capital city, the NDP Opposition leader, a former premier, was tossed out of the Legislature.

Former British Columbia premier Dave Barrett with the author in 2008 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

I speak, of course, of Dave Barrett, former premier of British Columbia and NDP Opposition leader in the Legislature in Victoria. The date was Oct. 6, 1983.

So Rachel Notley, former premier of Alberta and NDP Opposition leader in the Legislature in Edmonton was in good company when she was tossed out of the House yesterday in similar circumstances for saying un-parliamentary but entirely believable things about the veracity of certain statements by the government’s House Leader.

At least, unlike Mr. Barrett, she was not physically dragged out of the Legislature by the Sergeant at Arms.

Mr. Barrett went on to serve the federal Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca riding in the House of Commons from 1988 to 1993. In 1989, he ran for the leadership of the federal NDP, losing narrowly on the fourth ballot.

Had he won, it is said here, the NDP would have become the natural progressive voice of Western Canada and might well have checked the destructive rise of the neoliberal Reform Party of Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, which haunts us still.

Mr. Barrett died in February last year at the age of 87.

The author was vice-president of Local 115A of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada during the Calgary Herald strike.

6 Comments to: From the first nail in the Velvet Coffin to the death of Star Metro — the decline of Alberta’s newspapers

  1. Northern Loon

    November 20th, 2019

    An unlikely editor (me) noting that “Mr. Barrett went on to serve the federal Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca riding in the House of Commons from 1998 to 1993” is not possible, unless the HOC has an occasional time warp, which may be a possibility. It is time for a jump to the left.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      November 20th, 2019

      It was a garden-variety typo, the result of the proximity of “8” and “9” on a keyboard. Thanks for pointing it out. It’s been fixed. DJC

      Reply
  2. pogo

    November 20th, 2019

    I’m reluctant to even post. Have I really been admonished and sanctioned here for swearing in text some short (now) years ago? Why should I care? Well, just check out Dante’s 8th and 9th. Gluttony? If we must. https://youtu.be/faeen3y7PV0?t=2012 Hit this second link and know that we’re not all demons. https://historylists.org/art/9-circles-of-hell-dantes-inferno.html Is it fake news? Do you need to attend University to the graduate level to realize that these are the underpinnings? I’m a bit upset at the moment. Seems we’re desperate to challenge our own existence! But oh so reluctant to change! Brilliant! Bring the army of manipulators! Hold the line!

    Reply
  3. Political Ranger

    November 20th, 2019

    I think there may be something, at once, fundamental and visionary about your line on the institution “to revive honest journalism” being the labour movement.
    We have had the canard of the market making the best decisions for the last 4 decades and now, we the people, are facing existential crises, seemingly a new one every day.
    Corporations are no more able to recognise an external threat to their existence any more than they are able to recognise external qualities of their employees and shareholders like mental and physical health, community cohesion or environmental resilience. If we are to survive the next few decades it will depend on the labour of people doing a great many things for the benefit of others.

    Reply
  4. pogo

    November 20th, 2019

    Just in case you thought I didn’t love you? Here it is babies! Christmas! Now you know you’re dead! Enjoy your presents! https://youtu.be/cWuaWBi0or4

    Reply
  5. Andy M,

    November 21st, 2019

    As an active participant, along with you dear blogger and a stalwart band of other former Calgary Herald employees, how could I not respond to the mention of the 20th anniversary of the beginning of an eight-month strike that ended with the decertification of the new local about eight months later?

    In hindsight, I sometimes question the tactics that we used to advance our cause, but the Calgary Herald strike certainly fed off an early recognition of the corporate and ideological hijacking of journalistic values. When we launched our official strike on Nov. 8, 1999, we were met at company property by German shepherd dogs, concrete barriers, and men in paratrooper-like uniforms. As an aside, most of the strikers who took the money and ran — thanks to a kind of settlement with Lord Conrad The Surgeon (who liked to tell his employees they were gangrenous limbs that needed to be amputated) — moved on to live more creative and fulfilling lives.

    And, talking about taking the money and running, it is hard not to still marvel at the heist perpetrated perfectly by the Lord when he soon after sold what was then Hollinger to Izzy Asper and Canwest for $2.6 billion. Absolutely astounding. Then poor Izzy died before his company declared bankruptcy in 2009, only to be scooped up by Postmedia for cents on the dollar.

    And now Postmedia (doing just fine because of its extensive cost cutting, according to an analysis by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) is among media owners ready to line up with their tin cups if the Feds follow through with their offers of handouts. And, maybe Torstar will be rattling its cup, too.

    So, as you note, the obvious future is with the Internet. But can we only trust “progressive democrats” to pick up the torch? That sounds like a limited choice with its own built-in ideological bias. I’m sympathetic, but have we really lost our hope for honest corporate leadership?

    Reply

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