By Abby Plener
THE TORONTO STAR BUILDING stands tall at 25 storeys high, overlooking the waterfront. The address is 1 Yonge Street, punctuating the road that marks the division between the city’s east and west corridors. Its location seems apropos, given the Star’s long-standing history — a daily that evolved from its initial incarnation as The Evening Star in 1892 to become the most widely circulated paper in the country. Though the paper’s name is emblazoned on the building’s grey concrete exterior in its trademark blue script, only two floors and part of a third are actually used by the Toronto Star and its parent company, Torstar, while the rest are rented out to other organizations.
The Star newsroom sits on the fifth floor. Exiting the elevator at floor five, guests are greeted by black-and-white portraits of the paper’s past publishers. The newsroom was designed to hold a much greater capacity than its dwindling staff currently requires. Jim Rankin, a staff reporter and photographer, estimates that when he started working there in 1990, the newsroom was home to approximately 450 employees, a number which he says is now down to 196. Rankin also serves as the vice-chair of the Star’s Unifor local. In 2016 alone, 61 newsroom positions were cut — 13 in January, and 48 in August.
Rankin leads the way to a set of leather chairs in the newsroom’s research library on this cool December day. The window faces south toward Lake Ontario, looking out over land that used to be owned by the Star and is now being developed for condo towers. As the reporter takes a seat, he reflects on the year behind him. “I’m excited for this year to be over. Everyone is. We had a lot on our plates and it’s got to be better next year, right?” Despite the Star’s difficult 2016, his tone is calm and measured, as if he has been meditating on this desire for optimism all year long.
Industry observers are prone to wax poetic about the uncertain future of major newspapers like the Star. But to cast the Star as simply another footnote in the evolving story of Canadian newspapers dismisses the very real life experiences of the people affected by these changes. Certainly, many of the struggles the Star faces echo ongoing conversations in the Canadian news industry about layoffs, advertising revenue, and digital engagement. But a review of the seismic events that took place at the Star in 2016 reveals that the cracks in the structure at 1 Yonge are growing at an accelerating rate. In 2016, headline after headline described jobs lost and a grief-stricken newsroom, along with investigations into a toxic work culture and disagreements with the union about how to address it. Last year posed historic challenges for the paper. As the ink spills into 2017, how will the Star move forward?
THE STAR IS IN A STATE of transition as it welcomes new leadership. In March 2016, 62-year-old John Cruickshank announced that he would be stepping down from his role as publisher, noting that “it was time for generational change.” Outgoing Torstar CEO David Holland took on Cruickshank’s publishing duties, but just four months later, the 58-year-old executive announced that he would also be retiring.
But while the search for Holland’s successor continued, he still held court at 1 Yonge. He met me at his office on the sixth floor — one floor above the newsroom — where the white elevator doors and wood panelling from floor five morphed into green marble and gold oral detailing.
While Holland worked for Torstar for over 30 years, he took on the role of CEO in 2009 during the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Holland says the business never fully recovered from that downturn. In his estimation, just as the business was starting to stabilize, the speed with which advertisers shifted from print to other digital platforms posed another great challenge. “I can’t claim that we’ve cracked the code of what the sustainable position is for great brands like the Toronto Star. As much as I’m very proud of my time in the industry today, it’s been very hard to figure out how to develop a really sustainable position in the face of significant change,” he says.
Holland admits that part of his motivation for retiring at this point is that, like Cruickshank, he feels his skill set no longer matches the reality of the business: “I think someone who has more DNA about the digital ecosystem is the right person to lead.” He says that maintaining reader engagement is one of the major challenges the Star is currently con- fronting. The development of the Star Touch tablet app was designed to address this hurdle. He admits that Star Touch has been slower to catch on than he had hoped, but contends that analytics for the app report high levels of engagement — some users are spending 30 minutes a day on the app, which he notes is much higher than the amount of time users spend on the Star website.
Many of those laid off in 2016 worked in temporary positions that were originally created to support Star Touch. At the end of 2015, Holland set a goal: to gain 180,000 daily readers for the app by end of the following year.
While Star Touch has failed to live up to the executives’ vision, Holland says he has “no regrets at all. Better to have tried than to have not tried.” He notes that legacy organizations are often criticized for being unwilling to experiment and he is proud that the Star took a risk, rather than maintain the status quo. While attracting users has posed a challenge, he still feels it was a useful experiment to inspire new thinking in the newsroom in terms of how to deliver the same content across different platforms.
Looking ahead, Holland says that the Star is committed to its print product, which still maintains a high number of readers. “We’ll continue to publish and print because there continues to be demand. It may be demand from an older generation but, nevertheless, it’s still good demand.” The major task ahead is figuring out how to increase ad revenue on multiple platforms. “I think one of the big challenges that executives in newspaper organizations have to deal with is that [it] used to be quite a simple business 15 years ago. [Now], you’ve actually got multiple products … and the advertiser interest in those audiences varies,” Holland says. He’s also eager to see how the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage’s study of the Canadian news industry will unfold and whether the government will take an active role in supporting the newspaper industry. “There’s an important role for newspapers going forward and I think that’s part of the reason you see at least some level of interest on the part of the government.”
While Star Touch has failed to live up to
the executives’ vision, Holland says he has “no regrets at all.”
Holland takes pride in working for a company that has the Atkinson Principles as part of its core mandate. Inspired by former publisher Joseph E. Atkinson, the Star refers to these guide posts as part of its editorial mission, reflecting its commitment to progressive values. Still, he admits the amount of change that has taken place does take a personal toll. “One of the hard things for me during my tenure is the substantial restructuring and how many people’s lives have been changed as a result of that.”
As the executives on the sixth floor take the Star in a new direction, the newsroom on the floor below is trying to find its own way to move forward from the events of 2016. An independent, third-party reviewer has been appointed to investigate the paper’s newsroom culture. The review is being led by Glenn French, president and CEO of The Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, who began conducting interviews in February 2017. Staff will be invited to participate confidentially, and the recommendations will be shared with the company and the union once the report is complete.
The review came in the aftermath of Raveena Aulakh’s suicide in May 2016. Aulakh was an award-winning environmental reporter at the Star. The paper’s union originally requested for this third-party investigation to take place almost immediately after her suicide. In a letter to the Star’s vice-president of human resources, Brian Daly, the union wrote: “The newsroom is heartbroken and angry. Employees want answers. Workplace health and safety is at stake.”
However, the Star’s management rejected the union’s initial plea for a third-party review at first and opted to conduct its own internal investigation instead. The internal investigation, led by the company’s HR team, included a review of current workplace policies, relevant emails, and other correspondence, as well as interviews with staff.
The investigation confirmed that Aulakh was in a relationship with senior editor Jon Filson, whom she then discovered was having an affair with their boss, managing editor Jane Davenport. Star public editor Kathy English outlined the complex relationships in a column published June 7, 2016. Both Filson and Davenport are no longer employed by the Star.
Unifor led a grievance, insisting that a third-party review was still needed to examine the Star’s newsroom culture. An agreement was finally reached in October 2016, and the third-party review led by French is underway. The grievance has been put on hold for now, but Unifor reserves the right to proceed with it, pending the outcome of the third- party review.
Rankin hopes that the review will provide staff with an opportunity to see their concerns addressed and, ultimately, be able to move forward. “The place will function better as a journalistic outlet if people are happy and proud and feel respected. It only increases the place’s ability to do what we’re supposed to do as journalists. I’m optimistic, I really am. And it’s easy when you’ve had a crappy year because, you think, ‘nothing could be worse than what we went through.’ And that’s kind of a common feeling, I think,” he says.
Former Star reporter Paul Watson has a long history at the paper. He started as a summer intern in the 1970s but spent a large part of his career working remotely as the Star’s Arctic correspondent and as a foreign reporter — earning a Pulitzer Prize in the process. He publicly resigned in July 2015 following a tense disagreement with Star management over a story he was working on about a historic shipwreck discovery and its connection with the Harper government.
Referring to a 2016 National Post story about the Star’s internal investigation resulting from Aulakh’s death, Watson says, “I’ve been hoping that someone would stand up publicly and say what those sources said. They didn’t feel safe to do that, but I’m sure glad they [spoke anonymously] because that exposes [what] I’m talking about. [Management] did exactly what the companies we go after do. They try to obfuscate, lie, and fool their way out of a bad situation.”
During his time at the Star, Watson returned to 1 Yonge occasionally for meetings — but in recent years, he felt the newsroom had changed. “I was shocked at how quiet the place was,” says Watson. “[There was] a sense of fear.” As a young reporter, he recalls being a part of a vibrant, sometimes boisterous newsroom, where colleagues had passionate discussions about their work. “There was very much a Toronto Star culture; it was a rich place. We were encouraged to zig when everyone else zagged.”
When asked whether he thinks the reputation of the Star has changed among fellow journalists, Watson says, “I lament the fact that more journalists are not speaking out. The public is under the impression that this is a matter of technology, that the death of newspapers is written in stone because they can’t compete in the digital world.” He continues, “The Toronto Star can be a successful news organization online if the people running it step aside and make way for people who know what they’re doing. There are many journalists who know that fact, but they are afraid to say so.” Despite his recent experiences and his very public resignation from the paper, Watson rmly believes that the Star is an institution worth saving, imploring that “the country needs the place.”
On October 7, 2016, the Star announced that David Skok, formerly of The Boston Globe, would take on the role of associate editor and head of editorial strategy for its digital products. He spent the final months of the year meeting with Star staff individually and in larger groups, getting to know them and answering questions. Rankin sat down with him for an hour-long chat. Sitting in the Star library in mid-December, Rankin relayed his first impressions: “He really cares about the Star — I think that’s genuine.”
“There was very much a Toronto Star culture; it was a rich place. We were encouraged to zig when everyone else zagged.”
AS A FORMER REPORTER and vice-chair at the Star’s union, Dan Smith was proud to see the union challenge management and demand a workplace culture investigation. It was a testament to the union’s ability to demand fair treatment of employees and promote a positive work environment. However, when it comes to protecting the staff’s financial interests, Smith says that there have been occasions when he felt the union should have fought harder. “I think they bought too easily into this notion that traditional media is dying, [and] it’s a matter of limiting our losses as the inevitable decline continues.”
Smith was involved with the Star’s union for the majority of his career, serving in various capacities from 1988 until his departure in June 2015. “We’ve been cutting and shaving the value of our contract since the early 2000s.” With layoffs and buyouts, union membership is shrinking as the staff gets smaller and younger. Smith says that younger staffers have grown accustomed to precarious employment and temporary contracts and he fears that they do not trust the union’s ability to fight for their interests. He quips that he felt secure enough in his position at the Star that he would lead a union meeting while editor Michael Cooke was running a news meeting steps away. “There was no fear, in other words. [But with] a much younger cohort, especially one that doesn’t have experience in unionized workplaces, I’m sure it’s more difficult than ever.”
While Smith cites the concessions the union has made over the last 15 years, Wayne MacPhail says the problem goes back even further. MacPhail formerly served as the director of Southam InfoLab, which provided research and development services for the Southam news- paper chain. In that role, he visited the Toronto Star newsroom in the 1990s to see how its online news was being produced. He was surprised to discover that the web team was mostly made up of non-journalists who were not members of the union. Today, the Star’s digital and tablet teams do consist of trained journalists, but MacPhail believes that the desire to keep web production staff out of the union in the 1990s “set newspapers back five years. They did themselves enormous damage by ignoring it and thinking it could be non-guild work. They’re still set back by that misjudgment.”
MacPhail says that, in newsrooms, there is still an unconscious belief that digital staff can rely on younger, more inexperienced talent. He says that if the Star was truly prioritizing digital strategy the way it claimed to be with the Star Touch app, the Star would place a greater emphasis on including seasoned journalists in that process instead of relying on new hires. In January 2015, the Star announced 60 new hires as it prepared to launch the tablet app. In a memo to staff, editor Michael Cooke said these new hires “will bring an explosion of freshness our newsroom has never before seen in such a concentrated time.” Many of these new hires were subsequently laid off by the Star in 2016.
The 2016 layoffs prompted significant restructuring within the newsroom as the paper aims to produce the same level of content with less staff. Three broad divisions within editorial have been created, consisting of beats, bureaus, and columnists; a breaking news team combining city reporters and the digital desk; and a combination of teams involved with investigations, special projects, and features.
The shuffling means that many reporters and editors settled into new roles in the final months of 2016. Jim Rankin says “a lot of the moves were well-received; there’s a lot of reasons to be positive moving forward. Good people got good jobs, that makes people happy to work for them.”
While its digital strategy remains in flux, over half of the Star’s readership still comes from print. Rankin says that within the newsroom itself, there is a divide between those who believe there will always be a print newspaper and those who think the Star could become digital-only. He says he continues to be amazed by the high number of daily newspapers that still exist in Toronto, pointing to that anomaly as evidence that an audience for print still exists — but financial stability is still a big question. “It’s a big drag ’em out, sock ’em out war to see who drops first,” he says.
He says that while 2016 was a tough year for employees, his peers’ perseverance remains unshaken. “That’s a real challenge for the managers, to keep everyone moving forward, because it can be really easy to say, ‘You know, why do we bother?’ — but that’s not happening. People, on a daily basis, do their jobs the best they can [and] you have to focus on that.”
For deputy digital editor Shree Paradkar, 2016 marked the year that she began a regular column at the Star, covering race issues. Paradkar had contributed occasional op-ed pieces about race in the past, but she doubted that there was sufficient interest within the newsroom for it to become a regular feature. Yet, when the newsroom was reorganized in fall 2016, staff were encouraged to speak up about potential changes. Paradkar was pleasantly surprised to learn from managing editor Irene Gentle that many staff wanted to see increased coverage about race.
The first installment, published on November 4, was dedicated to Raveena Aulakh. “She wanted me to do this column,” she says. “Her last email to me was that she was very happy that I was writing about these important topics. So when the column became real, I wanted to dedicate it to her. It’s something she wanted and I’m doing it for her.”
That first column called out newsrooms, including the Star’s, for their lack of racial diversity. Paradkar says it was well-received by fellow staffers and managers, and the fact that many of her peers have been discussing the issue is a positive step. Yet, she insists that newsrooms like the Star’s need to keep pushing forward and should never become complacent. “We’re losing out on talent and opportunities to expand because people are not aware,” she says of the cost of not diversifying.
As the Star carries on into 2017, the foundation at 1 Yonge stands on shifting ground. Many of the paper’s staff are taking on new roles in the wake of their colleagues’ departures, awaiting the results of the newsroom culture review. Staff are eager to hear more about the Star’s evolving digital strategy as they welcome new leadership whom they hope will help expand its future digital footprint.
“Maybe 2016 was the year at the Star when we were open about the need for change,” says Paradkar. The future is anything but clear, but it is certain that 2016 has left its mark on the Star’s collective memory.
With its most recent report, it’s evident that Torstar’s confidence in the Star Touch app is clearly shaken. Its investment in the app for 2017 is expected to reach between $2 million to $4 million — a significant cutback from the approximately $11 million it spent on the app in 2016. Rankin says that since the initial launch of the app, the editorial approach to Star Touch has shifted: “We have to care about every plat- form equally and that means we don’t put all our eggs into one digital product.”
On March 3, 2017, Torstar finally announced Holland’s replacement after almost eight months of searching. John Boynton, a 53-year-old loyalty marketing executive and former vice president of Rogers Communications, was to begin on March 31. With the announcement of his incoming tenure as CEO and publisher, Boynton noted that while he envisions Star Touch will play a role in the publication’s future, it’s clear “that smartphones are volumetrically the bigger medium right now.”
While the Star welcomed a new CEO in March, the preceding month saw Skok’s abrupt departure. On February 3, 2017, a memo was sent to staff announcing it was Skok’s last day at the Star. His parting words came in the form of a message posted on Twitter: “When I left The Boston Globe after three years to come back to Toronto for my hometown paper, it was a dream come true…. But the t is not what I’d hoped and so after mutually respectful conversation with my colleagues here, I have decided to leave the Star.”
As 2017 moves ahead, it’s yet to be seen how this turnover will impact the paper’s future.
Abby Plener is the digital production editor at the RRJ. You can follow her on Twitter @AJPlener