Last week the Toronto Star announced a couple of things. First, they laid off 11 full time page editors. Second, they announced the creation of a new department, torstar.com and its intention to hire 17 new digital staff including video editors, digital producers and social media assistants. This is the first time folks in the torstar.ca wing of the company have actually been journalists. Historically torstar.ca been staffed by production folks and was, for a few years, jobbed out to another company completely.
The odd thing is, the new hires will be paid a good deal less than their compatriots in the print newsroom. According to a memo sent by the paper’s editor-in-chief Michael Cooke and its managing editor, Jane Davenport, the Star will pay the new hires the same kind of money they could make at Bell Media, Huffpo or Facebook. They called the lower salaries (over $200 per week lower, in some cases) “market-based rates”. The memo states: “... new digital jobs cannot be rated on print business legacy rates of pay.”
This is an odd position, especially in a unionized shop that is in the print business. A digital journalist is still a journalist and must be doing the same work as a print journalist. So why is one employee paid less just because his or her work doesn’t end up as ink on cellulose?
And, the new positions are in a different department from the main newsroom, which means that although they are unionized jobs, the new hires won’t be bumped, if there are layoffs. And, of course, that means that print journalists don’t roll into the torstar.com positions. They could, of course apply for the 17 new slots, but they’d have to take a cut in pay.
According to Unifor unit chair for the Star, Liz Marzari, the union is worried that the digital journalists are getting substantially lower pay for the same work. And, since, in the near future almost all journalism work will be digital, that means the new hires will set a new low bar for journalists working at the Star. “We object to the company trying to take an end-run around hard won seniority,” says Marzari. “we understand that if there were lay offs the new digital journalist hires would be vulnerable, but let’s have a conversation about it, not just isolate them.”
She says Unifor can take legal action and wants to continue discussing the situation with Star management.
Of course, in an ideal world Star staff would have already acquired the digital skills they need to be capable online journalists. And, in that same ideal world, they would be paid the same no matter what kind of journalism they practised. But, clearly, that’s not the case. The Star has historically treated online work as production work, not journalism.
Back in the late 90s I visited the Toronto Star to see how they tackled online news. My hosts directed me to a sprawling space full of eager young faces, all illuminated by monitors that still gave off the nerd-attracting pheromones of fresh packaging. But this was not the newsroom of the Toronto Star. This was a whole other team, the web team. They were not journalists, not part of the Guild and they were not paid on the same wage scale as the ink-stained folks nearby. In fact, they weren't even allowed to alter copy from the newsroom. What went in the paper went on the site, no rewritten headlines, no new subheads, no grabber quotes. Certainly no video or new photos. Nothing. The people in the room were just web jockeys, there only to shovel the print edition online. The Toronto Star wanted to keep these young people as far away from journalism and as far away from the Guild as they could.
But now, even though the new Torstar.ca team will be doing journalism, the old ideas of the print view of the worth of digital journalism seem to prevail. It is devalued. And the Star seems to want it both ways. They want the cache of being an elder statesman of print journalism in Toronto, but, when it suits them, they expect to behave like a nimble, digital native, despite having far more overhead, legacy equipment and legacy union agreements.
That’s not fair. It’s not fair to longtime Star journalists who will be bought out, retire or move on without truly participating in digital journalism. It’s not fair to the new hires who will be blamed for setting a new low in journalism wages and who will lack the deep experience of the Star culture and maybe of serious journalism and still be expected to publish quality work. And, it’s not fair to the publications readers, who should expect both the best journalism and the most modern delivery of that news and not have to settle for one or other because the Star wants to cavort around as mutton dressed like lamb.