Blog by John Miller

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A death wish?

Spare a tender thought for my old paper, the Toronto Star, which was once able to send Ernest Hemingway and Ralph Allen to cover wars, Nathan Cohen to cover the arts, Peter C. Newman to cover politics, Milt Dunnell to cover sports, and Gordon Sinclair, Pierre Berton and Duncan Macpherson to cover life.

Like all newspapers, the Star is struggling with declining advertising and readership and how to pay down debt in the midst of a difficult recession. But because it's the biggest, it has the furthest to fall. Perhaps it also has the most to tell us about the future of how we'll receive our news.

This week publisher John Cruickshank announced "the biggest restructuring of the Star's workforce in its history." As part of a plan to cut costs, it is looking to contract out newsroom jobs, including copy editing and page production. The aim is to get the newsroom, which once bustled with 450 reporters and editors, down to a core group of under 300.

His timing was unfortunate and darkly symbolic -- he chose the paper's 117th birthday to announce it, the third layoff notice this year.

If death by a hundred cuts isn't bad enough, the paper doesn't seem to have a clearly thought-out strategy for its survival. Spokesman Bob Hepburn said "we're moving to transform the Star into a multiplatform content organization and we want to reduce costs." What in the world does that mean? Is it something I can hold in my hand? I thought we decided that convergence -- the folly that sank CanWest -- won't work. It sounds like the Star plans to build an Olympic diving tower, and the only question now is which height they'll have to jump from.

If the leaders of the biggest paper in Canada cannot even articulate a clear vision for the future of news on newsprint, what hope is there for the rest of the newspaper industry?

For the Star, which was always an editor's paper, it will have to do it without any in-house copy editors. They evidently now fit Cruickshank's definition of "non-core functions."

Will we as readers notice the difference? You bet we will.

Full disclosure: I started at the Star as a copy editor, and enjoyed an 18-year career there. Copy editors are the footsoldiers of the newsroom and the training ground for newsroom leaders. I went on to serve as foreign editor, founder of the Sunday Star, deputy managing editor and acting managing editor. I left (voluntarily) in 1986, when newspapers were at the height of popularity and profitability. Twelve years later, I authored a book, Yesterday's News: Why Canada's Daily Newspapers Are Failing Us. That's how quickly things changed.

In the course of researching my book, I learned (as I concluded in it) "how a journalism that lacks just about every resource except an abiding faith in its readers can exercise moral leadership and heal rifts and misunderstandings in its community. I learned how the fragile relationship between a reporter and his readers needs to be constantly tended to and how important it is to earn back any trust that's been lost. I learned that pandering -- either to readers or to advertisers -- will not achieve anything that lasts. And I learned that truth, the unvarnished truth, the sometimes hurtful, always elusive, incredibly important truth, can be delivered effectively only by a messenger who is known to be acting in the public interest."

The solutions I proposed in the book were never acted on -- not even one calling for the industry to start experimenting with ways to regain relevance and trust in the face of readership trends that were then starting to be apparent. Clearly, much more drastic action is needed now, another twelve years later, when things have slid so much further downhill.

Instead, we see publishers resorting to management by Monty Python, first cutting this limb off, then that one. As readers, we deserve better.