Blog by John Miller

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Lopping off limbs

As usual, Monty Python was way ahead of its time.

In 1975, the British comedy troupe created a fictional character called the Black Knight for its movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The movie featured a hilarious sword fight between King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and the Black Knight (John Cleese). One by one, the Black Knight's limbs are hacked off, but the stubborn combatant refuses to acknowledge any serious damage, insisting "Tis but a scratch." Finally, when the Knight is reduced to a writhing torso, he offers to "call it a draw" and then yells at the victorious Arthur: "Running away, eh? ... Come back here and take what's coming to ya! I'll bite your legs off!"

The Black Knight comes to mind as I read the justifications of the publisher and the editor of the Toronto Star for their decision yesterday to effectively decapitate their newsroom.

Canada’s largest daily newspaper said 55 employees would be laid off, half in its editorial department. That's about 9 percent of the paper's remaining workforce, but the real news lies in who's being cut: The people with the last set of eyes. The people who put the news in the paper and ensure it is accurate and fair. The people who write the headlines and size the pictures. The people who trim the stories to fit, who check the spelling and catch the typos. Some of the people who sell the ads and help reporters with their research. And almost all of the remaining page designers, who have won the paper numerous awards.

Memos from publisher John Cruickshank and editor Michael Cooke bravely insisted the cuts were strategic and carefully considered, but (according to Cruickshank) "the loss of valued, close colleagues will be challenging to all, and we will need to tap into our shared commitment to the Star’s mission and purpose as we navigate these challenging times."

That's corporate bullshit for the wheels are falling off the bus, and the only way out is to lighten the load.

Although there are rumours of even more cuts to come, the Star's key decision yesterday was to contract out the copy editing and design of its news pages to Pagemasters North America, a Toronto-based company it partially owns. I may be wrong, but I believe this makes the Star the first large Canadian daily to allow someone else to edit and design all of its news pages.

The move is entirely economic. The top rate for a Pagemasters editor is $48,000 while the salary for the same job at the Star is close to $85,000.

The paper tried to do the same thing three years ago but called off the plan after its editorial union protested and suggested other ways for the company to save money.

Not surprisingly, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unit condemned yesterday's move as devastating and wrongheaded.

"Why fire the people designing and laying out the pages of the country's biggest paper while throwing good money after bad at money-losing in Star Content Studios?" the union's Stuart Laidlaw said. "Why cut ad staff when the thing we need most is more ads? Why choke its journalists' research abilities in an era when value-added content is king? Why cede control of online monitoring to an outside entity when one rogue comment can land us in court? The company also said it plans to contract out the radio room in the coming months "

Editor Cooke, who at least acknowledged the decison was painful, put on his best Black Knight act in proclaiming the Star's journalism, despite the loss of so many limbs, still shines.

"We cover the ebb and flow of the news and we're the best in the country at that. We have exclusives that leave our opponents choking on our dust, we have investigations that expose astonishing wrongdoing, and we get action for changing lives and making our town a better place.

"We can be proud. The thousands of journalists who came before us here and whose legacy we inherited would be proud, too, if they could see our work today. We owe it to them to keep going and to keep getting better at what we do on all the platforms on which we now place our work."

And that is corporate bullshit for we'll give you a light pat on the back as we frogmarch you out the door.

Like Cooke, I spent my career at the Star writing headlines and laying out pages and checking stories other people wrote for fairness, accuracy and completeness. I founded and edited the Sunday Star and innovative sections like What's On. A special section I edited on the death of John Lennon was singlehandedly responsible for the Sunday Star overtaking the Sunday Sun as the largest Sunday paper in the country. That was a long time ago, but good editing increased circulation and added to the paper's profit and readership.

That's what the Star is throwing overboard. The things it needs most right now.

God help quality journalism when the Star, which once sent Ernest Hemingway to cover wars, Milt Dunnell to cover games, Peter C. Newman to cover politics and Gordon Sinclair to cover life, is short-sighted enough to let $25-an-hour strangers dress up the news every day and shove it on stage.