Torstar Corp. has struck a compromise with the union representing journalists at its flagship newspaper over a new classification of lower-paid digital journalists that has roiled the newsroom.
Under the agreement, most of the new digital jobs at the Toronto Star will be made temporary positions within the union, at least until the current staff contract expires at the end of 2016, according to a bulletin distributed to members on Monday. In the event of layoffs, editorial staff will now also have a right to “bump” into digital jobs if they are qualified.
The Star had already begun filling 17 newly classified “digital” jobs, such as online writers, editors and producers. The move prompted an angry response from the union, Local 87-M of Unifor, whose leaders argued the company was creating “second-tier jobs in the newsroom.” The new hires will be paid, in many cases, less than entry-level reporters.
The new deal, approved in a vote by 92 per cent of union members, gives the Star two-and-a-half years to continue assessing and adjusting its digital strategy and needs. But after months of tough negotiations, it does not entirely solve the standoff over staffing.
“It gives us an opportunity to actually work together and see, what do these jobs actually look like?” said Liz Marzari, the Star’s unit chair for Unifor Local 87-M. “... It buys everybody some time.”
Under the new deal, Torstar will withdraw a series of “Digital Reporter” postings, which were the most controversial of the new jobs as they sought to divide reporters in the editorial department from online writers. Any new reporters will now join the editorial department, either in permanent or temporary roles.
“It created a sensitivity among some of our younger reporters who were fearful that [Digital Reporter] would be the growing category,” and that full staff reporters “wouldn’t be valued in the same way,” said John Cruickshank, the Star’s publisher, in an interview. “And I just wanted to make it absolutely clear that that’s not the case.”
The remaining digital jobs, whose descriptions don’t match existing newsroom roles, will reside in a separate Torstar.com department as temporary positions. The lone exceptions are for five digital staff already hired to the new category – a video producer, two video editors and two social media assistants – whose jobs will be permanent.
Mr. Cruickshank acknowledged there will likely be new issues to settle in 2016, but said, “it’s a strong agreement for both sides.”
Digital journalism is a crucial plank in Torstar’s strategy. The company’s first-quarter revenue for 2014 was down 6.6 per cent from a year earlier, due in large part to a continued erosion of print advertising. But print and digital subscriber revenue has risen.
Early last month, the Star’s journalists withheld bylines from the newspaper on the day Torstar held its annual meeting, in protest against the new digital classification and pressure the company to negotiate an alternative. Mr. Cruickshank told investors at the May 7 meeting that the company’s desire “was simply to go to market rates,” as print revenue has sagged.
“What we’re talking about is creating a new opportunity for the future at a market rate that reflects our opportunities in digital, which are, I think everybody understands, far different from the high points that we have hit in print in the past,” Mr. Cruickshank said at the time.
The Star looked to news websites such as the Huffintgon Post to determine the wage scale for its new digital jobs – a comparison that infuriated many current reporters and editors. Mr. Cruickshank said he believes the Star has now “locked in market rates.”
Negotiations were sometimes acrimonious, but the two sides will soon create a joint employee-management working group to advise on digital issues, beginning work in September.
“It’s not exactly what anybody wanted, it is a compromise,” Ms. Marzari said. “But I think that it’s a reasonable compromise.”