By STEPH WECHSLER
We tracked the layoffs, wage cuts, service reductions and closures since last year. Here’s what we know, what we don’t and what could come next
One year after the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic, media organizations are still in flux. The fate of many “temporarily closed” media operations is still unknown. In some cases, “temporary” cuts or closings have become permanent. In other cases, suspended broadcasts have resumed, newspapers that closed temporarily have reopened and some laid off employees are back at work.
In the first year of the pandemic:
49 outlets — 30 community papers, 15 daily papers and 4 magazines — have suspended or cancelled some or all print editions.
67 media outlets closed temporarily or permanently. Of these, 40 are permanently closed (29 community newspapers, 5 radio stations, 4 online outlets and 2 television stations). At this point, we know of 8 publications that closed and subsequently reopened. The fate of the other 19 media operations that closed temporarily is still unknown.
182 media outlets have reported layoffs or job losses. A total of 17 companies with multiple media holdings also reported layoffs or job losses, but have not provided details about which specific divisions/media outlets are affected.
3,011 editorial and non-editorial jobs have been cut temporarily or permanently. To date, we have confirmed 1,269 permanent job losses. The status of many of the remaining layoffs is unclear. In some cases, employees have been rehired, in other cases it is unknown whether temporary layoffs have turned into permanent job losses.
The COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada, launched a year ago by the Local News Research Project, the Canadian Association of Journalists and J-Source, captures the pandemic’s effects on labour and services across the media industry.
The story of the pandemic’s impact on media in Canada is about the continued loss of community newspapers, fewer jobs across divisions in the media industry and the cancellation of print editions by both daily and weekly newspapers.
The contractions of media organizations mean fewer avenues for audiences to learn about their communities from a range of local news providers. The closing of HuffPost Canada and HuffPost Québec this week, for example, and the earlier elimination of lifestyle and social teams at Corus’s Global News represent lost opportunities for young, diverse media workers. It also crucially signals lost opportunities for companies to build more equitable media cultures that better serve workers and audiences.
Is the worst yet to come?
A Statistics Canada survey from July found that 63 per cent of respondents relied on digital or newspapers’ sites to find COVID-19 information while 35 per cent used social media posts by news organizations.
“The pandemic has writ large the importance of quality, reliable information in life and death times, but at the same time we are seeing a continuing erosion of local journalism,” said April Lindgren, principal investigator for the LNRP and co-creator of the COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada.
Despite the need for verified, timely, independently produced news at the hyperlocal level, the first year of the pandemic saw the permanent closing of 40 media outlets, including 29 community newspapers. Of the outlets that closed temporarily, some have reopened: SaltWire Network in Atlantic Canada, for instance, has re-opened six of the 20 newspapers it temporarily closed in 2020. But the fate of at least 19 other publications that were shuttered across the industry over the past 12 months remains uncertain.
Lindgren, who also runs the Local News Map, a crowd-sourced tool that tracks changes in local media, said that for all of 2020, a total of 50 local media outlets closed. (The Local News Map does not, however, track temporary changes). On the surface, these impacts may appear to be less severe than in 2018, a record-setting year of 69 losses that were driven largely by the closure of 36 newspapers in the Postmedia/Torstar swap.
However, said Lindgren, the worst of the pandemic’s impact may be yet to come.
Some media companies have received support from government programs over the past year. Federal money for the Local Journalism Initiative is funding the hiring of journalists to fill gaps in local coverage and qualified Canadian journalism organizations under Heritage Canada guidelines are eligible for labour tax credits. Media organizations have also had access to pandemic relief such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.
The inevitable termination of programs like CEWS will affect the bottom line for news companies. But it will also accelerate challenges for all businesses, which comprise a critical source of local advertising dollars, a market that was already teetering on a razor’s edge before COVID-19 and is unlikely to recover any time soon.
The threats of what’s to come from traditional, corporate, for-profit media and foreign ownership loom large.
Companies like Bell Media, for instance, which took in $122 million in CEWS while increasing dividends to shareholders, shut down a variety of programming and laid off hundreds of workers in the early months of 2021. The total number of job losses is as of yet unknown — the company has declined requests for data.
Barely a month after BuzzFeed completed its acquisition of HuffPost from Verizon, the U.S.-owned digital media company shut down HuffPost Canada and HuffPost Québec. All staff were laid off in the closure of these digital newsrooms and the website rendered inactive immediately. Exactly two weeks earlier, workers had filed for union certification. Their mission statement centred employment diversity, equitable treatment of contractors and a request for notice in advance of layoffs.
And as lobby groups and researchers continue to debate the merits of impending regulation of U.S. tech giants, the conditions of domestic news distribution and revenue may be about to shift.
The COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada trackspermanent and temporary cuts through sources including news reports, company statements and our own reporting.
Starting this year, the project has been identifying the number of permanent impacts, such as job losses and closures. Similarly, we have been able to confirm some reinstatements, after temporary layoffs and wage cuts ended.
“The map data synonymously tells many compelling stories,” said Brent Jolly, president of the CAJ. “On one hand it paints a vivid portrait of our industry and how we can work towards a more sustainable future. On the other it speaks to the critical accountability role journalism plays, every day, in communities across the country.”
We know, however, that the map is only a piece of the story.
For example, at many large companies, where it’s unclear which divisions, publications or programs have been affected, we have mapped the changes to corporate headquarters. Wherever possible, we have attempted to verify the number of workers and programs affected by broad cuts. In many cases, news managers have not been willing to disclose complete information surrounding layoffs.
It has also been challenging to collect data on multilingual and ethnic media, which many communities rely on for information in their languages of comfort. Outlets are often disaggregated, difficult to track and may be particularly vulnerable to precipitous declines or wholesale loss of local advertising revenue.
Many of these media outlets have not had access to government support measures. Early on, third language media were sounding the alarm over being left out of public sector ad spends. Operation size and composition often means that these outlets aren’t eligible for other newer measures, like ones recently afforded to those eligible for QCJO status.
We have also not been able to quantify the impacts on freelancers, who make up a growing proportion of media workers in Canada.
The shift to digital
The death of print has long been foretold, and that the pandemic is hastening that trajectory is no surprise.
While online news is by most accounts where media is and is heading, digital accessibility considerations cut both ways. Especially in the many communities across Canada that still have weak or no internet connectivity, it’s not easy to switch from print to digital news access. Some bricks-and-mortar newsrooms also may never come back after operating remotely for a year, particularly if the next phase in the shift to digital influences operators’ calculations.
In the first year of the pandemic, 49 print publications cancelled or suspended some or all print editions. It is not clear if any will be reinstated. Entire printing plants have shuttered, including, recently, Vantage Way press in B.C.’s lower mainland. Its closure marks the first time in a century that its union local has not represented a printing plant.
But there is hope on the horizon with a new wave of independent media cropping up to serve a variety of audiences and coverage areas, from La Converse to the Breach, the Hoser and the Pigeon, IndigiNews, Peterborough Currents and more. The Canadian Association of Black Journalists recently announced startup funds for Black-owned media companies the Resolve, 1919 Magazine, Afros in Tha City, juliemango.tv and Toned.
While there have been unprecedented implications for new and emerging journalists entering the field, from reduced opportunities to the inability to engage and collaborate with colleagues and mentors in person, there has in turn been a spate of new mentorship initiatives dedicated to young, BIPOC and LGBTQ2IA+ journalists, from Room Up Front to Shared Bylines, the CAJ and more.
Evolving and digital access to workplaces for everyone from journalists with disabilities and workers with prohibitive commutes has been a game changer for many.
The rise of online-only events has opened up access to international professional conferences and successful innovations like Pandemic University.
“People have been innovating and it gives me hope to see a new generation of news entrepreneurs emerging,” said Lindgren. “The industry needs them and communities need them.”
The COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada is a project of J-Source, the Local News Research Project at Ryerson’s School of Journalism and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The map and fact sheets summarizing the data are prepared by LNRP principal investigator April Lindgren and project research assistant Christina Wong. For more information and to access the fact sheets and map data, visit the LNRP’s website.
As the first round of lockdowns eased during the summer, working conditions surrounding COVID-19 began to shift. Incident reports and the information box associated with map markers have been updated in instances when we are made aware of positions, hours and services being restored. This update marks the first time we are making all the layoff data we have collected over the past 12 months available for download.
The project team is verifying tips of additional impacts on an ongoing basis. Confirmed reports will be reflected in subsequent updates. If you’re aware of a new cut or have additional knowledge of a previous one, get in touch at email@example.com or fill out the form COVID-19: Impacts on media in Canada.