Saturday, December 07, 2013

The sun sets on Sun Media

The headline, Sun Media announces 200 layoffs, is sad enough, but it's the bigger picture that's the real tragedy.

This is the company's third layoff announcement in 13 months. In November 2012, 500 people lost their jobs when production plants in Ottawa and Kingston were closed. Last July, they were at it again, this time shuttering 8 local newspapers and three commuter papers, and taking 360 people out in the process. What used to be an annual "tradition" has now become twice-yearly. And right before the holidays. Nice.

A little bit of disclosure: I used to write an op-ed column for the London Free Press, which is now owned by Sun Media, which is a unit of Quebecor. It was (and is) a paper that was (and still is) staffed by great, community-minded journalists who wanted (and still want) to make a difference. Freeps reporters often call me to comment on tech stories they're working on, and I very much enjoy working with all of them.

The problem is this: these days, thanks to decisions being made in corner offices far away, by people who have probably never had a byline, there are far fewer of them. And those who remain live under the Sword of Damocles, wondering if the next, inevitable round of cuts will finally catch up with them. In the meantime the product, starved of resources, gets thinner and less relevant with each passing day despite the near-heroic efforts of the employees who remain. How they continue to perform as they do amid the day-to-day gloom that pervades their environment is beyond me.

To be fair, Sun Media is hardly alone in this. Virtually every major Canadian media organization has announced recurring layoffs over the past year. Two years. Decade. Wherever you are, it's an ugly time to be in media these days thanks largely to a fundamental, Internet-driven shift in who consumes news, how we consume it, and who pays for it. Advertisers, once limited to the big 3 of newspaper, television and radio, are now able to get their message out on a growing range of increasingly interactive and engaging platforms. Real-time, online advertising tools allow incredibly granular visibility into spend, return and engagement.

The Internet, that miracle of modern technology, destroys existing businesses as it creates new ones. None of this is new. What is especially galling about Sun Media's method of navigating the current tumult, however, is its stubborn unwillingness to recognize that the world has changed. The chain's MO is simple: cut successive layers of fat out of the organization until there's no fat left. Proceed into muscle, and then finally bone. Keep using the usual corporate-ese doublespeak to convince everyone there's an actual strategy here. Repeat until there's nothing left to cut.

I'd like to direct your attention to the photo at the top of this entry. It is the chain's Twitter account. Notice a few small details:
  • They have never tweeted.
  • They follow no one.
  • They self-identify as "Canada's largest newspaper publisher."
It reminds me of an ostrich, its head buried deeply in the sand while the world churns around it. With this sad example of media myopia in mind, I feel compelled to share some advice with the powers-that-be back in Quebec:

Dudes, you're not in the newspaper business anymore. You're in the platform business. The online world is rewriting the rules that govern your industry, yet in the middle of endless "cost-cutting", you completely ignore the changes going on around you. The scenario would be comical if successive waves of dedicated and once-and-still-possibly-loyal employees weren't being economically lobotimized in the process.

Every other media organization in the country - and beyond - is being buffeted by the same forces you use as convenient excuses every time you sharpen the layoff knife. Every other media organization, except you, is investing heavily in alternative-delivery platforms so they can adapt to the new reality. Some will succeed, and most will fail. But they're at least giving it a shot, and trying to advance the state of the art in online, socially-engaged, mobile-fuelled communications and media.

Perhaps Julie Tremblay, your CEO, said it best in her statement released Wednesday: "It is very tough to announce job cuts. But as distressing as they are for the employees involved, these restructuring initiatives are necessary to maintain our leading position and ensure the corporation's sustainability."

On the assumption that anyone back at the mothership is listening, gutting your product in the hope that cost-cutting will "ensure the corporation's sustainability" is about as useful a strategy as closing your most profitable stores and hoping the band-aid you've stuffed into the gaping wound will be enough to keep you alive [cough, Sears, cough.]

It won't.

But as long as the spreadsheet jockeys are calling the shots, don't let my plaintive voice keep you from systematically dissolving what was once a great source of inspirational journalism. We all know you're not listening, anyway, but that's hardly material anymore: Canadians interested in media that matters are already disconnecting from the diluted product you insist on selling them. They're more than a little smarter than you seem to think they are.


Andy Grainger said...

Sun Media going under?? Good riddance to really bad journalism, they were never more than a collection of right-wing cranks and loonies. I just hope they take Ezra Levant with them as they circle the bowl! Goodbye!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

The chain's MO is simple: cut successive layers of fat out of the organization until there's no fat left. Proceed into muscle, and then finally bone. Keep using the usual corporate-ese doublespeak to convince everyone there's an actual strategy here.

This is true of many large corporations: "Change is a pain...make the little people suffer and hope it goes away!"