"I was devastated. It was completely devastating," says Michael De Adder, remembering that February 11, 2008, when Halifax Daily News closed.
The award-winning editorial cartoonist lost his job, along with everybody in the newsroom.
This experience De Adder illustrated with a cartoon of a graveyard dedicated to the death of journalism jobs.
"I'm motivated by my anger about what's going on in the world," says De Adder.
He uses his work to share that with the world.
"[In 2008], I was lucky, I had a job offer before I reached my desk. I know a lot of people who didn't land on their feet quite so well and never reported again. And that's a difficult prospect."
It is a prospect that haunts him.
Thirteen years later, last month, De Adder was sitting on his desk in the basement of his house in Halifax, N.S., where he usually works.
A friend reporter with CBC News had commissioned him to illustrate the news of the HuffPost shutdown in March. De Adder says that this was the first cartoon for the past year that he didn't have to come up with an idea of how it would look.
They had given it to him: another graveyard.
De Adder embraced the idea because he says that he would most likely have come up with the same to illustrate the growing losses that Canadian journalism has had over the past year.
Is the media industry in Canada shrinking?
De Adder says that in 2008 Daily News folded because its value had dropped to peanuts.
"Increasingly, the internet became the source of news and, and obituaries and all that stuff, taking that revenue away from them. The Daily News got caught up in that. Transcontinental was the last to purchase the paper, which turned into a commodity that was increasingly becoming worthless."
But eventually, the industry adapted.
De Adder became a freelance journalist, expanding his network of employers. He says that throughout his career, he has been relieved from work several more times since 2008. It is not unusual for the industry.
But the past year, the industry entered another dark era: the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Although part of it is just the usual transition from paper to digital, Covid-19 has been disastrous for businesses around the world," says De Adder.
Source: COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada (updated March 11, 2021)/J-source 2020
According to a joint project between J-Source, the Local News Research Project at Ryerson's School of Journalism, and the Canadian Association of Journalists, the first seven weeks of the pandemic hit the media industry significantly.
On April 29, 2020, they reported that:
- Fifty (50) outlets temporarily or permanently closed, 48 of which were community newspapers;
- Eleven (11) community and eight (8) daily papers cancelled some or all print editions;
- Seventy-eight (78) outlets reported layoffs or job losses;
- Two thousand and fifty-three (2,053) editorial and non-editorial workers were laid off.
On July 23, 2020, J-source reported an internal memo that Global News was laying off an unspecified number of journalists by cutting its lifestyle, entertainment and social media teams.
The Corus-owned company said the lack of government support, loss of advertising revenue, and the ongoing pandemic challenges were some of the reasons for their decision.
This past February, Bell media laid off more than 200 journalists and shut down three radio stations without giving their employees notice.
A spokesperson for Bell justified the cuts before lawyers, saying they were necessary to make room for new content and create new operation structures.
On March 9, Buzzfeed took down HuffPost Canada, leaving it to its employees to find out on their own. Then the internet media gave them one week's notice about their relief. Twenty-three of them are Canadian.
Buzzfeed didn't give a reason for the cuts.
The bigger picture
Over the past couple of years, Statistics Canada has reported a downward trend in employment numbers in the media industry.
Between 2019 and 2020, Newspapers and publishers lost about 4,000 employees, while Radio and TV broadcasters cut around 2,500 jobs.
The trend has continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic period between March 2020 and January 2021. Periodical lost additional 712 employees, while broadcasters terminated 1,009.
Brent Jolly, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) president, says that a major reason for these shrinkages is the growing competition from streamers like Netflix, Crave, etc.
"It's an on-demand world. People want to find out something, or they want to look up something or watch something when they want to. They don't want to wait until 8 p.m. when The Big Bang Theory comes on on CTV."
He says another reason for the cuts in the industry is the loss of advertising revenue. In the past, advertisers relied on newspapers and broadcast media outlets as platforms to target audiences. Today, through the internet and streaming services, their options have grown exponentially.
Jolly says that he doesn't see the pandemic having a significant impact on these shrinking numbers. He says that people are consuming news and information more than they have ever before because of the pandemic.
"I think the problem that we're encountering right now is very much a business model problem, not so much an audience problem. It's about how do you make money off of it to pay the journalists to continue producing when you have tech giants [like Google and Facebook] who can crowdsource information and present it to people?”
How can the media industry survive?
Online vs. the media
The issue of tech giants aggregating news information and offering it to its users without paying for it has become one of concern to governments worldwide. A most notable recent example is in Australia.
On February 25, Australia's House of Representatives passe the News Media Bargaining Code, which seeks to give more power to news organizations in dealing with tech giants.
The code encourages that Google and Facebook negotiate payment deals with news organizations for content and requires the tech giants to invest in producing local digital content. The platforms also have to communicate algorithm changes to media organizations that control which stories are visible to the users.
The code is considered first in the world to respond to this issue.
Canada made its first step towards putting more responsibility on online broadcasters in November 2020.
The Canadian Government amended the Broadcasting Act, requiring online broadcasters to invest approximately $800 million in creating their own Canadian content by 2023.
COVID-19 vs. the media
During the pandemic, media giants have relied on government wage subsidies to pull through.
An independent investigation by communications company The downUp investigates media and telecommunications tips. It found that Canada Revenue Agency issued Bell $122.8 million in subsidy within the last year.
In comparison, Rogers received a little over $70 million.
The downUp also reports that Bell's cuts came after the subsidy.
Jolly has condemned the cuts on the association's website. He says that people need the accurate and reliable information that journalists bring, especially during a pandemic.
He questions the reliability of such subsidies and how they are distributed within the organizations.
"I'm not 100% sure how much is being devoted to actual journalism positions. How sustainable is that [funding]? People might have the cash now, and that's good in the short term. But what happens when that source of funding dries up? My concern is that journalists are going to be the ones who are left on the cutting room floor at the end of the day, because that's how things have always worked in the past."
Listen to my Q&A with Jolly about why a simple solution to media cuts is not a solution.
Jolly has called on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to step in and enforce accountability from companies that cut jobs and lay off staff with little notice, especially if they receive government support.
"Why not? Really, why not? Journalists are not a company that makes widgets. They do something that actually has a huge public benefit. Journalists are committed to truth-telling and all of the critical accountability democratic functions."
What does a job loss mean to a journalist?
De Adder says that the job loss for the journalist comes with a period of darkness.
"There's not much you can do. It's a very lonely period. You're let go with everybody on staff. But it is when you get home that you realize how lonely the situation is. You don't know what you're going to do."
In the wake of the cuts, National Observer reporter Emma McIntosh and CAJ vice-president Fatima Syed created a fundraiser to help laid-off journalists.
"The fundraiser is separate from the CAJ," says McIntosh. "I knew people affected by the cuts. But also, seeing how many people I didn't even know had been laid off was really awful. The only thing I wanted to do was hug everybody and take them out for a drink and an ice cream. Of course, we can't do that because it's COVID."
In two months, McIntosh and Syed raised more than $6000.
Syed and McIntosh say that one of the struggles was finding the laid-off journalists.
"We heard that there were around 100, maybe more. These are 100 journalists across the country: Vancouver, Winnipeg, the east coast, Toronto, Montreal and so forth," says Syed. "It's just been a lot of like, "Hey, we have all these donations. We want to send our love and support and from the industry. Can we please have your personal e-mail?"
The duo has distributed donations to about 60 journalists so far. But they say that about a quarter of them returned the money with some of their contributions on top because they wanted someone else who is in greater need to use them.
"The darker parts of being in this industry is that you never know when it's going to be your day," says McIntosh.
"We wanted to do was just be there for the same people who have amplified our work or cheered us on," adds Syed. "It's just about that community. Getting back to the same community that has always been there for you."
But they have a greater hope, too. They hope that their actions will inspire solutions from the management offices of the media groups. Syed and McIntosh say that the solutions have to begin there.
"You know, that something wrong is happening because you're seeing your friends and colleagues getting laid off, but you don't know how to save them. And that's a struggle, right," says McIntosh.
"We need to come up with new models. We need to come up with fresh thinking. Maybe it's not about profits. Maybe it's about the public service and figuring out how to how to make that sustainable as a business. I'm hopeful that we'll have these conversations and sorted out at some point in our lives. Hopefully sooner rather than later," says Syed.
A future of infinite possibilities and happiness
Jolly, Syed and McIntosh don't believe that journalism is dying.
"There's an appetite for journalism that speaks to specific audiences. It is the core tenant that mediates public dialogue and gathers information to provide citizens with what they need to be free in a democracy. I think that's going to stick around forever," says Jolly.
Editorial cartoonist De Adder is equally optimistic about journalism's future. He says the only way forward is through evolution.
"I'm sure with the way technology is evolving now, journalists will have to do the same," says De Adder. "Twenty years ago, nobody thought that we would be taking our own photographs. Nobody expected reporters to do all the things they do today, including taking their own photo."
De Adder’s three key pieces of advice to journalists who are entering this industry today:
- "If you want to go into journalism, you have to eat, breathe, sleep journalism. You have to be willing to put in long hours and keep going at it."
- Re criticism: "You don't get mad and leave the room. Welcome criticism and listen to what they have to say."
- "You've got to take your rejection letters, put them in a special place and keep them forever. And they're badges of honour."
De Adder says his career took off slowly. He went to Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, to become a painter. There, he started drawing for the school newspaper.
He didn't give up either passion when he graduated. But he landed his first full-time cartoonist job when he was 30 years old at the Halifax Daily News.
"I had to work in a restaurant for years and draw cartoons on the side," he says.
After the Daily News folded, he turned to freelance, working for Toronto Star, Halifax Chronicle Herald, Ottawa Hill Times and USA's Counterpoint. Over the years, he won numerous awards, including becoming a recurring winner of the Atlantic Journalism Award and receiving an Honorary Doctorate at Mount Allison University.
Today, De Adder is one of Canada's most-read cartoonists, getting more than a million readers each day. He says he achieved his greatest accomplishment just a few weeks ago when he landed a contract with the Washington Post.
"I am the happiest I have ever been since last week. Yeah, I am! How old am I? 53."