Media @ McGill

Errol Salamon | Journalism Slow Death: A History of Newsworkers’ Labour Struggles in Canada

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Since 1991, scholars have warned that the future of journalism is under threat, in part, because news organizations have increasingly incorporated digital technologies. In the midst of technological change, however, this narrative is incomplete without an understanding of the labour conditions and practices of newsworkers. Taking a political economy of communication approach, my dissertation is focused on the “alternative digital journalism” of newsworkers as a strategy to mobilize for collective action and resist the threat facing journalism during 11 strikes and lockouts in Canada between 1994 and 2011. Newsworkers’ digital journalism practices during these labour disputes are a micro-level way to highlight how technological change may not only distort the processes of news production but also provide opportunities to build sustainable models of production to improve labour conditions and reform journalism. Through this collective action, my dissertation develops a typology of alternative digital journalism practices: digital information sites, digital news organizations, and multiplatform news organizations. The outputs of these practices are alternative journalism texts: online newspapers, newsletters, websites, videos, broadcasts, and podcasts. I compare this alternative journalism to older alternative journalism practices: strike and lockout journalism from 1872 to 1994. My analysis is based on the content of workers’ alternative journalism, documents from newsworker labour groups, and newspaper coverage of the labour conflicts. It reveals class struggles and power relations among news property owners, management, and newsworkers, as well these workers’ battles to resist commodification due to technological change. This study contributes an alternative cultural history by creating visibility for the workers involved in the production processes who have shaped the institution of journalism. It also contributes to the discourse on the emancipatory benefits of technology.

The dissertation is comprised of eight chapters. After introducing my object of study and my theoretical-methodological framework in chapter 1, in chapter 2, I provide a brief critical overview of strike and lockout journalism in Canada between 1872 and 1994. In this chapter, I demonstrate how newsworkers, with the support of their labour unions, have a long history of creating alternative journalism to counter threats from profit driven media conglomerates as they have increasingly automated the production of news. In chapter 3, I outline an unprecedented and comprehensive archive of the labour disputes at newspapers, radio stations, and television stations in the country from 1994 to 2011. It was during this period when newsworkers increasingly drew on digital technologies for collective action. Within this digital communication system, newsworkers have still tried to fight technological change with union-supported strike and lockout newspapers – the subject of chapter 4. These newspapers open up a broader discussion about the convergence of old and new communication forms. Chapter 5 introduces some of the earliest and experimental forms of alternative digital journalism of striking and locked out newsworkers: websites, online newsletters, and e-bulletins. Yet, disputing newsworkers did not experiment with only digital forms of alternative journalism but also alternative digital journalism organizations. Thus, chapter 6 is focused on the 2005 lockout of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) workers, who created their own ephemeral media organization. They incorporated audio, video, and text-based media forms and experimented with early podcasting technology. This labour conflict leads to larger questions about the future of public service broadcasting in the country, which itself has been under attack within a converged and multimedia communication system. Likewise, as I discuss in chapter 7, workers from three Quebecor-owned newspapers started their own multiplatform organizations during work stoppages between 2007 and 2011. From these labour conflicts stems a broader narrative regarding threats facing the newspaper business in a digital age. Finally, to determine lessons for newsworkers to build sustainable models of news production in a digital journalism environment, in the conclusion, I examine examples of alternative strike and lockout journalism organizations that survived after labour conflicts.