When the Toronto Star announced it was outsourcing copy editing and page design to Pagemasters — eliminating 55 jobs — the journalism community mourned the state of the industry. Copy editors at Pagemasters earn a little more than half of what the Star’s copy editors did, and newspaper veterans say these types of cuts lead journalism down a troubling path. Still, some are saying the operation is good for Canadian journalism.

By Paul Weinberg

Pagemasters North America copy editors are paid a little more than half as much as their Toronto Star counterparts, so it’s not hard to see the motive for Star management in deciding to contract out those services.

Now, the controversial Canadian Press-owned Pagemasters is ramping up its targeting of newspapers across North America after a cautious start.

Pagemasters North America provides newspapers with services such as copy editing, headline writing and design and layout of features, supplements, customized news pages and regular pages.

Ed Brouwer, managing director of Pagemasters North America told J-source that business has been “slow,” for the operation which opened its doors in 2009 and currently has 30 accounts.

But a recently secured contract with Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, will help expand his business, he predicts.

“We have no U.S. customers at this point. We do have a customer in Nassau, Bahamas. Having both the Star as Canada’s largest daily newspaper and The Globe and Mail as the national daily will help us both in Canada and south of the border.”

Brouwer notes that Pagemasters’ only competitor south of the border is the large newspaper groups which have set up consolidated production centres for their own properties. “We would like to acquire that business.”

While revenue numbers for Pagemasters are not available because CP and its subsidiary are private operations, the business appears to be growing.

“What I am hearing through the grapevine is that Pagemasters North America, after a bit of a wobbly start, is starting to find its [way],” says Keith Maskell, a staff representative for the Canadian Media Guild, a separate union that represents employees at Canadian Press, including Pagemasters.

The Toronto Star announced in March it was outsourcing its internal copy editing and pagination to Pagemasters North America, which was already handling items such as sports scores and stock quotes for the Star and a number of other Canadian newspapers.

What is new in the Canadian media industry is that the Star is outsourcing copy editing and pagination functions outside its core newspaper operation to a separate organization, Maskell explains. “It is becoming a trend obviously in Canada and the United States.”

Star management had rejected a proposal by the union representing its employees which would have maintained editing and pagination in-house via new efficiencies in the newspaper’s operation — and thereby avoided the layoff of 55 employees, half of whom are copy editors.

But the potential financial gain was too great for the Toronto Star’s “bean-counters” to ignore, especially as the Star with The Globe and Mail and the La Presse (via parent company Square Victoria Communications Group and subsidiary Gesca Ltd.) are part owners of the Canadian Press, John Miller, a former acting managing editor at the Star, tells J-Source.

Salaries for Toronto Star copy editors are currently in the range of $85,000; while outsourced employees in similar positions at Pagemasters North America make $48,000 at the most.

The Canadian Media Guild is seeking improvements in the next set of labour management negotiations for the new Pagemasters’ employees including those exclusively working on the Star contract, says Keith Maskell.

Maskell says his union was pressured to accept the lower wage scale at Pagemasters in the last contract negotiations out of concern that the employer would have moved out of the country and set up a non-union shop, rather than incur higher labour costs, he says.  . “The way we are looking at it is we are keeping employment within Canada. We would like the salaries to be better over time.”

Meanwhile, in an article for the online journal, Straight Goods, Miller compares the continuous cost-cutting in news operations like the Star to the Black Knight in the comedy film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who refuses to acknowledge serious physical damage as his limbs are being chopped off in combat.

“The people making these decisions in the upper ranks of the executive suite are not really people who grew up caring about the public worth or role of newspapers,” Miller tells J-Source.

But a former copy editor, who has had his articles in one newspaper edited overseas, defends Pagemasters. Ted Barris, who now teaches journalism at Centennial College, applauds Pagemasters for keeping newspaper business in Canada.

“It is going to a union shop [at Canadian Press] to writers who understand Canadian Press-style [and] invented it, a group that recognizes the geography, politicians, the social implications, economy and idiosyncrasies [of Canada].”

There is also the argument that Pagemasters is offering opportunities for younger copy editors in a competitive newspaper job market.

“I don’t feel short-changed,” says Devin Size, who has been working in sports pagination for clients at Pagemasters North America for almost a year. “[I] would like to earn more. Of course, who wouldn’t right? But journalism jobs are hard to find and I’m just grateful I have one. This is my reality.”

The 25-year-old has worked at the Canadian Press as an editorial assistant in business and finance and currently has a permanent part-time job at Pagemasters North America. He tells J-Source that about three-quarters of the Pagemasters staff are between the ages of 25 to 35 .

“I think Pagemasters provides a very valuable service,” he says. “Everything needs to be done for less these days; so we can take that burden of production away from newspapers and let them focus their resources on content production.”

But Brouwer denies that younger employees predominate at his operation, saying that “employees range from people in their 20s to people in their 60s.”

He adds that Pagemasters North America is looking to double its complement of about 12 staffers for both new part-time and full-time positions.

While the outsourcing operation continues to grow here, Pagemasters has been in place overseas longer.

The Canadian Press obtained the licensing rights to the Pagemasters brand name and intellectual property for North America from the original owner, the Australian Associated Press in 2009, explains Brouwer. “There is a longer history in Australia and New Zealand around outsourcing sub-editing and pagination. It has been going on for at least five years now, very successfully. So, what we are trying to do is certainly pattern what we think is a very successful model in Australia.”

The Australian Associated Press (not to be confused with the U.S. operation AP) is owned by the major Australian newspapers and set up with an ownership structure much like CP. Pagemasters is a global provider of design, editorial, listings and imaging services to the newspaper and magazine industry. Much of our recent success lies in the pioneering establishment and operation of centralised subediting centres,” states AAP on its website.

And so it appears both news agencies, AAP and CP, are reconfiguring themselves to help newspapers take the grunt work of journalism out of their production cycle.

But some are raising concerns about the impact the new outsourcing deal will have on the Star’s award-winning journalism. Hugo Rodrigues, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists says the Star’s contract with Pagemasters should have a clause ensuring that the copy editing of its material is kept separate from the editing of work from other newspapers.

But Ed Brouwer describes this as a non-issue, maintaining that his copy editors focused on The Toronto Star, for instance, would stick with that newspaper and not work on any other publication.

“We should be clear; the creation of the content remains totally on the Star side. What we are doing is we are targeting editing and we are targeting pages. We don’t gather content; we don’t decide what the Star is going to run. That remains over at the Star.”

Brouwer adds the copy has already been examined by the client’s lawyers before it arrives for editing and page design.

Over at Pagemasters, Size explains he and his fellow page editors are “usually trained” on a couple of newspapers in the job. Plus, he continues, “We are always in contact with the newspapers we work with. Sometimes we’ll send something in and if it’s not what they want, we’ll hear from them and make changes.”

At the same time, Size admits there is a bit of a learning curve.

“It’s a challenge sometimes when you’re working on a local paper when you don’t know the city,” he says. “I do the local sports page for the Chronicle Herald and I have to think about framing a headline based on what’s important to them in Halifax. But that’s why we’re always talking to the people there.”

Paul Weinberg is a freelance writer who recently moved to Hamilton from Toronto