Exposing newsroom culture at the Toronto Star
Financial Post business and media reporter Sean Craig explains why it is a matter of public interest to look closely at newsrooms.
By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor
What is happening in the Toronto Star newsroom?
Sean Craig set out to answer that question. In his investigative report published on Aug. 19 in the Financial Post, the business and media reporter outlined the concerns about the “toxic” newsroom culture at the Toronto Star that have arisen since Star reporter Raveena Aulakh died by suicide in late May.
Increasingly, media outlets have started taking a closer look at the practices of newsrooms across the country. Canadaland has examined The Walrus and the CBC at length; The Star worked with Canadaland founder Jesse Brown on investigations into the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi and later broke the story that CBC host Evan Solomon used his media connections to broker art deals. Earlier this summer Craig and the Financial Post broke news that Now Magazine’s future may be in jeopardy.
J-Source spoke with Craig about his Toronto Star investigation, and about why taking a look at newsroom culture is a matter of public interest. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J-Source: You had that initial story that you broke about the union memo at the Toronto Star. What made you decide to keep following it up from there?
Sean Craig: It wasn’t necessarily we who kept following it up. It was the union. The union initially made a call for an independent third-party inquiry in early June.
I don’t think there’s a huge deficit of media reporting in this country, but in the last couple of months, especially with what we saw with the Now story too that we broke—the Globe did a story on it and the Star did a story on it as well—there’s not a ton of reporting being done on labour as it pertains to the media industry. When you look at the auto manufacturing industry or something, labour issues are of huge concern there. So you have reporters who work on larger sectors of the economy that do tons and tons of labour reporting because it’s a necessity, whereas in our industry it’s not so much.
And so in this case you know the last two months has just led to us following the more granular discussions that have taken place back and forth between the Star and its union.
J-Source: So from your perspective you’re approaching it almost as a labour story.
SC: I think that’s what makes this newsworthy; you have the union of employees of the largest circulation paper in the country making some pretty striking accusations about the conditions of the workplace there. And at least you know from the tone of the union’s releases expressing that it has doubts or little confidence in the company’s own internal investigation into the death of an employee.
J-Source: What to you makes this a public interest story? Why should Canadians care about what happens in the Toronto Star newsroom?
SC: Well for one, the Toronto Star newsroom has repeatedly in the course of the last five years made it its business to expose the on goings of other people’s workplaces including other media organizations. I think it’s done the country a great service for that. One of the best instruments and levers for labour rights in the country has been the Star up until recently; the one paper in the country that had a dedicated labor reporter.
The fact that there are major labor issues and strife transpiring at the paper at a time when this industry is undergoing really radical economic change is only related tangentially. But the backdrop to everything that’s gone on makes it relevant for that reason.
It’s also relevant because workplace practices like this—conflict practices and disclosure matters—those are of broad concern across all sectors. The banking sector have different kinds of disclosure policies in order to make sure that their employees aren’t put in situations where they could be perceived as potentially under duress. You look at any other major corporate sector, and these are all common things that are discussed by people at work that work in those industries.
We’re reporting at that level. That kind of granularity might be unfamiliar to Canadians but it’s no less newsworthy. One in part because of what the Star has done and the service that it has provided for the country with its really fantastic labour reporting, but then on the other hand how what’s gone on there raises issues not just about what’s taking place at the paper but also about protocols and procedures that other institutions should be mindful of.
J-Source: With the story that you did, and with a lot of media reporting generally it’s very hard to get people to go on the record, because obviously they’re worried about their jobs. It’s a super chatty industry. Do you find that it may be harder than other beats or other things that you’ve worked on in terms of trying to get enough sources that you can comfortably go forward with a story?
SC: It is. And that’s why in this case, especially the early part of the story, almost everything in it is backed up by source documents. In almost every instance we are quoting from emails or quoting from the legal documents that exist.
In this case you know if you read the story you can see the groundwork of it and everything in it is built off of source documentation. When you don’t have sources that will go on the record and you don’t have people that are willing to put their names to things, the second best just is to get source documentation.
That’s a very common thing in government. Whenever you see government leak stories that’s because some bureaucrat took a pile of documents and threw them in a manila envelope or used PGP or emailed them off to a reporter. So I think it’s actually not that uncommon.
I kind of think we over-exaggerate that maybe in media reporting. Yes it’s true that people are afraid to talk about and speak up to their bosses. And yes this is a really, really small and narrow industry relative to other media markets in the western world. But it’s not a challenge that’s unknown to people who report on government and people who report on companies.
One thing you can do, is if you can find at least one source who is willing to go on the record and is aware of the information they’re providing and can either back it up or support and verify it. That’s why you know you see Liane McLarty in our piece, who was aware of two of the allegations that are reported in the story. So she’s the person who is willing to go on the record, who, by doing so, gives credibility to two other sources who are not able to do so. You can achieve kind of domino effect if you find one source who can substantiate what other sources are providing. You can demonstrate to your audience the breadth of the sources you have and then provide a credible base for it.
J-Source: Something like a few of the newer newsrooms do, like BuzzFeed for instance, they leak their own memos essentially. What do you think newsrooms should be doing in Canada so that there is more accountability?
SC: Broadly it’s not that bad. The two largest media companies in terms of print media in the country are Torstar and Postmedia, both of which are public companies. So all of our financials are publicly disclosed. And the CBC of course is a public institution. So I think the extent to which Canadian media can be scrutinized from the corporate side is actually relatively porous.
In terms of the behavioral and human resources side that is more of a challenge and it’s because, as people have raised time and time again, we have a higher percentage of people in precarious employment than a lot of other tertiary sectors of the economy. There’s tons of people on contract; there’s tons of people without permanent jobs; you know there’s tons of people who rotate and switch contracts. That means that we do have a kind of class of employee who is more or less dependent on staying clean reputationally so they can get hired or rehired.
That does mean that companies have to be mindful of internal reporting protocols and making sure that people in companies are protected. The Star did do a good thing—in one case they’ve clarified their conflict of interest policy, but they’ve also said that they intend to make it easier for junior employees to reach out to H.R. directly as opposed to managers of the company.
The other thing that is no different than any other industry—people just have to leak. I think I think by and large they do. If the CEO of a media company in Canada does something absolutely evil or abhorrent, I don’t have any less faith that it would end up in James Bradshaw’s lap or in my lap or Jesse Brown’s lap or someone else’s lap. That’s an extreme hypothetical, but I have as much faith in journalists as I do anyone else. Maybe that’s me being an optimistic journalist. But we get stories every single day from people that are anonymous or they are whistleblowers that are providing documents. The degree to which we are pessimistic and cynical about all these things is maybe somewhat exaggerated because stories come every day. There are good people at every single organization including in the media sector who want their companies to be better and who will either work internally or seek external action if necessary for that to happen.
H.G. Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.
H.G. Watson was J-Source’s managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.