It was brisk that day. Protest signs in hand, we walked up and down the picket line alongside journalists we admired. Feet shuffling, chanting in unison. A few hours later, I trudged back to my apartment, struck by how chilled to the bone I felt. This was when I really started to consider what I had been told all along but had chosen to ignore. Would I have job security? Would journalists ever be supported enough to do their jobs well? Through all of the excitement and passion in my program at school, there were always jokes amongst the faculty about how we were following a unprofitable path. I remember one photojournalism professor saying he was training the next generation of fast-food employees. At the time I had laughed it off. But after the protest, it really started to sink in.
The HTU strike lasted for nearly nineteen months, becoming the longest newspaper strike in Canadian history. During that time, the newspaper hired “scab” reporters, many from outside of the province, to replace the journalists on the picket line. The Chronicle Herald became a paper rampant with factual errors and typos due to the lack of experienced editors, journalists, and photojournalists on their team. In response, the union started their own newspaper called Local Xpress, which was later nominated for three Atlantic Journalism Awards. According to CBC reporting, the lengthy strike ended in August 2017—after I had graduated—when the HTU and the Chronicle Herald owners reached an agreement. The deal passed with a 94 percent vote. As a result, twenty-five original union members returned to the paper and twenty-six were laid off. Others got jobs elsewhere.
Amidst the strike over labour disputes, the Chronicle Herald still managed to grow. SaltWire Network Inc., which is now the largest owner of newspapers in Atlantic Canada, formed in April of 2017 when the Herald bought twenty-seven newspapers in the region from Transcontinental Media. The company operates thirty-five papers in the four provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
I had moved to Vietnam after graduation to write and teach, but, despite being away, I stayed on top of what was happening back home. I used this time to reflect on what I wanted to get out of journalism and whether I wanted to give it real “go” when (and if?) I returned home. At that point, almost all major news media in the Atlantic provinces had been bought by either the Irvings or Saltwire. The control of mainstream news was—and still is—at the command of a select few.
I thought about how, when I had started school, I wanted to be a watchdog to power, and I wondered how journalists could ever truly have the freedom to hold the powerful accountable if their job security was controlled by a few of the region’s most powerful people.
During the strike, a prominent Canadian media critic visited Halifax. Jesse Brown, host of the podcast Canadaland, taped an episode called, “Is Atlantic Canadian Journalism Fucked?” He tapped into my concerns and questions.
On his panel sat Terra Tailleur, assistant journalism professor at the University of King’s College, and Tim Bousquet, editor and publisher at the Halifax Examiner. Brown begins the podcast stating: “The legacy media scene in Atlantic Canada frequently comes up, and has for decades, as atrocious.” Followed by a counterpoint: “... and yet,” he says, “there is sort of this proliferation of hopeful upstarts.”