If the Herald can buy more newspapers, why can’t it pay workers more?


The main complaint I hear about the Chronicle Herald’s purchase of Transcontinental’s Atlantic Canadian newspapers goes like this: If Herald owners Sarah Dennis and Mark Lever can find millions to buy out Transcon, why can’t they cough up more money for striking workers?

The answer is that those are completely different kinds of transactions, as unalike as buying a new car and buying gas to run it.

If you borrow to buy a new car, there’s a chance you’ll pay extremely low interest—as low as 0% if the carmaker is eager to move inventory. But if you borrow to fill the gas tank, you’ll pay credit card rates of 18% – 28%.

Transcon, whose core business is printing, was eager to move inventory. It’s been shedding newspapers all across the country at fire sale prices. The money the Herald borrowed to buy Transcon’s Atlantic papers was secured by a combination of assets the lender can sell if the business fails (chiefly printing presses and downtown buildings in cities and towns across the region), and a business plan that convinced lenders the company will be able to meet its loan payments.

Money to pay the Herald’s workers, by contrast, must come from future revenues sufficient to meet all the paper’s costs, plus a return on the owners’ investment. If Lever had tried to borrow money to cover the cost of a new collective agreement, the same lenders would have laughed him out of the room.

Newspaper revenues have been tanking since the turn of the century. All newspapers have cut costs in response to this reality. Some have folded, including the Halifax Daily News and several of TransCon’s Nova Scotia weeklies. The Post Media papers are said to be on the brink of closing.

The Herald had high costs by industry standards. The newsroom collective agreement pushed top salaries above $80,000, and limited management’s flexibility to cope with the internet tsunami. Lever has been candid that management’s 2003 decision to buy a $25 million press, just as revenues nosedived, made the crisis worse.

The Herald did not fold, but it did roll headfirst into a bitter, 14-month strike that shows no sign of ending. Many assumed Lever and Dennis were ruthlessly trimming costs to ready the paper for sale to the Irvings. Instead, they shocked the industry by doubling down on printed news. It’s a high-stakes gamble whose outcome will be fascinating to watch.

The strike is relevant to the purchase only inasmuch as Lever has demonstrated to lenders he can run the paper without unionized staff and cover his costs. You and I may decry the loss of quality—it’s been pretty awful at times—but from the vantage point of a lender, the business seems to be working.

A ballsy move by Nova Scotia’s first family of newspapering


Sarah Dennis and Mark Lever, co-owners of the Halifax Chronicle Herald, have been showered with abuse for their handling of a 14-month strike by the Halifax Typographical Union. Today, they stunned critics and admirers alike by purchasing all of Transcontinental’s newspaper properties in Atlantic Canada.

A union spokesperson was quick to denounce  the purchase, saying it put the lie to the family’s claim it could ill-afford to settle with the union on less than harsh terms.

On the contrary. The surprise purchase demonstrates the couple’s commitment to local print news in our region, and puts the lie to addlepated, reality-averse commentary about the strike from Tim Bousquet, Steve Kimber, Graham Steele, and other members of Halifax’s lefty commentariat.

The union’s sympathizers have done the strikers no favour by turning an unseeing eye to the internet’s demolition of the newspaper industry revenue model. A cornucopia of free online news has eviscerated display and classified ad dollars, replacing them with online clicks that yield tiny fractions of a cent. Long accustomed to oceans of cash, this industry can no longer support $80,000 salaries with no heavy lifting.

The hard reality—the truth no one in the media will speak—is that neither side wants the Herald strike to end:

  • Lever and Dennis are saving a fortune, putting out a paper with a skeleton staff, while incurring no obvious strike-related impact on circulation numbers.
  • Most of the strikers have received layoff notices. They know they will never return to jobs at the Herald, but as long as they continue to picket, they will collect $600+ per week in strike pay. With a few exceptions, the most talented among them have already found work elsewhere, in journalism or communications.

Several union blunders ossified its untenable position in the early days of the strike. Despite knowing for at least a year that a strike was coming, the HTU took months to get its online journal up and running. Once launched, the LocalXpress proved a credible vehicle, but for additional crucial months, it refused to accept advertising.

Incredibly, the union actually picketed companies that might have supported it with ad revenue, denouncing them as “scabvertisers” for not immediately bailing on the region’s biggest daily. At one point it even picketed Halifax Mayor Mike Savage for attending a meeting where Lever was scheduled to speak. Instead of trying to build community support for a settlement, the union sought out infidels to expose and denounce.

Here are a few educated assumptions about the Transcon sale:

  • Lever and Dennis got these properties for a ditty, because getting them for a song would have meant overpaying.
  • They used borrowed money, because the Herald’s calamitous economics over the last decade had depleted the family fortune.
  • Whoever lent them money saw a business plan that was credible enough to support a decision to provide financing.

All this reinforces my assumption that the couple’s unyielding strike strategy has stabilized the Herald’s operating statement.

Lever and Dennis have created a new entity, SaltWire Network, registered just three weeks ago, to run the 35 media properties they now control. The consolidated operations may yield some modest economies of scale, but to make this work in the long run, the new owners will be tempted, and their newly acquired union employees will be chastened, by the brazen example they set with the Herald strike.

A story posted on the Herald website today quotes Lever as saying all current Transcon employees will be offered positions “in the same capacity with the same salary and same benefits that they have now.” Successor rights leave him little choice but to do that. When current collective agreements expire, all bets will be off.

There will always be a market for news and stories, but a growing consensus doubts the longterm market for printed newspapers. Lever and Dennis are placing a big contrarian bet against that belief. They’re gambling the public appetite for local stories will support the newspapers they have snapped up at distressed prices.

I hope they’re right. It’s a ballsy move by a couple that has braved public obloquy with a string of ballsy moves.


The right to repair your own tractor


A few months ago, I went to print some now forgotten document when the HP inkjet that’s been kicking around my house for a decade or more signalled that one of its cartridges was out of ink.

I snapped in a replacement cartridge, purchased off the internet for modestly less than usurious price of a genuine HP cart from staples, and received an ominous message:

Unauthorized cartridge detected

It turned out HP had issued a firmware update that surreptitiously blocked the use of third-party or refilled cartridges. Organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation protested, and faced with a mounting public furore, HP eventually relented, issuing a firmware update that undid the block.

You might think this was a case of momentary over-reach by a greedy, customer-hating corporation, brought quickly to heel by mass consumer protest, but guess again. The campaign by giant corporations to control the products they sell you throughout their lifetimes in only just working up a head of steam.

Farmers in the American mid-west are buying cracked versions of the firmware for their John Deere tractors from invitation-only, black marker Ukrainian websites so they can carry out basic repairs without calling in overpriced mechanics from their authorized John Deere dealer.

Farmers have been repairing their own tractors nearly as long as mothers have been baking blueberry pie, but John Deere wants to put a halt to that. Its newest models come with baked-in computer firmware that shut a rig down if anyone attempts an unauthorized water pump replacement or homespun brake job. Said Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska:

If a farmer bought the tractor, he should be able to do whatever he wants with it. You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can’t drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.”

In a 2014 comment to the U.S. Copyright Office, John Deere said people who buy its tractors don’t own the software that runs them. Instead, they have an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” Not a working tractor—or even a repairable one. Just an implied licence.

A growing right-to-farm movement is lobbying state legislatures to forbid the practice, so far with little success.
Does any of this affect you? You might not be hankering to repair a tractor, but you probably will play any number of videos on your computer today. Cory Doctorow, the Canadian-born blogger, sci-fi writer, and founder of Boing Boing, is waging a so-far lonely campaign against a pending agreement on internet video standards that would embed digital rights management inside the codecs that permit videos to play, a development he calls “weaponized standards.”
DRM isn’t really a technology at all, it’s a law. Specifically, it’s section 1201 of the US DMCA (and its international equivalents). Under this law, breaking DRM is a crime with serious consequences (5 years in prison and a $500,000 fine for a first offence), even if you’re doing something that would otherwise be legal. This lets companies treat their commercial strategies as legal obligations: Netflix doesn’t have the legal right to stop you from recording a show to watch later, but they can add DRM that makes it impossible to do so without falling afoul of DMCA.
The topic is mindbogglingly abstruse, but the podcast Reply All has a pretty clear lay explanation. Listen here, transcript here. (Reply-All, by the way, is a consistently excellent podcast.)
When the US Senate confirms Donald Trump’s appointment of the affable, uber right winger Neil Gorsuch as associate justice of the US Supreme Court, one of the outcomes you can safely predict is that he will stand foursquare for the right of big companies to insert their hooks permanently into the buyers of their products.
No more taking the car to Fred’s Auto Repair. It’s going be dealer-only if Corporate America gets the rights management power it’s increasingly asserting.

Public health & human rights officials to wheelchair users: PFO


Wednesday in Halifax, six prominent disability rights activists will ask the Supreme Court to order Nova Scotia’s Human Rights Commission to do its job.

The activists want the court to order the commission to hear their complaint against Environment Minister Margaret Miller and Chief Medical Officer of Health Robert Strang for selectively enforcing Nova Scotia’s Food Safety Regulations in a manner that discriminates against wheelchair users—and puts their health at risk in the process.

The regulations require restaurants in Nova Scotia to have “washroom facilities for the public available in a convenient location” as a condition of their license. Many Halifax restaurants have summer patios accessible to wheelchair users, but do not have a washroom that is conveniently located, or even reachable, by such customers.

As lawyer David Fraser wrote to the court in a pre-hearing brief:

While one might presume this is solely about the ability to access a toilet, this complaint and the concern that motivated it is also about access to basic hygiene. Individuals in non-motorized wheelchairs spend most of their day with their hands on the handrims of the wheels in order to move the chair. These handrims are in close proximity to the ground and generally get dirty through the day. This dirt is transferred to the operator’s hands. Where no accessible bathroom is available, individuals in wheelchairs do not have access to hand-washing facilities and their health is placed at risk.

Early last year, Gus Reed, a wheelchair user and one of the appellants, wrote to Environment Minister Margaret Miller complaining that her inspectors were not enforcing the requirement. Miller’s somewhat obtuse reply acknowledged the regulation, but noted that restaurants are subject to many laws, including the building code, which she claimed takes precedence in matters of washrooms. She referred him to HRM’s bylaw compliance officer.

Reed then wrote to Strang, who replied that his concern “is best handled through the NS Building Code.” Strang referred him to the Fire Marshall.

Last August, Reed and five other wheelchair users—including Kelly McKenna, who led the successful 2009 fight to make MLA constituency offices barrier free, and Paul Vienneau, who is celebrated in Halifax as the Asshole with a Shovel—complained to the Human Rights Commission.

They cited four Halifax restaurants (Effendy, The Wooden Monkey, Le Coq, and The Five Fishermen) whose washroom facilities they could not use, but stressed that their complaint was not directed at the businesses, but at Miller and Strang for, “a pattern of discrimination in the enforcement Food Safety Regulations.”

To be clear, the Minister and the MOH devote significant resources to the enforcement of this regulation with respect to most Nova Scotians. They fail to enforce it only with respect to people using wheelchairs. This subset of the population—persons with a disability—is a protected category under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act. The selective enforcement complained of is therefore a violation of the Act.

Human Rights Officer Tamara Powell tried to reject the complaint in a phone call. Only when Reed insisted did she follow up with a letter. It said the complaint, “falls outside the jurisdiction of the Commission because, based on the information you have provided, it is a matter of a provincial government department failing to enforce its own program or policy.” Powell referred Reed to the Ombudsman.

Reed appealed instead to the commission’s Intake Analyst, Darryl MacPherson, who confirmed Powell’s rejection in a rambling email. He claimed the Environment Minister is not responsible for Food Safety Regulations (in fact, she is); he said the grandfathering provisions of the building code, which exempt pre-existing businesses from new rules such as those requiring accessibility, mean the minister could not retroactively apply food safety regulations; he said wheelchair users are not the only group that, “experience challenges when trying to access such services,” citing, “older persons and persons with children [who] experience similar challenges when accessing certain establishments.”

Finally, MacPherson said the commission might hear a complaint against the restaurants, but not the government.

The substance of the complaint will not be at issue at Wednesday’s hearing, which will hear arguments about the commission’s process. As lawyer Fraser summarized in his brief:

In the Human Rights Act, the Commission has no discretion and no leeway to turn away complainants if the complaint is made in writing and it addresses subject matter within the Commission’s legal competence.

But sometimes process is substance, as citizens with disabilities, faced with a familiar parade of officials passing the buck instead of doing their duty, know all too well.


Twinning past the graveyard


I attended the highway twinning discussion in Sydney Tuesday night, one of a dozen sessions the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal is holding around the province to gauge support for highway tolls as a way to speed up seven highway twinning projects on the department’s wish list.

The core question: should we finance these highway projects in the normal way, out of gasoline taxes, in which case they will take decades, or by implementing tolls on our 100-series highways to generate revenue that would support much faster construction through public-private partnerships.

The department came armed with a detailed feasibility study from the engineering firm CBCL. It evaluates the seven sections of highway based on cost—a total of 2.4 billion—and potential reductions in collisions and travel times. A power point presentation summarized the results and posed questions for the public.

I make 20-25 round trips a year from Cape Breton to Halifax, another 100 or more trips to Sydney from my Victoria County abode. I much prefer driving on divided highways. I still don’t think we should do any more twinning, any time soon.

Nova Scotia has neglected highway and bridge maintenance for decades. Successive governments found it politically more palatable to rein in the province’s third-largest budget item, Transportation, than numbers. 1 & 2, Health and Education. Over the last half century, inadequate transportation budgets have produced a growing backlog of deferred maintenance and construction.

In 2001, the department carried out a study to gauge the size of this infrastructure deficit. It found the province needed to spend $3.4 billion in highway and bridge repairs and construction over the ensuing 10 years. Budgets increased slightly, but not enough to eat away at the shortfall. When the department took a second look at the infrastructure deficit in 2008, it found the total had grown to $4.38 billion.

Nine years have passed since that report, and we continue to spend at about half the rate required to reduce the maintenance and construction backlog. How big is the shortfall today: $5 billion? $6 billion? Who knows?

Faced with this ever-growing deficit, why would we suddenly go another $2.4 billion into hock to build new roads when we can’t adequately maintain the ones we have?

Been to Europe lately? By comparison, Nova Scotia roads are an embarrassment of ragged asphalt and crumbling curbs. Many, especially those used by heavy coal-hauling trucks, are badly rutted. Personally, I would rather drive in a snowstorm than in heavy rain on a rutted highway. In a snowy skid, I know how to regain control of a vehicle, but when a car hydroplanes, it’s strictly Jesus Take the Wheel.

My logic holds no appeal to politicians. Tell constituents you’re going to spend $1 billion to twin a nearby highway, and they’ll elect you again and again. Tell them you’re going to spend $1 billion patching potholes, and watch them yawn.

We are a large province with a small population. Our roads are lightly travelled by 21st century standards. They are much safer than they were 20 years ago. Traffic deaths have fallen sharply over that period. There are a multitude of steps we can take to make them even safer, such as rumble strips, reflective line markings, and prompt attention to the worst of the truck-induced rutting.

A $2.4 billion spending spree may or may not make us safer; it will surely make us poorer.

Ignorant, incompetent, impulsive, and dictatorial, but not crazy


Until this morning, I was inclined to agree with those, like Andrew Sullivan, who think Trump is a narcissist whose psychiatric competence to lead the western world is a legitimate matter for journalistic inquiry. A distinguished psychiatrist’s letter to the New York Times persuades me this is wrong.

Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).

Not crazy. Just evil.

Allen Frances is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University’s medical school. He chaired the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (D.S.M.-IV). Read his full letter here.

How bureaucratic arrogance doomed a Ministerial ruling


The Sipekne’katik Band has won its appeal against the Nova Scotia Environment Minister Margaret Miller’s approval of the Alton Gas Storage Project, not on any substantive objection to the project, but due to arrogant behaviour that increasingly characterizes the provincial government’s interactions with the public and the media.

Frankly, the band’s objections to the project are flimsy, but the government deserved what it got.

The initial concerns of the band and local residents were understandable. The Shubenacadie River has been a central feature of the band’s history and culture for millennia. It’s an important resource for all area residents. But the scientific evidence is clear the gas storage project poses no discernible threat to the river or its environment.

Alton’s plan is to buy natural gas at times of year when it’s cheap, and store it in underground salt caverns for use when prices rise.  The caverns would be hollowed out by a process known as solution mining, with the dissolved salt discharged into the Shubenacadie.

Sounds scary until you learn the maximum daily discharge of salt would be less than 1/1200th of the salt that enters the river on the daily influx of the tides. Moreover, discharge would only be permitted when it would not take the river’s salt content outside its natural range.

The protests persisted mainly because they got tangled up in band politics, with rival factions vying to outdo one another in the fervour of their objections. News coverage in local online media mainly took the form: Natives good; government and industry bad. There was little or no reporting of the scientific evidence or the band politics.

So if the minister’s decision to approve the project was correct, why was it overturned?

As she was considering her decision, the minister received a staff report recommending the project’s approval. That report was informed, in part, by a memo from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. Band lawyers repeatedly asked to for a chance to review and comment on both documents. The department refused.

Madam Justice Suzanne M. Hood ruled Friday that by refusing to let the band respond to information she considered in reaching her decision, Minster Miller denied it “procedural fairness.”

In addition to being arrogant, this was just dumb. What possible reason was there—apart from knee-jerk secretiveness—to deny an appellant access to all the information the minister considered when making her quasi-judicial decision?

I’ve encountered more and more of this knee-jerk secretiveness from provincial officials lately. Recently I’ve asked communications officers in two departments about an investigation carried out almost a decade ago into an intriguing problem with potential public safety implications. I don’t suspect anything nefarious. I’m just genuinely curious, and I think readers would be too. The responses to my inquiries have been curt to the point of rudeness, and non-responsive to a degree I have not encountered since the Gerald Regan administration.

More on this in the weeks to come.

Time is not on the teachers’ side


Based mainly on responses to his down-the-middle Facebook posts on the tentative teachers’ agreement, Graham Steele predicts its probable defeat by union members. Social media tends to encourage the most extreme and aggrieved voices, but he may be right.

Here’s the thing: Everyone values good teachers. Good teachers are priceless.*  In reality, though, teaching is like most occupations: a few gems, many duds, most in between. As the conflict drags on, I wonder how the public will react to overwrought voices of grievance from a group of public employees whose compensation and terms of work look pretty good from the outside.

Prolonged disruption that continues to shortchange children will erode public support for teachers in their fight with the McNeil government.

* Too bad unions and school boards cling to an antiquated hiring system—years of torture on the supply list—that drives away the best candidates.

Union, Liberals to decide fate of disabled kids — without the kids, or their parents


The battle to preserve the rights of all Nova Scotia children to an inclusive education is joined. The opening of hostilities came in the tentative agreement on a new teachers’ contract, and its concession to whispered demands for a retreat from inclusive education:

This tentative agreement creates an independent Commission to study and make recommendations on inclusive education. This Commission, which is funded by the Department and the NSTU, will study how inclusion has been implemented in Nova Scotia, review best practices throughout the world, and provide recommendations related to funding, resources and resource allocation and accountability, professional development, alignment of initiatives, and such other matters as the Commission deems appropriate. Further, the Commission will make recommendations regarding a mechanism for future regular reviews of inclusive education.

The commission will include one person appointed by government, one appointed by the union, and a chair jointly agreed upon. Affected children will be excluded, along with their parents and organizational advocates. It’s the education system’s equivalent of letting building inspectors make final decisions about the accessibility of public places.

Be Kind Like meThe peculiar evil of segregated schools is that they rob all children—the able bodied and nimble witted as much as those facing physical and intellectual obstacles—of the lessons of humility, empathy, and discernment that come from close experience with the full range of human abilities. Inclusion is the best way for classrooms to instil the grace required for a compassionate citizenry. The meek may not inherit the earth, but they have much to teach us, and we are all the better for absorbing those lessons.

Of course the union and the government will insist they are “fully committed” to inclusion and want only to improve it. Those who would take away the rights of society’s weakest members will always do so in the name of improving their lot. The exclusion of children and their guardians and advocates from the process  puts the lie to these cheery words.

If the governing Liberals and NSTU leaders imagine they can tinker with the fundamental human rights of children they should reconsider. The equality rights of children with disabilities are enshrined in Canada’s Constitution. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. requires Canada to ensure that children with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality, and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.

Equality, once attained, is never readily surrendered. “Creative and sustainable solutions” devised without the knowledge and consent of those whose rights are deemed a “problem” are likely to be regressive, divisive, and cruel. The ancient principle is expressed in Latin as, Nihil de nobis, sine nobis.

In English: Nothing about us without us.

Toronto Film Critics’ Association honours Ndub’s Ashley McKenzie


At a celebration in Toronto Tuesday night, New Waterford filmmaker Ashley McKenzie took the Toronto Film Critics’ prestigious Jay Scott Award for an emerging artist. The critics honoured McKenzie for her first feature-length movie, WEREWOLF, a gritty portrayal of a New Waterford couple dependent on methadone.

Here’s the Trailer]:

The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, which named it one of Canada’s Top 10 films for 2016. It has also screened (or soon will) at festivals in Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, and Berlin.

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-1-17-43-amThis is a remarkable feat when you consider that McKenzie shot WEREWOLF entirely in Cape Breton, with an all-Cape Breton cast and crew (a fact that put a few noses out of joint at ACTRA Halifax, where a misguided minority aspire to monopoly control of visual storytelling in our province).

McKenzie is a both gifted writer and an increasingly sure-footed director with a special knack for coaxing stellar performances out of inexperienced authors. The result is an important Cape Breton story told not just sympathetically, but with unrivalled authenticity. There has never been a movie like this about Cape Breton.

If you want to learn more about WEREWOLF and the people who made it,  here are some interviews: FERN-TV, Telefilm Canada, TIFF news conference, and Face2Face with David Peck Live.

(In the interests of disclosure, McKenzie and her producer Nelson MacDonald are friends of mine. I’m thrilled at what they’ve accomplished, and can’t wait to see what comes next.)

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