Why the Herald workers are losing—and how they could win

Last week, the union that represents striking Halifax Herald journalists posted an unflattering photo of Mike Savage on its Facebook page, together with a paragraph condemning the mayor for breezing past the strikers’ picket line.

Savage Crossing Picket Line

Can this be true? I thought. Did Savage really cross the picket line and enter the Herald Building?

It was not true. The line Savage crossed was nowhere near the strikers’ workplace. It was a secondary picket of a downtown hotel where the Greater Halifax Partnership, a business promotion organization of which Savage is a director, was holding an awards ceremony.

The newspaper was a co-sponsor of the event, and CEO Mark Lever had been scheduled to present some of the plaques. Lever stayed away to avoid a confrontation. Savage chatted briefly with the picketers on his way into the event.

The striking journalists have also picketed various Herald advertisers—as if driving revenue away from a business whose problems stem from an industry-wide hemorrhage of revenue somehow served their interests.

The frustration and fear workers feel as they watch their livelihood—their calling—slip away is understandable. But the notion that 1940s-style industrial union tactics can win the day for journalists in 2016 is delusional.

Whatever faint hope the strikers have rests in part on public opinion. It does not help their cause to construct artificial tests in the form of secondary picket lines, then condemn as enemies anyone who fails these tests. It would make much more sense to court Herald readers, including the mayor and the members of the Greater Halifax Partnership, by demonstrating what journalistic craft and talent means to a modern city.

Chances of a six-day-a-week print edition of the Chronicle-Herald existing in 2020 are next to nil. Everyone involved—workers, owners, readers, community leaders—must adjust to this new reality.

That’s the one shining light in this dispiriting conflict. When they aren’t wasting their time on picket lines and posting gratuitous insults, the striking journalists have been producing a creditable daily news website.

News stories in Local Xpress have consistently set a higher journalistic standard than the strike-breaker copy that fills the Herald’s pages. No surprise there. The best Herald writers and editors are very good at what they do.

Local Xpress could be so much more. A professionally produced news website aimed at the interests and temperament of traditional Herald readers poses a bigger threat to the Herald’s owners than pickets at the local Ford dealership, or Facebook insults directed at the mayor.

As a condition of receiving strike pay, Herald workers walk the picket line 20 hours a week. The requirement is reduced, but not eliminated, for workers who contribute to Local Xpress. The strikers’ smarter course would be to abandon picket lines altogether and throw their hearts, souls, and talents into the task of beating the Herald at its own game.

The strikers can report news better, faster, and more accurately than the desperate substitutes struggling to fill their dead-tree shoes.

Instead of picketing advertisers, the strikers should be luring them to their news site—with irresistible copy and advertising opportunities. Sell ads. Sell subscriptions. Offer supportive readers a chance to contribute to the survival of good journalism in Halifax. Lobby civic leaders in grownup conversations, not by shouting at them from picket lines.

I don’t know what will become of the Herald or its striking workers. But a top-notch local news website run by capable journalists seems a far better bet than hoping for a return to good old days that are gone forever.