Burning journalism to the ground (for the Good of the Shareholders)

Photo: Ken Lund / Flickr CC

Jan could have dosed my coffee with acid and I doubt it would have made a difference.

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From the moment he burst through the door at 5:59 a.m. until our shift ended eight hours later, Jan was on a tear — coffee, nicotine, cops and robbers punctuated with the occasional conspiracy theory or obscure drug reference.

Without fail, he ended his calls to the police by declaring, “Rock and roll, baby,” “Boogie, boogie” or “Who loves you, baby” (which I later learned was a reference to the 1970s detective show Kojak). No one in journalism could get away with talking to cops that way. Jan could.

The morning shift was like journalism purgatory — a holding cell for maniacs, misfits and people who’d run afoul of management. I suspect Jan checked off all those boxes. Even so, he attacked every shift like we were chasing Watergate.

Overnight stabbing? Firebombing at an Italian café? Updates on snow removal operations (complete with hand-drawn diagrams)? Jan had you covered.

There was method to his madness. The cops loved him and fed him little details they wouldn’t give the other reporters. Same with the other communications folk.

“Oh, Jan’s not working today?” Franco from the Laval police department would say, making no effort to hide his disappointment that he was stuck on the phone with me.

He wore a tie and baggy corduroy pants to work every day. He smoked 100 cigarettes before 2 p.m. He called his 90-year-old mother and loudly spoke to her in Dutch, giggling incessantly throughout their chats. He believed the fix was in on virtually everything: elections, inter-office politics, the NHL, 9/11. “I’m not so sure I buy that” was a common refrain.

It drove everyone crazy. I loved him.

Losing Jan Ravensbergen to a buyout was one of the first times this industry broke my heart. To soften the blow, Ravensbergen insisted on being escorted out of the building by security on his last shift so we could all laugh. He even pretended to be handcuffed.

Buyouts and layoffs were a reality in the news business long before I first set foot in the Gazette offices nine years ago. But the rate of attrition has taken on such a frenetic pace since then. I lost dozens of colleagues in my short career, too many to name at my shop and every major outlet in Montreal save for CBC and Radio-Canada (at least not in the Trudeau era).

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I’ve been thinking about the departed this week as news of a bloodbath at Bell Media has, once again, forced us to say good-bye to more comrades.

For context: just a few weeks after its #BellLetsTalk campaign — where everybody lines up to kiss the company’s ass for throwing a few crumbs at mental health organizations — Bell Media fired hundreds of journalists and support staff across Canada.

In Montreal, that means CJAD radio reporters like Shuyee Lee and Elizabeth Zogalis have been replaced by adding extra work to existing journalists at CTV. Whereas a CTV news segment once required a producer, videographer, editor and reporter, all that work is being done by just one person today. And now that person has to put together radio packages or they’ll be the next one out the door.

So you have fewer journalists doing more work during a pandemic that killed 20,000 Canadians in the past year.

And in case you were wondering how Bell’s parent company — BCE — is doing, don’t worry. Stock prices are up 2.75 per cent since the beginning of the week. Good news, chief executives, you won’t have to fire your yacht guy! It’s impossible to find a good yacht guy, these days. It’s like, who do I have to kill to get these goddamn barnacles off my rigging? Oh yeah, I have to kill the hopes and dreams of hundreds of families across the country. It’s a great yacht. It’s called the Wind Jammer.

But seriously, folks, BCE pays its chief executive officer around $10 million a year — mostly in stock options. Or, in simpler terms, 400 times what a reporter would make in a year. If they still had a job. Have I told you about the yacht barnacles?

It gets better.

The same company that feeds its employees to the wolves for the Good of the Shareholders (praise be to Them) also collected $122 million in wage subsidies from the federal government last year.

In other words, money from working Canadians has effectively kept Bell’s shares above $40 apiece on the New York Stock Exchange. It’s just like Marx said, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his summer house in the Muskokas.” Or something like that. Yacht guy!

Oh, and did I tell you BCE had such a great year, they decided to boost quarterly dividends from $0.79 to $0.83 per share? So while they cried poor to the federal government, BCE handed out tens of millions in dividends to wealth management funds.

So I will miss my dearly departed colleagues.

I don’t need to convince you of the virtues of local journalism, but I will say this. The Coalition Avenir Québec government has been repeatedly forced to change course because of a story in the news. And so were the Liberals before them and the Parti Québécois before that.

One last thing about Jan. He was the first reporter to ever give me the time of day back when I was working at a student newspaper and cutting my own hair with a dog clipper.

“You’re a student? What outfit are you with, young man?” asked Jan, all wild-eyed and bushy-bearded.

“The Link,” I replied.

“Concordia! My alma mater. Well, keep at it. Journalism is the most fun you’ll ever have with your pants on.”

He was right. It still is.

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