The founders of Overstory Media Group (OMG) have billed their start-up journalism enterprise as the “Chipotle of news.” Since OMG journalists signed union cards in January, senior management has brought a whole new meaning to that analogy by apparently attempting to quash the union drive.

From November 14 to 16, OMG journalists had long-delayed certification hearings with OMG senior management and a mediator after what staff say were months of union suppression tactics from the company’s owners, including forcing employees to remove their union logo from their Slack avatars. Final arguments are scheduled for December 20.

Senior management has been careful not to explicitly voice its opposition to the company-wide union drive, but multiple OMG staff who spoke to Ricochet on background to avoid professional repercussions said ownership’s behaviour has all the hallmarks of union busting.

A June 2022 slide deck of an OMG pitch to investors previously obtained by Ricochet boasts of a lack of unionization as a selling point.

While ownership cries poor, internal documents obtained by Ricochet reveal that it’s more than willing to spend lavishly on union-busting lawyers and recruiting an executive who resigned after mere months on the job.

In a recording of a company-wide town hall, also obtained by Ricochet, OMG executives refuse to answer employees’ questions framed around their ostensible opposition to the union while promising more cuts to come.

The upstart media company, which was founded in 2021 by CEO Farhan Mohamed and multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur Andrew Wilkinson, owns a dozen titles from coast to coast, including the upstart Victoria Capital Daily, Burnaby Beacon, Fraser Valley Current and Calgary Citizen, as well as two established alt-weeklies the company purchased last year — Vancouver’s Georgia Straight and Halifax’s The Coast.

When OMG launched, Mohamed and Wilkinson stated their ambition to hire 250 journalists at 50 news outlets by 2023, which a Guardian headline hailed as a “plan to revive local news.”

It’s nearing the end of 2023 and the company is nowhere near its original goal, employing somewhere in the realm of 30 editorial staff.

Imran Rahaman, Chief Operating Officer, warns staff there may be more layoffs to come.

In fact, it’s been laying off journalists — two reporters at the Burnaby Beacon and one at The Coast in late-2022, and then five journalists earlier this year at the Capital Daily — more than half its editorial team — including managing editor Jimmy Thomson, who had pushed back against directives from senior management to produce an advertorial for one of Wilkinson’s companies.

The latter round of layoffs suspiciously occurred a day before CWA-Canada announced the majority of OMG’s workforce had signed union cards to establish the OMGuild.

Since then, nine additional OMG employees have lost their jobs, including journalists at the Burnaby Beacon, The Coast, Georgia Straight and Calgary Citizen.

Screenshots obtained by Ricochet from a company Slack channel where company invoices are automatically posted show that the OMG spent $4,675.48 on “professional services” from Fasken LLP, which is representing the company in the labour dispute, in January 2023, $59,178.25 in February — after the union drive was publicly announced — and $16,809.45 in March.

Additionally, the company spent $46,200 to recruit Chief Operating Officer Imran Rahaman in June 2023. Rahaman left the company four months later for reasons that are unclear to the employees who spoke to Ricochet.

In total, OMG has spent almost $127,000 in expenses that could have been used to invest in journalism — OMG’s original purpose.

In response to a request for comment, Mohamed wrote in an email: “I’m slow to email right now. Please text me if it’s urgent, otherwise I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” He didn’t respond to Ricochet’s follow-up email, texts or voicemail messages.

‘We have an uphill battle right now’

Ricochet has obtained a recording of a September 27 town hall meeting between staff, Mohamed, and Rahaman, in which the executives discussed the company’s financial position but refused to explain, but didn’t deny, its opposition to the OMG union.

“We have an uphill battle right now,” Mohamed told his employees. He said that advertising makes up 80 per cent of OMG’s revenue, which he would like to reduce to 50 per cent by “really activating people” in the communities OMGs titles serve. But, he later added, simply mobilizing people to purchase memberships isn’t going to sufficiently drive revenue.

Rahaman warned that the company will be “in a rough patch for a little bit,” estimating that it may have to lay off anywhere from a quarter to a third of OMG’s workforce.

“We’re not going to do this all at once,” he added, promising that these layoffs will put the company’s finances on a positive trajectory.

“We’re talking about hard times, but there’s a lot of decisions being made at the top that are negatively impacting us and negatively impacting our long term success, and there is no accountability for it. None.”

Mohamed then asked his employees for advice on how to turn the company’s finances around.

In the recording, Matt Stickland, city hall beat reporter at The Coast, expressed his frustration at the company’s conflicting imperatives. On the one hand, it wants publications to wean themselves off ad revenue dependance and build relationships in their communities, but on the other hand they’re laying off precisely the people who are building those relationships.

“We’re talking about hard times,” Stickland said, “but there’s a lot of decisions being made at the top that are negatively impacting us and negatively impacting our long term success, and there is no accountability for it. None.”

Capital Daily reporter Mark Brennae directly asked Mohamed if he will still have a job by Christmas.

“Every single thing we’re doing is to keep people employed,” the CEO responded.

No explanation for union busting

Coast reporter Martin Bauman questioned why the company was spending money on preventing a union drive if times are as tough as Mohamed and Rahaman say they are.

“Why not drop the challenges to OMGuild? That’s thousands, if not tens of thousands in legal fees that are going out the door for something that doesn’t have to be happening. I think it would probably improve the culture within the workplace if we could just actually work productively together as we want to.”

Rahaman said he’s not going to “touch anything about the union at this point.”

Stickland noted that senior management had no issue addressing the union drive when it requested that editorial staff remove their union logo from their Slack avatars.

Tori Marlan, a Capital Daily investigative reporter, asked why the company isn’t even willing to discuss the union bid.

“At this point, we’re following the counsel of our legal advisors and that’s their recommendation,” Rahaman said.

An OMG source told Ricochet that from the get-go, senior management objected to OMGuild seeking certification as a national union, arguing that the publications based in B.C., Alberta, and Nova Scotia should independently seek certification in each province.

‘A lot of bad decision-making on my part’

Capital Daily reporter Cam Welch pointed out at the meeting that the CEO and COO appear to be blaming OMG’s struggles on market dynamics alone, ignoring how the company’s troubles may have also resulted from a series of decisions from upper management.

“The god of the market didn’t step down and hand us a bad hand. We chose some of those cards and we played them,” said Welch.

Mohamed did concede to “a lot of bad decision-making on my part.”

“We should have cut things a hell of a long time ago,” he said, adding that he erred in assuming “we have something here, people will want to support this, and it will work.”

“At the end of the day, every decision comes down to money,” Mohamed added.

Capital Daily was depicted as the crown jewel of OMG, with it being responsible for upwards of 70 to 80 per cent of the company’s revenue. But Mohamed told employees this revenue has decreased by half since the beginning of the year.

Jimmy Thomson, former managing editor of Capital Daily

Marlan, Capital Daily’s investigative reporter, asked if this might be connected to laying off more than half its editorial team at the beginning of this year.

“I’m gonna say this, it’s gonna sound bad, I’m just gonna say it this way,” Mohamed cautioned. “The sad reality is the Capital Daily newsletter has better engagement than it ever has. The past two weeks have seen over 20, 25 per cent click through rates, which is insane. I’ve never seen that before.”

Marlan observed that Mohamed appears to be saying that losing journalists hasn’t actually hurt the Capital Daily’s output, but that the newsletter is still somehow in a financial hole.

The CEO acknowledged it was a “sad thing to say.”

“There’s the underlying vision that we started the company with, which is we want to have phenomenal storytelling reporting. If people aren’t willing to pay for that, or advertisers aren’t willing to come on board for it, then we have to pivot in some ways,” Mohamed said.

Jimmy Thomson, the former Capital Daily managing editor who was laid off at the beginning of the year, told Ricochet that OMG has significantly departed from its initial vision.

“What they set out to do was genuinely worth trying,” Thomson said. “What they’re doing now bears no resemblance to what they had claimed that they were doing when it all started.”

A current OMG employee, who requested anonymity to avoid retribution from upper management, shared Thomson’s assessment.

“I was excited about coming to a place where it felt like I was going to get a living wage and have the time to delve into stories. For a time that was true, and now it just feels like we’re the same as anywhere else,” they said.

Correction: Capital Daily reporter Mark Brennae asked if he will have his job by Christmas. The quote was previously incorrectly attributed to the wrong source. Also, Matt Stickland was previously mis-identified as the managing editor of The Coast. We regret the errors.

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