Fear of Monkeys Writing Local Shakespeare

Much has been written about the plight of full-time writers, staff writers, long-time columnists, and veteran journalists (particularly covering film) being dumped by magazines and newspapers to cut costs and reportedly keep a publication afloat, but the decision to fire/dump the full-timers at Metro, Toronto’s daily paper aimed at commuters, and replace them with unpaid interns is, well, kind of stunning, because if just a handful of senior staff are left to manage the publication, one wonders if Metro will have any original content at all, or go all-wire, and just reprint more material from The Toronto Star.

However, initially reported by The Globe and Mail, apparently Metro’s bigwigs have uttered a clarification, printed in both the Globe and BlogTO.com (see below):

"Metro newspaper in Toronto is not replacing laid-off writers with interns. The newspaper's internship program was not altered as a result of recent layoffs in the editorial department." Metro's editor-in-chief, Dianne Rinehart, says that mentoring was and is the foundation of the internship program; the effect, if any, of writer layoffs on this program is not clear to me. A call placed to Metro's publisher has not yet been returned.

Metro is part of a chain of big city mini-papers aimed at keeping subway and bus riders awake during the commute to and from work, and it’s perfectly fine for that function, but there’s meeting the bare minimum of requirements (which it was doing for a while now, including losing some of their film and DVD critics for rubbish, opinion-neutral plot synopses), and then there’s transcending bland reports that any monkey can cut and paste from various media sources into a print layout; clearly, Metro’s move is just to fill the paper with headline material and pap, instead of creating a paper that maintains a local, provocative, and timely focus for a ‘captive audience’ (the sardined commuters).

The Globe and Mail reported interns were brought in by Torstar, the paper’s owner, a few days prior to the mass firings, and Metro’s group publisher for English Canada (as quoted in mediabistro.com) has downplayed the harsh move as “a small adjustment to our staff.”

Yeah, right.

If ad revenue drives the paper and the paper isn’t being read, then the paper’s pointless, but if the paper is gone from every box by noon and riders pick up and read a paper left on a seat from the previous rider throughout the day and night, isn’t the target audience being reached?

If the printing costs are getting worse, would a smaller print run be feasible since the paper is re-used throughout the day?

There have been a lot of opinions on the slow death of print media, but I think the core problem with Metro’s move is that it was a shitty thing to do to the writers. While one can joke about the interns learning their craft with fewer mentors on staff, any original work from the interns – if they are given the chance to contribute, with or without pay - will lack the experience and familiarity with issues (or in the case of film, extra perspective) shared by the dumped writers.

Older readers of Starweek magazine – back when it was more of a magazine – will recall the massively stupid decision in 2006 to replace Norman Wilner’s video column with fodder by Wendy Mesley (the outcry from readers eventually brought Wilner’s column back for a while). That was followed by staff writer Malene Arpe taking over the column for a while, but without the ability to express her own opinion, orders to stay away from classic and foreign films, and forced to recap the paper’s official opinion on films as reviewed by their film writers.

The revamped DVD column offended veteran readers for its dialled-down mainstream focus, and Starweek was eventually reduced to a thin TV supplement – a move that for some readers eliminated the last reason to buy the paper at all.

The comments at the end of the BlogTO piece are worth reading, though, because it comes from a mix of TTC riders, Star denigrators, and interns, and for all the slams against Metro and Torstar, most seem to agree that dumping the staff was a lousy thing to do, and one of the voices among them is Rick McGinnis, whose columns (mostly about TV) in Metro were worth reading because they were peppered with the right amount of cynicism and experience and wit.

As Torstar and Metro attempt to clarify their decisions of the past week and tear away the image of a slave-labour shop for interns – several blog sites still lead with the original header of unpaid interns promoted to writing Metro’s content without any remuneration – there’s also Rick McGinnis’ own blog that puts a human face on the experience of being dumped, as well as tracing the somewhat sudden decisions that led to his lengthy tenure as Metro TV critic.

I just hope the little paper I read once in a while for rudimentary news capsules doesn’t resemble monkey scribbles, because then it really won’t be worth the paper it's printed on.



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