The day I had anticipated/dreaded for so many years finally came. On January 7th, after nearly 20 years with the different brands (FYI/ICI network, London Free Press, Canoe.ca, Bowes, Osprey, and Sun Media) of Quebecor Media, and, later, Postmedia, I finally got the proverbial tap on the shoulder. I was laid off. While initially this was a bit of a shock, it truly did not surprise me.
Those who have known me since I began my journey in the ever-changing newspaper industry have heard me say repeatedly that I have never felt my job was safe more than 6 months out. Between acquisitions, downsizing, poor economic conditions, and a faltering newspaper industry business model, it always seemed like my eventual layoff was inevitable. Despite the challenges, my nearly 20 years in the newspaper industry has been a spectacular learning experience working with some pretty brilliant and amazing people.
I was a web developer hired as the ‘HTML Editor’ for a digital start-up called FYI London in 2000. FYI London was a community portal web-site that was part of the larger FYI/ICI network (FYI Calgary, FYI Edmonton, FYI Winnipeg, FYI Ottawa, FYI Toronto, ICI Montreal, and ICI Quebec) of Canadian web-sites started by Canoe.ca. The focus of those sites were to be a local presence in each market by creating compelling local content with movie listings, events, shopping directory, restaurant listings, and more. Canoe was planning throughout 1999 and 2000 for a public share offering in 2001 and the FYI/ICI network, along with Canoe.ca, was seen as a crucial components. Unfortunately, the Internet tech bubble burst, spectacularly, in early 2001, and the proposed public share offering evaporated as had happened to so many other Internet tech companies at that time.
The photo accompanying this blog was published at the height of the Dot.com bust in 2001. The image struck me as an important commentary on the dangers of the still booming Internet and waning newspaper industries. The message was clear: Don’t get comfortable. Expect things to keep changing. The photo became my ‘totem’. It has been on the wall of each of my offices since then… a silent reminder: Don’t get comfortable.
Before the tech bubble burst and changed everything, I got to play an integral part of the amazing start-up that was FYI London. In the beginning, there was 4 of us (the web developer, the graphic artist, the content editor, and our business manager) working in 2 small offices in the London Free Press building, We were part of Sun Media/Canoe, but were treated as something separate. Our team worked really hard and built something very cool in a relatively short period of time. FYI London, the last site in the FYI/ICI network, launched to great fanfare in July 2000. I recall the Canoe representative who came to watch the launch live saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “Congratulations! That was an amazing site launch. Best one yet. By the way, don’t spend any money, because we are out!” We were thinking, “huh?!?!” That was a shocking thing to hear on launch day
At FYI London, I fully credit the wise strategy of our team’s leader, Katherine, for our surviving the next couple of years. Seeing the writing on the wall on launch day, she declared, “If it doesn’t make money, we don’t do it.” This was a really big shift in thinking in 2000 and became our mantra. While all the other FYI/ICI sites in the network were focused exclusively on creating compelling community content, we directed our primary efforts focused on building a revenue-generating, sustainable business models. We looked for ways to create online revenues and to find digital ways to enhance traditional print products of the London Free Press.
Unfortunately, the collapsing tech share prices as a result of the dot.com bust, doomed the FYI/ICI network by mid-2001. All the sites with the exception of FYI Calgary and FYI London were immediately shut down and all staff were laid off. In London, the publisher of the London Free Press recognized the value of what we built in less than a year and absorbed our team into London Free Press. For more than a year, Calgary SUN and the London Free Press were the only Sun Media newspapers with an Internet presence.
Despite dodging the mass lay-off, none of us felt safe. FYI London had always been an island within the London Free Press. The Free Press Sales teams didn’t understand digital and had no interest in selling it. Editorial didn’t trust what we were pushing for — a “digital first” content strategy. And, the Free Press Executive saw digital emerging at the same time that their traditional print models started failing. Digital made everyone in the building uncomfortable. It was something to be avoided, yet it was unavoidable. Still, our team was invigorated because we saw what we were were doing as building the future. In fairness, the corporate culture did continue to evolve. It became clear that embracing digital was the only way the newspapers were going to survive as a company and as a industry..
Over the years, our larger company went through one management pivot after another trying to find new sustainable online business models. The newspaper industry, as a whole, tried everything they could to stave off the financial bleeding from collapsing print advertising and circulation revenues. The new motto—born of desperation—was ‘throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks’. Yet, it was a a great learning environment. We were constantly trying, and more often than not failing, many different ideas.
By 2007, digital was now seen as the solution to the declining newspaper industry but, to quote an overused axiom, the industry “was trading Print advertising dollars for Digital dimes” and later, for Mobile pennies. It seemed like a race to see who would own the tiny piece left at the end.
The layoffs in the newspaper industry kept coming and the business kept shrinking. Every six months, for years, double digit layoff notices would be issued. Both print and digital staff would be eliminated to save costs. Sadly, by this point, layoffs had became normalized in the minds of most employees and were now expected. You felt bad for your fellow employee but, at the same time, those that remained took on more and more work and breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them—this time.
Now a Product Manager, my role was part of emerging changes in Sun Media, and later Postmedia, that saw digital become the primary focus of the sales, editorial, circulation, and marketing teams. This change in focus began driving real progress towards changing the business models into something approaching sustainable. It was seeming likely that a day would come where the digital side was all that would remain of a once proud and powerful newspaper industry. And it became hard to shake the feeling that on a day, maybe very soon, I would feel that inevitable tap on the shoulder.
When my last day came, it felt surreal to walk out of my London Free Press office for the last time. I am certainly grateful for all the opportunities to learn, grow, contribute, and adapt that working in the newspaper industry gave me. As I look back, I have advocated for local digital strategies, experimented with new digital content models, championed new business models, launched many new revenue strategies and optimized existing revenue streams. I’ve managed multiple site redesigns for a great number of sites, built and managed content management systems, created digital paywalls, and been part of three corporate acquisitions (both acquiring and being acquired). Most importantly, I’ve mentored many colleagues and was, in turn, mentored by some excellent leaders. I made friends, some with whom, I hope to maintain a lifelong connection.
As for next steps, at this point, anything is possible. Stay tuned.