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Striking Halifax Chronicle journalists amp up parallel publication efforts

A sign for the Halifax Chronicle Herald is seen as members of the newsroom union picket outside the newspaper's office after walking off the job in Halifax on Saturday, January 23, 2016.

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After nearly four months on strike, picketing journalists from the Halifax Chronicle Herald have revamped their parallel publication to report more news and compete for advertising, drawing threats of disciplinary action from the daily newspaper's management.

Local Xpress, an online news site staffed by striking reporters, editors and photographers, was launched at the end of January, about a week after staff went on strike. Since then, the Halifax-based publication has published news through a basic page with room for eight stories, hoping to pressure the company into bargaining.

On Thursday, with the acrimonious strike dragging on and no solution in sight, Local Xpress relaunched an expanded webpage through a revenue-sharing partnership with Village Media, an Ontario-based publisher of local, online news. The new site will accept advertising to cover expenses, and has many more stories, including wire copy from The Canadian Press, as well as separate sections, weather, lottery results and the ability to post Facebook comments.

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"We're definitely going to be taking readers away from [the Chronicle Herald]," said Martin O'Hanlon, president of CWA Canada, the national parent of the local Halifax Typographical Union, which represents the striking staff. "We'll be putting economic pressure on them because we'll be selling ads as well."

The Chronicle Herald's president and chief executive officer, Mark Lever, has written in his own newspaper that "incremental steps are not enough" to reshape the newspaper and make it viable at a time of upheaval in print media. The company's demands, which contributed to a breakdown in talks in January, reportedly include eliminating seniority protections for staff, ending the defined-benefit pension plan, and creating a non-unionized hub of editors who would be paid less than current employees.

The union says it has offered concessions, including a 5-per-cent pay cut across the board, but that management has refused to budge from its position or return to bargaining. Nova Scotia's government has appointed a conciliation officer to work on the dispute.

"The Herald has not refused to return to bargaining," Grant Machum, the Chronicle Herald's lawyer, said in an e-mail on Thursday. "In fact, there is a tentative meeting scheduled for May 27 with the further assistance of the provincial conciliator."

In an e-mail, Mr. Lever also said he expects the two sides to come together "later in May" with help from conciliation services. "Halifax Herald Ltd. is committed to resolving the impasse at the bargaining table, not through the media," he wrote, adding, "We look forward to positive results."

The CWA's Mr. O'Hanlon said the union will meet with the conciliator on May 25, but has heard "nothing yet about the company meeting with him."

As the strike stretched into its 118th day on Thursday, Local Xpress (the name is a play on the workers being ex, or former, press) gives striking journalists an alternative to picketing to earn their strike pay, which is currently just under $600 a week. Until now, the site has been a money-losing proposition fuelled by a small team of editors, half a dozen regular reporters and occasional contributors. The plan now is to have more regularly scheduled shifts.

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"The longer we're out, quite a few of us are committed to continuing to do journalism," said Pam Sword, editor of the Xpress and the Chronicle Herald's digital news editor. However, four striking journalists have already left to take other jobs.

"It's certainly amping up their public presence," said Tim Currie, acting director of the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax. "Is it going to make a lot of difference? I don't think they're going to bring in a lot of revenue from this."

The union also created a page on the crowdfunding site Patreon to collect funds to support the Local Xpress, which had attracted 59 donors giving a total of $416 monthly as of Thursday afternoon. The site is overseen by a non-profit entity, with all revenue going to reporting expenses, website costs and purchasing equipment.

"We'll see where it leads. How much money we make from it would be a real question," Ms. Sword said. "We're a fairly fragmented media landscape right now, so hopefully there's a place for us in that."

Late Wednesday night, the union told members that the Chronicle Herald's lawyer, Mr. Machum, had threatened to send disciplinary notices to union members contributing to the Xpress in response to the relaunch. He declined to comment on Local Xpress or possible disciplinary action.

"We don't take their threat seriously," said CWA Canada's Mr. O'Hanlon, who believes the union is on solid legal ground with its strike publication.

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Ms. Sword said the deal with Village Media gives Local Xpress access to Village's platform and expertise at no upfront cost, in exchange for a share of any revenue the site makes. Village owns five of its own local sites, including one launched in Guelph, Ont., in February after Torstar Corp. closed the Guelph Mercury, shuttering the daily newspaper that had served the city of 141,000 people since Confederation.

"We knew that [Local Xpress] didn't have, probably, much money to spend," said Village CEO Jeff Elgie. "... Our alignment is with local content and how to best get that out."

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About the Author
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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