What I learned after being laid off from my dream job in Canadian media

By: Brennan Doherty on January 16, 2020
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My dream job in Canadian media ended over Slack.

As I slid through a late November snowstorm in the back of an Uber, chilled to the bone, the entire staff of StarMetro — a free daily newspaper chain owned by the Toronto Star’s parent company — assembled for a snap, all-hands meeting. I was returning from a lonely picket line in southeast Calgary where I’d interviewed striking Canadian National railway workers. I opened my phone for the first time in hours on my way back to the office and pinged a colleague about that afternoon’s meeting.

During my four-year journalism career, mostly with the Star, dozens of staffers lost their jobs in three separate layoff rounds, the casualties of an increasingly terminal news industry with razor-thin profit margins. So when I sent my co-worker that message, I of course suspected the worst, but with a strange sense of inevitability: how else does a newspaper job end these days?

“We’re all being laid off,” my colleague replied after a moment, confirming my worst suspicions. All five StarMetro newspapers would cease printing in a month’s time. Everyone in the sales and advertising teams lost their jobs. The newsrooms were gutted. Suddenly, I had a fast-approaching end to my paycheques and no reason to remain in Calgary, a city I’d moved to 18 months earlier — sight unseen — to land my first real journalism job.

I froze, briefly.

Feelings first, details second

Panic is a common first reaction to being laid off. Human resources professionals often bring in boxes of tissues before announcing job cuts, and for good reason. Impending unemployment summons up some daunting financial questions. Should I apply for Employment Insurance (EI)? How long should my severance pay last? Should I have socked away money for a layoff fund to soften the blow? (And if so, how much?)

The answers to those questions vary depending on your job (and province), but Sherri Rabinovitch, a human resources and career consultant based in Montreal, says you shouldn’t panic, even if it seems the only reasonable reaction to receiving a pink slip. “You're human at the end of the day — and it’s normal,” she says. 

While I’d watched laid-off Toronto Star staff leave the main newsroom in tears before, I'd never stopped to ask them about the packages clutched between their fingers. Rabinovitch recommends running a severance agreement by an independent employment lawyer — either at a free legal clinic or through your own private counsel — and ensure your record of employment clearly states that your job was ended by your boss. This allows you to file for EI if needed. 

Most laid-off StarMetro editorial staff I’d spoken to opened their packages to find modest severance deals. Because the vast majority of us had been hired when the chain rebranded in March 2018, we didn't command much seniority within the company. Mine was just under three weeks' pay. The attrition rate of media workers in Canada — and elsewhere — makes it difficult to hold down a job at a single news outlet long enough to earn any significant severance. 

This isn't confined to journalism. Work in the 21st century across the board is increasingly precarious and lacking in the benefits and job security afforded to postwar generations. As a precaution, Rabinovitch advises anyone worried about the possibility of a layoff to prepare a slush fund that covers at least three months' worth of essential bills: rent, transportation, child care if needed. Optimally, she recommends stashing six months away. 

Redefining your professional identity

Rabinovitch says a layoff can be a great opportunity to use your skills elsewhere. But the immediate reaction she sees from a lot of her clients is not only panic, but a retreat to familiar territory: where they grew up, where they still have family, and where they believe they might have a better chance of finding (and keeping) a job. "But they haven't planned for that relocation so they don't secure a job beforehand," she says. "And then they go into a city that may be more expensive than the one they were living in — and they've just exhausted their savings." 

Layoffs also trigger a series of questions beyond financial considerations. We often intertwine our personal identities — and our self-worth — with our job titles. This makes sense, given we spend a significant amount of time at the office. Brian Dijkema, vice-president of external affairs with Cardus and co-author of Work Is About More Than Money — a study of the non-monetary impacts of job loss — points out that the average nine-to-five employee spends more time with their co-workers than their spouse. “When that loss happens,” Dijkema says, “there are tremendous effects for it.” 

These include higher rates of depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease. Studies reviewed in Work Is About More Than Money found double-digit increases in mortality for the first several years after a major job loss, particularly among men. Even those with support systems — sympathetic friends, caring families, and a healthy relationship with their communities — still feel the effects. Dijkema says that for many people, work represents not just a means to a paycheck, but also a sense of accomplishment and worth. "It's something that seems to be integral to what it means to be a human being," he says. 

Those in particularly creative fields, like journalism, can often feel this intertwinement acutely.  We devote ourselves to our craft and consider ourselves “journalists” above nearly every other aspect of our identities. For some of my former StarMetro colleagues, late November marked their second or even third layoff. So when that Slack message popped up on my phone, I wasn't overly surprised. I didn't expect to lose my job on that particular Tuesday, but I never expected to remain at StarMetro for terribly long, either. 

Leaning into new opportunities

When my Uber driver dropped me at the door of the drab two-story office complex that housed Star Calgary's newsroom, I found a manila envelope with my name on it. My fellow reporters and the advertising team drifted about the newsroom, stunned and listless. Deadlines had suddenly become irrelevant and irrational.

Later that night, we crowded around a rickety bar table, sharing pizza and tequila shots, and began considering our next moves.As journalists, saving up a six month slush fund can be exceedingly difficult, not to mention the fact that layoffs are a feature — not a bug — of the news industry today. Handling an entire career under the shadow of a similar upheaval is daunting to say the least. 

We slogged away in Star Calgary’s newsroom for another month, updating our resumes between filing half-hearted stories to fill our website. The last StarMetro papers hit the streets across Canada on Dec. 20. By then, I was feverishly scrubbing down my apartment and throwing what few possessions I’d brought with me from Toronto into the same red luggage set they’d arrived in. 

Shortly after midnight on Christmas Day, my flight touched down at Pearson International Airport. Professionally speaking, my decision to return made complete sense. I lost both my job and a community when Torstar decided to axe StarMetro and the brilliant team that produced it coast-to-coast. But, I’d done exactly what Rabinovitch advises her clients not to do in the spur of the moment: run for familiar territory without a concrete plan. 

I had no desire to stay in Calgary. Stepping into the newsroom each morning brought me camaraderie, purpose, and a paycheque. And while I might’ve had a chance if I’d stayed, the city would have been a terribly lonely place. So I touched down on Christmas Day with the barest skeleton of a path forward: freelance for any client who needs a writer. But as Rabinovich pointed out, a layoff can also present opportunities.

I’d dreamed of transitioning away from the daily grind of newspaper reporting for years. In fact, my original plan when I first entered Ryerson University’s journalism program was to break into the magazine world. Since arriving back in Toronto, I’ve crammed an Excel spreadsheet with pitches and reached out to nearly every editor I know. It’s been slow, but I definitely don’t mind using the Toronto Reference Library as an office. 

I may not have set aside a six month slush fund, but my finances are healthy enough to support a transition to a new job — or at the very least, a steady series of contract gigs — in Toronto. In the meantime, I’ve been blessed with several responsive editors willing to listen from a relatively green ex-reporter returning to Toronto, the city where I took my first tentative steps into journalism.