Thursday, September 6, 2018

Colm Feore and the Lay-Off

Colm Feore, Toronto, Jan. 27, 2009

THESE WERE THE LAST PORTRAITS I DID FOR THE FREE DAILY. I didn't know they were, but I must have had some idea that my days were numbered, because I had started looking around for a new job at the time. I didn't want to get surprised; other newsroom staffers had been planning or making exits at the time and it seemed the more dignified way of leaving. But that's not what happened.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, fellow staff writer and photographer Chris Atchison had already left and I was taking up the slack, doing interviews and photo shoots. Colm Feore was in town promoting his role on the latest season of 24, as the husband of the first (fictional) female U.S. president. We did a lot of coverage of 24 back then - it was a monster hit and probably one of the last must-see series produced by a U.S. network.

Colm Feore, Toronto, Jan. 27, 2009

What I remember most about the shoot was that Feore didn't seem terribly interested in talking about his role on 24. Michael Ignatieff, an esteemed writer and academic, had recently been made interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada - then the official opposition - and would soon be elected its leader. Feore was incredibly excited about him. He spent much of the interview and shoot talking about how fortunate Canada was to be able to vote for a real intellectual as its leader.

Feore had made his reputation in Canada playing legendary figures like pianist Glenn Gould and Pierre Elliot Trudeau - longtime prime minister and father of our current PM - and I suppose he felt his opinion about who should lead the country was important. Mostly, though, he reminded me of another actor, Ted Danson, at a movie junket I'd been to in Santa Monica a year previous. Danson also didn't want to talk about the movie he was promoting as much as his friend, Hillary Clinton. If only we could sit down for a beer with Hillary, he told us - we'd know how great she was and why we needed to vote for her. That most of the table at the junket were foreign journalists didn't seem to register with Danson.

In any case, Michael Ignatieff's only election as head of the Liberals didn't work out so well. In 2011 the party - unofficially known as "Canada's Natural Governing Party" - came third in the polls, losing its status as the official opposition. Ignatieff himself lost his seat in parliament. As subsequent events have proved, Canada does not want an intellectual for a leader.

The Feore portraits are alright, I guess. They're stark and simple and part of the new direction my portrait work had started going since I'd been coaxed back into shooting by Jodi Isenberg at the free daily five years previous. It seems suitable that they were shot at the old Four Seasons in Yorkville; I'd done so much work in its rooms since the '90s, and I'd always appreciated the big, bright windows that looked north and west over the city. It wouldn't be long for the world - the hotel would close three years later and move two blocks east to a new building.


I WAS LAID OFF BY THE FREE DAILY on the morning of February 10, 2009, two weeks after I'd done the Colm Feore shoot. I had come in late that day - I had a job interview at the Toronto Star for the Queen's Park reporter position, though of course no one at the office knew that. Our new editor had insisted that I be in the office that day for a meeting, and I followed her all the way to the door of the publisher's office before I spotted Glen, our managing editor, out of the corner of my eye, being escorted out of the building with a box of his stuff. The shoe dropped just as she opened the door and I saw that the assistant publisher and our union rep were already waiting inside.

I'd been sandbagged. The editor said something about a "new direction" for the paper - one that required laying off all the writers (plus the managing editor.) We have called a cab for you. Don't return to your desk - its contents will be packed up and sent to you. They were about to take away my cellphone when I pulled it out to call my wife and I had to remind them that the phone was mine.

If I'm honest, once the anger and humiliation had passed I was grateful. The free daily hadn't been much fun to work for since Bill, the new publisher had taken over, and definitely since Jodi had been fired as editor-in-chief. Jodi was my friend, and almost anything positive that came from my time at the free daily had been because of her decisions and support. Even before she moved into the editor's chair, she had been a big supporter of making me the paper's senior writer after my contract as interim photo editor ended. It's hard to say definitively, but I might not have found my way back to photography today if Jodi hadn't asked me to go back to work nearly fifteen years ago.

At the Four Seasons Yorkville Avenue Bar photo show, Sept. 2007. Photo by Chris Atchison.

My first reaction when I realized what was coming in the publisher's office on that February morning was anger. I am not a team player by nature - another one of Jodi's great gifts was letting me work from home instead of holding down a desk in the office up in Don Mills, a 90-minute commute each way. (One of the first things the new editor did was to enforce an edict from the publisher ordering all the writers back to a desk in the office. I think he'd seen All The President's Men too many times and wanted to preside over a bustling newsroom. As anyone who's worked in one can tell you, newsrooms don't bustle.)

But there was a sense of camaraderie among the staff at the free daily; it developed slowly under P.J., our first editor, and really flourished when Jodi took over. I had worked harder for the paper than I thought myself capable, writing daily and weekly columns, reviews, interviews and features in addition to taking pictures. I had turned a daily TV column that I was only supposed to write for a week when someone else was on vacation and made it something more than just rewritten press releases and gossip cribbed from entertainment websites. When Jodi gave me the job I told her up front that I didn't really watch much TV because I didn't like it that much. I ended up writing over 1,100 daily columns.

I had invested more into working for the free daily than I had put into any job I'd had, and being laid off felt like a betrayal as much as a loss of income. (The wages at the paper were well below what any other paper in the city paid. I remember describing my workload to a friend who was an editor at the Globe & Mail; he told me that he had people who were paid twice as much to produce a third of my work.)

Sometimes it didn't seem like management really wanted to acknowledge our successes. Before he left, Chris had talked to the people at the Four Seasons, who said they'd be interested in putting on a show of our movie star portraits in the hotel's Avenue Bar during the film festival. It was a really big deal - an opportunity I wouldn't have dreamed of when I was a freelancer. He took the proposal to the publisher, who turned it down before Jodi talked him into changing his mind. But they didn't want to spend any money, so Chris and I ran around trying to get deals on printing and framing with just a week or two before the show was supposed to open.

The show happened, but the paper said they didn't want to spend any money on promotion or an opening reception, so it all came off like a wasted opportunity - a damp squib. No wonder I look so miserable in the photo Chris took for the story the paper ran - the only publicity our show ever got. Another reason why I have no enthusiasm for gallery shows any more.

Shooting an AK-47 for a James Bond story, Oct. 2008. Photo by Frank Monozlai.

It took the paper quite a few months to find a replacement for Jodi after they forced her out. They ended up hiring exactly the sort of person I was afraid they would - the Respected Industry Professional, complete with J-School teaching gig and a network of fellow professionals at her fingertips. Exactly the sort of person who hadn't built up the free daily from a start-up run out of a hotel room into a national chain of free dailies.

The free daily was no New York Times, and that was its great virtue. In an age of falling readership and failing confidence in the news media, Jodi had figured out that people wanted something light and entertaining to read on their commutes to work, and had delivered, filling the paper with TV and movie stories and unconventional personalities like Enza Anderson, a local trans celebrity who had run for mayor as Enza Supermodel and turned out to be one of the most professional writers I'd ever worked with.

Jodi knew who our demographic was, and delivered content to them without pandering. So my heart sank when the new editor took over and drove up in what I've come to call the Annex Clown Car. First she began canceling all the features that readers liked - TV recaps, movie and celebrity coverage, shopping and gift guides and, ultimately, much of what we produced in-house. Then she enlisted friends of hers - more Respected Industry Professionals - to write editorials and introduce politics into the paper.

It was an awful mistake. Politics - the hectoring, biased, often sneering op-ed political content that the news media has decided to favour since the budgets and staff that once researched features and covered beats were gutted from newsrooms. Jodi had made the free daily a success by avoiding it, and had made the paper grow as a result. It was one of the great errors of the passengers in the Annex Clown Car that their names and reputations attracted readers, and the new editor was intent on making the free daily resemble all the other failing papers and their op-ed shape-throwing. But falling readership at the big dailies was proof that the opposite was true, and nothing that's happened in the decade since I was laid off has reversed the trend.

It was, in all likelihood, time for me to go anyway, but I'm not grateful for the push out the door. I wouldn't be the last to go; in the months that followed there was an exodus of staff, and almost exactly a year later the new editor was fired, followed by Bill, the publisher. The free daily still exists and its competitors are all gone, but the name has been changed and it barely resembles the paper I worked on with Jodi, Tina, Jonathan, Fermin, Chris, Nate, Liban, Jen, Brian, Sarah, Saleem, Kasia, Steph, Mike, Christine and everyone else who I annoyed constantly when they were forced to share a newsroom with me.

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