By Saša Lakić
To make it as a journalist these days is a struggle, no matter where you’re based or what you’re reporting on. The media industry is in turmoil, and good jobs are increasingly hard to hold on to. But for reporters living in Canada’s most expensive city, survival has become an even more precarious proposition—especially for those, like Nick Eagland, early in their careers.
Eagland is a Postmedia reporter writing for both The Province and Vancouver Sun. In April 2017, as a relative newcomer to the troubled organization, he was a natural target for being laid off when Postmedia announced plans to shed 52 staff at its Vancouver operations. “I got laid off, I think, April 28. It was the worst day of my life,” Eagland recounts. Thanks to some tough union actions, however, and a 10 per cent pay cut for all reporters at the newsroom, his job was ultimately saved.
While the 34-year-old believes journalism in Vancouver is “thriving,” and is thankful for the second lease on life, he also no longer has any illusions about job security. “I did start drafting resumes and I started emailing people at other news organizations just to see what was out there, but there was 50 of us doing the same thing. I was really worried about it,” Eagland says. “That was a rude awakening.”
For Eagland, the brush with unemployment came at a particularly challenging time. He and his wife had just gotten married, and had used their savings and proceeds from the wedding to buy a condo. Yet even with the Postmedia job, says Eagland, it was impossible to stay within city boundaries.
“We started looking for places in Vancouver, and on our salaries—she’s a teacher, me a journalist who just took a 10-per-cent pay cut—there was no way we could buy in Vancouver,” Eagland says. “We got a two-bedroom condo in New Westminster; had we gotten the same thing in Vancouver, it would have been twice the price.”
Enda Brophy, associate professor with the school of communication at Simon Fraser University, says that while he has not seen research specifically on the subject, he speculates that Vancouver’s affordability crisis has had a “tremendously negative” effect on young reporters, just as it has on the rest of their demographic cohort.
“Junior reporters in the city are really caught in a double crisis,” notes Brophy. “The housing one, and that of precarious employment, which is an effect of broader political-economic dynamics and the specific crisis of the media sector in Canada.”
Brophy points to some of the same factors that have led to job losses across the wider economy over the last four decades: outsourcing and a shift away from what Brophy calls the secure, full-time model of employment, which means smaller staff and budgets. For news media, print especially, there has also been a shift in consumption habits to digital, which has led to shrinking budgets.
Brophy’s one “bright spot,” amidst all this cost-cutting, is increased unionization at online-first news organizations. He cites the example of Vice, whose Canadian division unionized in 2017; in the past two years, unions have also sprung up at Al Jazeera America and at The Intercept.
“[Unions] are one of the most effective courses of action for ensuring that journalists and media workers in general are able to secure the kind of salaries, job security and control over their working conditions in order to be able to deal with the housing crisis in major urban centres.”
For those who doubt the impact of Vancouver’s out-of-control housing market on young working journalists, one needs only to examine the numbers.
The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver estimates that those who want to buy a single-family house in Vancouver will have to pay at least $1.6 million, while a one-bedroom condo starts on average at $650,000. For those who can only afford to rent, the situation is hardly any better. While the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation puts average rents for one-bedroom apartments at $1,200 a month in Vancouver, this number represents rental-only buildings; in its most recent report, rental site Padmapper puts the actual average rent for a one-bedroom in the city at over $2,000 a month, or $24,000 a year.
By contrast, a first-year reporter at Postmedia in Vancouver makes $1,038 a week, which translates to roughly $54,000 a year; at the CBC, the starting salary for a reporter is just under $55,000 a year. For any young journalist trying to make a go of it, that means more than half of your net income goes to paying rent or mortgage—never mind all the other expenses that make Vancouver such an expensive city in which to live.
The precarious financial picture, combined with limited job prospects, has driven some young journalists to leave the west coast entirely. After graduating from journalism at Langara, Vancouver native Manisha Krishnan reported for the North Shore News before applying for an internship at the Edmonton Journal. From there, she jumped onto a year-long internship with Maclean’s and worked for the Toronto Star before joining Vice Canada in 2015, where she is now a senior writer.
“It seemed like a really small market that was hard to break into,” Krishnan recalls about her experience in Vancouver. “Before I came to Toronto, I did an internship at the Edmonton Journal because I couldn’t actually get into any of the Vancouver papers.” She adds that, though the housing situation in Toronto is not much better, she would never think of moving back to the west coast.
Jessica Barrett is similarly happy to have left town. She had one of the city’s top journalism jobs, as senior editor of Vancouver magazine, when she decided to leave in the fall of 2017. She says it was a combination of an “avalanche of work” at her staff job, combined with the stress of finding an affordable place to live, that precipitated the move to Calgary.
“Professionally, there’s a real sense in Calgary that if you are talented and hard working, there is work for you,” Barrett says. “It’s almost blown my mind. I haven’t had to pitch a single thing since I have been here. People have been approaching me, which is awesome because I have never experienced anything like that.” Besides working part-time for CBC Calgary, she also freelances for Avenue magazine and contributes to The Tyee.
Barrett now rents a two-bedroom house in Calgary for roughly $1,600 a month after utilities, and is looking forward to spending time in her backyard “if the snow ever goes away.” Beside the milder west coast winters, Barrett says she misses being engaged in Vancouver’s many civic issues—and misses the social connections she built up over the years. “The social aspect of it has been really difficult, but there’s been things that offset it.”
Reflecting on the state of journalism in Vancouver, Barrett says she worries about what could happen as veteran reporters retire and young journalists flee the city for more affordable communities.
“When you have a revolving door of young, cheap or free labour,” Barrett says, speaking of the media industry’s growing reliance on interns, “you dont develop a pool of talent that will develop the kind of expertise and familiarity with a community that takes years to obtain.”