That all began to change in the late 1970s after Graham hired Bill Smith, a curmudgeonly, bombastic, Trump-like figure, as his managing editor. While carrying on quixotic Dennis-supported editorial campaigns in favour of highway safety and against estate taxes on the wealthy, Smith casually reassigned, belittled, alienated and fired many of the paper’s best journalists. They, perhaps not surprisingly, called in union organizers.
The first attempt to unionize the newspaper failed dismally. The supposed ringleaders were fired, rehired after the union filed unfair labour relations charges against the paper and then reassigned to scut duties like organizing clippings in the newspaper’s library. It would take the paper’s journalists 20 more years to work up the courage to invite union organizers back on to the premises.
By the time the Herald and its newly unionized reporters and editors did reach their first contract agreement in 1999, Graham was still in charge, but he was now 71 years old.
His efforts at succession planning had not gone well. During the mid-1980s, Graham appointed Heather, his daughter from his first marriage (Graham’s first wife, Ann, had died of cancer in 1959) to be the Herald’s assistant marketing director. The benign title masked what seemed like a seismic power shift within the newspaper. Heather was placed in charge of revitalizing the moribund afternoon Mail-Star and positioning it to take on the Halifax Daily News, a feisty new tabloid that represented the Herald’s first real challenge since 1949.
She was successful. After a Heather-supervised redesign, the newspapers’ circulation topped 148,000 (versus today’s less — some say significantly less — than 70,000), but not everyone was pleased. There were “shouting matches” between Heather and some of the paper’s middle managers, who’d liked things just the way they were, thank you very much. In 1989, Heather, frustrated, she says now, not only “by the people dad had advising him,” but also, ultimately, by her father himself, quit her job. “I saw myself as a change agent, as someone who brought together people from all departments to redesign the newspaper. My father was more of a divide-and-conquer kind of manager who would never say yes or no directly. We never had a meeting about issues. Instead, there’d be the cold shoulder, the silent treatment. You got the message.”
A decade later, Graham tried again, anointing William, his son by his second marriage, as chosen successor. But then, in 2002, just as Will was about to assume a more senior role in the newspaper, he died after complications associated with an epileptic seizure. He was only 30 years old.
Sarah, Graham’s daughter from his second marriage, then became the reluctant heir apparent. Though she’d earned an MBA from Saint Mary’s University, tried on virtually every non-editorial job at the Herald and been named the company’s vice president in the 1990s, she didn’t feel the newspaper in her bones as her father had. In fact, Sarah insisted she would have much preferred to have shared the job with Will. Even after Will died, she wasn’t sure she would actually get the nod from her father. “You could never tell with my dad,” she told KPMG’s inBusiness in 2013, “so there were many times, up until he died, that I didn’t know if I’d be the one running it or not.”
Her father, she admitted, was not an easy man. He rarely talked to his daughter (his vice president) about the paper’s financial situation, but he would often test her to see if she’d trip up. Working for him, she explained in that 2013 interview, was like being a contestant on Survivor. “I’ve tried to bury a lot of those things back in the past.”
Soon after her father’s death, however, Sarah officially became the newspaper’s new publisher. After she married Mark Lever, she named him the company president and CEO. Despite his lack of newspaper experience or business track record, the union claims Lever’s starting salary was $12,000 a month. Employees became more irritated when — at a time management was talking poor, and demanding concessions from the union — Lever showed up in a new silver Mercedes valued at over $100,000, and he and Sarah began to take exotic vacations, including one, on strike’s eve, to Antigua.
No one outside the paper’s innermost circle, of course, knows their real working relationship — Sarah declined to be interviewed, Lever did not reply to requests — but it is clear Sarah’s view of the role of her newspaper is different than her father’s sense of it as sacred trust. “It’s a business,” she told inBusiness. “You have to run it like a business. The history is important but you can’t let that dictate what you do.”
Perhaps because the Chronicle Herald has been Nova Scotia’s “newspaper of record” for longer than most Nova Scotians have been alive, or perhaps because, traditionally, newspapers have been central to our notions of democracy and informed citizen decision-making, this dispute between one newspaper’s owners and the reporters and editors who re-create it daily, seems both more important and also more personal than most labour disputes.
Some longtime readers have cancelled their subscriptions in protest. (No one knows how many; the union speculates the number could be as high as 10,000; the company won’t release numbers.) Some readers — again there are no numbers — have threatened to boycott companies that continue to advertise in the paper. While some advertisers have stopped placing ads, others have hung in. Members of the local arts community recently staged a press conference to complain about the strike’s impact on attendance at cultural events. The dispute has even split the Dennis family itself; while Sarah and her husband run the newspaper, her half-sister Heather has become a public champion of the striking reporters and editors.
Despite it all, David Wilson, the union negotiator, refuses to give up hope. Although he now lives in Ottawa, Wilson recalls he grew up in Halifax and delivered the Chronicle Herald as a kid. “I know how important the paper has been to the community.” He knows too that solutions take time. How long? He notes pointedly that union members at Saint John radio stations CFBC, K-100 and Kool 98 spent two years on the picket line before finally winning a new four-year contract with wage increases and job security in May 2014.
No one wants this dispute to go on that long.
“For everyone’s sake,” prominent Halifax stockbroker and musician Denis Ryan lamented in a recent opinion piece for LocalXpress.ca, the strikers’ online newspaper, “the strike needs to end… We need our democracy back.”