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and I can't do a thing about it

Newsworld at 20

It’s the 20th anniversary of Newsworld and try as they might at the CBC they can’t get anyone to celebrate with them. Oh sure, there have been a few “puff” pieces in the newspapers over the weekend, but even those were mostly buried deep inside the paper.

The worst article I saw was by Oakland Ross in the Saturday Toronto Star. I remember Mr. Ross as a fine foreign correspondent for The Star. Either he’s a terrible feature writer or he couldn’t be bothered with this assignment. Not that I blame him. It was a lousy assignment. How to you turn the sow’s ear of Newsworld into a silk purse?

Oakland Ross writes “If sheer survival is among the abiding themes of Canadian history…then Newsworld must be defined as a success.” Whoa, is that a load of manure. Newsworld has been a cash cow for the CBC. Even if nobody watched the network, Newsworld would make a fortune for CBC. Every Canadian who has cable TV or satellite television has to pay a subscription fee of over a dollar a month. For twenty years we have had no choice in the matter. That’s millions of dollars every month going to support a network that few Canadians watched. There was no way it would be taken off the air. The CBC couldn’t afford to.

A few years ago my partner, Lon Appleby, and I were doing a series of specials for C-Pac. We got paid peanuts but we enjoyed the cinema verite coverage they allowed us to do of conventions and elections. The people in charge of C-Pac at the time loved our work so much they brought us in to train their staff. What they were most proud of at the time was that their audience was usually larger than Newsworld’s. That’s C-Pac, hands up those of you who are regular C-Pac viewers.

At the time we joked that it would be far cheaper for Newsworld to go off the air and send video tapes to anyone who was interested in their programming. But then they would have to forgo the CRTC mandated millions they were collecting.

The old timers interviewed by Oakland Ross love to talk about the good old days when Newsworld was on top of the Meech Lake Accord or the Wars in Iraq. The truth is the best rated shows on the network were programs like Antiques Road Show. Does that even belong on an “all news” channel?

As Newsworld heads towards a new beginning, a fresh look that aims to be newsier, faster, using the CBC’s words, more like CNN, I wish them all the luck in the world. The changes are an admission that what they have been doing hasn’t worked. But they’ve chosen a steep hill to climb. Especially when the CBC doesn’t have the resources to cover very much outside our major cities, let alone the rest of the world. When a crisis happens in Mumbai will viewers tune to CBC or CNN? In the past Canadians have voted with their channel changers. They have tuned into CNN and the U.S. networks in droves. Do you want to watch people reporting from the scene or from a desk in Toronto? I know CBC got a reporter to Mumbai, luckily a CBC staffer was on vacation in the region. But while CBC News was getting its first reports back CNN was coming live from the streets of Mumbai.

I don’t blame CBC News for this. CBC is a small underfunded network that on the main channel at least, seems less interested in the news service than Being Erica and Little Mosque on the Prairie.

What I do blame CBC News for are the unrealistic goals being set. Wouldn’t it be far better to aim for a network that provided context and depth to major stories in Canada and around the world? Forget about CNN Headline News Channel. Look at the panels and discussion shows that are also successful at CNN. Look at TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin which gets a better audience in Ontario than Newsworld gets coast-to-coast by staying within their means and doing what they can do well. Sure, let us know when a story breaks, that’s what all-news is about, but just as important, help us to understand what is happening and why. Canada, and especially Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, are a perfect venue for panels and discussions. No matter where an event happens in the world we have experts living right here. People who understand the foreign context and the Canadian context and can bring the two together. And guess what? We can do this extremely well with the money and resources at our command.

The last word has to go to a former CBC News chief editor, Cliff Lonsdale, who I am quoting from the Oakland Ross story, he said, “Across journalism, we need more in-depth coverage. In a world of Twitter, what we desperately need is context.”

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8 Responses

  1. adsf says:

    i watch newsworld for the documentaries they have every night

    cnn got lucky with the Mumbai story cause they
    had cnn-ibn so they got fast vidoes

    this was one of the worst attacks in that city and
    cbc / cnn / bbc hasn’t done any real updates

    meanwhile the michael jackson death story is still
    breaking news on cnn

    shouldn’t somebody make a documentary at least and put it on cbc newsworld

    if nobody is noticing cbc 20 years…do you think
    anybody will notice in 5 years from now ..25 years ? will it still be around ?

  2. peter says:

    You didn’t mention counterSpin which did everything thing your are asking for. Cancelled by newsworld in favour of George S. , a show later moved to the entertainment dept. This was a turning point for NW.

  3. I’m not sure that’s exactly fair. I was on Counterspin a couple of times with Avi. That show was tailored for him. It never really flew after he left. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. You build a show around the host, not the host around the show.

    I think I learned that somewhere…where would that be? Oh wait, right…the writer of this blog.

    Point is, Counterspin was a show created for Avi Lewis, like him or not (and I like him) — but leaving was his choice. The fact that his replacements didn’t gel was not Newsworld’s fault.

    • hlbtoo says:

      I was never really comfortable with counterSpin. Not because it was a bad show, it wasn’t. I worried about a public network that ran a program that so blatantly took political sides. While there may have been balance in the guests, the host overrode that balance with his opinions. On any other network I would have appreciated the program more.

      • phil says:

        Because every issue has become politicized these days, anywhere one stands gives the appearance of “taking sides”. Sometimes “balancing” the guests means giving a voice to those who are wrong.

  4. I can see that. I just think we’ve gone so far down the opinion and polarization road that I’m not sure that we have that luxury in the News marketplace anymore.

    To my mind, Counterspin should have had an equally Conservative show equivalent to balance it out.

  5. We’ve been getting context, though. Just not being promoted in the most effective manner, in my view.

  6. Lon Appleby says:

    Howard, I just want to add that if Newsworld made a sustained effort to cover Canada as it is today (multicultural Canada, the most global nation in the world Canada), then they could have their cake (manageable expenses, broad mandate) and we hungry viewers would at last be tempted to take a bite.

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