My wife is constantly amazed that I read every page of the newspapers that are delivered to my door every morning…seven days a week. Of course I watch a lot of news on television too. That makes me a bona fide news junkie. According to the statistics I read in one of the newspapers, it can be difficult to differentiate when you are plowing through so much news, I am not an uncommon Canadian. It seems we are a country of news junkies in comparison to our American neighbors. The market for quality news coverage is still very strong here. So why are Canadian news outlets from print, TV and radio following the U.S. down the road to coverage of non-events, non-stories and celebrity garbage…I mean gossip?
Each day it feels like it takes me less and less time to read the papers. The Sunday Toronto Star is an empty shell that can be perused cover to cover in about ten minutes. I barely know who Lindsay Lohan is and what makes her famous yet I am bombarded with her brush with the law and her impending jail term. I’m sure Lohan’s incarceration will have little effect on the world economy other than to sell a few more newspapers.
When I was at CBC my bosses conducted a poll of news viewers; which station they watched, why they chose to watch a specific newscast, their age, education background and yearly earnings. The results were obvious. The CBC’s viewers were older, richer and better educated than CTV, Global and CITY viewers. CITY-TV viewers were the youngest, poorest and least educated. But put that way, it is highly misleading. The difference in average age from CBC to CITY-TV was about 5 years, 44 for CITY and just under 49 for CBC. CBC had the most university grads but most CBC viewers barely finished high school.
I remember thinking at the time that CITY’s rock and roll news was a great thing for CBC. Younger folks got hooked on the news watching Gord Martineau and his gang. They developed the news viewing habit in simple bite sized, picture stories. The way I saw it, when they matured and wanted more, they would graduate to CBC News. CITY was news with training wheels. CBC was the 18 speed racing bike.
The world of television and TV news is far more complicated today. It is as much about style as substance. There are far more choices. The internet and all-news channels provide way more options. A friend told me that watching network news in Canada today is like watching yesterday’s newscast. He has seen all the stories during the day on the net and has no time for the déjà vu provided by the TV newscasts.
Given all of the above I have to ask what CBC, CTV and Global are doing. Instead of creating a new kind of in depth version of a newscast with fewer stories and more context, they are still competing with CBC NN, CTV News Network and the internet. They are still trying to cover all the stories without getting down to what is important and giving those stories more time and effort. In Canada this is doubly stupid because the networks own the services they are competing with.
When Newsworld was first created I believed it would be the best thing that happened to national newscasts. It would free them from having to be everywhere covering stories large and small from across the country and around the world. I expected the news bosses to choose six or seven important stories and give them in depth coverage. Why not? The small stories about the snow storm in Calgary and the 20 car pile-up outside Chatham were now taken care of. There would be more time to look at the cost of the G-20 and whether we really need a census any more. (By the way, we still have not seen a single investigative report on how our government spent $1.2 billion on a summit that cost everyone else a tenth of that sum or less.) Alas, this has not happened. Today’s newscasts in Canada look very similar, in coverage, to what they looked like before Newsworld and CTV News Network. If anything, CBC especially, has taken many steps backward. They have done away, for the most part, with their excellent long form journalism and replaced it on most nights with fillers and fluff that should not have a place on a serious national newscast.
Why did I expect change? Because CBS, NBC, and ABC changed when CNN came along. They realized the futility of challenging CNN for speed. They understood that they couldn’t cover in half-an-hour what CNN had 24 hours to report on. Before CNN a typical network newscast in the U.S. packed 12 to 14 stories into their 30 minutes minus ads every night. Since the advent of CNN, the average American network newscast averages 6 to 8 stories and on many nights an investigative feature on an important subject is one of those stories.
In Canada we may be a nation of news junkies but we are not being well served by our national institutions. The CBC, Global and CTV are mired in formats that were out of date in the 90’s. The Globe and Mail seems to be providing less and less serious news coverage and little investigation into important stories, in some cases preferring to be touts for their own (CTV Globe Media) Olympic coverage or even stooping to stories on which dance team was eliminated from a CTV reality(?) show. CBC Radio is the lone exception but rumors abound that Richard Stursberg is coming to make radio news as inane as he has made TV news.
With new hosts coming to CTV and Global and a renewal process at CBC TV that is an abject failure, perhaps the time has come to take a long look at what network news is doing and look to the future rather than the past to bring about the kind of change that a news hungry population craves.