Corporate concentration of media has decimated local reporting.
There’s no defence against individual incompetence.
I’ve written a blog about the decline in media quality. So much so that I have former colleagues in the media who won’t speak to me anymore. I’ve even commented on the decline in quality at the station where I worked for 26 years.
What’s happened in the media, especially under an increasing concentration of ownership, is what we call the “do more with less” mentality that’s come into play and practicality because the bean counters have taken over.
The station I worked for, BCTV (now Global News), was, on a per-capita basis, the No. 1 station in North America for ratings. We outdrew our closest rival, the CTV station, by five and six and seven to one. And the others, like CBC, were just in the dust.
BCTV’s success came from the fact that, back in the 1960s, the station hired experienced newspaper reporters. The hiring managers didn’t go for the teeth and hair look; they hired seasoned newspaper reporters to cover the news, and that’s how I got hired. We had the homeliest looking group of reporters on air, but they were all very good storytellers and diggers – people with deep knowledge of the issues they covered.
We had great freedom to pursue stories that I don’t think we’d ever be able to, or that we’d be allowed the time and effort to, pursue today. So we went after those stories, and we built the No. 1 newscast in North America when it came to local news – as I said, on a per-capita basis. That was a golden era for BCTV. The company would let me take a month to investigate a story. When I won a Webster Award for best reporting (television), it was after I’d spent a month investigating Waste Management and how the company operated in the United States.
I don’t think you’d ever get the time to do that kind of investigative work now, because there just isn’t the money. It’s all about doing more with less – in at 9 a.m., out by 5 p.m., and that’s it. You might get the time to work on a series – maybe on a local issue like transportation or local children’s hospitals – but that’s all easily done; it’s puffery that’s put into a feature-type series. But as far as investigative journalism goes … the concentration of ownership killed a lot of that.
When I was the Ottawa bureau chief for BCTV, we reported on stories that were very specific to B.C. and western Canadian interests. Nobody was asking those kinds of questions on Parliament Hill, and so reporting on those issues gave us a presence on Parliament Hill that we had never really had before. The government started to pay attention, the opposition really paid attention, and the viewers out here loved it. But when BCTV was sold and became part of a conglomerate, the Ottawa bureau was closed.
Now, we get that sort of news through things like Global National – a one-story-fits-all sort of news output. You could say it’s the enriched white bread of television news, where the same story is reported to Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, the western provinces … it’s just the story du jour sort of thing. Almost no one asks any questions about B.C. or Halifax issues. They tend to ask questions that are more important to what’s happening in Ontario and Quebec. But it’s certainly not on their agenda to go to a prime ministerial press conference and ask about an issue of concern to Saskatchewan or British Columbia or Nova Scotia – it just doesn’t happen. So we have suffered tremendous decline through the concentration of ownership and because of the conglomerates operating the news agencies. They just want a cheaper product.
How often do you turn on the local news and see ambulance chasing? We always used to cover that crud, but it would be in the second or third part of the show. Unfortunately, that sort of thing is now leading the show, because the first part, which used to be filled with investigative journalism and groundbreaking news – stuff that people used to rush home to tune in to – is almost gone.
The people who work in the news industry – even the managers – still try their best. But they’ve got budget and staffing constraints, and a lot of the time they increase the number of shows they do each day, so they end up using the same stories over and over again. We’ve paid a price for that, and I think it’s starting to show in the ratings. At best, the agencies are stagnant; they’re certainly not growing, even though Canada’s population is growing, and I’ve even seen a drop in local ratings, accompanied by suggestions that there’s good reason for it.
BCTV became No. 1 by hiring the homeliest group of seasoned reporters. Hiring reporters with the kind of knowledge and experience that we had costs money. Now, news stations hire cheap. They hire unseasoned reporters straight out of broadcasting school – many of whom are motivated by a desire to be on TV and don’t necessarily know how to tell a story. There’s just no creativity in the way they word stories. I guess when you cover fires and shootings and every illness known to man, you don’t need to have much of a writing style – you just plop it in between the pictures and say, “Here it is, folks.”
I’m really concerned about the future of journalism; I worry about what will happen if this continues. People are creatures of habit, so even as the quality of our news declines, they still go home and turn on the local news. That said, I don’t think low-quality reporting will bode well for the future, because as more and more alternative news sources come about via the internet and other technologies, the number of day-to-day viewers of TV news is fragmenting.
Hopefully, as the number of viewers or listeners drops, the stations will realize they cannot water down the soup anymore. On the other hand, from what I’ve heard, it seems that some of the bean counters are satisfied with the status quo and don’t really care about audience growth. TV news is expensive to produce, so they just let it be. They make their money on prime-time shows, and the news is not the big thing anymore. I would call this a human version of robot journalism.
Consider a company like Postmedia, which owns something like 14 newspapers in Canada. Postmedia produces one story on new technology, and that story goes out in all the newspapers that Postmedia owns. When you start filling papers with these general, one-story-fits-all-type feature stories, the amount of local news being produced can decline. I think that’s more of a danger than robot journalism. It’s puffery journalism that’s produced by human beings, but will always be non-critical. This sort of news basically just fills the pages between the ads. The more of that sort of thing there is, the less quality journalism there is. That’s what scares me, and that’s what I think doesn’t bode well for the future.
There have always been wire services through which people all over the place get the same stories or feeds. A lot of Canadian media companies are too lazy to send their own people around the world, or can’t afford to do so, so they buy American news feeds. I don’t think that serves journalism. No one is served well by a one-story-fits-all journalistic mentality other than the corporate owners who are taking money in hand over fist.