TV news is here to stay: J-Talk with Canadian broadcast executives

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The traditional television newscast is here to stay for a long time, according to a panel of broadcast executives, but like much else of the journalism industry, it faces a number of challenges.

Steve Paikin posed tough questions about the future of broadcast news last night to Wendy Freeman, president of CTV News; Troy Reeb, senior vice-president of news and station operations for Global News; and Jonathan Whitten, executive director of news content at CBC for the Canadian Journalism Foundation's J-Talk: Keeping You on the Tube, The Mission of Broadcast News.

While money rules many decisions, don't expect CTV or Global News to adopt American-style partisan reporting in order to boost ratings, the panelists said during the discussion, which was driven by questions posed to them by Paikin and the audience. From there, they moved on to the race to be first, which they said has now been replaced by the need to be right and the issue of competition and credibility in television news.

Business model

Canadian television news should not follow the lead of American networks such as MSNBC and Fox in covering news from any partisan angle, said Freeman.

“We cover the news. We don't make news and the news is not about us,” said Freeman. “We are fair and balanced.”

Speaking from a business standpoint, Whitten said that news organizations with an angle seems to be where the audience is right now.

Reeb countered that SunTV appears to be trying to duplicate Fox with Sun News Network, but not a lot of people are watching them perhaps because “they forgot the 'news' part of 'all news.'” 

One recent development in American news coverage did stand out for Freeman though. The networks took commercials and had sponsorships during the presidential election—and it was the first time she had seen that happen. She speculated that they probably lost viewers by airing commercials, “but they made money off of it,” she said. “And I'll be honest, this is something that we (CTV) may look at next time around.”

Competition/why traditional broadcast news matters

Everybody is competition now, said Freeman. “Everyone has a smartphone; anybody can be a journalist. Anybody can shoot anything at any time. It's not just the major news organizations anymore.”

Newspapers are competitors on both text and video platforms, said Whitten. But he also said that the newspapers are actually coming up with innovative ways to use video to tell stories, and the traditional news broadcasters are actually learning from them.

Whitten said he sees social media and citizen journalists as competition as well, to a certain extent. “With the Eaton Centre shooting...what you actually saw were people who had video or had facts or information were sharing with each other,” he said. “So I actually look at people who are doing that kind of journalism work as our partners.”

But even with so much information out there, “people still want the trust and tradition and the credibility that the networks provide,” said Freeman. “And I think it'll always be that way.”

And that's the value in the brand said Reeb. News organizations were always racing to be first. “But we've taken a step back from that” to vet information “because if it's attached to that Global News brand, people should be able to say, 'that's sound.'”

Freeman agreed. “It's not about being first anymore, it's about being right.”

Venturing into new media

A younger audience member asked why distribution of the news couldn't be purely through the Internet, thereby potentially saving money by needing less technical staff.

“I think the real answer is monetization,” said Reeb. Organizations will celebrate having 50,000 viewers on a livestream, he said, while the three national newscasts get an average of three million viewers every night. “The advertisers are willing to pay about 10 times as much for the same impression on television as they are on the Internet.”

At last month's CJF J-talk, newspaper editors criticized the CBC.ca, arguing that online news didn't fulfill the public broadcaster's mandate. Whitten addressed the issue and said that as a public service organization, the CBC will serve the public in any way that they can. “It would be in a sense like asking the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail not to do video on their website. How would they respond to that?” he said. “They obviously understand the need to be in that sphere, in the same way that we understand the need to be in what they're doing”

Reeb and Freeman were divided on the role of the public broadcaster. Reeb wouldn’t comment on whether he thought the CBC should exist at all. But he did cite the $1.2 billion in public money being used to fund the CBC, while getting 6 per cent viewing share.

Whitten asked what the global share was, and Reeb said 9.5 per cent. Throughout the night there was tension and debates about whether the role of the CBC as a public broadcaster was still relevant.

Scheduled news vs. ‘News now’

Just as the newspaper panelists said that the paper is not dead, the broadcasters said television is not dead either. “Television and scheduled television, I think will almost always be a part of people's lives,” said Whitten. “There's no indication that that's going away anytime soon.”

Reeb disagreed, noting primetime shows are getting up to 80 per cent of their audience through playback (PVR, video-on-demand, etc.), because “they want to see it on their time; they want to see it when they want.” While he said that people aren't going to PVR the news, “The idea of the 6:00 newscast and the 11:00 newscast is going to be a consistently challenged model because it doesn't fit in certain people's schedules.

“News needs to move to 'accessible now' and that means accessible by mobile, accessible by online, or accessible on television.”

Freeman talked about the how the television is no longer a standalone. “The smartphone, the laptop, the tablet, and the TV set ... it's very important that it become a companion when you're watching television.”

Storytelling

Tim Knight, a former CBC executive producer in the audience, pressed the panel to address how they planned to keep their viewers engaged. He offered his advice: “Do far better storytelling.” He said that the stories being told night after night have no logical structure, and have lost the sense of drama that captivates the audience. 

Whitten, who was trained by Knight 25 years ago, said that good storytelling isn’t easy. There are storytelling courses at the CBC, he said, but there is a lot of reporting of breaking news. “We still have a lot of resources committed to storytelling, it may not always be the best...but we’re certainly still there.”

Storytelling is the most important thing that broadcasters need to do, said Freeman. “That is something that will keep network television alive, is good storytelling,” she said.

Reeb agreed as well. The lack of good stories being told is due to networks watching each other’s channels in the newsroom, he said.

The faster pace of today’s newsroom hinders the ability to produce stories with substance and context, said Freeman. “There are no deadlines anymore— the deadlines are now, every second is a deadline and that’s a problem. There’s no time.”

Even with tighter deadlines, Freeman said properly checking sources takes precedent because in the end: All we have is our credibility and our reputation. That's the most important thing.”

Comments

 

Good summation.

But I believe I further wrapped my criticism of the three network honchos and the lack of storytelling in their newscasts around the proposition that social media, Twitter, Facebook and "citizen journalists", offer facts but by their very nature can't and don’t offer reasoned understanding of those facts.

Only traditional storytelling can bring that vital understanding. It's by far the most efficient method of passing on information and meaning, one to the other, that humans have ever invented.

Storytelling doesn't mean — as is the norm in so much of broadcast journalism today — starting the story at its end and working back to the beginning, thus giving away the climax. That's for newspapers. 

Nor does it mean the anchor telling all the facts before handing over to the reporter who then has to somehow keep viewer interest in a story of which the outcome is already known.  

Traditional storytelling is about context, dramatic development and climax. In that order. It's about drama. It's about holding the viewer/listener's interest with the age-old question "how's all this going to turn out?"

Storytelling is the same in all cultures. Always has been. Always will be. 

It’s the one weapon, I believe, that can save our honourable profession from the pernicious erosion of social media.

Tim Knight

Auther, Storytelling and the Anima Factor

Tim Knight

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