Traditional reporting jobs in limbo at CTV1 as Bell Media restructures

“We are going to ensure no media worker is left behind.”

That was the response of  Unifor president, Jerry Dias, to the recent announcement that CTV news will be restructuring its CTV1 News Programming, in a push toward a “digital first” platform. According to the union, Bell has informed workers the restructuring will include a net reduction of staff. While some will shift to new roles, others will lose their positions entirely.

The initial statement by the union representing CTV media workers said that the restructuring will affect news stations in five provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Québec. Howard Law, Unifor media sector director, said that the restructuring will most likely affect a sixth province, British Columbia. It was not included in the original statement because the Vancouver operations are non-union.

The net reduction in staffing will see traditional jobs replaced by video journalists. In traditional newsgathering, a reporting team would normally include the reporter and camera operator. The piece would then be edited in the studio by a designated editor. Video journalists would become all-in-one workers who would drive to the scene, shoot the report, present it, edit it and also write digital copy.

Law estimated 300 station staff will be affected, but it’s too early to put a number on the job losses.

With this new shift, the question is, where will it leave the traditional camera operators and editors?

To be a skilled camera operator (sometimes known as an ENGs or shooters) a craft all on its own. Many shooters have decades of experience and have reliably been partnered with reporters in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. While a reporter is setting up interviews, a skilled shooter can be setting up their shot, and shooting B-roll. Working in tandem, the reporter and the ENG craft a visual story — and can offer one another support.

In addition to ENGs and reporters, skilled studio editors have traditionally been a vital part of the process. Many shooters and reporters work together to edit their own work, but in other cases, editors cut multiple stories for broadcast. Editing is a type of storytelling in itself and more complex pieces can use a second pair of skilled eyes and ears to ensure the best quality.

However, new technology has allowed shooters and reporters to cut their own viz (visual elements) directly on their cameras, thus effectively eliminating the need for studio editors in those instances. This technology has been around for years but is expected to be implemented more widely at CTV as part of the restructuring.

Other types of digital content will still require editors and that may be where some traditional studio editors can find new roles.

Law said the union is ready to fight for the rights of workers currently in traditional roles. He anticipates one of the mains fights will be for the rights of workers to not just be trained in new roles but also to ensure those same workers will not have to reapply for the new roles. Some editors and camera operators may choose to leave the company, but the union will back workers who want to be retrained.

Shooters may be offered the option of becoming solo videographers, which many of them most likely already do, or possibly becoming VJs themselves. However, just as many traditional journalists are uncomfortable behind the camera, traditional camera operators may be reluctant to be in front of it. The fundamentals of the job completely change when tasked with both shooting and presenting the story and some may not want to or be able to adapt.

The major concern for journalists in eliminating traditional shooter and reporter partnerships is the effect it may have on the quality of the content. Law acknowledged that the shift to more video journalists may mean that the end product will be accepted at “good enough” instead of higher standards it would have been held to previously.

A former CTV VJ, who now works as a reporter at a different news outlet and whom J-Source isn’t naming because she has not obtained her current employer’s permission to speak to media, says that while she doesn’t regret her experience early on in her career, she would not necessarily want to do it again.

I don’t know that I want to do that job anymore. The quality of my work now is better with a shooter and editor.”

Worrying about audio quality or a tripod set-up takes away valuable time that would normally be used speaking with the public and interview subjects.

“Those initial moments when you are about to interview someone are really important,” she said. “It’s a time for setting people at ease, connecting with the interview subject.”

If responsible for all those tasks at once, those crucial investments in a strong interview can go out the window.

A skilled editor is a skilled storyteller and the teamwork between specialists can be the difference between an incoherent storyline and a clear, concise and effective one.

Law equated the shift in broadcast news to what has occurred in print media with the reduction in copy editing. News copy nowadays hits the printers with more errors. As revenues decline and viewership dwindles, broadcast news has been forced to reduce resources in order to compete. This is the justification for CTVs shift from two-person teams and studio editing. But, as Law pointed out, “As you chip away at quality, you chip away at your franchise.”

Broadcasters believe that news viewers will accept a decline in quality, but others in the industry fear that the integrity of news and journalism could be in jeopardy.

Industries outside of news and media also continue to restructure their workforce so that fewer people do more. In order to thrive in the current job landscape, workers across the board must diversify their skills. Technology has made it easier to do more with less. As I wrote about for J-Source in April, AI and automation have made it possible for relative laymen to do more complex technical jobs. From cashiers to lawyers, workers across every industry are being forced to adapt to a job market where technology is increasingly filling their roles.

With all of its drawbacks, new technology is not merely a threat to the media industry. In fact, videography and videojournalism can be assets to news teams. Stories that might not have been reported from more remote parts of the world can be more easily covered with a single video journalist. The cost of sending one reporter with equipment is less prohibitive, especially as newsrooms slash budgets.

Some VJs are extremely adept at their craft. The technology has freed storytellers to creatively produce their own content with fewer technical requirements. A VJ has seen their entire piece through from start to end and can claim complete ownership of the work. In addition, new technology is spurring creativity and opportunity for those who can master it.

Young journalists, in particular, are at an advantage when it comes to the digital and multi-platform push. Nowadays students attending journalism and broadcasting schools are taught multiplatform storytelling and are advised that they must be able to fill multiple roles. Local newsrooms have always been the training grounds for young reporters and videojournalism lends itself to recent graduates with knowledge of the newest tech.

Regardless of the concerns and drawbacks, the industry is moving to multiplatform journalism and VJs are here to stay. The ability to do more with less is pushing innovation in tech and content creation. In fact, videojournalism may be television news’s saving grace as it allows an industry with declining revenues to adapt to digital platforms and to spend less on television-centric coverage.

However, it leaves media workers on the hook to retrain, adapt and do more with less — or else risk falling behind.