Can I ask your opinion on something?
As you survey the vast and mushrooming media landscape – the mainstream and alternative news sites, the columnists and comment boards, bloggers on Tumblr and HuffPost and Medium, and all of your endlessly scrolling streams on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube – do you find yourself thinking sometimes that the world would be a great place, if only people had a way to express their opinion?
If so, then you’ll be pleased to hear that the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has created an online Opinion hub, a digital version of the op-ed sections that have been a newspaper pillar for decades.
Perhaps inevitably for an institution that often feels in the grip of existential torpor, this week’s launch of CBC Opinion seemed to say as much about the broadcaster’s anxieties as its journalistic opportunities.
The first collection of columns seemed calculated to blunt critics who regularly hammer CBC with accusations of anti-Conservative (not to mention anti-conservative) bias. Andrew MacDougall, the former head of communications for Stephen Harper, wrote about the need for Canadians to pony up for a new prime ministerial jet. And Sheila Gunn Reid, the Alberta bureau chief of Ezra Levant’s right-wing upstart Rebel Media, tub-thumped for her site and its struggle to get the United Nations to issue it media credentials for this week’s climate change conference in Morocco. But Levant himself had already written a column for the National Post about the issue, which was resolved last month when the UN reversed itself: So it felt old, like a sop to Levant’s fans to get them to stop objecting to CBC’s government funding.
And though CBC insists the site will be a place for unheard voices – there’s even a Google Docs form for pitches from regular folk – other early contributors included former Globe and Mail journalist Jan Wong and sometime Liberal operative Warren Kinsella: neither of whom, it would appear, lacked access to media platforms before the launch of CBC Opinion.
As CBC geared up to create the new hub, staffers at other news outlets began grumbling about the move, sometimes from what sounded like a position of self-interest. Over the past few years, opinion content has been one of the few bright spots in an era of economic industry turmoil; readers are far more likely to share articles on social media that echo their own points of view.
It’s not just an online strategy, of course: Newspapers increasingly recognize a sharp point of view is a better way to spur print readership than deeply sourced (a.k.a. expensive) enterprise reporting. But as print revenue continues to evaporate, the success of online commentary – and the advertising it attracts – has become desperately important.
That may be why Jennifer McGuire, the general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News, tried to downplay the launch when I interviewed her this week. “I think it’s a misnomer to call it new,” she said, citing the fact that CBCNews.ca featured columns by Martin O'Malley, Judy Rebick, and Larry Zolf when it launched in 1999. She also noted CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup has been giving regular Canadians a coast-to-coast platform every Sunday afternoon for more than 50 years. “It’s not like we’re new in the space. We’re giving it a focus and a destination on the website.”
Whether new or not, there are other land mines in the venture which are particular to CBC News. The broadcaster’s Journalistic Standards and Practices policy states: “CBC journalists do not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.”
McGuire said the policy will soon include an exception for columnists who are on staff. As part of the new initiative, Neil Macdonald, who has been rapped on the knuckles by CBC ombudsperson Esther Enkin for what she saw as expressions of opinion, is now being made a full-time columnist. Robyn Urback, who was hired from the National Post to lead the effort, is also writing columns for the site. McGuire said neither will report news. (This, despite the fact the best columns are arguably often rooted in reporting.)
“We think we’ll serve audiences well, bringing a variety of opinions and views to the public space, and that will help with engagement,” McGuire told me. “It’s something we do historically, ongoing, and we think we can do more online.”
Over the past couple of years, privately owned local news outlets across the country have been shutting down with alarming speed. Many that haven’t closed are consolidating, with no end in sight for cuts to their coverage.
For that matter, CBC has severely slashed its local radio and TV news broadcasts. Against that backdrop, it’s hard to see the new move as a wise use of its finite resources.
But maybe that’s just my opinion.
Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly stated that Heather Mallick was one of the first columnists for CBCNews.ca when it launched in 1999. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error