Robert Hurst is the former president of CTV News.
Shame on the CBC for closing its local newscasts amid the coronavirus pandemic.
This is a moment when news gathering and reporting is a critical public service. This is a moment when citizens need and crave information.
The CBC says it is “pooling our resources” into one core national news offering. What poppycock! Those resources are already pooled into the CBC News operation.
What the CBC is actually doing is eliminating more than 75 hours a week of original local news reporting at a time of crisis.
PEI Premier Dennis King is justifiably angry. The CBC is the only local newscast in Charlottetown and King says it is a “critical partner.”
Across the country, thousands of local stories will now go unreported. For example, the failings of Ontario’s Telehealth emergency service will get only a passing mention on CBC News Network while that important story leads local newscasts. The CBC’s national audience will not have much interest any more in the Lynn Valley Care Centre, where 4 people have died from the coronavirus. But people in North Vancouver will want more, much more. Thankfully CTV and Global are active and vibrant in British Columbia.
At times of crisis, Canadians depend on television news. During the 1998 ice storm, residents in Ontario and Quebec, who were cold and in the dark, turned on generators at 6 o’clock to watch the local news. During 9/11, when I was running the CTV station in Vancouver, we placed TV sets on the street as hundreds gathered to watch our coverage.
It is not clear from CBC statements exactly why local newscasts are being shut down. There is a suggestion that there are not enough technicians to run master control in Toronto. This does not make sense because, at times of crisis, newsrooms ramp up. Reporters and editors volunteer and work long hours. Journalists want to cover the big story. That is why they got into journalism, to make a difference, to provide a community service.
There is also a mention from the CBC that “media companies have not been immune to the coronavirus.” Is the CBC suggesting it is unsafe for them to carry on?
During the 2009 SARS outbreak, 44 people died in Canada, many of them in an apartment complex four kilometres from the CTV newsroom in Scarborough. We all took appropriate protective measures then as journalists do now. I have been in war zones with former CBC foreign correspondent Joe Schlesinger (who died in 2019). We did not run away because the war zone was dangerous. We evaluated the risk, mitigated it and did our jobs.
The closing of local CBC newscasts at this critical time is due to decades of CBC News mismanagement.
Twenty-five years ago, local CBC newscasts were struggling against popular offerings from CTV, Global and CITY-TV. Instead of running hard and competing, the CBC proclaimed a higher calling and promised to cover policy issues. We do not, CBC bosses sniffed, lower ourselves to cover blood and gore. Some CBC newsrooms abandoned the police beat altogether. Celebrity weathercasters were criticized because they were not journalists. So weather units were dissolved, even though the CBC launched Canada’s first celebrity forecaster, Percy Saltzman.
CBC’s suppertime ratings began to slide, and they continued to drop in subsequent decades even though police beats and weather segments returned. Today, CBC English language local TV news is dead last in almost every Canadian market except PEI, St. John’s and Winnipeg. It is a stunning failure by a Crown corporation.
At this time of crisis, there was an opportunity for the CBC to re-establish its local credentials. But CBC’s managers either did not see it or did not care to pursue it. We are all poorer for it, as an important voice is voluntarily silenced.
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