People can't seem to get enough hard news.
They're glued to TV newscasts and 24-hour cable channels, newspaper readership is climbing and hordes visit on-line news sites to get their hourly fix of the situation in Afghanistan.
"For everyone, this has been an extraordinary story . . . one that we will probably never see again," said Tony Burman, executive director of news, current affairs and Newsworld for CBC Television. He said that public demand for information seems insatiable.
At CBC, for instance, 9.4 million Canadians tuned in to Newsworld from Sept. 11 to 16, almost 50 per cent higher than average. That pattern is holding strong.
At CNN, almost 14 million viewers tuned in during the week of the attacks, more than 2½ times the network's reach the previous week. Its numbers are still strong.
But while the public thirst for news continues unabated, the war is proving to be a costly business for the news media outlets covering it. An advertising slump, combined with the logistical nightmare of reporting on a conflict in Taliban-controlled territory, is stretching editorial budgets to the limit and forcing many news media companies to make tough choices.
Industry layoffs have been an unavoidable side effect of the terrorist attacks. Yesterday, Reuters Group PLC said that it plans to cut 500 jobs, citing a deteriorating market since Sept. 11. This week, there were reports that CTV Inc. will lay off more than 100 employees.
Citing executives at ABC, CBS and Fox Broadcasting, among other sources, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that the networks want to slash program-production costs by as much as 40 per cent by ending lucrative deals with producers, writers and stars.
The bottom line, Mr. Burman said, is that the war has so many intangibles. which makes budgeting extremely difficult. "The real frustration of this story is we have no sense of the end game. But at the end of the day, we, like every other company in Canada, must balance our books. And we will."
Newspapers feel the same pinch. Numbers are not yet available from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (six-month figures to September are expected in a few weeks), but anecdotal evidence suggests that sales are up for most major city dailies. The problem, though, is that the war came with nosediving ad revenues and climbing newsprint costs. As well, the major dailies are forking over more money for their coverage overseas.
Russ Mills, chairman of the Canadian Newspaper Association and publisher of The Ottawa Citizen, said many Canadian newspapers boosted their print runs by as much as 25 per cent after Sept. 11, and sold out.
But that boon was offset by a significant drop in ad revenue.
A Toronto-based marketing consultant said Canada's 52 new digital-television channels are being hammered. "They simply are not on anyone's radar screen."
News media executives are trying to make their cuts delicately.
"Every news organization has only its credibility and reputation to rely on," Mr. Burman said. "The CBC realizes we will be judged on the breadth and depth of our coverage on this story, so that is the priority."
Asked whether the Crown corporation is considering layoffs, Mr. Burman said he doesn't anticipate any in the foreseeable future."