Journalism, particularly in the digital age, is an exceptionally cruel business. Cost-cutting measures are unremitting. Layoffs are routine. I’ve had friends lose their jobs on maternity leave, and I worked in one newsroom where a beloved editor-in-chief was suddenly escorted out of the office when the publisher decided the paper needed fresh eyes.
Print journalists are nagged by the notion that they are only as good or relevant as their last byline, and broadcast journalists are plagued by the understanding that their looks or voice could disqualify them from a job if a network decides to pursue a new image. The paradox of working in contemporary media is that journalists want to become successful enough to command a certain salary, but that salary can make them a target if and when company bean-counters decide the organization needs to cut back on expenditures. No one is really immune from the cruelty of the journalism business, and the sudden departure of Lisa LaFlamme – one of Canada’s most recognized, respected and well-regarded broadcast journalists – is proof.
Ms. LaFlamme broke the news herself of her dismissal from CTV after 35 years. On Monday, she posted a two-minute video on Twitter explaining that she was told on June 29 that CTV’s parent network, Bell Media, would be ending her contract, adding that she was “blindsided” by the news. In a subsequent statement, Bell media cited “changing viewer habits” to explain what it called a “business decision” to take the show in a new direction – a rather cold send-off for someone who had anchored the top-viewed national newscast for more than a decade. The tension was exacerbated by the simultaneous announcement of Ms. LaFlamme’s replacement – national affairs correspondent Omar Sachedina – which both deprived Ms. LaFlamme of her moment, and also made Mr. Sachedina the target of unfair online hate.
Observers have been quick to conclude that Ms. LaFlamme’s ousting from CTV was ultimately the result of ageism and sexism, noting that other evening news anchors – notably, CTV’s Lloyd Robertson and CBC’s Peter Mansbridge – were allowed to age on-air and retire on their terms (they were 77 and 69 respectively), whereas Ms. LaFlamme was forced out at 58, reportedly with years still left on her contract. While it’s certainly possible that social prejudices played a role (along with, according to reporting by Canadaland and the Toronto Sun, interpersonal tensions) her ouster is not an isolated decision for Bell Media, which has been cutting and slashing programs – including letting go of big personalities – for the last several years.
Last February, Bell abruptly pulled Vancouver’s TSN 1040 off the air, axing popular and long-time hosts including Jeff Paterson, Blake Price and Rick Dhaliwal. It did not renew the contract of veteran Montreal radio host Terry DiMonte last May and laid off Vancouver News at Six co-anchor Scott Roberts this past March, leaving Mi-Jung Lee as the program’s solo anchor. And over the last several months, Bell has gutted the on-air talent at Toronto’s Newstalk 1010. The thread connecting all of these layoffs does not appear to be age and sex, but rather an inclination to ruthlessly cull ostensibly expensive talent on traditional media platforms.
Though Ms. LaFlamme’s evening broadcast was far-and-away the most watched evening news program in Canada, the trends in television news consumption are not optimistic for the industry. Plenty of research (and internal media demographic surveys) show clear generational divides in news consumption habits, with baby boomers still devotedly turning on their TVs to watch the evening news, while millennials and Gen Z rely instead on social media for news updates. Data from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission show declining rates of traditional TV consumption each year among Canadians aged 18-34, whereas rates among those aged 65 have stayed relatively consistent.
So when Bell cites “changing viewer habits” in its statement about Ms. LaFlamme’s departure, it shouldn’t be dismissed as simply hot air. If the executives at Bell can see that the days of the vaunted evening newsreader – the Cronkites, the Chancellors, the Jennings – are numbered, why wouldn’t they pursue cost-savings by cutting loose the biggest fish, and replacing them with younger, smaller, cheaper fish in their stead?
This is not to defend the abrupt and callous manner in which Bell appears to have cut ties with Ms. LaFlamme, especially since, in doing so, it may lose some of the loyal viewers it wants to retain. But rather, it is to point out that the business of journalism is a most savage form of Hunger Games, where the strongest competitors can, in an instant, become the weakest links. It’s not kind, or fair – unfortunately, it’s business.
The Globe and Mail
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