Alas, poor CityNews. We knew it well

How Toronto’s pioneering local station went from everywhere to nowhere near as good as it used to be. This week, we feature Lindsey Aubin‘s story from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Hmm…she looks good.” CityNews producer Amar Sodhi watches former anchor Anne Mroczkowski in a promo for Global Toronto News Hour on a flat-screen TV, one of two above his computer showing rival networks. It’s 6:30 p.m., halfway through Citytv’s suppercast on a hot May evening. His station is throwing to a commercial break, but Sodhi’s eyes are on Mroczkowski, who he worked with for about eight years until City abruptly let her go four months earlier.

It’s a clever ad, a spin on The Mary Tyler Moore Show intro: Mroczkowski, in a red trench coat, a dress and beige heels, with a big smile and glowing skin, parades around the city — at a coffee shop, along the street, on a bus — and everybody claps for her. “We’re glad to see Anne again, too!” the voice-over says. “Leslie Roberts and Anne Mroczkowski, the new Global Toronto News Hour team.”

And why wouldn’t she look good? She moved from a station forsaking much of what made it popular and distinct to a competitor that jumped at the opportunity to land her. From 1985 until January 18, 2010, Mroczkowski co-anchored the news with Gord Martineau. The day after her dismissal, over 30 others at CityNews lost their jobs — including prominent reporters, camera operators, editors and writers. The cutting didn’t stop there. Over the next few months, the station shed news programming. CityNews at Noon: gone. CityNews at Five: dropped. CityNews International: dumped. CityNews Weekend: booted. CityOnline: adios. Also lost: journalists representing Toronto’s diversity, and a reputation for producing a unique newscast oozing edgy street cred and unexpected approaches to presenting stories.

When Citytv first went on the air in 1972, it was different: low-powered, low-cost local TV with high energy, high style and high tech. Co-founder, former president and executive producer Moses Znaimer executed a distinct vision. “We sing in a different voice and tempo from the rest of the guys,” he said in 1987. “I’ve always said nobody needs another Global or CBC. Style is not a dirty word here.”

Back when Citytv began, Znaimer was all about innovation and embracing what was fresh and new, contrary to what the news operation has become. Mroczkowski says the station is “no longer in the news game.” As The Globe and Mail’s TV columnist John Doyle wrote one week after the dismissals, “[O]ne of the continent’s most recognizable news brands has been destroyed,” arguing that corporate powerhouse Rogers Media had “disemboweled” what once made City special. Peter Murdoch, vice president, media, of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, says it’s “shameful” that the CRTC and the Harper government have been “alarmingly tight lipped” about the “drastic cut in local coverage” and feels there should have been a hearing about the situation. “While the Tories absent themselves from Parliament, big lobbyists like Rogers are given free rein to duck their promises to Canadians,” he says. “And it appears the CRTC, Canada’s broadcast regulator, has been told to go on vacation as well.”

The suspects in the killing of City’s pioneering brand of local TV news include Rogers Media, a faltering economy, changes in the ways people get their local news, consolidation in media ownership and CRTC decisions. Everyone has his or her favourite villain, but no one sees a hero who’ll do something as visionary as Znaimer did almost 40 years ago. Read the rest.