London news is falling down

Local TV news is losing airtime to out-of-town executives who decide which stations stay and which go. How far will it go? One station in London, Ontario has lost $98 million in three years under CTVglobemedia ownership. As result, it has diminished investigative journalism and reduced the news to bare-bones broadcasts twice a day. This week we feature Alyssa Freisen‘s story from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism

Nick Paparella is famous for sinking his teeth into his stories. He declares the winning rib recipe at Ribfest, barbeque sauce dripping down his chin, and digs his spoon into his bowl at the annual charity chili cook-off. Today, he’s taking a bite out of one of farmer Bill Millar’s first red strawberries of the season. The nearly 30-year veteran knows most of the people he’ll interview for his story on the early summer heat. Millar greets Paparella with a tanned, weathered hand, and they stand in the dusty strawberry patch, chatting about their kids and wives. Later, a pool cleaner tells him their sons play soccer on the same team, and at Wally World Water Park, a pack of shrieking teenage girls crowds around Paparella. For these residents of London, Ontario, the A News reporter is a reason to get excited about local news. Unfortunately, Paparella is one of the few journalists left in the city who generates community spirit.

The station first flashed into living rooms as CFPL in 1953, and earned a reputation for reflecting life in London and southwestern Ontario. By focusing on important community matters—the six-month delay of the green-bin program, the appointment of a new police chief, the arrest of a local doctor charged in a terrorism plot, as well as the everyday pulse of weather, traffic and events—A connects Londoners to one another and their city. During the spring of 2010, A News at 6 p.m. attracted over 120,000 viewers, making it more popular in the city than any Global, CBC or CTV national newscast. But under CTVglobemedia Inc. ownership since 2007, A must live with corporate decisions that seem indifferent to local needs. In total, the A stations have lost $98 million in three years. So, the popular morning show was slashed, investigative reporting has diminished, and news is a little more than a bare-bones hour at 6 p.m. and just 35 minutes at 11 p.m.

What’s happening in London exemplifies how local TV news is losing airtime to out-of-town executives who decide which stations stay and which go. After five rounds of layoffs over the past five years, some staff are apprehensive about the future. So are viewers, who, having seen Rogers TV London kill the daily half-hour First Local news show in October, dread a future without their own newscast.

After catching his first glimpse of a TV in 1949, local media mogul Walter Blackburn established CFPL on November 28, 1953. A fire at a local industrial building was the highlight of its first broadcast day. The station was a logical addition to Blackburn’s growing media empire, which included the London Free Press and CFPL radio (now AM980). CFPL was the largest privately owned affiliate of CBC television. Its weather reports were crucial to the agricultural region, and the medical coverage was meaningful to those employed by area hospitals and involved in research at the University of Western Ontario. CFPL also closely followed municipal politics. “Our main competition was with the London Free Press,” says George Clark, a former news director of CFPL. “I used to ask our folks each day to make sure, at six, we would have three-quarters of the news that would be in tomorrow’s front page. And if we could do that every day, we’d do well.”

Local news flourished until satellite and cable companies invaded with specialty channels. In 1988, the Blackburn Group Inc. took full control of the station from the CBC, hoping for a brighter future as an independent. But unable to cement a partnership with other broadcasters, which was necessary to maintain strong prime-time programming, Blackburn sold CFPL to Baton Broadcasting Inc. in 1993, and the once-profitable television station began its slide. Several rebrandings ensued: CHUM Ltd. purchased the station from Baton in 1997; then CTVglobemedia acquired the assets of CHUM in 2007, changing A Channel to simply A in 2008.

In March 2009, CTV slashed the chain’s budget, shed 118 staff, closed Wingham and threatened to close Windsor. That left the survivors to cover more territory with fewer resources. London is responsible for mid-western Ontario via one-man Wingham bureau Scott Miller, for example. And although Windsor kept its newscasts at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., its production control room is still in London, 190 kilometres northeast. Meanwhile, London itself is down to eight full-time reporters covering an average of four stories each evening; the rest of the newscast comes from regional, national and international footage.

Cal Johnstone, news director at A London, still drives his team of reporters to compete with the front page of the Free Press, as Clark did in the old days. The station has continued a tradition of award-winning journalism: it won the RTNDA Bert Cannings Award in 2006 for best newscast in a medium market for its coverage of the Bandidos mass murders, and in 2007, it was a finalist for the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Gold Ribbon Community Service Award. But Johnstone says the network doesn’t focus a lot on investigative journalism because of its restricted budget. “It’s a question of priorities every single day,” he says. When a big story breaks in London — as the Bandidos murder trial and Tori Stafford’s abduction both did in 2009 — A leads the co-operative effort of CTV national and regional affiliates. And when CTV requests local stories for national coverage, if A can’t spare extra cameras or reporters, CTV covers additional costs. Losing out on local reports can be disheartening. In August 2009, for example, when a source leaked documents regarding an apparent breach in the provincial government’s policy for hiring contract consultants at London Health Sciences Centre, the A reporter on the story, Derek Rogers, had taken Thursday and Friday off because he was working that weekend as an anchor. The Free Press broke the story, part of the larger eHealth scandal, which led to the resignation of the hospital’s vice president, Diane Beattie. Johnstone regrets not being able to move faster: “I wished that I would’ve been able to have a reporter during those 48 hours to cover it.”

What’s happened to A has occurred in other parts of the country. CKCK-TV, now CTV Regina, also had glory days. In the late 1980s, the newsroom hummed with dozens of staff, and its nightly newscast attracted over 80,000 viewers. But in the ’90s, chain ownership drove a wedge between the station and the people. “Where there were independently owned local voices reporting on matters of concern to communities, now they are branch plants owned by huge corporations,” Concordia University journalism professor James S. McLean observed in his 2005 case study, “When Head Office Was Upstairs: How Corporate Concentration Changed a Television Newsroom.” The viewers and special-interest groups in Regina struggled to have their voices heard, and according to McLean, this was a problem they’d never had when the station was in local hands. Read the rest.