No pulse left at Citytv

In the latest issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Lindsey Aubin takes a look at how “Toronto’s pioneering station went from everywhere to nowhere as good as it used to be.” Special introduction by former Citytv news producer Nicole Blanchett Neheli.

Alas poor CityNews…. I really did know it well
Nicole Blanchett Neheli

A story in the newest issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism  about Toronto’s Citytv* laments, “we knew it well.”  While many readers of Lindsay Aubin’s article will recognize the names and faces of City personalities who once graced the airwaves, for me, reading her article is like smelling cookies your grandmother used to make. It doesn’t just bring back memories; it takes me back in time.

In the wake of City icon Mark Dailey’s death, many of us who worked at the station are remembering what I’ll loosely term the good old days. Hired in 1993 right out of university, I was one of the lucky ones to experience CityNews while it was still, as Aubin describes, “oozing edgy street cred”. City wasn’t just a place to work — it was a boot camp, a lifestyle, a dysfunctional family. 

These past few months devastated the newsroom — and I’m not just referring to the deep staffing and program cuts. The serious injury in November of legendary ENG camera Bill Atanasoff, hit by a car at a crime scene, and the death of Mark were equivalent to an emotional tsunami.

At Mark’s viewing, many of us talked about how the feeling that was City — not just the bricks and mortar, but the day-to-day magic that allowed so few people to create such a vibrant lexicon of content with such freedom — may never be experienced by the students I now teach in journalism school. Sometimes it was hell — but it was real, it was ours, it was everywhere. And the heartfelt sorrow at Mark’s passing is proof of the connection between the people who work at City and the viewers they serve. It was the first station to give the audience a voice — to acknowledge its opinion counted.

Unfortunately, as Aubin rightly points out, much of what made City an international landmark seems lost. But I still have hope. Hope that Rogers will give some of the incredibly talented people still left at City the freedom to do their jobs. Hope that the bottom line doesn’t obscure the fact a local station without a weekend newscast is unacceptable, or that you need to employ enough reporters, who reflect the diversity of the city they report for, to truly be everywhere. And if that doesn’t happen, hope that someone else will find a way to implement the best parts of the little station that could. 

CityNews is the soul of Toronto — and just like Mark Dailey — has a spirit too bright to fade to black.

*Next page: “Alas poor CityNews. We knew it well” by Lindsey Aubin

Alas, poor CityNews. We knew it well.
Linsdey Aubin

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…

To continue reading, see Alas, poor CityNews. We knew it well at the RRJ site