“We cannot lose our local station”

Melissa WilsonYes, TV journalists are facing tough times, but according to CHCH Hamilton’s news director, a CITY Toronto anchor and the managing editors of CTV Windsor and  CBC Toronto,  local news will weather the storm.  Melissa Wilson reports.

Like newspapers, local TV news stations are feeling the pinch in a faltering economy. But what will be lost if local TV news pulls the plug for good? Four panelists, a range of passionate TV journalists each offered their own take on the future of local TV news at a Sept. 22 event in Toronto, “Local TV News Under Siege,” presented by RTNDA Canada, The Association of Electronic Journalists and the Ryerson School of Journalism.

We’ll pick ourselves back up
Mike Katrycz, news director, CHCH Hamilton

“The sky seems to have fallen on news…But the sky has fallen before.”

Katrycz started off the evening by reminding the audience that journalism has fallen on hard times before, and each time the industry has managed to get creative with solutions and recover. He spoke of the Toronto Telegram, a 95-year-old Toronto daily that folded in 1971, in part because people were increasingly turning to the evening television news instead of the afternoon paper. The Tely struggled and finally packed it in.

Only a few days later, said Katrycz, the sun rose on news. “Literally, the Toronto Sun came out of the ashes of the Telegram.” The Sun, unlike most other Toronto papers at the time, published its edition in the morning, thus subduing competition with the television news. It was the first local paper in Toronto to publish in the morning and the first to publish a Sunday edition. “They took a smart idea,” said Katrycz, “And improved what somebody else had failed at.”

The Sun, however, has now fallen on hard times, as have many local TV news stations. But local news didn’t die in 1971 and local TV news won’t die today either; the industry just needs a change, Katrycz said. CHCH in Hamilton has so far succeeded in staying afloat.

Last November Canwest “swung the axe” on CHCH, forcing them to cut 12 percent of their budget. A few months later, threatened with shut down, CHCH came up with the idea to do news all day, much like CP24. CHCH was bought by Channel Zero and on September 1st, 2009, they began all-day news programming (5:30 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.). So far, they’re “doing okay.”

We have our challenges
Sophia Hadzipetros, Managing Editor, CBC Toronto

Local TV news is facing many challenges, but a shakeup in programming at CBC hopes to keep things improving for the better.

The biggest challenge for TV news, especially in covering an area like Toronto, is resources, said Hadzipetros. “Money is always a very key thing in any TV operation…There’s never enough…You could have 50 cameras in a newsroom and you would still need 50 more.”

The congestion in Toronto poses a huge challenge for local reporters. “You send somebody out, and they’re stuck in traffic, waiting and waiting and waiting and meanwhile time is ticking by,” said Hadzipetros. So much of local news coverage relies on being in the right place at the right time, which is increasingly difficult to do at a time when staffs are smaller and the audience wants news faster.

A further challenge is to make interesting stories that have been circulating all day on the Internet. “That’s where you bring the journalism in,” said Hadzipetros. One of the solutions has been to reorganize resources and put a new emphasis on reporting in the 905.

Hadzipetros speculated that increased local programming might be changing news for the better. The local newscast has been expanded to 90 minutes, three half-hour blocks, beginning at 5 p.m. Hadzipetros hopes that in the future CBC will be able to add sports coverage, an 11 p.m. program and a weekend show to the local news coverage.

“Local is really driving the national agenda a lot more than it has in the past.”

We’re a public service, not a revenue generator
Adrian Bateman, Managing Editor, CTV Windsor (A-Channel Windsor)

The airwaves at CTV Windsor very nearly went black when the CRTC stepped in and offered a reprieve. So what did managing editor Adrian Bateman do to save his station? Absolutely nothing.

“We did nothing more than what we’ve always done, which is try to do the best journalism we can for our country,” said Bateman. CTV Windsor had actually been showing an increase in ratings from the previous year, but Bateman doubts that would have been enough to keep the station running; the CRTC stepped in with its Local Programming Improvement Fund after a campaign from CTV affiliates across Canada to save local television news.

Bateman said this is how things should be. “Local news is a crucial commodity to the average person, a very precious resource. It really is a public service and it has to be funded as such,” said Bateman. “We as a society must figure out ways to finance local news. News is not a profit centre.”

According to Bateman, when news is used to generate income, we wind up with a bunch of programming that aims for the highest numbers and appeals to the lowest common denominator. “Therefore appeal means to pander to the basic tastes, giving fast food rather than a healthy meal,” he said. “The substance is always sacrificed to the superficial and to the sensational.

“I suggest that we have to begin with the concept that there is a necessary level of news services to a community, and by level I’m talking quantitatively and qualitatively,” Bateman said. “I suggest that this is of such crucial public interest that society must institute some means of ensuring that this is done.

“As the people of Windsor said very loudly this year: ‘We cannot lose our local station. It is our ears, our eyes and it is our voice.'”

We are the most important thing to our audience
Farrah Nasser, Anchor/Reporter, Citytv Toronto

“What was more important to you this summer?” Farrah Nasser asked the audience. “Was it the garbage strike that we just had or was it what’s happening in Sri Lankan refugee camps?”

Nasser, who works for Citytv Toronto, said she doesn’t believe that local TV news will die because “where we live is the most important thing to us. We want to know how our tax dollars and being spent, what the local weather is like, why there were police officers on our street the other night.

“That is the most important thing to us. And then our interests broaden.”

Citytv, once the little TV station that could, is rapidly becoming one of local news’ great success stories. After Rogers purchased the station, City has moved into a new home at Yonge-Dundas Square—often called “Toronto’s Times Square”—and is actually seeing more money put toward programming. “At a time when most stations are scaling back, we’re not,” said Nasser. “We’re growing. That’s very exciting.”

Nasser also doesn’t believe the Internet is hurting local news coverage. Instead, she considers it an asset. “The advent of the Internet and getting your pictures, getting video has really helped our newscast. We have so many eyes and ears out there helping us.

“I think that one day maybe the ‘net will have a bigger role, but I don’t think that day is today. I think there is still a place for local news and I’m really happy to be a part of it.”

View the entire panel as a webcast at the the RTNDA website.