These are grim days for Halifax journalists. After The Daily News shut down last year, other media cut their reporting staffs to the bone. Yet, on Monday, August 31, CBC is launching a brand new, expanded 90-minute supper-hour show. Please don't break out the champagne. Not if you care about local news. As I point out below, the CBC is requiring its demoralized journalists to do a lot more with less. And CBC journalism is getting weaker as the public broadcaster woos advertisers to make up for federal cuts that have slashed its budget by more than a third.
So why should you care about the grim state of local news? Well, for all their faults, journalists are society's first line of defence against fraud, waste, incompetence and abuse in public institutions that have power over your life. Cops and courts can clap you in jail; governments can pass laws that restrict your rights while diverting the taxes you pay into the pockets of fat cats and cheats.
OK. Business and cop-friendly local media aren't that much of a defense, but christ-Jesus, guys, they're all we've got. No wonder Joe Howe himself pleaded with the jury at his 1835 trial, "to leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children." Howe faced jail for exposing corrupt Halifax politicians. His acquittal helped establish truth as a defence against libel. But someone has to dig up that truth, and we need journalists to do it. As their ranks thin, and more and more of them end up as PR flaks speaking for the very institutions that need watching, all of us become less secure.
Which brings me to the CBC's new TV supper-hour program. It begins weekdays at 5pm and ends at 6:30 (not 7pm) to make way for three foreign shows. The British soap Coronation Street, and the American game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy are supposed to generate cash and build bigger audiences for CBC's evening schedule.
CBC also hopes the expanded supper-hour show will attract more advertising. To help make that happen, the Corp hired Frank Magid Associates, a big American consulting firm that specializes in boosting ratings and attracting advertisers by dumbing down the news. The formula, already used widely by private TV broadcasters, goes like this: Play up crime, accidents and weather, play down political and economic news; make sure reporters are always "live" to create a fake sense of immediacy and tell viewers repeatedly, "you're seeing it here first."
But how can local CBC fill an extra half-hour of TV news while continuing to cut jobs? (It lost two more full-time journalists in the last round of cuts this spring.) The answer that CBC bean-counters came up with was to move the CBC Radio news staff into the Bell Road TV building, then require some of the radio journalists to file reports for the expanded TV show. Sounds great on paper, doesn't it? But TV reporting is hellishly time-consuming and radio journalists will be expected to file live, updated reports during the expanded supper-hour show. It means they won't have much time to do longer stories for the radio current affairs shows that broadcast for six-and-a-half hours every single weekday. Two of those programs, Information Morning and Mainstreet, already operate with a bare minimum of staff. The third show, Maritime Noon, just had its air time cut in half and its staff slashed from seven to two.
So, CBC Radio is being sacrificed to help pay for a dumbed-down, American-style TV news show bent on boosting audiences and ad revenues. And why not? CBC Radio consistently attracts huge and fiercely loyal audiences, but it runs no advertising. For the bean counters, it's a financial drain, not a journalistic asset. Weakening CBC Radio is another piece of grim news for local journalists and yes, it's very bad news for the rest of us.