Dawna Frisen

Dawna Frisen, Global National’s anchor and executive director since September 20, 2010. (Darryl Humphrey)

“Welcome home, Dawna Friesen.” Transmitted through television screens, printed in newspapers and plastered across public spaces, the phrase echoed across Canada as the summer of 2010 came to a close. Global Television and Canwest’s $1 million-plus promotional blitz for Friesen, its new national news anchor, was especially intense in Toronto. A tight shot of her face, balanced by the catch-phrase, appeared on countless billboards, subway platforms and bus shelters. It seemed everywhere you looked you saw the image of a proper, poised and powerful Dawna Friesen.

“My head is really not that big,” Friesen says with mock seriousness before breaking into laughter. She admits that it’s been a bit daunting to see herself in billboard form, though her colleagues say she’s adjusted just fine. Walter Levitt, chief of marketing at Shaw Media—as Canwest is now known—when Friesen was hired, says there was only one aspect of the campaign that made her slightly uncomfortable. At her core, he says, she’s a journalist; she’d rather tell other people’s stories than her own. And that’s just it. Friesen isn’t sure how much her own story matters beyond helping to establish a personal connection with viewers. Levitt saw something more. “You are the story,” he reassured her.

The debate over the proper role and relevance of a news anchor is about as old as television news itself. Call it an endless loop of contention between editorial integrity and a proven market-oriented formula—selling content on the strength of a qualified and engaging anchor. In such a fragmented news world, networks like Global think anchors like Friesen, who combine journalistic credibility with audience appeal, may be more important than ever. CTV, bringing in the well-travelled reporter Lisa LaFlamme as future chief anchor and senior editor of CTV National News, is also betting that this tried-and-true formula will work in a 24-hour news cycle. People are increasingly getting their news “from time to time,” rather than on a schedule, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The numbers seem to back the networks’ decisions. Millions of Canadians watch the national newscasts each night, and in recent years, ratings for the two leading networks have gone up. In the fall of 2004, CTV National News drew 867, 000 viewers a night and Global National had an audience of 671,000. Now, Global averages about a million viewers a night and CTV’s ratings average about 1.3 million. Clearly, they’re not totally off base when it comes to knowing what their audience wants. “It’s hard to understand the psychology behind it,” says Levitt. “TV’s always been a personality medium.”

There’s no hard science behind why having an anchor works, but it’s become obvious that certain characteristics make one successful. According to Kimberly Meltzer, assistant professor of communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University and author of TV News Anchors and Journalistic Tradition, the audience’s expectations are high. She says anchors must be trustworthy, polished, widely experienced, quick on their feet, well-spoken, affable, respected and dignified. They must be perceptive and sensitive in some moments, and tough in others. All of this on top of being “slightly better looking than the average person.” Friesen has high cheekbones, a clear complexion and full lips, which makes it easy to enlarge her face for advertising. But while Meltzer has managed to compile this list through her research, she writes, “The exact amounts of these traits remain an enigma.”

Troy Reeb, senior vice-president of news and current affairs at Global, says that sometimes, you just have to rely on your gut to figure it out. First and foremost, anchors need “journalistic chops,” he says. Lloyd Robertson became a national news anchor in the 1970s with far less reporting experience than what’s deemed necessary today. Now the networks trumpet their anchors’ experience in the field. As CTV’s national affairs correspondent, LaFlamme has covered everything from wars and elections to natural disasters over the past eight years. Friesen, who was based in London, served as NBC’s foreign correspondent for 11 years, and reported on a range of international stories, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Then there’s the personal side. Weeks before Friesen took over the anchor chair from Kevin Newman, Global ran 30-second television spots to tell her story. In one ad, as she shares a bit about her past from the other side of the screen, she walks along a gravel trail with a marshy stream running beside it, complete with long grass and cattails blowing in the wind. In another, she tells the audience she got into journalism because she wanted to “bear witness.” A third spot provides a fast-moving sequence of her sign-offs from older reporting footage—“Dawna Friesen, NBC News, London; near Glasgow, Scotland; Moscow; Zurich; Cairo.” The sign-offs all make mention of her work abroad in some way. If they didn’t, it would be tough for them to conclude with the slogan welcoming her home. She’s got Canadian sensibilities, tied with worldly firsthand experience, says Kenton Boston, vice-president of Global National News. That’s what makes her story so good.

But what Lloyd Robertson has is tremendous brand recognition. “Everybody in Canada knows who Lloyd Robertson is,” says past CTV News President, Robert Hurst. Friesen says, “People don’t ask a million questions about Lloyd Robertson,” the way they have with her. Audiences are familiar enough with Robertson to trust where he’s coming from. Not only this, but his “knowledge factor,” as Hurst describes it, was established well before the audience became fragmented by the explosion of cable news and the competition of online media.

Friesen and LaFlamme are starting out in a much different environment. In such a diffused media landscape, “you really have to differentiate yourself and have a brand that stands apart,” says Reeb. Promoting the anchor’s editorial expertise is one way to distinguish the network’s newscast from the web alternatives. The actual content of the newscast is also key, but the content is always changing, and it’s the anchor who ties it all together. It’s the anchor who makes a brand distinct, “one of the remaining features that sets [the broadcast] apart from other news providers,” writes Meltzer.

KIAH-TV, a broadcast station serving Houston, Texas, was planning to scrap the anchor altogether early in 2011. Although spokespeople remain tight-lipped about the project, online reports say the station’s concept for a newscast is to replace the anchor’s face with a fast-paced series of video footage, graphics, maps and sound bites, strung together by an off-camera narrator.

Network traditionalists are predictably critical. “Why would you sit and watch something when there’s no context? Just a bunch of clips?” asks Hurst. He says this is especially true when someone you know and trust could bring you the news. Levitt’s aware that he might sound cynical, but he says the idea of ditching the beloved anchor must be driven less by its merits, and more by finances. “They couldn’t afford to hire the right people, or couldn’t afford to hire people at all, and this is a cheap way of giving a newscast,” he says.

Wade Rowland, former assignment/lineup editor of CTV’s flagship evening newscast, puts the anchor debate in perspective when he says people shouldn’t forget that journalism is also a business. “It’s all about the money in the end, where commercial broadcasting is concerned,” he says.

Reeb concedes that’s part of it. He wants to make clear that Global has a broader news agenda, but “if nobody tunes in to watch it, what’s the point of doing the story?” he says. Just as the masthead of a newspaper represents the publication, “it is the anchor that carries that weight on their shoulders, to be the face of the news brand overall.” Rowland approaches it more bluntly: The anchors “may disagree with me,” he says, but “they’re a marketing tool essentially.”

Television wasn’t always built around a dominant anchor. At least a dozen people went in front of the camera at CBS between 1944 and 1948, as the anchor’s role was debated and changed a number of times. But it wasn’t until 1962 that it was perfected by Walter Cronkite, who anchored the CBS Evening News for 19 years and, according to Meltzer, became “the most aspired-to model of the TV news anchor.” Cronkite combined authority with the ability to connect personally to an audience. That being said, there were far fewer news options or anchor choices in that era.

Nearly half a century since Cronkite honed the anchor role, audiences’ habits have changed, news sources have proliferated, and networks have done what they can to adjust the anchor formula. Some still sit behind a desk, while others, like Peter Mansbridge, stand. Now, nothing in the newscast is stagnant. “If national newscasts in 2010 looked like they did in 1970, I think there would be a problem,” says Levitt. The audiences “want it to move quickly, they want it to look great, they want the graphics to be snazzy, they want it to feel big.” In other words, rather than replacing anchors, networks have enveloped them in technology. In the newscast’s evolution, the anchor is the fittest survivor.

But a national newscast can’t completely adapt to the fact that today “most of us have a sense of the world before heading home and watching television,” says Boston. The Project for Excellence in Journalism describes Americans’ changing news consumption habits as “a new phase in our digital lives.” Search engines are playing a substantially larger role. Thirty-three percent of adults regularly use them to hunt for news on particular topics, up from 19 percent in 2008. “The model itself is changing,” says Stephen Taylor, a National Post columnist and author of the article “Does it still matter who reads the news?” “It’s changing from a centralized news collection agency, like a television network, to these more decentralized, ‘as it happens’ sources like Twitter.”

This helps explain why anchors are being scrutinized—no matter how good they are for the job. Shortly after Friesen’s and LaFlamme’s appointments were announced in July 2010, the media and its online audience started taking sides. While some congratulated them, others expressed doubts that anchors continue to carry weight or that evening newscasts are still significant. “Are they stronger, or have they lost their lustre?” asked Linda Diebel in the Toronto Star. TheNational Post’s Taylor argued, “In an evolving media landscape, the news consumer has more options than David Brinkley vs. Walter Cronkite.”

In fact, broadcast news ratings began declining in the mid-1980s when specialty cable channels began splintering the audience. And by 2005, when ABC anchor Peter Jennings died, the reign of the “big three” U.S. anchors (the others being Dan Rather of cbs and Tom Brokaw of NBC) was over, leading some to conclude that the era of the anchor had ended. Anchors’ steep salaries continue to challenge the notion that news budgets could be better spent elsewhere.

The “personality and emotional connection that comes from [the anchor’s] usually very attractive face, supersized in the living room of the viewer” is an advantage, says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Centre. She thinks the networks need to consider how they will maintain the anchor’s power and dominance in other forms. “They will have to figure out how to parlay that strength into the new media,” she says.

Global National has made some efforts to get anchors online. Kevin Newman kept a sporadic blog and Friesen made her first post on the newscasts website at the end of January. She’s joined Twitter, but she’s been told by students in her old program—creative communications at Red River College based in Winnipeg—that she needs to tweet more. “So I’m on to it, I’m trying,” she says, sounding a little harassed, but concluding with a laugh. In the fall, she said “her bosses” also wanted her to use Twitter more often, though she wasn’t sure exactly what she should be tweeting. She didn’t feel she was in a position to be giving personal commentary on the news. So what’s left? “Do people want to know that I stopped to get a pizza on the way home?” she asks.

Global still devotes the most attention to television, despite recognizing the Internet as the future media focus. Although it may seem that a significant number of “eyeballs” have moved online, Global National pulls in a week’s worth of its website’s viewers in one night. One can’t forget, says Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News, the biggest growth of news consumption may be “in the digital space,” but television still gets the biggest audience.

“There isn’t a product category out there where it’s gotten more complicated, where there’s more choice, where the big brands haven’t been more successful,” says marketing man Levitt. The comparison may sound crass, but he says TV is no different than toothpaste. Choosing Crest or Colgate over lesser-known brands is just like choosing where to get the news. Among a sea of options, he says, it’s the big brands that are going to stand out.

And like all big brands, a national newscast delivers a promise. Reeb’s hope for Global Nationalis that it will deliver a trustworthy encapsulation of what you need to know, and part of that promise is the face that comes with it. That’s what separates a national newscast from a 24-hour news channel, which provides the audience with quick hits of information. It’s a business built on strong relationships, and the networks aren’t about to change that—not with a new format, and not with anything else. Credentials and characteristics aside, the many bloggers who inhabit the web are never going to match the level of trust an anchor can establish.

In Kevin Newman’s final newscast, much of his speech was dedicated to the audience. “You” was a word heard over and over again. It was all about “you.” He seemed a little looser than he previously allowed himself to be on Global National—more light-hearted. In his gracious way, Newman thanked the viewers for sharing their time with him. His sincerity reflected well through the screen, though that’s hardly a surprise for someone who has garnered honours like Best News Anchor at the Gemini Awards in 2005 and 2006. “That you’ve been willing to listen to my stories is the greatest gift of my professional life,” he said.

Friesen’s not sure why those who shared their homes with Newman would welcome her in as well. But she is sure that establishing the same level of trust that he had will take time. “It’s just being there every night, and the continuity, and the comfort level. That is what is going to solidify an audience,” Friesen says. “This is a long-term job.”