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 atCityNews 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.” AsThe 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.
City was the first Canadian station to have a microwave unit that enabled it to broadcast live from the field and was one of the earliest all-videotape stations when most others were still using film. And reporters were more than just reporters—they put themselves in stories, following the Moses commandment of presenting “the news as soap opera,” with the journalists as recurring characters, and the streets, buildings and parks of Toronto as sets. When J.D. Roberts covered a large apartment fire in 1988, he helped tenants back to their powerless units using the camera’s light to navigate the halls. “It really was guerilla journalism—you went out there with a camera and very few resources and you did whatever you were capable of doing,” Roberts told CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi in 2009. John Roberts, as he’s now known, went on to become a star anchor at CBS and then CNN, and believes he can do things cheaper, faster and leaner now because of his background at Citytv.
Znaimer had a particular passion for reflecting Toronto’s increasing diversity, which made for smart newscasting and smart marketing, building reputation and business. He attracted viewers from variouscommunities often ignored or misrepresented by established stations with their traditional approach. “He invented multicultural television,”said Roberts. “Not just here in Toronto, but around the world. He believed that a television station should reflect its community, and the only way to have a television station reflect its community was to achieve diversity.”
In 1978, one of Znaimer’s “on-air personalities,” Jojo Chintoh, with his thick Ghanaian accent, became the first black reporter at City. His unique cadence, according to Doyle, reminded viewers this was “Toronna,” notsome ordinary city with TV news “concocted by some consulting firm.” Colin Vaughan, a former municipal politician and architect, was another example. “Look at him,” Znaimer said in 1987. “That white hair, that look: Colin is an archetypal personality who lives and breathes politics. I can’t fabricate Colin. I can only find him and put him on television.” And, in 1984, David C. Onley, now lieutenant-governor of Ontario, became one of Canada’s first senior newscasters with a visible disability. Znaimer spotted him hosting an event with two astronauts at the Ontario Science Centre and was determined to sign him. “It was only after he had hired me that he asked about my disability,” Onley said in his 2007 installation speech. “Obviously, what he did was important for my career. But more importantly, it sent a message to TV viewers everywhere that my physical shortcomings were irrelevant.”
The boss was also a great champion of pushing for more women on camera. In 1980, Znaimer persuaded reporter, anchor and talk show host Dini Petty to film the birth of her second child for a documentary. Laura Di Battista worked as an anchor and health specialist from 1983 until January 2010, when she too got the axe. She combined articulate questions with a disarming sense of humour and fair play, and raised awareness of issues such as childhood disability. “She had a way of putting children and families at ease so she could pull compelling human stories from them,” recalls Louise Kinross, communications manager at Toronto’s Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. In 2002, Jee-Yun Lee joined as a reporter and became a consumer specialist known for strong investigative reporting on subjects such as life insurance and used-car scams. She’s now at CP24, the local all-news channel.
“It used to be old white men sitting in chairs 30 years ago. So, City was all about really trying to embrace a city that we undeniably had an affection for,” says Stephen Hurlbut, former vice president of news, adding that the station strived for a different vibe, look and feel and that a distinct personality was critical to the station’s success. Denise Donlon, former vice president of MuchMusic, which was a City sister station, and now general manager at CBC Radio, said showing the process of reporting the news was all part of the vision. “It was okay to see the microphones and that somebody working at the desk was right behind you and you could open the door out into the street and let the sound of the blaring streetcars and horns come in,” she recalled in a CBC Life and Times documentary about Znaimer. “This was revolutionary stuff.”
The decline of City dates to the turn of this century, a period that saw the expansion of the Moses vision to specialty channels, a chain of small and large stations and a 24-hour news channel in Toronto. But being a maverick wasn’t enough to stop the easing out of Znaimer in 2003. To keep it all going required money—lots of it—which led to a succession of financial deals over several years. Citytv stations fell into the hands of CTV, then Rogers. All the while, an economic storm was gathering and technological advances were about to dramatically reshape the media landscape.
One of Citytv’s notable “personalities,” Peter Silverman, experienced it all. Now, two years after his dismissal, he sits in a small, blanket-covered chair in his pale yellow living room cluttered with African décor. His loud voice fills with excitement as he talks about the golden days. “We were Toronto’s television. Yes, we weren’t number one in the marketplace, but if you talk to anybody out there about what a local newscast was, it would be us,” he says. “We were a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, blessed bunch of people…and it was a pretty good place to work.”
After working for Global, Silverman became a CityPulse reporter in 1981. Eight years later, he started hostingSilverman Helps, advocating for consumers by getting money back from a scam or making sure a contract was upheld. It featured both many happy endings and some dramatic refusals by those he confronted (his camera crew catching every heated word and picking up every flushed, angry face).
The show was still running when Rogers took over in 2007. The economy was diving at the time, but Citytv employees hoped the new owners would increase funding for the station. And they did get new headquarters overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square. Mroczkowski also believed Rogers, having eliminated roughly 900 people across its operations by the end of 2009, had already finished gutting its major personnel at City. “To do all of that, and then a few months later, to decimate the newsroom to the extent that they did just seemed very odd,” she says of the January cuts of an additional 30 people.
The City losses actually began much earlier. In June 2008, Jamie Haggarty, vice president of financial operations for Rogers Media, told Silverman that Silverman Helps was dead and he was out of a job. “I remember asking, ‘What about the 12,000 requests for help we have so far?’” he says. His voice gets significantly quieter. “And Jamie said, ‘Forget them. Just forget them.’” The segment had become too expensive. Advertising goals weren’t being met, resources were too costly and the economy was rough. However, Silverman says the significance of the loss was greater than just financial. “The community lost something when Silverman Helps shut down.”
Today, 79-year-old Silverman is a two-time Gemini nominee, 2005 winner of the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Edward R. Murrow award, 2009 winner of an RTDNA Lifetime Achievement award and recipient of the Order of Ontario. Although he’s no longer in broadcasting, he’s writing a book about his experiences at Silverman Helps and he still has opinions about TV. “Local television is not finished,” he says. “But it’s facing huge competition: Facebook, YouTube and so on. They’ve fragmented the market to hell.”
About a half-hour before Global airs its promotion spot for Mroczkowski on that hot evening in May, her former co-anchor, Martineau, sits in his cubicle getting ready for the evening’s newscast. He’s been hosting the show for 33 years. The smell of coffee fills the air and a distinctive scent of new furniture lingers from the September move. More than half the newsroom’s desks are empty. His feet propped on his desk, he turns on his TV and flicks back and forth between CNN and a tennis match. A man who calls him “Gordie” brings him his opening lines. Martineau quickly reads them over in his head while glancing at the match. Tonight’s news lineup is heavy, so a story has to go. On the schedule: a small plane crash northeast of Toronto, charges dropped against former Attorney General Michael Bryant in the death of a cyclist and the premiere of Sex and the City 2. A piece on immigrant awards doesn’t make the cut. The station was built upon stories like this—ones that were appropriate for the multicultural metropolis the station serves, so it seemed an unexpected choice to kill.
Or maybe not so unexpected. A study conducted earlier this year by DiverseCity, a project funded by a not-for-profit organization, looked at Toronto’s newspapers, suppertime newscasts and the newsroom decision makers. It found that Citytv ranked low for diversity among evening news broadcasters. “Citytv trailed everyone in terms of reporters,” says John Miller, who designed and assisted with the study. The station had one visible minority on air—Dwight Drummond, CityNews’s former crime specialist who has since moved on to anchor the supperhour news on CBC Toronto.
Wendy Cukier, founder of the Diversity Institute in Management & Technology at Ryerson University and chair of the DiverseCity report, was surprised by the findings. “If you do an analysis of the content, there wasn’t a huge difference among the television station news programs, even though I expected there to be because of City’s reputation.”
That the station is no longer a leader in representing diverse communities is just one more example of how a once clearly identifiable brand has gone fuzzy. Predictably, Rogers has a different perspective. “In a weird way it’s almost like the ’80s and ’90s were Citytv’s rebellious teenage years, and now we’ve kind of grown up a little bit,” says Rogers’s Jamie Haggarty. “We got rid of the movies, and no more Ed the Sock. Those were fun, racy things that were appropriate at the time, and they were really innovative, but that was when there was no YouTube, there was no internet, there were not 500 channels on the dial.” He says Citytv’s Great Movies, SexTV and Fashion Television were once unique, but they’ve lost their lustre.
Haggarty is comfortable talking about the successes of City’s entertainment programming. On news, he’s much vaguer, stressing that great things are still to come. But Amber MacArthur has her doubts. She joined Citytv in 2006 and soon had her own technology show, Webnation. In January 2008, after much talk about expanding it, Rogers cancelled the program. Like Znaimer, MacArthur wanted to innovate. She turned down a job as a news reporter and quit the station because she was so unimpressed with the news format. “It can be a lot more rich, a lot more interesting—I just felt it was so formulaic.” After BlogTO picked up her departure, a reader commented, “Your decision to terminate Webnation is a realization of precisely what was widely feared, that you will turn the innovation at City into a hollow mediocrity.”
In a 2008 Toronto Life article, journalist David Macfarlane remembers standing on the sidewalk in the late ’90s at around 2 a.m., watching dancers in the windows of the City building on Queen Street West. “It dawned on me that Znaimer had actually achieved something remarkable: he had changed Toronto.” But the irony is, he realized, the station was now becoming “more ordinary, less idiosyncratic and (no doubt) more profitable,” as it slid into mainstream broadcasting.
Jump forward to a present-day newscast. It’s Thanksgiving Monday and CityNews at Six begins, as usual, with the charming Martineau standing on the fifth-floor rooftop patio of the new building. “Live from Yonge and Dundas,” he says in his deep, friendly voice. “This is Toronto’s news.” He wears a Harry Rosen black jacket with a collared shirt and striped tie. The top story: dognapper on the loose in suburban Vaughan. Reporter Pam Seatle reports on a puppy stolen over the weekend, the second such crime in the past three months. The news continues with Martineau looking surprisingly pale, compared to his usual bronze appearance. He throws to reporter Andrea Piunno for a story about helping out in homeless shelters over Thanksgiving weekend. Then, meteorologist Michael Kuss, dressed in a casual Lacoste brown-and-blue striped long-sleeved shirt, enthusiastically says, “The rain’s a comin’!” He gets so excited about the weather that his voice tends to go up mid-sentence. Reporter and occasional anchor Roger Petersen covers traffic and crime at the assignment desk. Two teens were shot dead on Saturday night. One thing about Citytv’s news—it has never been afraid to get up close and personal with crime stories. “I’ll party hardy when they tear Regent Park down,” says a former female tenant. “I’m tired of the murders here.”
At 6:15, Martineau does a three-minute international news segment called “The Nation,” featuring Canadian Press videos. Then the news becomes a jumble. Business, weather with Kuss, a heart-warming story or two, sports with Hugh Burrill, entertainment with Martineau, and weather with Kuss, again.
There are still fragments of the glory days. Martineau anchors outside, so ambulances and the hustle and bustle of the city are audible. But, still, no female anchor; in fact, on this Monday night, it was all middle-aged, white male presenters. No health reporter, no consumer reporter, no entertainment reporter, no technology reporter. Mroczkowski cringes at the thought of what CityNews has become. “To walk into that huge newsroom and see all those empty desks, and to not see all those people that used to bring such a vibrancy and energy to the newsroom, it must be awful,” she says. “I think Ted Rogers would have been rolling around in his grave, seeing what this company had done to the brand of Citytv.”
Znaimer won’t talk. But fans of what he created—the old brand that has been eviscerated—hope for a new Moses with an exciting new journalistic vision for local TV news.
It could be a long wait.