Nick Paparella is famous for sinking his teeth into his stories. He declares the winning rib recipe at Ribfest, barbeque sauce dripping down his chin, and digs his spoon into his bowl at the annual charity chili cook-off. Today, he’s taking a bite out of one of farmer Bill Millar’s first red strawberries of the season. The nearly 30-year veteran knows most of the people he’ll interview for his story on the early summer heat. Millar greets Paparella with a tanned, weathered hand, and they stand in the dusty strawberry patch, chatting about their kids and wives. Later, a pool cleaner tells him their sons play soccer on the same team, and at Wally World Water Park, a pack of shrieking teenage girls crowds around Paparella. For these residents of London, Ontario, the A News reporter is a reason to get excited about local news. Unfortunately, Paparella is one of the few journalists left in the city who generates community spirit.
The station first flashed into living rooms as CFPL in 1953, and earned a reputation for reflecting life in London and southwestern Ontario. By focusing on important community matters—the six-month delay of the green-bin program, the appointment of a new police chief, the arrest of a local doctor charged in a terrorism plot, as well as the everyday pulse of weather, traffic and events—A connects Londoners to one another and their city. During the spring of 2010, A News at 6 p.m. attracted over 120,000 viewers, making it more popular in the city than any Global, CBC or CTV national newscast. But under CTVglobemedia Inc. ownership since 2007, A must live with corporate decisions that seem indifferent to local needs. In total, the A stations have lost $98 million in three years. So, the popular morning show was slashed, investigative reporting has diminished, and news is a little more than a bare-bones hour at 6 p.m. and just 35 minutes at 11 p.m.
What’s happening in London exemplifies how local TV news is losing airtime to out-of-town executives who decide which stations stay and which go. After five rounds of layoffs over the past five years, some staff are apprehensive about the future. So are viewers, who, having seen Rogers TV London kill the daily half-hourFirst Local news show in October, dread a future without their own newscast.
After catching his first glimpse of a TV in 1949, local media mogul Walter Blackburn established CFPL on November 28, 1953. A fire at a local industrial building was the highlight of its first broadcast day. The station was a logical addition to Blackburn’s growing media empire, which included the London Free Press and CFPL radio (now AM980). CFPL was the largest privately owned affiliate of CBC television. Its weather reports were crucial to the agricultural region, and the medical coverage was meaningful to those employed by area hospitals and involved in research at the University of Western Ontario. CFPL also closely followed municipal politics. “Our main competition was with the London Free Press,” says George Clark, a former news director of CFPL. “I used to ask our folks each day to make sure, at six, we would have three-quarters of the news that would be in tomorrow’s front page. And if we could do that every day, we’d do well.”
Local news flourished until satellite and cable companies invaded with specialty channels. In 1988, the Blackburn Group Inc. took full control of the station from the CBC, hoping for a brighter future as an independent. But unable to cement a partnership with other broadcasters, which was necessary to maintain strong prime-time programming, Blackburn sold CFPL to Baton Broadcasting Inc. in 1993, and the once-profitable television station began its slide. Several rebrandings ensued: CHUM Ltd. purchased the station from Baton in 1997; then CTVglobemedia acquired the assets of CHUM in 2007, changing A Channel to simply A in 2008.
In March 2009, CTV slashed the chain’s budget, shed 118 staff, closed Wingham and threatened to close Windsor. That left the survivors to cover more territory with fewer resources. London is responsible for mid-western Ontario via one-man Wingham bureau Scott Miller, for example. And although Windsor kept its newscasts at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., its production control room is still in London, 190 kilometres northeast. Meanwhile, London itself is down to eight full-time reporters covering an average of four stories each evening; the rest of the newscast comes from regional, national and international footage.
Cal Johnstone, news director at A London, still drives his team of reporters to compete with the front page of the Free Press, as Clark did in the old days. The station has continued a tradition of award-winning journalism: it won the RTNDA Bert Cannings Award in 2006 for best newscast in a medium market for its coverage of the Bandidos mass murders, and in 2007, it was a finalist for the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Gold Ribbon Community Service Award. But Johnstone says the network doesn’t focus a lot on investigative journalism because of its restricted budget. “It’s a question of priorities every single day,” he says. When a big story breaks in London—as the Bandidos murder trial and Tori Stafford’s abduction both did in 2009—A leads the co-operative effort of CTV national and regional affiliates. And when CTV requests local stories for national coverage, if A can’t spare extra cameras or reporters, CTV covers additional costs. Losing out on local reports can be disheartening. In August 2009, for example, when a source leaked documents regarding an apparent breach in the provincial government’s policy for hiring contract consultants at London Health Sciences Centre, the A reporter on the story, Derek Rogers, had taken Thursday and Friday off because he was working that weekend as an anchor. The Free Press broke the story, part of the largereHealth scandal, which led to the resignation of the hospital’s vice president, Diane Beattie. Johnstone regrets not being able to move faster: “I wished that I would’ve been able to have a reporter during those 48 hours to cover it.”
What’s happened to A has occurred in other parts of the country. CKCK-TV, now CTV Regina, also had glory days. In the late 1980s, the newsroom hummed with dozens of staff, and its nightly newscast attracted over 80,000 viewers. But in the ’90s, chain ownership drove a wedge between the station and the people. “Where there were independently owned local voices reporting on matters of concern to communities, now they are branch plants owned by huge corporations,” Concordia University journalism professor James S. McLean observed in his 2005 case study, “When Head Office Was Upstairs: How Corporate Concentration Changed a Television Newsroom.” The viewers and special-interest groups in Regina struggled to have their voices heard, and according to McLean, this was a problem they’d never had when the station was in local hands.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Rogers TV London recruited George Clark, who’d finished his career at A in 2001, to run the newsroom and start First Local, the half-hour news show. He had only six paid staff, supplemented by volunteers from the community and co-op students from the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College, but he was committed to producing journalism that was comparable to, and sometimes better than, its crosstown rival. Rather than just cover events and spot news, Rogers TV London also wanted to report on community issues such as the absentee rate among London firefighters. Clark says the show wasn’t shooting 90-second stories; instead, First Local shot over-two-minute items with more sources. “I run into people every day in the street who tell me how much they miss First Local news and how sorry they were to see it gone.”
Bob Smith, the newscast’s former anchor, is obviously disappointed as well. But he’s seen worse. He once anchored A Morning, which CTV cut in March 2009. Over 400 people joined the “Save Bob Smith!” Facebook group. Yet the death of First Local went down more smoothly with the public, Smith says, partly because no jobs were lost, so viewers’ favourite personalities will continue to appear on Rogers TV. “They like the idea that people did not get laid off, because they get to know these people,” he says. “You become like a part of the family.” Smith, for example, will still anchor a Thursday-night newsmakers discussion panel and Inside London, which focuses entirely on news from city hall.
Phil McLeod has spent the last 22 years in London working various journalism jobs, including editor-in-chief of the Free Press. In fall 2010, when McLeod ran for city council, Rogers broadcast debates featuring candidates from all wards and those running for mayor. On the other hand, A only featured reports on the 15 mayoral candidates, and the station devoted a large portion of its coverage to Joe Fontana’s attempt to unseat Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best. “We focused on larger issues during the campaign,” says Johnstone, “and devoted most of our attention to the mayor’s race.” It surprised McLeod, as he knocked on doors during his campaign, how uninformed people were. And when he was recognized at all, some recalled his stint on Rogers TV. “We are seeing a disconnect, not only with the media, but also with their citizenship in their community,” he says. “One of the things you hear often from people is that they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t understand what’s going on.”
McLeod lost on election night, but Rogers dominated the TV coverage. Smith hosted a show that went on the air at 8 p.m., lasted until 1 a.m. and was simulcast on local radio AM980. The next morning, Smith tweeted, “Best election coverage I’ve ever been a part of. Kudos to the team!”
Over at A, full coverage didn’t start until 10 p.m., once Mike & Molly was over. During the broadcast, which ran to just after 12:30 a.m, A showed results from across southwestern Ontario. London’s deputy mayor Tom Gosnell offered analysis, while Bryan Bicknell reported from the DiCicco-Best headquarters and Nick Paparella checked in from Fontana’s. Just after midnight, Paparella told Fontana on the air he was elected the city’s new mayor. A’s coverage wasn’t enough for some viewers, though. At 9:22 p.m., David Langford, sports editor of the Free Press, tweeted, “Great race for mayor in London. Tune in to A Channel. Oops, no election on that station. How cheap can they be?”
After an expensive, glossy upgrade, Rogers TV became HD compatible in October 2010, but it is still broadcasting in standard definition. A wants to refurbish its scuffed, retro newsroom and go HD too, but no one’s sure when it will. Producing news is expensive, of course; the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. shows cost millions annually. “You get this weird irony,” Don Mumford, general manager and vice president of A London, says, “that the number-one watched station in the market, with the number-one watched show, can’t make a profit.”
Created in 2008, the CRTC’s Local Programming Improvement Fund has alleviated some of the financial pressures local stations face by requiring cable and satellite companies to pay a percentage of their broadcast revenue to the CRTC. That money is then passed on to support local television programming in non-metropolitan areas.
Even though nightly newscasts are no longer mandatory viewing, clearly there is still an appetite for information. “Probably what has changed as much as anything,” says McLeod, “is people get their news in many ways.” Rogers TV London wants to take full advantage of this by offering local television on its Rogers On Demand website. There is limited content online now, but more will be added in the future. A News posts stories to its website a few days after they first air, and occasionally does a live-blog during 6 p.m. newscasts. Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, suggests local news stations are held back by a “dizzying array of regulations,” which have prevented the local broadcast industry from moving forward. In his 2007 report, “Canadian Broadcasting Policy for a World of Abundance,” Geist notes that American broadcasters are better off because they can profit from selling their local content to services such as iTunes and Hulu.
The staff at A are over the fear factor. As Janice Mills, the graphics director who started there 11 years ago, says, “Most people have accepted they are not going to be working here forever.” In September, she enrolled in Fanshawe’s corporate communication and public relations program because she figures she’s unlikely to retire at A. “When I started here this whole newsroom was full of desks. People were here, it was active.” She snaps her fingers. “There was a buzz. Now you come in and you could shoot a cannon through the place.” She’s sad when she thinks the newsroom could fall completely silent one day.
Clark believes that gloomy outlook is legitimate. “The trouble is when one company—CTV, in this case—owns Windsor, London, Kitchener and Barrie; that’s a lot of stations very close together. The question is: where do they bring their costs in line? They’ve already told the commission they do not intend to continue seeing losses as they are,” he says. “I hope, for London’s sake, they maintain a strong operation here.” If A’s newscasts go the way of First Local, the citizens of London will lose a valued tradition and sense of their identity. As McLeod says, “We will lose a daily local newscast that at least had some modicum of local flavour to it, whether it was our local weather forecast, or local sports, entertainment.”
After devouring the strawberry, Paparella heads back to the station to edit his story on the early summer heat. At a red light, the driver in the car next to him honks and waves. He gets this all the time, but he still enthusiastically rolls down his window and hollers, “Hot enough for ya?” Even though his human interest stories don’t always involve weighty issues, complicated policies or hard-fought political campaigns, he is a treasured city figure. Paparella says London values its local journalists. “It’s a community where people do know you and care about each other,” he says. “When you are out and about in the community, they treat you well.” It is irreplaceable. As McLeod says, “Anytime you lose something in a community that is local, a piece of you disappears with it.”
Alyssa Friesen worked as a volunteer at Rogers TV London in the summer of 2008.