Reporter Rick Gamble enjoys the challenge of local television news, whether that means reporting on a fatal car accident on nearby Highway 401 or, as he is doing on this late August afternoon in 1998, reporting on the annual “wiener dog” faces in the southwestern Ontario city of Cambridge, about 20 kilometres from the Kitchener station. The assignment has gone well: the crowd of 100 people and 30 Dachshunds put on a great show and cameraman Andrew Heubner grabbed some terrific shots of dogs bolting from their racing lanes. After finishing their live report for CKCO’s 6 o’clock newscast, the pair are in the midst of taping of wrap-up for the 11:30 news when Gamble’s pager goes off. A 12-year-old boy, he learns, may have drowned at Parkhill Dam on the nearby Grand River.
It takes Gamble and Heubner 10 minutes to get to the river’s edge. Awaiting them is an eerie scene: two boys wrapped in blankets watching police officers waist-deep in the Grand while others search from a Hovercraft. The three boys had been playing by the concrete dam when one fell in and was sucked by the rushing water into a small underwater opening.
As the sun slips below the horizon, Gamble and Heubner get to work. They shoot footage of workmen setting up massive lights to aid the searches. They interview witnesses. They are about to talk to Constable Kevin Chalk, an experienced driver, when he is pulled aside and told to suit up: another diver, Constable Dave Nicholson, is in trouble, possibly caught up the dam himself. Minutes later, Chalk jumps into the Grand and is soon followed by one officer after another. All grab the thick rope attached to the trapped diver. Nicholson’s partner leads the pull. Dozens of local residents who had been watching from shore run to help. But with more than 100 people pulling on the rope, it suddenly snaps and hearts sink. Gamble signals to Heubner to turn off the camera when a high-ranking officer start to cry after hearing that Nicholson is dead.
Two days later, the constable’s body was hauled out of the dam. They found him holding out of the dam. They found him holding the 12-year-old boy. Gamble covered the double drowning for 36 hours straight, though he wasn’t the only one who put in extra effort. The entire CKCO team was involved, through regular updates, an examination of the dangerous dam, a historical overview of accidents at this dam and others like it, and a live broadcast of the funeral of Constable Nicholson, father of three yound boys and the first officer to die in the line of duty in Waterloo Region.
For its efforts, CKCO won two prestigious prizes: the Edward R. Murrow Award, presented by the U.S.-based Radio Television News Directors Association for best ongoing coverage by a local TV station outside the United States; and the Canadian Association of Radio and Television News Directors’ award for nest-day coverage of a news event. But more importantly, CKCO staggers earned the gratitude of an entire community. Gamble says people stopped him “for weeks and weeks” to thank him and his coworkers for doing such a good job. Others delivered their kudos through thank-you cards, phone calls and ever home-baked good.
The coverage of the tragedy at Parkhill Dam was local TV news at its finest, and CKCO staffers are proud of the job they did. But after five years of cuts, CKCO’s ability to regularly offer its community such high-calibre coverage has been hamstrung. Since 1995, the midsize station has lost half of its newsroom staff, forcing those who remain to do more with less—a lot less. The result: an increasingly difficult struggle to produce decent local news.
CKCO represents what’s happening to news operations at small- and medium-size stations across the country as their corporate owners—CTV Inc., Canwest Global Communications Corp. and CHUM Ltd.— re-engineer and reshape themselves to deal with changing technologies, a changing marketplace and a changing regulatory environment. Of particular concern to journalists is a recent ruling by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. On June 11, 1999, the CRTC said that local TV news would no longer be regulated in terms of quality or quantity. In the past, broadcasters were forced to produce a certain amount of local news if they wanted access to lucrative local advertising. Those rules end as of next September. After that, broadcasters will still have to provide local programming if they want local advertising, but they will have much more latitude in deciding what that programming can be. They will no longer need the CRTC’s permission to shut down smaller stations and shrink hour-long local newscasts into 10-minute feeds for provincial newscasts, as has already been done in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. They will also be able to do away with local news altogether in some markets. Either way, the new CRTC rules will likely mean fewer local news stories, leaving viewers with less information about the cities and towns in which they live.
John Matlock stares at his computer, trying to come up with a witty, concise way to tell the viewers of the noon news that it will be sunny today. “I’m not really a weather guy,” says CKCO’s news producer, “but I try to make it fresh every day. We used to have a sports anchor do sports and weather at noon, but in the redeployment of people we were able to do without by using sports tapes from the night before and having anchors voice-overs the weather.”
Matlock’s desk is loaded with mountains of papers, thick research files and a huge daytime. His load has increased in many ways, particularly after the station’s second producer was let go in 1997. Matlock, who’s been working in television for 22 years, uses the word creative a lot of describe how he and his remaining news staff have dealt with the cuts. For example, most of CKCO’s resources are now primarily dedicated to the 6 o’clock newscast, not the noon or 11:30 p.m. broadcasts, which carry numerous repeats from the supper-hour show. “It’s a creative way to do it, but it hasn’t hurt us so far,” she says unconvincingly, then adds that the CKCO infrastructure “right now maintains slightly more than the 6 p.m. news.” But what if there are more cuts? CKCO could not continue all that it’s currently doing. Matlock admits, but he hesitates when asked to be more specific about what would go.
Matlock has deep roots in this community. He grew up in Kitchener, and from time to time helped run the family business, an appliance rental company. He’s married to a CKXO anchor. Daiene Vernile. In 1986, Matlock left Kitchener to work CBC’s The Journal but only stayed a year. “I’m passionate about local news,” he says of his decision to return. “I want to protect it.” Then he smiles as if he wants to say more. Statements like that help explain why his staff adores him. “John Matlock is the guy who really drives the entire newsroom, as far as I’m concerned,” says reporter Jim Alexander. “There are certain high standards which he maintains and will not let slip. He just goes and goes and goes.” But the long hours and heavy workload have taken their toll on the 40-year-old producer. Twice he’s left the station, but both times, he’s been lured back.
Matlock gets excited when he talks about how CKCO provides local perspectives in provincial and national issues. After a national report damned many brands of smoke detectors, for example, Matlock’s staff interviewed area fire chiefs and found out what they thought of the faulty detectors. Another day, CKCO’s news staff tackled the once important issue of Y2K readiness and how local businesses were preparing. “Most people get their news from local stations,” Matlock says, adding that 200,000 viewers regularly watch CKCO’s 6 p.m. newscast. “Yet we’re the ones feeling hard done by. There’s no question people are watching.”
Matlock checks the clock: 11:58 a.m. and time to sprint to the control room for the noon broadcast. Various monitors flicker to life as CKCO Action News begins. Anchor Brent Hanson throws to reporter Frank Lynn at a local career fair, but sound glitches send the show back to the desk. The newscast chugs along with a report on skyrocketing local gas prices and a warning to parents after a man was reported to be stalking children at a Cambridge school. Then the weather.
“Just go to the five-day forecast.” Matlock tells the guy handling graphics. There’s been a screw-up with the maps. “We’re on the right map!” someone yells “No, we’re not,” the graphics guy yells back. The newscast moves ahead. At the commercial break, Matlock darts out to see what happened. It was a small problem, one most viewers wouldn’t notice, but mistakes chip away at a newscast’s credibility.
The graphics guy looks up and smiles. “There used to be a production assistant in here,” he says, explaining the screw-up. “But we lost the assistant in the last round of cuts. There was a writer who would fill in, but we lost another writer in the cuts, so they told the one writer left to stay in the newsroom. Then they pulled an editor from downstairs. Then they pulled an editor from downstairs. Most stations would have a production assistant, especially in Toronto.” Reporter Jim Alexander, who was the local union president until 1998, says the cuts at CKXO started in 1995 when the station’s owner, Kitchener-based Electrohome Ltd., best known as a projection systems manufacturer, laid off five administrative staff and closed the station’s Windsor bureau, which had two employees. The reasons: CKCO had a small operating loss in 1994 and Electrohome, which also owned another station in Edmonton, was struggling to shore up a falling stock price and increasing debt load ($32 million in 1995).
In August 1997, Baton Broadcasting lnc., owner of CFTO in Toronto and 14 other CTV outlets, threw Electrohome a lifeline. The two companies merged in a deal that gave Electrohome 8.3 million shares in Baton and $24.5 million in cash in return for stations CKXO and CFRN in Edmonton. Three months later, Baton grew even larger. It announced its takeover of the entire CTV network, giving the newly christened CTV Inc., control over nine more stations, raising the total to 25. The buying spree left CTV deep in debt and the network cut 28 percent of its workforce—630 jobs—between February 1997 and December 1999.
CKCO was hit hard, losing some employees who’d been there for as long as 33 years. In 1995, the station had 188 staffers. By the end of 1999, it had 115. Matlock’s news department was reduced from 44 full-timers and 13 part-timers by the end of 1999. The worst day was February 12, 1997, in what some all the off 154 people across the country. CKCO lost 20, including a producer, a reporter, a news writer and a camera operator.
Dennis Watson, CKCO station manager, says the cuts haven’t affected the station’s news operations. Alexander disagrees: “In the mid-’90s. We had fully staffed bureaus. Everyday we had contributions from Midland, Muskoka, Owen Sound. Most of that has been wiped out. Eight of the 10 bureaus are gone. We are no longer southwestern Ontario’s largest news team, which used to be our calling card.”
With the loss of so many reporters, complicated topics no longer get the attention they used to —nobody has the time to attach themselves to beat and dig deeper for information. “I don’t think people rely on us as a regular source of municipal information anymore,” Alexander says. “We do breaking news rather well—the fires, accidents. But I think where we are failing, where we used to be so very, very strong, is in cities likes Stratford, Brantford, Guelph, even Cambridge and the nearby townships—places within a 20-minute drive. We’re letting them down.”
Reporter Rick Gamble agrees: “The Parkhill Dam stories are always going to get done. My concern is for the stories that take time and energy and digging. Tough investigative stories are not being done as they once were.”
Of course the quality and quantity of local news in smaller markets is declining, says Howard Bernstein, who once worked at CTV, Global and CBC but now teaches broadcast journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University. “How could it not? There are fewer people to do the jobs. Local stations are shrinking. That’s not an isolated case in Kitchener.” For example, he says, CKCO’s Queen’s Park bureau was closed in 1997. Now viewers in the Kitchener area get their news from Leon Korbee, CFTO’s Queen’s Park reporter, who occasionally files separate reports for CKCO and CTV’s other Ontario stations. “How does that make the provincial government responsible to anyone other than people in large cities?”
In other parts of Canada, the CTV cutbacks have been more drastic. Both Yorkton and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan lost their fully operational stations in 1998, a year before CTV reported profits of $7.7 million. Now the 200,000 mostly rural viewers, who once had daily noon and 6 p.m. broadcasts, have to turn to Regina and Saskatoon newscasts for short, taped segments about their areas. “We do the best with what’s left,” says Brian Schlosser, senior operating technician at CIPA in Prince Albert, an outlet that used to cover its 800-square-kilometre area with nine reporters and the ability to broadcast live. “At election time, we used to be pretty strong,” he adds. “all that’s lost now due to number crunching. And yeah, people notice. But with only three videographers, you have to look for only major stories.”
CJOH in Ottawa, another CTV station, has gone from 300 union employees to 91 in this decade, says Laurel Killmartin, who works in advertising and creative services. She admits the station may have had too many employees but adds that now it’s getting to be very difficult to do the same quality news with 200 fewer people on staff. In Vancouver, Art Simmonds, a broadcast journalist for 25 years and now a national broadcast representative for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Unions, says that while big-city stations like BCTV in Vancouver and Toronto’s CFTO are healthy, “smaller- and medium-size stations have been devastated. Cuts don’t just occur in terms of staff, they occur in terms of how things are done. People are getting less quality information to make educated decisions about their communities and their lives.”
Mark Sikstrom, CTV manager of regional news and new media, won’t rule out more layoffs but insists company cuts have been spread across all news operations, including those in big cities and the national newsroom. The cuts are really a result of economic changes in the industry as a whole—10 to 15 years ago, main broadcasters only had themselves for competition. Now there’s cable and specialty channels—so many choices and competition is more intense. “We looked at where we could still make a contribution locally but avoid duplication—be efficient wherever possible.”
Sikstrom says local newscasts are “the roots of the CTV tree” and that the corporation is only as strong as the people who gather the news. But, he adds, “to remain competitive, we had to bring costs into line.” By competition, Sikstrom is referring primarily to Global, which wants to become Canada’s most-watched private broadcaster. Currently, CTV says it reaches 99 percent of the country’s English-speaking population via its own stations, cable and specialty channels and affiliated stations. Those holdings have recently attracted a takeover bid by BCE Inc., which covets the media giant’s news resources. The deal will provide content for BCE’s Internet service provider Sympatico, but is unlikely to mean significant re-investment n local TV news.
Global, now with eight stations, says it will reach 88 percent when the CRTC approves its purchase of the nine stations across Canada, including four in Alberta that are currently owned by Western International Communications Ltd.
Global has not made big cuts in local news for the simple reason that it doesn’t cover much local news to begin with. “Global has always been an operation run a lot closer to the bone, a lot leaner, and there isn’t as much room to cut,” says Trevor Henderson, a camera operator and union president at Global Vancouver.
Fri nuts start in 1974, Global was allowed to broadcast into homes across Ontario without operating local stations of offering local newscasts—on the condition that it exist only on national advertising, not local. Despite some rocky years early in its existence, Global is now thriving as a national broadcaster. Last year is reported a profit of $146.1 million. But despite its deepening pockets, Global continues to offer little in terms of costly local news operations, which gives it a competitive financial advantage over CTV.
Ken MacDonald, vice president in charge of news, says the team at Global is “putting more emphasis on being local, redoubling our efforts. People like and want local news. The best research indicates viewers want to know what’s going on around their community from a hometown news team.” But when asked to give examples of how Global was redoubling its efforts, MacDonald can only offer that the broadcaster has begun using a helicopter and has hired new staff—but both these addition are for Toronto.
Some critics, like Simmonds, the unionist in Vancouver, worry that if the CRTC approves Global’s purchase of WIC’s nine stations, the broadcaster will cut and merge operations to form provincial newscasts that leave smaller areas uncovered. He points to what happened in Saint John, N.B. In 1995, Global bought MITV and CHSJ from Irving Oil Ltd. It sold CHSJ to CBC, and turned MITV into a bureau to feed a Global Maritimes newscast in Dartmouth, N.S. It cut MITV staff from 120 to 20 in Saint John and reduced the number of reporters from 20 to 10. Clearly, says Simmonds, “Global doesn’t put the same priority on local news, or news in general, as other stations.”
But Kevin Babin, one of the remaining reporters at Global in Saint John, says that compared to what happened to ATV, the Maritimes network bought by CTV in 1997, his station is covering a lot more local news. “ATV has been decimated by cuts,” he says with an audible shudder. “They used to be everywhere; now it’s hard to find them. We’re extremely lucky.”
There are a few other private players scattered across Canada, the most noteworthy being CHUM, which owns Citytv in Toronto and five other small- and midsize stations in Ontario. The philosophy at CHUM is “hyperlocal,” meaning a huge emphasis on community stories backed by new resources for the news operations. But are local viewers better served? Based on what he’s seen from Barrie’s revamped station, University of Western Ontario journalism professor Michael Nolan says no—the newscasts are shallow, lack hard information and offer style over substance.
The lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting is troubled by the loss and declining quality of local programming, says spokesman Jim Thompson. As an example, he points to what has happened in Winnipeg. According to a study commissioned by his organization, the quantity of local news programs available to residents in the Manitoba capital has dropped 20 percent in the past 11 years. Thompson says the CRTC decision to deregulate local news is wrongheaded. Friend’s research shows audiences want more local news than they are currently getting, not less.
What that means, says Thompson, is demand is outstripping supply when it comes to locally produced news about across Canada. The CRTC knows that an appetite for local news exists because the public made that clear at the CBC licence renewal hearings in 1999. The CRTC has since told the CBC it must reinvest in its local news. When it comes to private broadcasters. Thompson says his group is leery of less regulation, pointing out that despite the popularity of local news and the advertising it attracts, corporate owners have been downsizing it for the past five years.
At CKCO, John Matlock looks frustrated when he talks about the CRTC. “If stations want to sell local ads, they have to produce local news,” he says. “But there’s no definition of what that means anymore in terms of quantity or quality.” There’s all kinds of ways you can slice and dice newscasts into long-format documentaries or small, taped segments fed into province-wide newscasts, says Matlock. “But my fear is that it’s going to take a lot of character by a handful of people at the very top to maintain as much local service as they possibly can and to not let localism turn into tokenism.”
Andrew Wiley, vice-chair of broadcasting at the CRTC, helped develop the new policy. “In our opion, even without regulations local news will be provided,” she says, adding that it does not need to be regulated because it’s so successful in the ratings. The CRTC, is also allowing broadcasters to renew all of their individual station licences at one time, while Wiley says will be useful in evaluating a broadcaster’s overall commitment to serving the public Critics charge, however, that one-licence renewal will make it easier for megabroadcasters to leverage their size by trading off one commitment for another.
“Some may be saying that we are selling local news down the river.” Wiley continues, “but we say that would not be a reasonable response from the broadcasters. If they don’t serve their local audiences, we will put in different requirements. I may be optimistic, but I tend to believe that generally stations will want to build local loyalty. But we haven’t given up any or our powers.” Matlock hopes she’s right. He won’t come right out and say it, but it’s evident he’s seen enough cuts. He’s had enough tough decisions forced on him that lessen his ability to provide the 600,000 people in his community with solid coverage of the issues that affect them. But regardless of his desire to protect local news, there’s not much he can do when more and more power is being handed over to the megabroadcasters through the lifting of regulations and the consolidation of stations across the country.
Steve Simic, who left CKCO’s news staff in 1997 due to layoffs, sympathizes with Matlock. Simic now works as a producer at Rogers Media Inc.’s community cable channel in Kitchener, which he says is doing more local news, thanks to CKCO’s cuts. Matlock, he says, must be “very frustrated because money is driving the bottom line and even though he probably feeds he should be doing more, he can’t I’m sure he has days when he’s screaming.”
Matlock will only say that he and his staff will keep working as hard as they can and hope the cutting has stopped: “We didn’t stop covering the tragedy at Parkhill Dam on weekends, we followed it. Our people worked round the clock on that one. There’s no question that CKCO was the source for information as the events unfolded.” Matlock pauses and, chooses his words carefully: “For all the angst we feel, when we refocus and regroup, we know we’re doing good work. Will it continue when all the CRTC details come into effect? I don’t know. We are nursing local news along. I haven’t really felt pinched yet. But I guess I’m numb to it.”