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BCE cuts raise questions about future CTV news strategy, highlight tech pressures

While staff expected ‘a restructuring’ was in the works, details were ‘very much a mystery’
Ottawa bureau chief for CTV National News Joyce Napier speaks during a panel discussion in Ottawa, on Thursday, Dec., 1, 2022. The strain facing traditional TV news organizations is well-established but a swath of layoffs that cut several of CTV’s best-known news personalities was a surprise to many, including Napier. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

The strain facing traditional TV news organizations is well-established but a swath of layoffs that cut several of CTV’s best-known news personalities was a surprise to many, including national reporter Joyce Napier.

Until last week, Napier served as reporter and Ottawa bureau chief for “CTV National News,” but suddenly found herself jobless when parent BCE Inc. announced Wednesday (June 14) it was shedding 1,300 positions throughout the company, consolidating media operations and closing foreign bureaus.

The cuts raised immediate questions about how the strategy will affect the quality of news coverage and what’s in store for CTV’s flagship evening newscast.

Reached in Toronto after the announcement, a pragmatic Napier said she’s “philosophical” about the end of a seven-year run with the media giant, which like many companies faces a prolonged advertising slump, fracturing audiences for traditional TV news and expanding tech rivals.

While staff expected “a restructuring” was in the works, details were “very much a mystery,” she said. Her comments were echoed by another laid-off journalist and a former colleague still with the company, neither of whom would go on the record.

“The warnings were there, the concerns of the higher-ups were expressed in that the financial situation of Bell Media wasn’t ideal,” said Napier, quick to add that many dedicated, hardworking colleagues remain to steer the ship.

“You don’t need to even read between the lines to know that something was coming (but) I did not ever think it was this magnitude.”

High-profile cuts include senior political correspondent Glen McGregor, chief international correspondent Paul Workman, London news bureau correspondent Daniele Hamamdjian and Los Angeles bureau chief Tom Walters.

Foreign bureaus in London and Los Angeles will close, while the Washington, D.C., office is scaling back “to focus more fully on important news from the U.S.A. and the impacts on Canada,” vice-president of news Richard Gray said in a letter to staff, adding major stories will still be covered “on-location around the world when needed.”

Nevertheless, digital news continues to grow and staff will be added elsewhere, Gray added.

He said videographers will immediately be stationed in Regina and St. John’s, N.L., and later this year in Fredericton and Charlottetown – moves that will put CTV National News journalists “in every province for the first time ever.”

A request to CTV News for comment and further details was declined.

While the full scope of Bell Media’s plans have yet to be disclosed, an industry consultant with Pivotal Media said the changes known so far will almost certainly reshape its flagship newscast, “CTV National News With Omar Sachedina.”

“If you eliminate half of the veteran faces that have been there for a decade plus, of course, it’s going to look different. How they fill that vacuum remains to be seen,” said Jennifer Burke, a former anchor for CTV News Channel who expected more news footage from outside sources.

“Instead of Paul Workman reporting out of London or Daniele reporting out of London, they’ll just take an American feed instead, an American reporter. And that’s been done for years. But what we’re losing in that is Canadian context, and how whatever story is unfolding around the globe impacts Canada.”

Marissa Nelson, a vice president with the Minneapolis-based media consulting firm Magid, said TV news networks across North America are facing pressure to evolve with their audience but Canadian companies lag far behind their U.S. counterparts.

While she hasn’t examined Bell Media’s operations, she said the survival of traditional outlets depends on embracing newer digital models such as ad-based video-on-demand (AVOD) and free ad-supported TV (FAST).

“Canadian organizations need to move much more quickly to streaming, AVOD, FAST and all of those platforms,” said the Toronto-based Nelson, formerly of CBC and the Toronto Star.

“While we’re seeing broadcasters in Canada start to make those shifts, it isn’t in a wholesale way that we need because advertising is decreasing so quickly. One thing is changing really, really quickly and the other side — the industry, the content creation side — is changing at a much slower pace.”

Nelson said a lot of what networks stream these days is content made for traditional TV broadcast that has been repurposed for digital platforms.

But if legacy outlets can only cater to one service, she urges them to do the reverse – design streaming content that, if needed, can also be repurposed for linear television.

“They need to understand what audiences — millennial audiences, in particular — want out of local and national news, and reorient the organization to serve that need,” said Nelson, adding there is no one-size-fits-all fix.

“You know, it isn’t traditional TV packages. And it varies from place to place.”

Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said he worried changes at Bell Media will lead to local news deserts and fewer senior reporters who can navigate complex stories and mentor young journalists.

He also worried the quality of CTV’s news coverage will suffer if fewer staff are expected to maintain the same output.

“Fewer journalists means more hard work to get the same product out every single day. And that has a personal cost, and it takes a toll on people after a while,” he said.

From a public relations perspective, Burke said the way the high-profile job cuts were announced is unlikely to sit well with viewers still angered by CTV’s surprise split with former chief anchor Lisa LaFlamme, who announced her own departure on social media last August.

Bell Media weathered weeks of blowback and at one point said it “regrets” the way LaFlamme’s exit was handled. The debacle also sparked an independent third-party review of workplace culture in the CTV national newsroom.

“You could argue that how Lisa was let go was a tipping point for Bell Media,” said Burke.

“Did that possibly contribute to a loss in advertising revenue? And then did that in turn contribute to (this) layoff?”

Jolly worried that journalism and news are increasingly being treated as a commodity.

“It’s something that’s being devalued by society as we’re deepening our relationship with tech platforms and relying on the internet to save us from information vacuums,” he said.

“The public is the one who suffers at the end.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

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