By Ken Regan
Chief Executive Officer
Wednesday February the 10th, 2016
As CEO of the CKUA Radio Network – an independent and listener funded broadcaster in Alberta – I am watching with interest the CRTC hearings into local and community broadcasting. The views expressed here do not represent the official position of CKUA, although there may be cohesion within our station and our Board of Directors for at least some of the sentiments expressed.
I have worked as a journalist in print (newspaper) radio (CKUA Radio Network) and television (CBC), so I have a personal interest in and appreciation for the value and critical importance of local programming on radio & tv and in particular, local news. Local news – in fact, a diversity of local news offerings – is fundamental to an informed populace and fundamental to a free and democratic society. Yet, locally produced and locally focused news content is increasingly being lost. Here are some of the problems as I’ve seen them evolve over the years and a few suggestions I’ve offered to the CRTC as a means of getting some of this critical local content back.
Acquiring and distributing reliable, fact-based news content in any professional media organization is labour intensive and expensive. Real news after all does not arrive at the doorstep of the media. It’s called “news gathering” for a reason. To find, analyze, chronicle and present news in any format requires smart, hard-working people who not only can write or present on air. It requires entire teams of people who can coordinate the gathering process, people who can edit audio or video, people who can record that audio or video or shoot photos and conduct interviews, people who can write coherently (one hopes at least) – not to mention all of the people who manage the business side of media (accountants, HR people, web people, engineers, etc).
Local, online and independent news bloggers, though potentially equally as legitimate, likely lack the resources to gather a substantive amount or diversity of relevant content, and make it known or widely distributed. They can often lack professional training or standards with respect to fact-based reporting versus opinion; and in the worst instances, may end up publishing / distributing incorrect or harmful information, or promoting and / or reinforcing personal or other biases or even prejudices.
Except for the CBC (where advertising is not the primary source of revenue but is used to augment government funding), the cost of producing news & current affairs content must – if it is to be sustainable – pay for itself. For private sector media, who do not receive government subsidy, advertising revenue in most markets, has for a long time not been adequate to cover these costs (whether on radio or TV). So, private broadcasters must either subsidize that cost or not engage in that enterprise. Sadly, many have opted to reduce or eliminate local news, because for non-subsidized operators (including CKUA Radio, which is listener-funded) cutting news programming can become a necessity in order to remain financially stable or viable, or in the case of large media conglomerates, to ensure maximum return to shareholders.
Cutting or eliminating local news is rarely a “preferred option” because all media understand that local news is important to our audiences even if we can’t afford to produce it. However, when faced with the high cost of production, a general decline in advertising revenue and an absence of subsidy (except in the case of CBC), cutting local news often becomes a necessary or expedient option.
The other, somewhat ironic thing that can make cutting local news an option, particularly for smaller operations and the private sector, is that the CBC product is so strong – the logic being: “Well, we can never compete with the funding and resources devoted to news & current affairs by the CBC, so why bother? Why spend money there, when we can spend it on other aspects of our service?” This is essentially what happened within CKUA, which at one time had significant news staff and news production capacity and was considered “the station of record” when it came to Alberta news and current affairs.
When CKUA was forced to transition from being a Provincial government funded organization, to being an independent, and audience funded one, the days of local/regional news operations were numbered. We tried valiently to preserve news & current affairs programming by becoming much more efficient and cost effective. But as our funding and capacity continued to diminish, we were continually forced to compromise our news operation to the point where we even opted to pay for CBC news content because it was cheaper than producing it ourselves and at least allowed us to provide some local, regional news elements. CBC cancelled that agreement though and over time CKUA’s news staff dwindled from a peak of about 15 in the late 1980s, to one-and-a-half staff by 2013.
In that year, CKUA closed its news department, feeling we could use the news production money to bolster other areas of operations that needed support, and because we did not feel we could compete to any degree with the product being offered in our market by the CBC, and other, on-line sources. This is not sour grapes, but simply an insight into our circumstance and our thinking. Having worked at CBC news, I have great respect for the quality and integrity of its news gathering capacity and its product. My point is simply, that as an independent, listener-funded organization, it does not make sense to spend significant and precious dollars to provide something that is readily available in quanity and great quality from the national broadcaster.
In the private sector, the issues are somewhat similar in that they must spend significant dollars to compete with a government subsidized CBC, not to mention a universe of on-line options, at a time when traditional advertising revenues are in steady decline and shareholders demand more return.
Which leads to the following questions:
- Should media that are not government subsidized be “forced” to produce and provide local news & current affairs content that doesn’t pay for itself?
- If not by mandate, how can we ensure access to a diversity of professional, fact-based local news sources and content, in order to promote and contribute to an informed and democratic society?
The answer to question one is “no”. As stated earlier, private broadcasters and even non-profit ones like CKUA, know full well the value of providing local news to our audiences. But unless or until we can actually afford to do so, forcing it upon us would be counter-productive on all counts. It could in worst cases, jeopardize an organization’s ability to sustain operations; and at least would likely lead to half-hearted, poorly funded attempts to fulfill a legislated requirement, rather than a genuine commitment to the community.
The answer to question two is: I’m not sure. I do believe that somehow ensuring a diversity of “professional” news sources is increasingly critical – particularly in an age when literally anyone can “claim” to be posting information that purports to be news, when in fact it is rumour, wrong, or opinion cloaked in prejudice, designed to inflame or reinforce the prejudices of others, rather than enlighten or inform on the basis of verifiable fact. I also believe that consolidation of media is contributing to a reduction in the desired or even necessary ‘diversity’ of professional outlets dedicated to providing “local” news and information.
The CRTC, as part of this deliberation, has asked whether some sort of fund should be created to support gathering and distribution of local news and how such a fund might be paid for. The idea is intriguing, as long as those accessing the funding can ensure the content being produced and disseminated will be “informed” (as in fact-based), in the public interest, and will reflect some measure of professional standard. This does not mean there isn’t room for opinion or editorial content; it just means that if content is to be effectively subsidized through any fund, it should at least be required to contribute to the greater societal good, and not drive personal or political agendas. And despite what many may think about bias within professional media – having worked in both public and private newsrooms, I know with certainty there is NO news organization in this country that has a monolithic political or social culture, and the content created and disseminated by every professional news organization in Canada is as diverse as the communities they serve.
So, to quote from the film The Year of Living Dangerously, “What, then, is to be done?” Here are some ideas.
- Yes, create a fund that might at least provide incentive for broadcast media or perhaps all professional media to re-develop, re-commit, and sustain local news and/or current affairs content.
- How to fund it? Difficult to say. Adding a surtax to businesses who advertise would cause a further reduction in advertising dollars being spent, making it even more difficult for private broadcasters to afford to invest in local news. Applying a personal levy to the price of purchasing TVs, radios, cellphones, computers etc. (as is done in Great Britain to help fund the BBC) is a possibility, but also has implications – particularly when Canadians are already subsidizing one media outlet in the form of the CBC. Why should they subsidize others as well? However, there could potentially be a case made that such a levy is a small price to pay to ensure access to substantive, verifiable and fact-based information about important and relevant local news and current affairs. In other words, it’s a small price to pay for a democracy.
- Other considerations might be to convince, or even require the national broadcaster (CBC) to stop spending money on services readily available in the market such as Radio2 music programming, online music streams and specialty TV channels and apply the resources currently used in those areas to developing more, better, and ongoing production of local news & current affairs content. This would in my opinion, enhance the functionality and real purpose of the CBC, add to the amount of local news/information content available from the CBC in all markets, and perhaps even increase the relative “value” of the CBC to Canadians who at present do not appreciate it as much as they could or should.
- Similarly, our federal government could provide additional funding to CBC, but if so, I believe this should only be on condition that CBC eliminate advertising across all of its platforms (freeing those revenues to flow to the private sector – thus providing additional revenues for them to invest in local news content) and on condition the CBC stop broadcasting content (music) readily available through other means. Several years ago, the BBC voluntarily eliminated entire services that it admitted were readily available from the private sector and therefore, not the domain of the public broadcaster. This proposal has potential to contribute to diversity of voices, by creating a financial incentive for private media to re-invest in local news and would also likely result in additional local news being provided via the CBC.
- Another option would be to make local news programming a mandatory commitment for all private media – but again, this would be heavy-handed and likely counter-productive unless it was perhaps coupled with the something like following.
- Create of a pool of money funded by private broadcasters who choose to NOT offer a defined minimum amount of local news/current affairs (not just “information” programming). Media outlets could opt out of providing such content and instead contribute a defined amount to the fund. The fund would then be accessed by local and independent media outlets or individuals willing to provide that local news content. For example, CKUA would love to provide professional local news & current affairs programming and contribute to the diversity of voices so desperately needed; but without access to reliable funding from somewhere our ability to do so is unlikely.
What NOT to do:
- Do NOT ignore the issue. Consolidation of media and the resulting decrease or outright elimination of local news by professional media is an issue that is more important than ever before in our world. The ability for people to access and present information via the Internet is a great thing – but only if people understand that not all information is news; not all information is fact-based; and not all information is of equal value or veracity in terms of reflecting truth or reality. Technology has made it possible for anyone to advance personal and political agendas, claim that misinformation and prejudice are facts and truth, and cultivate entire communities of like-minded but no less misinformed people. The world NEEDS professional, fact-based local journalism more than ever, so finding an answer to this puzzle is vitally important.
- Do NOT simply increase funding to the CBC so it can do more local news production. As stated earlier, CBC (not through any fault of its own necessarily) is part of the problem in that because it does such a good job already it makes it easier and in fact attractive for private media to abrogate its responsibilities in terms of local news programming. And as stated previously, we need more, not less diversity in news sources. Requiring the CBC to focus its resources on local news by using monies currently spent on music programming would be more appropriate. If part of the solution is to simply provide additional subsidy to CBC, it should only be on condition that CBC abandon advertising on all platforms (something that is the lifeblood of private broadcasters, not merely an augmentation to government subsidies) and get out of the business of music programming – something that can easily be offered across Canada through other means, including from sources that are not just mainstream, private broadcasters.
Private Broadcasters, the CBC, CKUA; in fact every organization that holds a broadcast license in Canada has a responsibility at least, if not an obligation, to provide local constituents with relevant news and information that informs about and reflects that community. However, private and independent broadcasters like CKUA cannot afford to ‘subsidize’ such content. As advertising revenues continue to shift to Google, YouTube and elsewhere, and as media becomes increasingly dominated by fewer and ever-bigger conglomerates, there is the real possibility that the number of news and information sources devoted to journalism in general, let alone local journalism will continue to shrink. It should give us all pause.
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