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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, March 26, 2015

CTV Management 1: CBC Management 0

 Once in a while a senior media executive gets confused and thinks that he owns a widget factory instead of an idea-generating enterprise. This person actually believes that he can get a group of journalists to do what he tells them to, allegedly in the interests of the company (aka, himself).

Journalists are often accused of disloyalty by management because if it comes to a choice between the values of journalism and the reputation of the organization, most journalists tend to opt for the former.

Not in all cases, it must be admitted. A journalists' own loyalty to his or her paycheque often places the scribe in impossible conflicts. But as a general principle, most journalists would prefer to plant a flag in the soil of doing what's right, journalistically.

Some media managers have to find out the hard way as did Kevin Crull, the president and CEO of Bell Media, the conglomerate that owns, among other media properties, CTV, Canada's most popular and still commercial television network.

Crull was reported outraged at seeing the head of the Canadian broadcast regulator, Jean-Pierre Blais, interviewed on CTV programs. This, after the regulator, the CRTC ruled in favour of cheaper cable costs and against the commercial broadcasters and the cable companies. So in Canada, beginning next year, the cash-cows of Canadian cable must offer a much cheaper (aka "skinny") basic cable for $25. Individuals may then opt for additional programs and pay more for the choice.

Seeing Blais on "his" networks apparently outraged Crull. He ordered the head of the news network to ban him from appearing. Wendy Freeman, the president of CTV News passed along the fiat, which was quickly disobeyed by her senior journalists including, it is said, the host of the flagship newscast, Lisa LaFlamme and the senior Parliamentary correspondent Robert Fife.

When presented with a revolt based on journalistic principles, Crull caved and was forced to back down. He released a statement of apology.

Sources inside CTV say that this is not the first time Crull has attempted to influence the editorial staff and in fairness, even the boss should have a chance to get his point of view across. Whether journalists feel they must obey or be fired, is another matter. And presumably, it will not be the last time this happens. Next time, it may happen with a bit more managerial finesse.

Meanwhile over at the public broadcaster, the CBC's editor-in-chief, Jennifer McGuire has announced more than 140 job losses in local news in English Canada. Another 100 are going in French-speaking parts of the country.

No statement of apology for this wilful dismantling of a once proud news organization.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Curious Appeal of Old Technology - aka a Typewriter

The Olivetti Lexikon 80
This is my typewriter.

I keep it in my office at the University of Toronto (Scarborough). Students and some (younger) faculty look at it with curiosity. And sometimes with suspicion. They approach it cautiously, asking how it works. Some are even nervous about touching it.

I put a sheet of paper in the roll and invite them to try it out. Often they recoil after punching in a letter. Being used to the gentle typing touch of computer, they are appalled at how typing is/was such a physical effort.

"It's so loud," they say. "And heavy!"

I bought it in a London pawnshop in 1974 after my flat had been burgled. They took my old Smith-Corona Selectric while I was in the middle of finishing my thesis.

The replacement Olivetti that I found cost £8, and turns out to be a rare find. First mass produced in Italy in the early 1950s, it is an example of post-war modernist design. One of the originals now resides in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.

Yesterday, the university held its annual open house for prospective students and their parent. On the Journalism display table, I put a number of books, mementos and various newsroom tshotshkes I've collected over the years. I also lugged the Olivetti down and invited people to try it.

(Full disclosure - my typewriter was not a typical newsroom machine. In TV news, we used teleprompter typewriters which produced a large print format. But the memory of banging away at a typewriter on deadline, brings back the noise of a more industrial-era newsroom: the rattle of the typewriters, the noise of teletypes - even behind thick baffles - combined with the thick blue air of dozens of cigarettes and the yelling of impatient editors are gone in today's more refined and restrained newsrooms).

The high school students who came by to ask about our journalism program were indeed, fascinated by the Olivetti. We invited them to give it a try. Like others, they were wary at first, then enthusiastic pounders!

Some questions: how would you know when you are about to run out of space? They were also fascinated by the little bell that rings to warn you you are coming to the end of the line.

What if you want to double space? How do you make a capital letter? Where does the ink come from? What if you make a mistake? Don't your wrists get tired? Did I really write a thesis on this?

Some of the more "mature" faculty members came by to reminisce about their first typewriters. We all recalled purchasing a portable machine that came in its own little carrying case, like a little suitcase. How our parents bought them for us as we left for university, when we dumped the typewriters and bought our first computers...

My own Olivetti got dragged around as I moved back to North America after finishing my degree to different jobs in Montreal, Toronto, Washington then back to Toronto. The machine didn't age well and for years, it sat in a box in the basement.

Then I found a young man in Toronto who repairs and these antiques. For about $80, he restored the typewriter to perfect working condition.

It now sits in my office as a reminder of those pre-digital times of great student days and simpler technologies.

As I explain to my students, it's just an earlier version of an app. They understand that instinctively.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Challenge for Shad and the CBC

Shad - New CBC Host
Much is being made of Shadrack Kabango, aka Shad, a 32 year old rap artist who is now the replacement host on the CBC pop culture and chat show "Q." And he's obviously talented too.

Mainly a radio program, Q is also on television and on more than 150 public radio stations in the US. It's done reasonably well, considering that the show airs at 10 am when most of its sought-after target audience may not quite be paying attention...It's not the highest rated show on CBC Radio but it does well in that time slot.

Despite its relatively small audience, Q has developed a cult following in the media. That it has an overwhelming media presence is due to the over-large profile of the previous, now disgraced host, Jian Ghomeshi, charged with seven counts of sexual assault and one charge of "overcoming resistance - choking." His trial begins in two weeks on March 27.

The CBC has placed a lot of emotional and corporate investment in Shad, not only to continue the success of Q, but to put the embarrassment of Ghomeshi behind it. Gone and forgotten, must be the fervent wishes of management.

Shad is Rwandan born, Canadian raised and from the fulsome accolades of an overwrought CBC publicity machine, the next great national treasure. A combination of Glenn Gould, Maurice Richard and Marshall McLuhan doing rap and hip hop...

If the expectations are huge, it's hardly Shad's fault. The CBC has been increasingly desperate to demonstrate its relevance to an audience and to the government of the day that keeps funding it, albeit begrudgingly.

The problem at the CBC is that despite every effort, like other broadcasters, the TV ratings continue to shrink.

Its flagship news program "The National with Peter Mansbridge" consistently runs third after CTV and Global. In the weekly listings for most the 30 most-watched television shows in Canada, (the vast majority are American) the CBC is conspicuously absent. Canadian shows that do make it to that list include CTV's local supperhour newscasts which have larger local audiences than does CBC's "The National." *

Meanwhile there is CBC Radio, which has proven to be a pillar of popularity and growth on this shifting media San Andreas faultline.

While CBC TV has less than a 5 share of the national TV audience, CBC Radio is up to a 15 share and growing.

And now with Shad on Q, the CBC is doubling down that this is a possible bright spot that will work for both Radio and TV.

But will it? Making a successful radio program is neither an art nor a science. It's most alchemy, in my experience.

You need a host with potential, some terrific ideas, a few great producers and a willingness to tell management to bugger off. Mix well and assess in six months.

My worry is that CBC's obsession with television values (aka, celebrity culture and ratings) will make the program sound just wrong on the radio. And CBC Radio's powerful uniculture - as good as it can be - can also act as a gag on creativity, creating a kind of blandifying, public broadcasting porridge that will make Q sound like, just another CBC Radio program.

And that would be the worst outcome of all.


* thanks to Barry Kiefl for pointing out the distinction.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Rise and Rise of Native Advertising

As if journalists and journalism students didn't have enough to worry about. Now there's so-called Native Advertising.

So-called because it can appear to be "native" to the regular journalistic content found in print and online. It is advertising that can appear quite seamless and even integrated into the rest of the news.

In some media organizations, journalists are being pressed into writing and creating the ads, thus pulling down the long established separation of editorial from business.

When it's well done, it can appear to be deceptively journalistic. And that's the problem, and the challenge.

As the traditional advertising market, especially in print, collapses, Native Advertising has emerged as a possible saviour for a media that has been struggling to find its financial footing.

In the US, this new form seems to be working, earning around $4.5 billion for print outlets last year.
Often the ads are better looking and have more real information than the news organizations in which they are planted. Now journalism has to compete with ads for the fragmented attention spans of the audiences.

Radio - commercial and public - have been immune to Native Ads. So far.

That's because in commercial radio, ads have saturated the market leaving no place left to shill.

Public Broadcasting in the US isn't employing native advertising. But it does something similar and calls it "underwriting." On the radio, they can be found just before the newscasts. On public TV, they are more widespread and last for longer. Euphemistically, they are called "enhanced underwriting."

CBC TV has run ads for years, making it look very much like commercial television. And rumour has it that CBC TV will soon try the underwriting route to support its rapidly disappearing advertising revenues.

Public radio in Canada is trying- not very successfully - to insert ads just after the hourly newscasts on CBC Radio 2. This is a recent phenomenon and they are not successful because they sound raucous. These ads are directly bought from commercial agencies. As a result, they also sound completely out of place on the more demure if occasionally stridently hip airwaves of CBC Radio.

Now the hottest media ticket in town - the podcast has arrived. Podcasts are proving to be sizzling and exciting, especially in the public radio community.

Podcasting is also proving to be a ratings bonanza. Of the top ten podcasts in the US, seven are from NPR and individual public radio stations. NPR podcasts are being downloaded more than 25 million times a month.

Advertisers, of course, have not been slow to notice this trend. And they are eager to tap into this younger, more hip and increasingly affluent demographic.

A group of freelance radio people based in Boston, called AIR - Association of Independents in Radio, asked me to assess this phenomenon and whether it should be embraced or shunned.

My conclusion: It's too late for shunning. But it is not all bad news.

If podcasters treat the listeners with respect, then it may be possible that Native Ads may not only be necessary, but a timely life raft for a floundering media still looking for its payday.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Anchors Away? Brian Williams and Peter Mansbridge Adrift in the Digital Ocean

Brian Williams, NBC News
It says something about the state of broadcast journalism when two, once highly regarded news anchors seem prone to possibly career-ending mistakes.

At NBC News, Brian Williams has admitted that he made things up about his time in Iraq. When forced by social media to come clean, Williams admitted that a helicopter he was in did not come under direct fire.

Williams' coverage in New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina is also being questioned. NBC has asked that its own investigative unit look into these allegations and make a public report on whether Williams misled his audience, his colleagues and his employer.

This comes at a time when NBC Nightly News has been leading the evening network news competitions with long time rivals CBS and ABC.

According to the New York Times, "NBC News executives have not publicly addressed the issue, hunkering down on Friday as Mr. William's troubles continued to draw a frenzy of criticism. Across the web, commentators have been aggressive in questioning not only Mr. William's reporting but NBC's handling of the problem. Some military veterans and commentators have called for his resignation."
The CBC's Peter Mansbridge

At CBC News, a similarly embarrassing situation has been building for months, involving a number of high-profile journalists including Peter Mansbridge, Chief Correspondent and long-time host of the CBC's flagship newscast, "The National."

Unlike Williams, Mansbridge has not exaggerated his journalism or deceived his audience. But he has accepted speaking fees from lobby groups that have many in the blogosphere and the CBC's own ombudsman calling for an end to the practice.

There is a growing perception, led by digital media, that this practice which has further enriched an already well compensated group of public broadcasters, must end. So in an effort to deal with the damage to the CBC's bruised reputation, senior management says they have banned all future paid speaking gigs, unless otherwise approved by the top echelons. Some paid speeches, says Jennifer McGuire, CBC's editor-in-chief will be allowed if they were agreed to before the new policy was proclaimed. McGuire also promised that all speeches, paid or unpaid would be posted on the CBC's website stating where the journalists appeared (that seems not to be happening with any urgency or consistency).

That might have tamped down the controversy. But it hasn't. Bloggers continue to point out significant gaps between management statements and new paid speaking gigs for Mansbridge and others in the CBC. Most recently, blogger, journalism professor and former CBC journalist Andrew Mitrovica has been relentless in going after this practice when it was revealed that Mansbridge spoke to a "FarmTech" conference sponsored by Monsanto and the Koch Brothers. Other bloggers like Frank Koller have been similarly focused and equally disappointed. 

Could it be that the CBC's journalistic stars prefer to ignore the latest ukase from management, since to do otherwise would be to admit that they have done something wrong? They seem to want to tough it out.

At NBC, a private corporation is willing acknowledge that there may be something seriously wrong in the mindset of its most prominent journalist. 

Should not the CBC, the Canadians' publicly funded broadcaster, do any less?


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Should the Media Reprint the Charlie Hebdo Cartoons?

It's a dilemma for mainstream media organizations.

If they reprint, there is a risk further angering extremists who cannot be mollified by any gesture short of a complete capitulation.

If they don't reprint, media organizations are being accused of cowardice, of "allowing the terrorists to win," and failing to live up to their own standards of a free press.

This are two competing but equally valid issues: one is free speech and the consequences to that were demonstrated in the streets of Paris today.

But the other, equally valid notion: the affirmative obligation of a news organization or any media to keep its employees safe. 

In Canada, the CBC will not show the cartoons. In the CBC's French-language service, Radio-Canada, they have decided to show them, possibly in solidarity with the journalists at Charlie Hebdo.

This is a time when our strongly held beliefs about a free medium in a democracy are not universally shared. As we saw today in Paris, a media organization could republish the cartoons in support of free expression, and risk endangering its own employees. 

Or it could not run the cartoons and be accused of cowardice in the face of a threat of terrorism. 

In September of 2005, the Copenhagen newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons that openly mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. At NPR, management decided not to repost the cartoons that connected the Prophet Mohammed with terrorism. 

The thinking at NPR was that the cartoons were freely available for all to see on the Internet. NPR was not serving its public by exacerbating tensions. Indeed, very few US media organizations would reprint them.

The Philadephia Inquirer was the only major American newspaper that did. When American troops were fighting in Iraq, it was seen as not being the right thing to do when American policy was trying to win hearts and minds in the Muslim Middle East.

But almost every major European media outlet republished the cartoons. The tradition of a free press in Europe is different from the North American approach. North Americans are often more reluctant to offend, compared to the "take no prisoners" approach to satire in Europe. The Israeli media wouldn't republish the cartoons either. Americans and Israelis, it seems, have a different understanding of the power of religious fervour.

The blogosphere has the freedom to publish; legacy media have additional elements to consider.

It's easy to say "publish, and be damned." It's another thing to live with those consequences.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Where's the Journalistic Skepticism About Digital Media?

About a year ago, George Packer wrote an important article for the New Yorker about what's happening to journalism.

It's called "Telling Stories about the Future of Journalism." In it, Packer interviewed Ezra Klein, a digital wunderkind (he's around 30 now) who was at the Washington Post, where he ran the hugely successful Wonkblog. That blog was, according to some, the most read part of the paper. Klein wanted more money to expand the blog. Management said no. Klein quit that Post to join Vox Media, an online start-up where he now resides as head of news.

The Packer article is not particularly judgmental. It is quietly skeptical. Especially about the language of the blogosphere. He lets Klein reveal himself with these phrases:

"Our mission is to create a site that's as good at explaining the world as reporting on it."

Klein says Vox will "be in the informing-our-audience business."

Vox (the site) describes itself as " of the fastest growing online publishers, focused on lifestyle brands that connect with passionate audiences...Vox is solving the problem of developing high-value digital journalism, storytelling and brand advertising at scale (sic)."

Many people are admiring the cut of these young Emperors' new clothes. David Carr of the New York Times proclaims that news on the web is thriving, based on "heavy traffic, deep-pocketed investment, new technology, and brand names."

And Wall Street agrees. In 2014, Buzz Feed raised $850 million in its IPO. Its aim is to move away from the trivial and into serious journalism. And it's hiring. Vox has more than 50 positions that it wants to fill now.

Packer and Carr agree that despite all the glitz and promotional hype, there is a missing element: "One big obstacle to long term media success remains: quality," writes Carr. And Packer seems to reluctantly agree:

"...once the quality box is checked, the loser will be the 'legacy' news organizations, currently staffed by non-digital journalists...And maybe quality is overrated anyway. Given their fiscal woes, just ask the Post the Times and the Journal."

Fast forward to this week's New Yorker.

Andrew Marantz in The Annals of Media writes: "The Virologist: How a young entrepreneur built an empire by repackaging memes."

Like Packer, Marantz quotes a twenty-seven year old Internet-media entrepreneur Emerson Spartz who "has been successfully launching Web sites for more than half his life."

Spartz is evidently smart and speaks in that same peculiar New Age geek-speak that Ezra Klein used in the previous New Yorker interview:

"I'm passionate about virality!" "Try to change every comma to a period." "Use lists whenever possible. Lists just hijack the brain's neural circuitry." "The most awesome you are, the more emotion you create, the more viral it is."

Marantz follows Spartz around his various offices in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and then to his home town of La Porte, Indiana all the while dropping McLuhanesque aphorisms like "Art is that which science has not yet explained..."

Both articles indicate a trend that news and digital are increasingly converging into an information-free zone.

In a poll taken in July 2014 by the Associated Press:

  * Americans don't feel much pressure to keep up with news and public issues anymore.

   * Only 37 percent think that's very important, down from a majority -- 56 percent -- in 1984.

   * In fact, a fifth say there's no obligation at all to stay fully informed.

   * Young people are even less likely to feel the public ought to know what's going on, despite having unprecedented amounts of information at their fingertips.

In the 1980s Neil Postman said about Television that we are "amusing ourselves to death." In 2015, Klein and Spartz have assumed the updated roles of digital court jesters.