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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CBC's Digital Dilemma: Good Journalism or Clickbait?

Over the past few days, a colleague and friend, Frank Koller has posted on his website and on the Huffington Post site, some curious developments on the CBC's website, involving a number of high profile CBC journalists.

Frank observed that reporters who normally operate as professional observers have suddenly been transformed into highly opinionated columnists. CBC management responded to Frank's post by dismissing his concerns.

In fact, these well-regarded reporters are using to call out (twice) the Government of Canada for 1) "slavish" adherence to antiquated institutions (aka, The Senate of of Canada), and 2) demanding that the Republican Party suppress the free (if deeply provocative) speech of some of the Republican candidates for President.

These pieces posted on the CBC website are surprising. Usually expressions of sharp opinion have been given to non-CBC journalists, thus keeping the CBC reporters free from accusations of bias.

This is a not-so-subtle change in the role of the CBC and its website. As the public broadcaster moves toward a more digital and smartphone universe, the wild west values of cyberspace seem at variance with the high journalistic standards on which the CBC once prided itself. Is the cyber-tail wagging the journalistic dog? It seems so.

This was confirmed in a website called News Net Check. In a "Special Report" entitled "At CBC, Cutbacks Make Room for Digital Growth", one Richard Kanee, whose title is Senior Director of Digital Media at the CBC is quoted as saying:

“We’re deprioritizing innovation and we’re actually privileging things that can function more like a widget factory, which is what media companies need in order to have real scale.” (sic).

I assume this means that once serious reporters are now allowed to become part of the vast digital bloviator culture. As Mr. Kanee further states, “We recognize that there’s a new, younger audience that may be looking for something different than what we put on our airwaves.” But is this in fact, true? Mr. Kanee says he has no evidence of that shift.

Indeed, there may be a good reason for emphasizing the digital presence. Increasingly, younger media consumers are opting for podcasts over so-called "appointment listening and viewing." NPR for example, now has (at last count) 26 million downloads PER MONTH. No surprise that people prefer to listen when they want, not when the programmers think they should.

But how does this affect quality journalism? Poorly, according to sources inside the CBC.

Even as Marisa Nelson, also with the title of Senior Director for Digital Media says “We wanted to create more local content with less money."

One CBC journalist (who prefers to remain nameless for obvious reasons) sent me this overnight:

The reality is, whatever local content being churned out is, for the most part, utter garbage. By garbage, I mean in the true sense of the word: something you throw away and don't bother picking up. Frankly this bullshit about digital and young audiences is little more than a way for the new digital masters to create their own self-fulfilling fiefdom: crank out "stories" (in as few words as possible because writing - good writing - takes time) that feature animals, crime and pictures of any sort because that's what people click on. Next, count the clicks. Then write self-congratulatory emails describing the "wins". 

Finally, if a heretical journalist suggests a story that sounds suspiciously like the high impact, public accountability story telling we used to aspire to, refer them to what gets clicks and assign them to scour WaPo or Reddit for something that will pull in page views. Should a journalist buck the prevailing dogma and despite the editorial opposition actually pull off something original, make sure it's not promoted on the social media feeds because it might soften the numbers. 

Jeffrey, the truth is editorial priorities of news are being largely dictated by digital hires, most who have never been in the field, and rarely, if ever, communicated with anyone without the use of a keyboard. Sadly, pumping more money back into the CBC would encourage what I see to be a degradation of the news service we used to aspire to. Yes, some good stuff still gets done. In spite of it all. Digital is an excellent platform... The problem is now what we're doing with it. Journalism is not the priority.


  1. It is charitable to call this a dilemma for the CBC. It ought not to be a dilemma at all. Digital media can distribute excellent journalism. Let those digital entities which spew out silliness continue to do so. But CBC can/must stand out by providing high quality content to extremely large audiences. There's no need at all to stoop to the level of the digital junk food media outlets. And, one senses that the new Liberal regime in Ottawa wants the CBC to preserve, maintain and encourage journalistic standards while taking advantage of the distribution possibilities digital technology offers. It is CBC management's fault that they've hired digital experts to run the show, without first inculcating them with CBC's traditional core high journalistic standards.

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