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Journalism 2015

Posted on 17 April 2015

So yesterday, 241 people at CBC stations across the country, including a few I know, were told their jobs are “redundant”.

That brings the total for this year alone to 1,400 cut jobs.

I remember when I started at CBC. We had tens of millions more in our budget. We had a robust slate of overseas correspondents. We had a radio drama department. We had much more ability to invest resources into investigations, arts, training, long-term thinking. The CBC of today can do much less than the CBC I started working at.

I started working at CBC five years ago.

This isn’t some political post. I know the Liberals gutted the CBC before the Conservatives took over the job. I know Conservatives who strongly support the CBC (I also know plenty who don’t). Honestly, this isn’t even about the CBC. This is about journalism.

* * *

I’m writing this post with the presumption that I don’t need to convince you that a robust, independent media is an important component of a functioning democracy. If you disagree, I suggest you turn to the People’s Daily and 24seven for your news coverage and enjoy slowly slipping away from reality.

Meanwhile, I’m going to tell the rest of you about my story file. Actually a bunch of files – there’s a Google Doc, a notebook full of jotted down ideas, an email folder, and a few actual physical folders with newspaper clippings and notes.

All of these are full of stories I want to do stories on but haven’t had the time/opportunity to yet. Among them:

There’s lots of other stuff, too. Some is interesting, but small scale. Others are much bigger and more important to the point I don’t feel comfortable putting even a teaser out here because I haven’t had time to fully fact-check.

And that’s sort of the problem. I don’t know a journalist out there who doesn’t have a whole list of meaty stories they’d like to delve into, but require more time, research, and editorial judgement than a quick one-and-done about a traffic accident or the latest city council meetings.

And the quick one-and-dones are important, no doubt, but so too is original, investigative journalism. Unfortunately, the latter requires resources that are increasingly scarce.

Look, CBC and other outlets across the country are still committed to hard-hitting, boots-on-the-ground, analytic reporting. But they are also committed to telling you all you need to know about the news of the day. And eventually, something’s got to give. In many ways, it already has.

I am not a veteran journalist. But I’ve talked to them, read interviews with them, heard them talk about the old days. And the journalism of old had far more resources than the journalism of today. People could get on planes, spend weeks going through papers and reports, attend full days of meetings. There are still people who can do that, but it’s increasingly rare and increasingly difficult. Sometimes it’s tough to even leave your desk for lunch, let alone to meet a contact for a story that you don’t know will immediately produce results. There are just too many deadlines to invest time in potential stories.

Jonathan Kay, formerly of the National Post, now of the Walrus, did a pretty good job describing the state of journalism in Canada in 2015:

“Rank-and-file comment-section staffers are now expected to write multiple pieces per day, help out with editing, write headlines, browse freelance submissions, libel-check the comment threads, do radio and TV hits when necessary, and promote the hell out of themselves and their colleagues on social media. And even when it’s time to go home for the day, everyone’s expected to keep his or her smartphone on: you never knew when the media-party action is going to get good on Twitter.

“It’s a lot of work for not much money. In 1998, I took a 30 percent pay cut when I left my job as a tax lawyer to become a journalist. These days, the equivalent pay cut would be more on the order of 75 percent.”

And that’s if you get a decent job. I am exceedingly and utterly lucky to be in a position where I can have a mortgage, a pension. Assuming things don’t get worse for the CBC (which, today, feels like a pretty big assumption) I could actually do this job until I retire and be comfortably middle class. That is not the case for many of my colleagues in the private industry. In Prince George, I have seen newsrooms everywhere shrink as, like the CBC, people are expected to do more with less. I have seen many talented people parachute out of journalism to jobs elsewhere. As one former newsroom director told me, she was making barely more than if she were to take a job at Dairy Queen, and she wasn’t sure it was worth it anymore. Being a journalist has become akin to a backpack trip around the world: something relatively-well-off people do in their twenties before getting a real job.

That’s the thing. Critics of the CBC will often say it’s time to cut loose and let the market decide. Unfortunately, the market doesn’t seem to be sure it wants to pay for journalism or, if it does, how those payments will be made. There’s a lot of promise in the world of online, and I’m a big believer in those models, but there are no internet startups that are providing coverage as robust as even today’s diminished CBC. Many of the communities we cover have no other media outlets, or just one of those small “community announcement” newsletters you find at coffee shops. Believe it or not, there are still people and places where the internet as a news source isn’t viable, and newspapers like the Globe and Mail and National Post will no longer deliver. The further north I drive, the more likely it is someone will recognize my name, because CBC radio in a small resource town of a few hundred is a vital link to the rest of the country in a way that is tough to grasp in a bigger city.

* * *

Again, this isn’t a critique aimed at any specific person or policy. This is just a statement of the way things are.

Not so long ago, I went on a Twitter spree explaining the constraints of my job in response to someone wondering why CBC wasn’t at an event in the city. I said that the answer to why we aren’t covering a story is never because we don’t think it’s important. It’s because we don’t have the resources to be in the many places we would like to be. We don’t have the resources to do all that we want to do. And the resources we have left are shrinking.

I’ve seen direct action happen as the result of journalism. Important policy changes are made, or someone who needs help connects with someone who can provide it. There is no doubt in my mind that journalists makes positive difference in ways big and small, all the time. I am certain of that.

I am also certain that fewer people practicing journalism means journalism in this country will be less effective. You can only “work smarter” for so long. Eventually, you just don’t have enough people or time to practice effective journalism. I’m not sure we’ve hit the breaking point yet. But from where I stand- one of the lucky ones to not be among the hundreds and hundreds of journalists in the private and public sector to not lose my job in the last decade- I fear we’re getting dangerously close.

Filed under: Canada, CBC, journalism

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