The managing director of CBC North on Tuesday insisted plans to merge northern newscasts will result in more original journalism from the territories' smaller communities.
Janice Stein emailed staff on Monday to say each territory's separate morning newscasts will become one pan-territorial newscast from January. That newscast will be produced in Yellowknife.
Staff reacted with dismay, saying the move would mean fewer territory-specific news items are broadcast each morning and the CBC's relationship with northern listeners would be damaged. Listeners themselves also questioned the wisdom of the change.
Speaking to Cabin Radio on Tuesday, Stein said the merged newscast would allow the CBC to do more by reassigning its former newsreaders in Yukon and Nunavut.
"It's not about losing jobs or anything. It's about reallocating our resource so that we can continue getting out into the communities to gather more stories from people on the ground," said Stein.
Asked if she could commit to sending more reporters to more communities as a result, Stein said: "We are already doing that. You ask any one of them the amount of time they're actually spending out in communities over the last three or four years, we've been doing more and more of that.
"This is about getting out of our studios and getting into communities."
However, it was not clear how the move would benefit the Northwest Territories – where, rather than freeing up studio-based staff, merging newscasts appears to mean the existing Yellowknife newsreader will provide the merged newscast, with fewer NWT reports.
Staff said they had not been consulted about the change. Jonathan Spence, president of the CBC/Radio Canada branch of the Canadian Media Guild, told CBC North in its own report: "They were upset about a lack of consultation. They are concerned about the integrity of the shows and if there's centralization of the morning newscasts, this will take away the local nature of what people are hearing in Whitehorse and Iqaluit."
Stein, in response, told Cabin Radio: "We're starting this consultation process now about how to make these newscasts work for us, and [staff] will be very much a part of that.
"Sometimes you need to make decisions around the resources you have. But you always consult.
"One thing I pride myself on is letting people in on what we're doing as soon as I can and as often as I can. I'm very forthright and open in conversations with people, and I feel like I have been that this time as well."
In brief: what's changing at CBC North?
- On weekday mornings from January, there'll be one English-language newscast for all three territories
- Right now, each territory has its own morning newscast
- There is no change to Indigenous-language newscasts
- The separate morning shows themselves remain
Former CBC North regional director John Agnew, posting on Twitter, wrote that the merging of newscasts was "another made-in-Toronto solution to a non-problem."
Agnew said: "Homogenized newscasts ignore the reality of the linguistic and cultural diversity found north of 60."
Below, find a full transcript of Cabin Radio's interview with Janice Stein about the change. This interview will be broadcast on Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News from 12pm on Tuesday, November 19 – listen live or get the podcast.
This interview was recorded on November 19, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Janice, thanks for joining me. Yesterday, you told staff CBC North will by January merge its morning English-language newscasts. Why did the CBC take that decision?
Janice Stein: We've been on a path for the last few years to get out into the communities more. And a few years ago we had moved to pan-northern afternoon English newscasts. We are doing that again, this time with the morning program. It's to enable us to reallocate our resource, it's not about losing jobs or anything. It's about reallocating our resource so that we can continue getting out into the communities to gather more stories from people on the ground, and make them available for our morning radio programs and the other programs during the day as well.
Who do you think the changes will benefit?
I think it will benefit everybody. I mean, if you've been paying attention to our programs over the last few years, we've been making a number of efforts to actually move out of the studios and into the communities – to do our programs on-remote in communities – and it's about connecting with people, finding those stories in the communities rather than being, in some ways, in the studios in our central plants. But I think it'll benefit audiences for sure. I think it will also benefit our reporters because they'll have more opportunity to get out into those communities and to actually find those stories, and speak to what's going on in the communities rather than us waiting for the news to come to us.
Your reporters don't seem to see it that way, if I may be frank. The reaction yesterday was uniformly negative: your own staff told Cabin Radio, in numbers, that they thought this will damage their relationship with listeners. Your audience called it terrible, thoughtless, unbelievable. One person wrote to us, and I'll quote: "Does the CBC really think listeners in Gameti, Fort Simpson, Fort Good Hope, or Yellowknife, care enough about local stories in the Yukon and Nunavut to keep listening?" So I'll ask you that: does the CBC think that?
No. I think we're embarked on a process – as I said, this has been going on for a few years now – moving out into the communities. We had a meeting last week, the North managers, where we talked about where we want to move in the next several months; about pushing our programming out into those communities. And so now today we're having a meeting with all of the producers to start planning how that will happen and how those new newscasts will look. Staff, they'll be moving back to their teams, to talk to their teams about how to do it. This isn't happening until the new year, so it's an opportunity for all of our staff to be involved in making this plan happen and figuring out how they can best work.
Well, your staff say you didn't consult them about this change. Why not?
We consult over time. I mean, everybody in the staff is aware that we're on a path to get out into the communities more. This particular one, we're starting this consultation process now about how to make these newscasts work for us, and they will be very much a part of that.
All right, but that's not really a consultation, is it? I mean, last night, Janice, you told your own reporter that – no matter what anyone says – continuing on with the current format will not be an option. If a government was found to be consulting like that up here, your staff would have a field day reporting on that, wouldn't they?
I just want to reiterate this conversation has been going on for several years, about how to get us out into the communities more, to actually find more stories for our people, and also to bring more content to our programs. I mean, it's an opportunity for reporters. I'm hoping that, over the next couple of months while we work this out, they actually see it as an opportunity to tell their stories, to do more investigative work, to actually free themselves up to do the kind of reporting that they really love to do.
So you're happy to commit to your reporters right now that you will send them out to communities more than you currently do?
We are already doing that. You ask any one of them the amount of time they're actually spending out in communities over the last three or four years, we've been doing more and more of that. I mean, I can't see that any one of them would say that they haven't had that opportunity.
Now, in your letter to staff yesterday, you characterized this decision slightly differently. You suggested it was necessary because it redirects more staff resources toward journalism for more platforms. And that includes radio but it also includes the web, and you specifically highlight social media. In your Yellowknife newsroom you have a social media editor, a dedicated web staff, five or more reporters each day, to say nothing of the radio current affairs staff, the TV staff, and the engineering and administrative support that those services require. From the point of view of another northern newsroom, your digital output on web and on social is, frankly, all-consuming. Why does that need more publicly funded resource, and why does FM radio news for remote northern communities – which is something that commercial broadcasters can't hope to achieve – need less?
Ollie, we broadcast on television, we broadcast on radio… on radio we have, what is it, five hours of local English programming in the NWT as well as another six hours of programming in Indigenous languages. Our programming on television and on radio is very important to us. This move, as I said, is about getting our reporters out into communities, closer to our communities, to find the stories that we can't get by sitting in studios. This is about getting out of our studios and getting into communities.
But when I just asked you if you'd get out into communities more, you said you were already doing it before making this change.
More and more and more. We hear from our communities all the time and they are so grateful when we come there. So we're doing it more and more and then we will continue to do it.
OK. Some of your staff say you're taking away much-loved on-air voices. Let's use Yukon as an example: newsreader Elyn Jones is about the best-known on-air voice the CBC currently has in Yukon. Surely that show's worse off without her, isn't it?
And she will be definitely a part of the plan for the future – and what they will look like, what her voice will be, what she will do? That's something that that team will work out themselves. But again, it is about getting out of the studios and into the communities.
Have you consulted listeners about this?
Listeners have told us over time, they want to see us in the communities – that the real heritage and culture of our North is in our communities and they need to see us in the communities. So this is what we've been trying to do.
At some point in the future, do you imagine CBC North – on the same grounds – will reassess whether it's worth having separate entire shows for each territory? Could they one day be merged, too?
Who knows what the future brings over time. I mean, the CBC is a very flexible organization and they make changes to what they do and how they do it. It's all about stories and finding those stories and telling them in richer ways. Who knows? Maybe in the Yukon we even add Indigenous-language programming. It could go anywhere. We have been on this path, in the North, for at least the last five years, and I say this to staff all the time. This is a path that we have been on and we will continue on, and changes will happen over time. They have already happened over time and they will continue to happen over time.
If I were Loren McGinnis or Lawrence Nayally – the hosts of Trailbreaker and Trail's End – I'd be a little worried, because I just asked you outright if their shows could go the same way in future, and you said, "Who knows?" Can you understand the staff would be quite unsettled by some of this?
You didn't ask me if I was going to be merging shows. No, that will not be happening – not, certainly, on my agenda at all. My agenda is about getting those programs out into the communities.
OK. I mean, that was directly what I just asked you. Anyway, lastly, how do you hope to repair what seems to be a little damage here? The journalists in your newsroom don't seem to have a whole lot of faith in this decision and the way this was communicated yesterday. How will you repair that?
Well, we will talk with people and we will meet with them today. The producers are meeting. Once they've met, they go back to their stations and they'll fan out and meet with their teams and start making plans over the next couple of months for what comes in the new year. I mean, it's all about consultation, they will have lots of opportunity to figure out how this new sound is going to look and how we're going to get out into the communities more.
I do have to say this again, Janice. Surely consultation is about consulting first rather than afterward?
Sometimes you need to make decisions around the resources you have. But you always consult. I mean, I have always… I would say one thing I pride myself on is letting people in on what we're doing as soon as I can and as often as I can. I'm very forthright and open in conversations with people, and I feel like I have been that this time as well.
OK. Just lastly, CBC staff have asked me to ask you this. They wonder if there is any chance that at some point in this process, you might say, "You know what, this isn't working, you're right," and revert things back to the way they are now?
I cannot see that at this point.
Because the idea is to get out into communities and get out of studios.