Global Television used to produce a pretty good newscast. I spent many a night listening to the Toronto one over the radio as a kid and even into my adulthood (Hey Carin, imminent death!) until that frequency went silent several years ago.
When I say used to, it’s not because Global no longer produces newscasts. They absolutely do. They’re cranking them out several times a day all across the country. The important bit is the pretty good part.
It’s rare that I flip my TV to Global at all these days, but when I do happen upon the news there it’s quickly apparent that it’s not what it used to be. Part of the reason for that is obvious, and it’s the same reason why so much big media owned content tends to be so poor, especially on the local level. Money. Specifically that these companies don’t particularly care to spend much of it on producing and airing a quality product.
I think it would be hard to find a media outlet in the world that isn’t guilty, to some degree, of cutting corners. These organizations are businesses, after all, and sometimes tough choices have to be made in order for them to continue to function. We aren’t always going to like those choices, but some of them are at least understandable if we’re being fair. But the other part of the problem is that Global isn’t just cutting corners. They’re dismembering the frame, bludgeoning it in case it somehow survives, setting it on fire and then dumping whatever might be left over into the swiftest river they can find.
The things that Paul Tadich describes in this piece for Canadaland are astounding. Basically, Global has taken the methods used to create so much of the bad, centralized automated radio to which we’re subjected and applied them to TV news. But while it’s one thing to use those principles on a program where the biggest things you need to worry about are often generically talking about Survivor for a few seconds or pretending to know the first thing about the pumpkin festival in a town you’ve never been to before letting the computer throw it to the latest from Justin Bieber, pulling it off in an environment where things are constantly changing is quite another.
A software technology called Mosart had just been installed. This production control suite automated many of the technical positions required to put on a live newscast — a dedicated audio engineer was often no longer needed, and other positions were either lost or concatenated. Local producer jobs were also slashed so that shows could be remotely produced. Signals that controlled robotic cameras were relayed from the main Toronto studios to studios in several of the other Global markets, so camera technicians were no longer needed in each of the individual cities. By the end of 2012, I often produced the Winnipeg news from Toronto, alongside a remote camera operator, a teleprompter operator, and a director.
This system had its faults — mainly that producers in Toronto often had little knowledge of the cities they were responsible for, so street names, neighbourhoods, and local politicians were sometimes misidentified. However, this was considered by employees to be the cost of progress, and they worked long, hard hours to learn as much as possible about their adoptive cities to make the new system fly.
But that wasn’t enough. In 2014, someone in management apparently got the idea that 11 p.m. newscasts were simply not worth the time and expense to produce live: they cost too much money, and not enough people — especially young ones — were watching them. But Global still wanted to produce newscasts that would air to a dwindling number of people at 11 — so how to slash costs even further? The idea would be to dispense with live news at that hour altogether in favour of a pre-recorded newscast that would appear as if it were transmitted live. Many of these pre-recorded news segments were to be duplicated across each of Global’s markets in an effort to wring more cost-savings from an already rather scrunched-up mop. This idea became the basis of a troubling concept called “news sharing” — using technology to make it look like local news could be coming from a studio in downtown Winnipeg, when in reality it was a pre-recorded chunk of info emanating from a green-screen studio in Toronto. This was the birth of the MMC concept — which stands for “Multi-Market Content.” Once Global figured out the enormous savings this offered in terms of slashing jobs, there was no going back. Every Global station from Saskatoon to Halifax now uses the MMC set-up, with most relying on Toronto-based anchors for at least one nightly newscast.
This is every bit as bad as it sounds. In fact, it’s probably worse. Doing local news well isn’t always the easiest job at the best of times, so just imagine how hard it must be when you have to do it while overworked, under-resourced and under-educated.
I don’t use under-educated as an insult, in case that isn’t clear. I use it as a fact. No matter how hard either of us may try, I have as much business putting together a daily news hour from my living room in Kitchener that’s going to be locally relevant to Steve in Moose Jaw as Steve in Moose Jaw has doing the same for me. Unless you’re Global management and don’t care about things like these, this is not an arguable point.
And speaking of not caring about things…
But because the playout process is buggy, and because the technology that controls the system often goes on the fritz, tremendous howlers would occur, often going unexplained to the viewer. Some examples of these errors: the output for two cities is mixed up, meaning viewers in Montreal see the first five minutes of the Winnipeg newscast and vice versa before someone notices the error and restarts both shows from the top; the weather forecast for Regina is slotted into the news for Montreal; late-breaking sports items are fed into the show at the last minute, causing the playback software to freeze, forcing the producer to cut to commercial early, messing up the timing for the remainder of the show. On one weekend last summer, a software update caused the playback machines to go completely bananas, spitting out random content into various cities across the country, including making viewers watch an inexplicable live feed of CBS golf coverage instead of a local news item.
No matter how buggy the system got, management seemed hell-bent on expanding the implementation of the MMC model to subsume more and more content. Evening broadcasts increasingly became pre-recorded affairs: by the time I left the department in August 2017, most of the 6 p.m. newscasts on weekends, and several during the week, had ceased to be produced live. There were several occasions, also during weekends, when the Toronto assignment desk was left unstaffed. This meant that, on top of their already crushing workloads, MMC producers working on the Toronto show had to monitor Toronto police and fire department Twitter accounts to ensure any breaking news made it to air. On more than one occasion, serious incidents made it on to the newscast only because a Global employee happened to catch sight of a clutch of cop cars on their drive in to work.
I have never worked for Global and it’s unlikely I ever will, but reading this has me feeling embarrassed as though the place were my life. I can only imagine how it must feel to have to rely on a situation like this for my livelihood and convince myself that I’m proud to be doing so.
Canadaland also went to Global for a response, and it got one in the form of a chat with Troy Reeb, senior vice president of news, radio, and station operations at Corus, which has owned Global since 2016.
One of the concerns Paul Tadich raises is that, in his experience, the centralization of production leads to errors in pronunciation and local knowledge because Toronto-based producers and anchors aren’t typically familiar with the local details for a given city. Do you find that the “Multi-Market Content” model creates more opportunities for errors than locally produced newscasts?
No, I don’t.
Let me wind this back for you: Before we made this move, we were facing the same challenges as every media outlet across the country. Linear television viewing is on the decline, including for traditional newscasts. The old days of having newscasts at 6:00 and 11:00, that doesn’t serve the audiences of today. People want content on the device that they want, and they want it at the time that they want. So in order to keep up with that, we have to be able to provide more news at more times of the day.
So we came up with MMC, so that once the main, daily 6:00 newscasts are done, rather than having a local production team and anchor hanging around the building all night, just to rerun the same stories at 11:00, and maybe add one or two new ones, we’ve turned those people back into reporters who are serving online, as well as creating more content that can then be reported through the centralized anchoring.
So we’re actually super proud of this. It’s a model that last year won the first-ever Edward R. Murrow Award for innovation. It’s been looked at by broadcasters from across North America and around the world, who come in to study what we’ve done. Because what we find is that by freeing up the staff in the local market to actually do reporting — instead waiting for a red light to go on and start talking — that we’ve produced more journalism.
And to the specific question of, you know, does it increase the risk of errors, in terms of pronunciation or local knowledge? I would say that was a major concern of mine when we first launched it as well.
But to be quite honest, the problem with errors has much more to do with junior people — you don’t pronounce a name wrong twice. And what we find with anchors in small markets, unfortunately, is that you had massive turnover. So not only were people repeatedly pronouncing the same things wrong, but people didn’t stay long enough to not make that same mistake twice. But now our MMC anchors are the longest-serving anchors in many in the markets that they serve.
So no, I don’t think that the error rate is higher. We have incredibly experienced people who are handling the news for these markets.
There is merit to some of what he’s saying, of course. The world is a different place than it was ten or fifteen years ago before everyone had a computer in their pocket, and the demands and to an extent the financial realities of the job are somewhat different now. It doesn’t hurt to try to keep up with the times, and if you can do that while somehow putting more boots on the ground to chase down stories in all these places, great. You’ll never hear me arguing against the hiring of more journalists. But even though I can’t dispute that Global has actually gone and done that, something about it doesn’t feel right. If you’ve truly hired enough people, why do assignment desks in cities the size of Toronto have no one working them? What good are all those extra reporters if they don’t know from where they should be reporting?
And even though things have changed, I still feel that one of the things that hasn’t, won’t and shouldn’t is the importance of a newscast looking, sounding and feeling local. Obviously there will be people who don’t notice or care, but one of the most important things that local media does is connect people to and engage people with their communities, and if you care at all about those connections, there’s no excuse whatsoever for not having real live people being there to tell those stories at all times. To management maybe an anchor is just some guy waiting for a red light to come on, but to the consumer, that person is one of them. Even the most experienced MMC anchor can’t replicate that feeling. The best centralization in the world is still centralization at the end of the day, and eventually people will see through it and stop caring especially if the product is avoidably shoddy. And people not caring is the last thing anyone, even a vice president in charge of efficiencies, should want.
On a business level, if people don’t care about or feel they can’t trust your local content, why should they be inclined to feel any differently about what you’re producing nationally and internationally?
But in a broader sense, especially if you’re going to sit here and talk about how much local journalism matters, why would you want to take even a sliver of that responsibility out of the hands of the locals and risk alienating people? That’s how stories start falling through the cracks. And when stories start falling through the cracks when they’re small, they eventually get bigger and the rest of us end up with things like the Doug Ford Rights Trampling Traveling Shitshow And Corruption Jamboree slithering out of Toronto and taking over the entire province. Yes that’s a rather partisan and perhaps imperfect example and maybe truly local news by itself wouldn’t have stopped it specifically, but given how many people seem to be caught completely off guard by the things he’s doing, it sure as hell couldn’t hurt.
What it comes down to, quite simply, is this. The big national stories get most of the attention, but every national story starts out as somebody’s local one. And when you take that context away in the name of corporate greed, it does all of us, no matter where we live, a great disservice.