Canada’s public broadcaster has an obligation to help news organizations gutted by shrinking advertising revenues and rounds of layoffs, the corporation’s president says.
The message from Catherine Tait comes as the CBC is accused of unfairly fighting for advertising dollars with news organizations that aren’t funded by the government to nearly the same degree.
“What we want to ensure is that CBC is not the only voice of news in any community in Canada,” Catherine Tait said in an interview Monday for CBC Manitoba’s Information Radio.
The broadcaster is considering “a meaningful way” to increase the volume of news coverage in a fragmented media environment, Tait said.
The CBC can collaborate with news organizations on investigative journalism and offer advertising support, Tait said. When asked for clarification about the advertising idea, CBC spokesperson Leon Mar said Tait was referring to public service-type announcements that would promote trusted news sources and encourage people to buy subscriptions.
The CBC wants to make sure people are “getting the maximum amount of news, but also to ensure that those news organizations that may be facing financial difficulties are supported also by the CBC/Radio-Canada,” Tait told Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.
Working with Winnipeg newspaper
Recently the CBC entered a news-sharing agreement with the Winnipeg Free Press that has the two media outlets linking to each other’s websites.
On weekends, each outlet’s website publishes a few paragraphs from a news story on the other’s website and then encourages readers to continue reading the story on the original publisher’s website.
The two-month pilot project began in December. The articles say the two news outlets “recognize each other as trusted news sources.”
Winnipeg Free Press publisher Bob Cox said he approached CBC Manitoba management about the idea last summer.
People are clicking through from the CBC website to finish reading the story on the Free Press website, he said.
“The intention is to improve access to local news and we all know that there’s fewer resources in newsrooms now,” Cox said in an interview, explaining the partnership does not extend to picking stories or assigning reporters.
“We know our overall goal is to serve the Winnipeg community with local news, so we share the same goal as the CBC.”
The federal government plans to push the CBC to collaborate. A recent mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls on Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez to encourage more local news from the broadcaster and require CBC/Radio-Canada to “open up its digital platform.”
Cox, who is also the board chair of News Media Canada, which lobbies for newspapers, said the collapse of local news outlets increases the need for the CBC to team up with other news outlets to ensure the public can access truthful journalism. Traditional news advertising revenues have dropped drastically with the advent of the internet and its relatively inexpensive ads.
Tait visited CBC Manitoba this week for the first time since she was named the corporation’s president in April 2018.
She discussed the company’s new strategic plan, which includes prioritizing digital services, reaching youth audiences and sharing Canadian content with the world.
The CBC is working to customize its digital platforms, but it’s trying to make sure its audiences aren’t fed only content they’re predisposed to seeing, she said.
Discouraging an echo chamber
“We do not want to be guilty of creating filter bubbles,” she said.
Tait called local news the “beating heart” of the CBC and deflected claims the company has an unfair advantage over other media outlets with its significant tax funding of $1.1 billion a year. Other national broadcasters don’t have to serve all of Canada, Tait said, but the CBC is required under the Broadcasting Act to serve communities where it wouldn’t make financial sense for private companies to operate.
In 2019, the federal government pledged nearly $600 million over five years for tax credits and other incentives to prop up struggling news outlets.
The licence for CBC/Radio-Canada is currently under review by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a lobby group that defends public funding of the CBC, is criticizing the CBC for asking to decrease the number of hours of local programming it puts on the airwaves. The CBC proposes a reduction from 14 to 12 hours a week but seeks recognition of the amount Canadian content available online.
The CBC says the CRTC, which only regulates television and radio, should be crediting the public broadcaster for its investments online, including through the CBC Gem streaming platform.
“We’re not saying abandon television, absolutely not,” Tait said.
“What we’re saying is we need to shift some of the credit that we get, as producers and commissioners of Canadian content, to acknowledge that we’re doing so on other platforms.”
Tait, asked about the one thing the CBC must change, said the broadcaster must better connect with youth audiences.
The CBC must foster a lifelong engagement, beginning with preschool shows, moving on to social media platforms like Snapchat and beyond.
The CBC loses youth when they tune in to big-budget American programs instead, Tait said.
“If we don’t work to engage with them all through their lives, when they become teenagers, they will abandon us.”