As Canadian stations expand local news, experts wonder how successful it will be

A year after Canada’s broadcast regulator demanded that English-language TV stations devote more time to local news, some networks are now doing just that.

Bell Media recently announced it’s adding 5 p.m. newscasts to all its local CTV stations, and Rogers is expanding its local newscast format “CityNews” to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal.

While industry observers are happy to see more emphasis on local again after years of cutbacks, they also wonder how it will be successful in an age when the news industry as a whole is in bad shape, with newspapers closing and advertising revenue shrinking and shifting to digital.

“It’s a good thing, I just don’t understand how it makes money,” said Richard Stursberg, a former CBC executive who heads the writers’ group Pen Canada.

“What we know for sure is that all the conventional news at television networks … are underwater. They’re all losing money … and within that, their local news is losing money. That’s the most recent numbers from the CRTC. So how this works for them, financially, I don’t really understand.”

Ian Morrison, spokesman for the watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said he’s taking the announcements about local news expansion with a grain of salt.

“I don’t think they’re investing more money. I think they’re spreading the existing money more thinly,” said Morrison. “They’re pouring water into their wine, and eventually when you pour water into wine, it’s really water and not wine.”

In June 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission demanded English-language stations in non-metropolitan markets broadcast at least seven hours of “locally relevant programming” each week. In metropolitan markets, like Toronto and Vancouver, that number is 14 hours per week.

Rogers Media announced in June that local versions of “CityNews” will start airing in Edmonton and Winnipeg on Sept. 4. The newscasts head to Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary in winter 2018.

Dave Budge, vice president of television news and information at Rogers, said they’re aiming for “innovation and breaking the mould,” like they have with anchor-free newscasts in Toronto.

“For ‘CityNews’ to succeed in news markets and to provide a service, we’ve got to be different from what’s already available on the existing mainstream TV news outlets,” said Budge.

Local news is “the thing that can help us stand out from the Netflix-es and others of the world, because we own that content and nobody else can compete with a local broadcaster on that,” added Budge.

“It’s interesting because news has become relatively unpopular in terms of broadcasters trying to find a way to monetize it,” said Rick Brace, president of Rogers Media.

“We think that with what we’ve done with City and the way we produce ‘CityNews’ now, that that model across the country is going to work for us and it will be monetizable.”

Rogers plans to hire “scores of people over the next few months,” “primarily young, multi-skilled, multi-platform journalists,” said Budge.

“I think the investment is worth it,” he said. ”Television is still the No. 1 source of information, despite the growth of the Internet and digital platforms.

“And what we’ve seen in Toronto is that it can be a strong choice even for millennials, who, the conventional wisdom is, young people today aren’t going to get their news from television anymore. Well we’ve had triple-digit ratings growth in the 18-to-34 demographic.”

Over at Bell Media, the plan is to air newscasts at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. at all local CTV stations. Previously it only had 5 p.m. newscasts in British Columbia, Alberta and Atlantic Canada. Corus already has local newscasts starting at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on many of its Global stations.

In July, Bell Media started airing “Live at 5” from all-news channel CP24 on CTV Toronto. But in the other markets that didn’t previously have a 5 p.m. newscast, it will be a new show to lead into the 6 p.m. news.

“I think we’re going to reach within our own talent base across the system to present the news,” said Mike Cosentino, senior vice-president of content and programming at Bell Media.

“It’s good news for local news, it’s good news for local markets, it’s great news if you’re working at CTV in the news area because it’s an expansion of news.”

Janice Neil, the chairwoman of the school of journalism at Ryerson University, is hopeful the renewed emphasis on local will provide a boost to the broadcast journalism industry and communities looking for representation and check and balances.

“There are far too many communities in this country that do not have the journalistic eyes watching where spending is going,” said Neil.

Still, Morrison is worried there will be fewer professionals working on local news, resulting in lower production values. He also notes many journalists these days have to multi-task, which results in stories that are recycled on multiple mediums and don’t always work on every platform.

“I’m accusing them of trying to defend themselves, I guess, by giving the impression that everything is going to be OK when in fact is isn’t and there will be further cuts and ultimately station closures.”

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