Strategy for the future of news - Opening remarks by Jennifer McGuire and Michel Cormier

October 28, 2014, Toronto

Opening remarks by Jennifer McGuire and Michel Cormier before the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications during its examination of the challenges faced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in relation to the changing environment of broadcasting and communications.

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Introduction

My name is Jennifer McGuire. I am the General Manager of CBC News and of local services for CBC. I am also the Editor in Chief.

I am Michel Cormier. I am the Executive Director of News and Current Affairs, and the Editor in Chief for Radio-Canada. We will be presenting our opening remarks jointly.

Environment

This is a new world for citizens and consumers of news. In the 1950s, when national news was launched at CBC, the idea of the “evening news” meant you heard news once on television. By the late 80s, CBC Newsworld brought 24-hour news to Canadian television. But now, the TV is one of several screens that people can use for news and information. Any time of any day, they have at their fingertips a smartphone, an iPad, or whatever device is invented next.

With the advent of social media, the fragmentation of audiences, the appearance of new competitors, we now operate in an environment that is more complicated and competitive. It is an environment where unconfirmed information can go viral, where opinions are an increasing part of the news business . . . an environment where anybody can be his or her own journalist, and publish content on the web.

This poses both challenges and opportunities for CBC/Radio-Canada. First, the explosion of the digital universe means the news cycle is constantly accelerating. 24-7 is already an outmoded concept. We now have to report the news at the moment it happens. Our journalists break the news on Twitter and other social media services before going on the air on radio or television.

We also see in this era of choice that brand and values matter. Last week, when the attack happened in Ottawa, Canadians turned to CBC/Radio-Canada for trusted and reliable information. In fact, the CBC’s coverage of the event in itself became a news story in several publications in the United States as a standard to strive for. On all platforms.

We are constantly evolving our digital strategies to make sure we are up to date with the changing ways people consume the news.

Still, television and radio remain big parts of what we do. We have to be as relevant on the 52‑inch screen as we are on the 2‑inch screen of smartphones. This means our information offer has to be complimentary on all platforms, and geared to the time-of-day needs of audiences.

We have to be quick to report breaking news on Twitter and on our all-news television channels, and offer in-depth reporting on the issues of the days in other programs. This is where, as a public broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada has value and relevance for Canadians. And we have to achieve this in a challenging financial and economic environment.

Public broadcasting values

In this new, more competitive and complex environment, we at CBC/Radio-Canada have an obligation to stay true to journalistic values, which are those of a public broadcaster. Unlike the private media, we aren’t accountable to shareholders, but to the Canadian public.

Our Journalistic Standards and Practices guide is the most detailed and comprehensive in the industry. Its five guiding principles are accuracy, fairness, balance, impartiality, and integrity.

Our mission, as we define it, is to serve the public interest. That means to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest, and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society. We are committed to reflecting diversity, protecting our independence, acting responsibly, and being accountable.

Upholding these public broadcasting values is more important than ever in this day and age, where thanks to social media, the public domain is flooded with rumours and opinions. At first glance, some might see this as a handicap for CBC/Radio-Canada. Some of our competitors, after all, add commentary and opinion to their coverage of events.

We, on the other hand, believe that this new environment reinforces the need for a strong public broadcaster. A sociologist recently wrote that CBC/Radio-Canada represents an island of credibility in a sea of rumours and unsubstantiated information. Just as the public wants to express and share their opinions on the stories of the day, so too do they want access to credible information sources that are able to separate fact from interpretation. That’s where we shine as a public broadcaster.

Accountability

Canadians have a different relationship with the media than they did before: More options to get the kind of news they want to hear; new ways to interact with journalists directly through social media. Multiple avenues to express concerns they might have about the way we do our job.

So CBC/Radio-Canada makes an unparalleled effort to be accountable to the audience, and to the public at large.

At its heart is the Journalistic Standards and Practices that we mentioned. This guide sets a framework for how we conduct ourselves, and how we practice our journalism.

We also are the only broadcasters in the country to have Ombudsmen – as you know, one in English and one in French – to represent the public when they think we have failed in one aspect or another. Those Ombudsmen use our standards and practices to hold us to account.

We make a concerted effort to respond to people who raise issues with our stories, most particularly if they believe we have made an error.

And when we do make an error, we accept it. We acknowledge it. And we correct it. Nobody likes making mistakes. But we report on thousands of stories every week, and realize that there will be moments when mistakes happen. We believe in those moments that being transparent with our audience is the best thing we can do to build trust, and show them the respect they deserve.

We have in recent years created a very thorough and proactive policy on corrections and clarifications. When there is a serious mistake made, we set the record straight as soon as possible, and on the same program or platform where that mistake took place. We also take every possible action to make sure a mistake is not repeated or magnified.

Beyond our regular programming, we make a concerted effort to engage with our audience and highlight the ways we work. I have a blog on our website that explores all sorts of issues around our journalism. We draw attention to some of our internal debates. And we explain why we make some of the choices we make.

CBC also has the most vibrant community of commenters in the country. In this way, the public broadcaster is evolving into the most widely-populated public square for debate about issues across Canada.

These actions are all integral to our identity at CBC News: Serving Canadians with transparency, integrity, and accountability.

Strategy for future – French Services

Our major challenge in the coming years is to provide Canadians with news and information programming that enlightens them on the crucial issues of the day, wherever and however they choose.

That means making a shift to digital, while continuing to build on the success of our TV and radio programming.

Our guiding principle in this transformation is the simple idea that we have a duty to serve citizens. It’s a broader, more demanding term than “the public” or “viewers.” Citizens have rights and responsibilities, and to be able to execute them, they need to be empowered to make informed choices. That’s the public broadcaster’s role.

To achieve this, we need to deliver original, independent and enlightening programming.

That’s why we changed the format of our major newscasts, particularly the 10 p.m. Téléjournal. It’s no longer a traditional newscast, but an information program that takes a more in-depth look at the stories of the day. We’re also in the process of implementing a new national coverage strategy that we’ve dubbed “Telling the Country’s Stories.” The idea is to go beyond simply reflecting the regions, and to give regional stations a larger role in covering national issues that affect all of our audiences. The third component is to maintain our presence in the field, both at home and abroad. Our network of correspondents, from Vancouver and Beirut, to Moncton and Beijing, is what allows us to provide distinctive reporting and ensure that Canadians get a Canadian perspective on world affairs – one that reflects their interests and concerns.

Our news offering is also enhanced by our current affairs programs, whose reputation and popularity are well established – shows like Enquête, Découverte and La facture, to name but a few. More and more, these shows are working with our news teams to add depth to our coverage of events. For example, two days after the attack in Ottawa last week, Enquête aired a comprehensive report on young Canadian jihadists who go over to fight in Syria. The Enquête team was assisted by our Beirut correspondent, who traced the steps of one of these fighters from Turkey.

We rely on our digital teams to round out our overall multiplatform news offering. Our web reporters do more than just post to our Twitter feed. They produce content that complements our TV and radio reports, allowing us to expand our coverage even further.

Strategy for future – English Services

Moving forward, we will meet the changing needs of Canadians, adapt to the changing reality in the news business, and do so while being financially sustainable.

We will continue our focus on integration, finding ways to centralize workflow across all platforms so that multiple needs can be met with fewer resources. In the past ten years or so, we have successfully integrated radio and television teams on both networks for a more consistent approach to news gathering.

Strategy 2020 will extend that . . . position both our news services, especially at a local level, to be digital first with a strong emphasis on mobile content. Our strong legacy platforms radio and TV will still be important pillars, but increasingly we will migrate resources and content to digital first. This is where the opportunity now lies.

Digital first means a more tailored and customizable service, producing more on-demand content that can be delivered throughout the day, and not only at predetermined scheduled slots on television and radio.

Digital first means more innovation in storytelling and audience involvement. Social platforms will allow a more participatory two-way communication with Canadians.

Digital first also means a major retooling of how we work. We will examine everything we do, how we do it; prioritize those things that will add value and admittedly stop doing some of the things that do not.

In terms of our promise to Canadians, locally we are saying we will remain in the communities we are in, but we are changing how we deliver information. On Radio, we stay basically the same. In communities where we have television, we are saying we will guarantee at least 30 minutes of supper hour television, and in some markets more, and in all communities we will be growing our digital presence.

It is a big change, but the value promise of the public broadcaster remains the same: we will still produce accurate, relevant content that balances live and immediate breaking news, with the context and background that CBC/Radio Canada is known for. We will continue to produce award-winning original journalism that is respected around the world and makes a difference to Canadians.

We will also still have a footprint in communities across the country and in the North, more than any other broadcaster, especially in underserved areas. Local is where we connect one on one with Canadians. It is the lens into the greater CBC Radio Canada for most Canadians.

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