Change, disruptive innovation, trust, and public broadcasting in the digital world
Hubert T. Lacroix, President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, was speaking to students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism about the digital transformation of the national public broadcaster, how it is changing the work of journalists, and of the organization, what “inform, enlighten and entertain” means in a digital world, and why, in an era of fake news and declining public trust, public broadcasting is more important than ever.
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Thank you Lien. It’s wonderful to be here with you today since you are both a journalism graduate, and now, a CBCer. And thank you Alfred. Grads like Lien are great proof of your commitment to journalism and to the partnership between this great University and CBC/Radio-Canada. We both share a passion for important stories and for serving the public interest.
Over the last 14 years, we’ve had dozens of UBC journalism students complete their internships with us. Many have stayed. We currently have three grads at CBC North. There are also grads in every part of the country, working on all platforms, at CBC and at Radio-Canada. I hope more of you will find a place with us in the future. We want your skills, your energy, and your commitment to journalism.
Lien is a great example. She was doing great work with a full-time job at CBC Vancouver in communications, outreach and marketing. Then she quit so she could enter the journalism program here. When she came back to CBC it was as a recipient of the 2015 Joan Donaldson CBC News Scholarship. Now she’s anchoring our 11 o’clock news. Bravo.
I’d like to talk to you today about “change” and “innovation”, “disruptive innovation”. We’re all going through it. How you choose to get your news today is different than it was just a couple years ago. How our journalists gather that news has changed. I saw it change, in front of my own eyes: CBC/Radio-Canada is clearly not the same broadcaster today than it was when I arrived 10 years ago.
Today, we’re better at engaging with Canadians and, through our digital strategy, and relentless focus, have become the number one online news and information company in the country.
And, most important, we are Canadians’ most trusted media brand.
That matters because another thing digital has changed is our perceptions about trust, and facts. In the digital world, it has never been easier to manipulate opinion; to undermine democracy.
I believe this fact makes public broadcasting more important than ever. And if it’s important, I think we should find a way to strengthen it.
To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, take a look at this; this was our CBC News website for British Columbia in 2008. Not much video. Not much engagement with the public. Frankly, our third platform, well after television and radio. It was updated only eight times a day. What was available on a mobile device was even more basic.
Today our CBC/B.C. site is constantly updated, 24 hours a day Monday thru Friday, 18 hours a day on the weekends. Today you engage with its content, stream it, share it, comment on it. In the past two years, unique visitors have increased from 5.0 million to 6.9 million per month. Unique visitors on mobile only have increased from 3.2 million to 5.1 million. That’s what we mean by digital first. And we’re not finished. We’re currently testing a redesigned CBC.ca called “the Feed” which will be coming to British Columbia this fall. It is shaped by feedback from our audiences and will make it even easier to discover good content and engage with the stories important to you.
We now seek out people in the community we don’t normally hear from. We ask them to join us in editorial boards and forums around specific issues, so that we hear what is important to them. It makes us better at serving Canadians.
Whether it’s stories around this summer’s wildfires, murdered and missing Indigenous women, or the devastating fentanyl crisis here, by starting with digital first, then using platforms on radio and television, we offer a more complete journalistic package of information to Canadians. Stories which would never make The National are now being told, every day.
This is what our Strategy 2020 has been all about and is all about. Change to serve Canadians better in a digital world.
Digital is also changing the work of our journalists. Here are four examples.
Last year’s fires in Fort McMurray and in B.C. this summer really underscore how important digital and social media are for people trying to get the news they need. Briar Stewart was our go-to journalist during both those events. With support from our newsroom, she was reporting non-stop on every platform, in a rapidly-changing situation.
For people desperate for up-to-date information those reports were vital; especially on digital and social media. In Fort McMurray, Radio-Canada’s Alberta website and CBC Edmonton’s had over 20 million visits; compare that to the 15,000 people usually watching TV suppertime news. You probably heard, a Fort McMurray couple even named their newborn after Briar because of the role she, and CBC, played in their lives when it really mattered.
Our journalists are also reaching Canadians in new ways, like our original podcast series from CBC Vancouver. Johanna Wagstaffe, our Senior Meteorologist and Seismologist, helped create Fault Lines, about the potential aftermath of a major earthquake here, and her newest podcast, 2050: Degrees of Change, looking at what climate change will mean for daily life here in British Columbia in 30 years.
The world’s first podcast premiered in 2003. Today they reach millions. One in five Canadians listens to a podcast at least once a month. As of this fall, our CBC podcasts have been downloaded more than 200 million times. Podcasts allow us to tell stories that are very important to people here in British Columbia, for example, but that reach audiences everywhere.
Fault Lines was the number one podcast downloaded on iTunes in its first week. It also contributed to the B.C. government taking action on an earthquake early-warning program.
2050: Degrees of Change received over 53 thousand views and 3 thousand engagements on social media as soon as it was posted. It has since been downloaded more than 132 thousand times, and it will soon be coming to CBC Radio.
I want to show you two more examples of how digital has changed the work of journalists in the field. Claudiane Samson is our Video Journalist based in Whitehorse, covering a vast territory in the North.
And there’s Thomas Gerbet who works on his own in India, filing reports with his iPhone.
Just a few years ago, reporting this way would have been unthinkable. It is now our reality. Yours too.
This is why we have been transforming the way we “inform, enlighten and entertain” Canadians in a digital world. When we launched our Strategy 2020 in 2014, we said we would be digital first, and that we would double the number of Canadians using our digital platforms to 18 million people by 2020. Already, 17.9 million Canadians are using our digital platforms each month. Our strategy is showing results. Having established reach, we are now focusing on engagement.
We are not done yet. We will never be. There is really no finish line to this event.
So, as you see, digital has been incredible in helping us fulfill our mandate to Canadians. It has changed the way all of us get our news. But that change has a dark side.
The advertising model that has supported broadcasting, and journalism for decades, is collapsing as ad revenue moves to online aggregators like Google and Facebook. Companies that are not investing in journalism.
All media, and particularly newspapers, are now struggling with their own transition to digital. Some papers are closing. Others are cutting journalists and merging content to cut costs. It is making it harder for people to find out what is going on in their own communities, let alone their country.
There is not yet a sustainable business model for local news in a digital world.
And while there is certainly more information out there, there is also more unreliable information. And we are now learning just how damaging that can be.
Just last month, within hours of that terrible mass shooting in Las Vegas, information was spreading on social media that was deliberately false; first identifying an innocent man, then alleging the gunman was Muslim.
Because of the algorithms used by Facebook and Google, fake stories from the notorious message board 4chan were promoted to millions of people desperate for news about the attacks. The information was even picked up by traditional mainstream organizations.
Saying “we’re sorry, and we will do better next time” simply doesn’t cut it anymore.
We also now know that during the 2016 election in the United States, millions of Americans were targeted by a foreign power, with propaganda disguised as news stories, ads, and comments made to look like it was coming from people in their neighborhoods.
Digital has made possible the weaponization of information. “Troll factories” target ordinary people with false information to try to sow unrest. Division is the goal.
Canada is not immune. Just last spring, the Minister of Foreign Affairs announced the extension of Canada’s military training support for Ukraine. She then became the focus of stories on pro-Russian websites about her Ukrainian-born grandfather, all designed to encourage dissension here around a decision made by Canada’s government.
Even when it’s not deliberate misinformation, digital algorithms can create filter bubbles that make it less likely people are exposed to viewpoints they don’t already agree with.
We should all be concerned by this. It risks weakening the public’s trust in their institutions; their engagement in democracy; their openness to new ideas.
It is in this climate that I believe public broadcasting is more important than it has ever been.
We are committed to “inform, enlighten, and entertain” Canadians in the public interest.
Canadians know they can trust that the information we provide is accurate, and fair, and meets the rigorous test of our Journalistic Standards and Practices. And our ombudsmen protect these JSPs as they are the backbone of our credibility with the public. If we do make a mistake, it will be corrected. Publicly.
Canadians expect us to not simply report news but to put that news in context; and to expose them to the stories and viewpoints they haven’t heard about.
We reach more Canadians than any other media organization. We use that reach to try and connect Canadians, not divide them; to help them engage with each other, and their community, their country. That’s our mandate: to “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.”
We’re strengthening our news. This fall, we launched the new Le Téléjournal 22 h focusing on fewer topics each night but providing more depth and context about them. In just over a week you’ll see a new National, with four co-hosts including Andrew Chang here in Vancouver. You’ll see a new approach to storytelling and a strengthening of our news brand all day, on all platforms.
We’re continuing our transformation. To date, 3,000 people at CBC/Radio-Canada have trained for new digital jobs. We’ve also been able to hire 250 new people who bring new skills, ideas and energy.
And for future journalism grads I would say this: today CBC/Radio-Canada is one of the best places to be in the country. We have a talented workforce, creating exciting projects for Canadians. And we are keenly aware of the importance of our employees, including our voices and forces, reflecting Canada’s mosaic. So, diversity and inclusion are key priorities in our recruiting and our culture.
There’s more we would like to do. We were pleased to hear the Minister of Canadian Heritage’s recently outline the government’s vision for Canadian culture, including a commitment to strengthen the mandate of public broadcasting.
As we said during the Minister’s consultations, we believe public broadcasting should be at the heart of a broader strategy to support Canadian culture here and around the world. As we have seen in countries like the United Kingdom, the public broadcaster can play a crucial role in supporting a thriving cultural sector.
But to do that we need a new funding model. We depend on commercial advertising for a third of our budget, and we’re facing the same pressures as all media as that advertising revenue declines. If we don’t do something, there will again be more cuts to the programs and services we provide.
We’ve proposed increasing the investment in public broadcasting to remove advertising from our platforms. It would allow us to focus solely on our public service mandate. No longer competing for ad revenue would make us a stronger partner to Canada’s cultural sector.
Our studies show that an ad-free CBC/Radio-Canada would create 7,200 new jobs and a GDP gain of $488 million dollars. And two thirds of our current ad revenue would flow to private media to help in their own transition to digital. That’s good for the Canadian economy and for Canadian culture.
It’s been almost 10 years that I’ve been at CBC/Radio-Canada. I am continually amazed by the talent, creativity and dedication of CBCers and Radio-Canadiens who made our digital transformation possible.
More work remains to be done. We will continue to change. We will sometimes make mistakes. We will also do great things. We will continue evolving. If you believe in democracy, if you believe in culture, if you believe in what we do, then we are a pretty cool place to be working in right now!