Monday, March 16, 2009

Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer and CTV Newsnet

Anyone seen last week's "The Daily Show" episode where Jon Stewart interviewed Jim Cramer from Mad Money about his responsibility to the viewers as a business commentator?

Watching it brought back memories of my days as a business anchor/editor and interviewer with CTV Newsnet from 1998 to 2005, and on Canada's Business Report, a syndicated daily radio show from Canada News Wire.

The job was hectic: I did a dozen half-hourly newscasts a day, plus interviews with business newsmakers. Sometimes I would be ad-libbing my reports from the floor of the TSX in Toronto. Other times, I'd be stool-to- stool on the TSX Mezzanine conducting 6 minute long interviews with CEOs, CFOs, analysts and economists. Or I'd be down at the Report on Business Television studio, (now called BNN) doing the business news as well as supper hour and late night business reports for CTV affiliate stations across the country.

Some of the criticism which I heard Jon Stewart levy against financial journalists in general, about this current economic recession, was that these big name prominent TV journalists somehow "knew" what was going on with the sub prime mortgages, Asset Backed Paper fiasco, and all the unsustainable growth in commodities stocks that it seemed could go on forever....but didn't report on any of this to their viewers, and somehow, were in "cahoots" with the Wall Street titans of industry.

Personally, I can say I only came under any kind of "pressure" not to report about a business story, ONCE, in all my time on the CTV Newsnet business desk.

It involved some "less then positive news" about BCE, the parent company that owned CTV and its media empire including Newsnet. I don't recall whether the news which I had wanted to report involved some disappointing quarterly financial results, or an unfavourable CRTC ruling, but I do know that the story would have painted BCE in a negative light. It was true. And on the wires. But I was told not to deliver the story that way, but rather, just state the numbers, and move on. Use 'neutral' words etc, since they own us.

I remember being piqued at this. Yes we always had to say on air in our stories about BCE that they were "the parent company of CTV Newsnet", or some form of disclaimer. But that was the only time when I actually came face to face with pressure from within about how to report a story about the folks who signed my paycheque. And yes, I did what I was told, for the record.

As for being "in cahoots" with the titans of industry, I can say from my vantage point that I never saw my colleagues at CTV Newsnet or BNN, including Linda Sims, Mike Eppel, Susan Ormiston, Howard Green, Martin Cej, the late Jim O'Connell and others, ever take bribes from corporate execs, or do potentially sleazy unethical journalistic practises when doing their jobs.

Amanda Lang was married to a big mover and shaker in the gold business, and Kevin O'Leary invested his own money in the markets while being a commentator on air. But that's hardly being "in cahoots".

What I did see were frantically busy business journalists trying to do as good a job as they could with impossible deadlines, as they had to fill the demands of a 24 hour news channel. So you do as much research and preparation as possible for your next hit, within the time that you have. And we certainly weren't "taking Wall Street/Bay Street's word for it", as Jon Stewart alleges.

I know my job required tons of reading and journalistic research (in off hours as well as during the 9 hour shift): here's just some of the research that I did during a usual day in order to try to put financial stories in context for myself and my viewers: check all the daily newspaper business pages (Globe, Star, FInancial Post, National Post, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal), and their online websites for updates, read endless corporate financial statements, analysts' reports, investment bank economic research, search news paper archives, check financial websites with analysis such as Morningstar, GlobeInvestorGold, Bloomberg's wire service, Hoovers, Dow Jones, Canada News Wire press releases, listen to web conferences of annual meetings, read economic indicator reports from the Canadian and U.S. governments, Bank of Canada reports, SEC filings, CEDAR and other Canadian regulatory agencies filings, reports from Statistics Canada, from European banks, the OECD, auto industry analysts, JD Powers, Retail Council of canada, the CRTC, court rulings on bankruptcies and restructuring, etc etc.

Whew. I'm sure I'm missing more.

There's more: our producers and researchers were business experts in their own right: Bruno Malta had passed the Canadian Securities Course, and eventually left to work as a financial advisor at BMO. If even more background or checking was needed, we did what all good journalists are supposed to do: we went directly to our sources, asked for clarification, and explanation. Then we checked with alternate sources -- policy wonks, brokers, consumers, politicians, professors, analysts.

And when I needed even more background, about a financial statement I thought was strange, I checked with my personal experts: this included the most experienced accounting expert I know -- my husband, a CA and PhD who has been teaching accounting for over 25 years and runs the Accounting program at UOIT now, and was with York's Schulich School of Business for many years before this, and has written 3 textbooks on Financial Accounting.

If it involved law, I checked with --a lawyer in Montreal specializing in corporate and intellectual property --practicing law for 47 years-- my Dad Morton Bessner! And also with a litigation lawyer in Toronto from Gowlings who is a sought after author and trains financial advisors how not to get sued --my cousin Ellen J. Bessner (she shares my name but spells it differently).

Some of you may say this all sounds like an excuse for justifying a serious failure: Jon Stewart's charge that some business journalists were so busy "feeding the goat" as it's called, churning out a dozen newscasts a day, entertaining the audience, that they are just too darn busy or lazy to really do a proper job digging up the dirt.

Still others may say that some business journalists don't have enough understanding of how the market really works in order to see dirt and scandal that former Wall Street insiders like Jim Cramer are accused of knowing.

From where I see it, Jon Stewart's allegations are really a sad indictment of modern day journalism -- especially investigative journalism in the 21st century.

Newsrooms who give their reporters time and money to carry out these vital checks and balances on authority, are few and far between. CBC Radio's I unit run by Suzane Reber is one of the few remaining spaces for this kind of work. W5 and the Fifth estate also do this. But for the rest, and their 24 hour news cycles, it's less about breaking exclusive stories and leading the pack with enterprise journalism, and more about "feeding the machine" and "matching" what other outlets have.
It's often more about "light, bright and tight" celebrity obsessed gossip/news, instead of valuable but perhaps less exciting and way more time consuming journalism on issues that impact millions of people.

Much has been said about how the U.S. media acted in a similar way under the previous Bush administration, buying into the Weapons of Mass Destruction propaganda that led to the war in Iraq.

It's a sad thing to see. And I am not optimistic that things will improve soon --despite Jon Stewart's outraged howling wakeup call to our industry -- with the current havoc this recession is causing in the traditional model of television news and newspapers.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Where are the Journalism Jobs?

Peter Mansbridge meeting Centennial TV students 2008. UTSC/Centennial grad Mahesh Abeywardene, reporter for The Lanka Reporter in Toronto.

It seems everywhere you turn these days, you hear more and more stories of station closures and cutbacks in local news programming, layoffs at newspapers, and hiring freezes at the CBC and other places. For members of the information industry, especially journalism students, this must be a scary time. For those colleagues who have already been laid off or bought out, ditto.
The issue -- let's call it a crisis -- is not just water-cooler talk. It permeates much of our daily conversation in the halls of the journalism school at Centennial College in Toronto, where I teach.

But with the dark clouds, there is, to be cliched, a silver lining at the (gulp) end of the rainbow for journalism jobs.

1) Young and cheap is a good thing.

When the free daily Metro laid off all it's paid media workers recently, including some of our former students, to let the paper be put out by interns only, we decided as a faculty not to send anymore students on placement there. One reason is to protest the "work for free" trend of papers relying on cheap but inexperienced newcomers who haven't got the life experience or journalism experience that more seasoned veterans bring to the product.

But the bad news this symbolized for what we hope will always be an attempt to strive towards excellence in journalism, is also a beacon of hope to those journalism students about to go out on the job market, and to those, like the bright young high school students I met yesterday at a recruiting session at the University of Toronto/Centennial College joint journalism program, who hope the market snaps back by the time four years from now, that they are ready to look for work.

Here's the bright light: a colleague of mine who used to work at the National Post says the layoffs and attrition now decimating jobs in that newspaper, mean journalists who are "of a certain age", let's say in their mid-50s, are being bought out or given early retirement, which will allow news companies to save those big salaries, and go out to hire young, inexperienced, but keen and cheaper recent journalism graduates.

At the Vaughan Today newspaper, run by Multimedia Nova corporation,which also publishes the Town Crier newspapers, and Corriere Canadese, a recent graduate of our program is now the city editor, after less then 2 years out of school, another grad is Online editor, same time frame, and a third with 3 years out of school is one of their staff. Granted, these are talented, passionate journalists, but it took me, aged 47 now, from 1983 to 1995 working in Fredericton, Moncton, Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal and overseas for several years in Italy, for CBC, before I made it as a reporter for CBC in Toronto (the big time!).

2) Talent will still rise to the top.

With newspaper advertising drying up again, and a broadcast advertising drought again prompting big media companies to retrench, as they did when I was in j-school in the early 1980s, during the last recession, it seems a bit like deja vu now. Back then, I was one of 6 journalism students hired straight out of university (Carleton B.J. 1983) by the CBC TV's wonderful training department to work in newsrooms for the summer across the country. Yes it was a recession. But not to blow my own horn too much, I was chosen along with these other students: (they are pretty famous) Howard Green (BNN), Tom Spears (CBC Calgary), Susan Bonner (CBC TV National reporter). If you are good, and keen, and job search with tenacity, you will get work.

As Rita Shelton Deverell, journalist, author, actor, voice coach, and storyteller in residence at Centennial, told a class of students two weeks ago, be the kind of reporter who, when you submit a story to the editor by deadline, gets this response: "I love you!" because the story needs very little editing, very little work. Make your editors' lives easier.

David Downey of CBC Radio (national news in Toronto) this week told my radio news students at Centennial (post grad program) that news managers will still hire the creme de la creme, when and how they can. So if you are talented, and work hard, are passionate about storytelling, and are willing to travel, then there is hope for finding work, even during these tough times.

3) Online is the new "black".

If you are going to be trying to get work, managing editors and hiring managers want students who can do more then just print reporting, or just photography. Be able to shoot a video, edit it, perform an on camera, do a radio news report, take a photo, and post a story on line...all in one day. More and more, all these forms of storytelling are moving online.

At Canadian Press in Toronto, Managing editor for Ontario Wendy McCann says her reporters, like Tamsyn Burgmann, have to do all those things when covering a big story. At Centennial, we are training our students to be multiplatform journalists:
they can write & take photos for their bi weekly community print newspaper, but they also can post daily stories and photos for, the college's online 24-7 news site. The site also publishes their audio interviews and radio reports, and has room for their their video stories which they do as well.

When post-grad student Laura Stanley, who finished her program this January and is now on internship, looked for freelance work with Durham's community newspapers earlier this year, (now run by Ian Caldwell former CTV Toronto assignment editor), not only was he impressed that she could take photos for the print editions, but that she could also shoot, edit and write and report TV News stories as well, for his website.

Our journalism school's online news site are run by Eric McMillan, managing editor of Town Crier and its online sites, Irene Thomaidis, who is an online editor for Sun media, and Phil Alvez, online editor at Vaughan Citizen, and also by by Ted Barris, a published author of military history books, and a blogger, and broadcaster, and by Neil Ward, formerly with the A-section and Sports at the National Post doing nightly editing and layout and an online editor, as well as page editor, for the Royal Gazette in Bermuda. Gary Graves of teaches online posting of all forms of content, and our students' work is prominently displayed on several online sites:

1. Toronto
2. CentennialJournalism
3. Centennial Journalism on You Tube
4. Observer Radio
5. Observer TV

For years, the course which required students to conceive, design, report, write, and publish their very own "niche" specialty magazine, only required them to print glossy hard copies. Now the course requires a strong online component.

The introduction to news reporting class now also requires proficiency in audio editing and field interviewing using a digital camera and a digital audio recorder.

The online imaging course requires students to create a website for their photos.

Our Radio and TV courses all product live to air newscasts for our online news channel over the Internet.

There is a lot more.

But it gives you an idea that journalism schools which make sure their students have the strong fundamentals combined with the knowledge of how to tell stories online, should be producing graduates who will either find work in existing media outlets, or, create their own news sites and start ups.

NOTE: Monday March 9 2009 the Ontario Association of Broadcasters is holding a Career Day in Toronto where 24 of my students and I will participate in their round tables, with hiring managers. It should be interesting to hear from the head honchos, what advice they are giving journalism students. I'll try to update this blog, afterwards.

4) Diversity and ethnic media are flourishing.

A recent report on CBC Radio in Toronto says if you want jobs in the news media, consider working for the ethnic news outlets. According to the report, they are flourishing, and ad revenue is strong. With students in journalism school increasingly from diverse backgrounds, ethnicity is now a plus to get work. If you speak another language, why not look for jobs with OMNI TV, the Chinese dailies, the Iranian and other webnews sites operating in the Greater Toronto area. Here is a link to the story, by CBC's Priya Sankaran.