Categories
Archive

CASE STUDY 1: Investigative Journalism | 1991 – 1997

Expertise: Investigative journalism, editing, start-ups, content and magazine design, digital content, digital strategy.

Locations: Toronto and Guelph, Ontario, Canada and London, UK 1991 to 1997

Investigative Journalist, Editor, Reporter, Writer: David South

Click here to view images for this case study: CASE STUDY 1: Journalism | 1991 – 1997 Images

Abstract

I worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers from 1991 to 1997 in Canada and the United Kingdom and as a radio host for a weekly spoken word interview programme, Word of Mouth (CKLN-FM). 

CKLN-FM’s “Word of Mouth 6 pm-6:55 pm Hosts: David South, Jill Lawless This show goes well behind the headlines for the real story behind the events.”

This included working as an investigative journalist for Now Magazine, “Toronto’s alternative news and entertainment source”, as a Medical and Health Correspondent for Today’s Seniors, and as an investigative journalist and reporter for two Financial Times newsletters, New Media Markets and Screen Finance.  

Samples of published stories can be found here (below) and on the Muck Rack platform here: https://muckrack.com/david-south

About

Could it be possible to do high-quality investigative journalism in the context of a shrinking economy undergoing austerity, and where the media sector is contracting and consolidating around a small number of media companies? Is it possible to launch new media products in the face of a contracting economy and reach new audiences and create new markets?

In Canada, the early to mid 1990s were the years of government austerity and economic crisis. After the crash of 1989/1990*, institutions came under great stress. Health care, for example, was pitched into a period of turmoil and change. Drawing on my experience working in the health sector (Princess Margaret Hospital/Ontario Cancer Institute), I covered this crisis in many stories for various publications, in particular Today’s Seniors.

The Canadian economy severely contracted and unemployment was at 11.4 per cent by 1993 (Statistics Canada), and as Statistics Canada says, “Because employment recovered at a snail’s pace after the recession of the early 1990s, the decline in the unemployment rate was delayed until 1994”. 

The media in general could not avoid the wider economic crisis. According to the book The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000), Canada’s media was also in a crisis throughout the 1990s, as declining resources, staff layoffs and media closures reduced the breadth and depth of news coverage. Canadian media as a whole also has a “great dependence on advertising, which accounts for more than 70% of daily newspaper revenues, about 64% of magazine revenues,” which means there is enormous pressure to only publish stories that do not upset advertisers. And monopolies exert great control over news content in Canada: “In the United States, ten companies control 43.7% of total daily newspaper circulation. By contrast, in Canada since 1996, one single company controls a comparable share of the media pie.”

The impact of this crisis was summed up by Jeffrey Simpson in the book The Missing News, where he said newspapers are “shrinking in size, personnel, ambition and, as a consequence, in their curiosity,” …. “I believe the result has been a diminution in quality.” (p64)

This is the context in which, ironically, it was possible to flourish as a much-sought-after investigative journalist who could get the story and get the quotes and as an editor. And it was also a time for opportunity, in particular as new media rose in importance, from cable and satellite television, to the rise of the Internet.

I broke original stories for Now Magazine as a member of their investigative reporting team, for Today’s Seniors as its Medical and Health Correspondent, and as a reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK. I also broke original stories as a freelancer for many other magazines and newspapers, including Hospital News, The Toronto Star, This Magazine, The Annex Gleaner, Flare, The Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, and others. I drew on strong contacts in health care, media, politics, international relations and the military. 

I was an editor for magazines, newspapers and newsletters as well, gaining invaluable experience and contacts. This included as Editor-in-Chief for start-up youth publication, Watch Magazine (see Case Study 2), and as Features Editor for Id Magazine (see Case Study 3). 

Themes covered included the uses – and abuses – of data, the impact of military engagements to uphold international law, how to re-structure health care when budgets are tight, with populations ageing, and technology and scientific advances quickly expanding options, the emerging new media world of cable and satellite television and the Internet, the sexual revolution 2.0, urbanization and how it re-shapes politics and community, international development, and youth culture. 

Story highlights include covering data concerns over Canada’s border screening measures, questions about the air quality of aircraft cabins, the debate over airstrikes in Bosnia, scandals involving peacekeepers in Somalia and reporting on the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, reforms to medical education in Canada, innovators in health care, the tug of war over health care spending during austerity measures, London, UK designers, the growing role of Nordic countries in cable and satellite television, the film financing scene in Europe and the UK, the new sexual revolution and its impact on cable and satellite television and the rising Internet, changes to Canada’s media industry, and Toronto’s embracing of the megacity concept and the political battles it sparked. 

I edited newsletters and newspapers aimed at specific communities, from Canada’s medical history community to part-time students. And had the privilege of helming a start-up youth magazine as its Editor-in-Chief to its commercial success (see Case Study 2). 

It was an exciting time of great change, best reflected by the fact in 1997 Id Magazine (Features Editor: see Case Study 3) was one of the first Canadian publications to regularly publish an online version (https://web-beta.archive.org/web/19970207103121/www.idmagazine.com).  

* “The last two recessions in Canada occurred in 1982 and 1990. … The most recent Canadian recession began in the second quarter of 1990 and over the next 12 months GDP fell by 3.2%. … The recovery from this recession was unusually slow; there was almost no growth between mid-1991 and mid-1992. This slow recovery was export driven.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

 “In early 1994, Canada’s economic situation was not that favourable—our economy was facing some rather serious problems.

 “… the recession here was more severe than in the United States.

“Working their way out of these difficulties was disruptive and painful for Canadian businesses. Defaults, restructurings, and downsizings became the order of the day. With all this, unemployment took a long time to recover from the 1990–91 recession and, in many instances, wages and salaries were frozen or reduced (Bank of Canada: Canada’s Economic Future: What Have We Learned from the 1990s?)

A small sample of published stories with links is below:  

Investigative Journalism 

An Abuse of Privilege?

Aid Organization Gives Overseas Hungry Diet Food

Artists Fear Indifference From Megacity

Casino Calamity: One Gambling Guru Thinks The Province Is Going Too Far

Counter Accusations Split Bathurst Quay Complex: Issues of Sexual Assault, Racism at Centre of Local Dispute

False Data Makes Border Screening Corruptible

New Student Group Seeks 30 Percent Tuition Hike

Peaceniks Questioning Air-raid Strategy in Bosnia

Safety at Stake

Somali Killings Reveal Ugly Side of Elite Regiment

Study Says Jetliner Air Quality Poses Health Risks: CUPE Takes on Airline Industry with Findings on Survey

Top Reporters Offer Military Media Handling Tips

Will the Megacity Mean Mega-privatization?

Will Niagara Falls Become the Northern Vegas?

Health and Medical

Changing Health Care Careers a Sign of the Times

Critics Blast Government Long-Term Care Reforms

Cut Services to Elderly, Says Doctors’ Survey … But Leave Our Salaries Alone!

Feds Call for AIDS, Blood System Inquiry: Some Seniors Infected

Government Urged to Limit Free Drugs for Seniors

Health Care on the Cutting Block: Ministry Hopes for Efficiency with Search and Destroy Tactics

Health Care in Danger

Lamas Against AIDS

New Legislation Will Allow Control of Medical Treatment

New Seniors’ Group Boosts ‘Grey Power’: Grey Panthers Chapter Opens with a Canadian Touch

Philippine Conference Tackles Asia’s AIDS Crisis

Private Firms Thrive as NDP ‘Reinvents’ Medicare

Psychiatric Care Lacking for Institutionalised Seniors

Seniors Falling Through the Health Care Cost Cracks

Specialists Want Cancer Treatments Universally Available

Take Two Big Doses of Humanity and Call Me in the Morning

Taking Medicine to the People: Four Innovators In Community Health

US Health Care Businesses Chasing Profits into Canada

Magazines

The Ethics of Soup: Grading Supermarket Shelves – For Profit

Freaky – The 70s Meant Something

Land of the Free, Home of the Bored

Man Out Of Time: The World Once Turned On the Ideas of this Guelph Grad, But Does the Economist John Kenneth Galbraith Know the Way Forward?

Oasis Has Arrogance, A Pile of Attitude and the Best Album of 1994

Porn Again: More Ways to Get Off, But Should We Regulate the Sex Industry?

Redneck Renaissance: A Coterie of Journalists Turn Cracker Culture into a Leisure Lifestyle

Safety at Stake

Swing Shift: Sexual Liberation is Back in Style

Time Machines

Too Black

Media 

The Big Dump: CP’s New Operational Plan Leaves Critics with Questions Aplenty

Channel Regulation: Swedes will Fight Children’s Advertising all the Way

Do TV Porn Channels Degrade and Humiliate?

Is the UK Rushing to Watch TV Porn? 

Playboy ‘is not for sad and lonely single men’

TV’s Moral Guide in Question – Again

UK Laws on Satellite Porn Among Toughest in Europe

Undercurrents: A Cancellation at CBC TV Raises a Host of Issues for the Future

Special Reports

From Special Report: NMM (New Media Markets) Spotlight on the Emergence of Satellite Porn Channels in the UK

From Special Report: Sexual Dealing: Today’s Sex Toys Are Credit Cards & Cash: A Report on the Sex-for-Money Revolution

United Nations

Freedom of Expression: Introducing Investigative Journalism to Local Media in Mongolia

Starting from Scratch: The Challenge of Transition

State of Decay: Haiti Turns to Free-market Economics and the UN to Save Itself

Traffic Signs Bring Safety to the Streets

Magazines

Watch Magazine

Id Magazine

Newsletters

Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine

New Media Markets

Screen Finance

Blue Sky Bulletin

Other Resources

Ger Magazine: Issue 1

Ger Magazine: Issue 2

In Their Own Words: Selected Writings by Journalists on Mongolia, 1997-1999 (ISBN 99929-5-043-9) 

Mongolian Rock and Pop Book (ISBN 99929-5-018-8) 

Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia (ISBN 1-55022-434-4)

Timeline 

1991: Begin career as investigative journalist and editor.

1992: Work as a Medical and Health Reporter for Today’s Seniors and as an Investigative Journalist for Now Magazine. Work as Editor and Writer for the Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine’s newsletter. 

1993: Published in many publications, including The Toronto Star, Canadian Living and This Magazine.

1994: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 2.0 and its expansion (see Case Study 2). 

1995: Work as reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK.

1996: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 3.0 and its expansion. Begin work at Id Magazine as its Features Editor (see Case Study 3).

1997: Begin two-year assignment with the United Nations mission in Mongolia (see Case Study 4). 

Testimonials 

David South … proved himself to be a penetrating, thorough and hard-working journalist. He produced a lot of very good stories …” Neil McCartney, Editor, Screen Finance, Telecom Markets and Mobile Communications, London, UK

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

Categories
Archive Blogroll

The Big Dump: CP’s New Operational Plan Leaves Critics With Questions Aplenty

By David South

Scan Magazine (Toronto, Canada), June/July, 1997

Gloria Galloway is one of two Canadian Press staffers holding down the Ontario desk one Friday evening in May. She has the jumpy manner you’d expect from an acting news editor entangled in deadlines at the national wire service. She cheerfully describes how cooperative the Northern Ontario newspapers are in filing stories on the federal election campaign. But the reality driving that cooperation is not so cheery. As a result of staff cuts, the only CP reporters available are tied up covering government announcements at the Ontario legislature.

It has been nearly a month since CP’s board of directors gave final approval to a plan to revamp the service. The plan caps a crisis-filled year during which many feared the agency would go belly up. But do the changes make CP’s future any more secure?

On her computer screen, Galloway pulls up a long list of stories filed that day by various member newspapers. It’s an impressive list that suggests the ‘New CP’ concept might work. Certainly Galloway has the stoic, ‘we have to make it work, it’s our job’ attitude that’s common at CP.

Attitude isn’t everything, though. There are serious gaps in the plan that continue to leave CP vulnerable to a future crisis. The new plan calls for CP to rely on its owners – the nearly 90 member papers – to contribute the bulk of its stories, leaving CP acting more like a traffic cop than a traditional wire service. This Faustian deal means a reduced role for CP as a newsgatherer, with a restricted mandate to cover stories newspaper editors can anticipate, like press conferences and court decisions, as well as breaking news.

Beyond that, the plan is short on details. It fails to offer any coherant timetable for its implementation, nor does it address the likelihood, due to declining newspaper circulations, of further reductions in the fees CP’s members pay next year. CP already dropped its fees 25 percent for 1997 to keep Southam Newspapers from leaving the cooperative. The rollback precipitated major staff reductions at CP.

The deal’s most significant achievement is a pledge by all member papers to work with CP to ensure its survival and save everyone money.

Newspaper editors will have to tell CP a day in advance what stories they are covering and who has been assigned. Using this information, so the theory goes, it will be possible to avoid assigning several reporters from competing papers to cover a story when one will do. A reporter will not only be working for his or her own paper that day, but for every CP paper, and will be expected to file updates throughout the day to a CP editor, who in turn will write the story that is then ‘wired’ to all the members. That way, it is hoped, no superfluous stories will be going out on the wire. Member papers will still file analytical and feature stories to CP but, as is the case now, they are under no obligation to give away their prized family jewels – exclusive stories – to other CP papers.

In practical terms, the new approach has been creeping into CP’s way of doing things by stealth rather than command. CP has been increasing its reliance on member papers to pick up the slack when CP reporters aren’t available. The most recent example was the federal election campaign: only one CP reporter was assigned full-time to cover the whole campaign. The rest of the coverage was handled by a combination of CP bureau staff and member paper reporters.

While many smaller papers are dependent on CP for their provincial, national and international stories, the bigger papers, who are the main sources of these stories, can afford to be blase’. Their willingness to co-operate will decide the success or failure of the member-exchange component of CP.

Southam’s vice-president of editorial, Gordon Fisher, maintains his papers will support the plan because it will save his company approximately $2.5 million a year. “We pay a significant amount of money towards this cooperative,” he maintains. “A member exchange is one of the more efficient ways we can find to deliver news without incurring a huge amount of expense.”

“What is CP needs a story earlier than a reporter normally files?” asks managing editor Jane Perves of Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald and Mail-Star. “Theoretically, they should be spending all their time doing the story for our paper.”

Jane Purves is an enthusiastic supporter of CP. Nonetheless she wonders if CP editors will be caught in a contest of wills with editors at member papers. She would like to see a reporter’s CP obligations involve simply calling in a quote or raw data. She would have a problem if a reporter working on a major story for her paper was distracted by CP’s needs.

The Globe and Mail is conidering hiring a full-time co-ordinator to handle the heavy volume of stories that paper generates for CP. Newspaper managers elsewhere are split on the question of whether the plan will increase workloads. The extent that it does so will be a crucial test of their commitment.

Not only will editors need to regularly ‘loan’ reporters to CP, they will have to change how they do things on a daily basis if the plan is to work. Editors will have to file an assignment list one day in advance to CP, a task that could get easily overlooked when papers get hit with multiple big stories.

“It’s pretty minor stuff,” says Perry Beverley, the co-publisher of Brockville’s Recorder and Times. Although the Recorder and Times is an afternoon paper where copy is edited in the morning, Beverley has no plans to switch an editor to an evening shift to fit CP’s deadlines.

Deadlines are a particularly thorny question in a country that spans six time zones. Newspapers on the East coast can file stories at the end of the day and still meet CP deadlines that are pegged at Toronto time. The problem is with newspapers west of Ontario; they will have to file stories well before the end of the day. In the case of B.C., filing will have to be done in the morning so that stories picked up by CP will be ready in time for East coast papers.

The copy will have to go out to CP unedited.

At the Edmonton Sun, editor-in-chief Paul Stanway isn’t sanguine about sending out unedited copy. Stanway had editorial deadlines pushed back to 6 p.m. 18 months ago as part of a re-organization at the paper, but they still mean copy would be sent straight from reporters to CP, where copy needs to be in between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. Toronto time. Stanway is concerned the CP staff will not have the time to fact-check stories to weed out mistakes, which would reflect poorly on his paper.

The anticipated deadline crunch has been nicknamed “the big dump” in CP circles: a tidal wave of material hitting the wire service’s desks all at once, leaving editors scrambling to do re-writes before newspapers are put to bed.

CP general manager Jim Poling, who vacates he job in June, believes this problem will be solved by the restructuring, not exacerbated by it. “The volume of copy has already dropped significantly,” he says. “We are hoping for a wider spectrum of deadlines. Hopefully you are going to get your copy spread out over a longer period, instead of over the course of a couple of hours. You might not need a massive shift of people to a certain time.”

Poling claims the resolution is in better planning which will result in fewer unwanted stories. Fewer stories, so Poling maintains, means more time for editors to re-write.

At CP’s Winnipeg bureau, Canadian Media Guild vice-president Scott Edmonds is sceptical. He isn’t convinced the slimmed down CP will have the staff to handle what he sees as an increasing workload.

“It sounds like the meatgrinder approach to journalism,”says Edmonds. “There is no way these desks are going to be able to cope with any degree of thoughtfulness with this copy. The pressure is going to be too great.”

Edmonds also sees a bigger problem in staff moral. “The majority of people working for Canadian Press don’t want their career to end up as a re-writer… It will require a lot more attention on the desk for this material, so we will be taking resources away from reporting. In other words, taking somebody away from doing the story to redoing the story.”

CP’s raison d’etre is its ability to turn out stories written in a homogenous national voice that can be tailored for a specific paper’s readers. Another important asset is the agency’s ability to quickly add knowledge and background to stories, drawing on the experience of its reporters and editors. According to Martin O’Hanlon at CP’s Ontario Desk, cut-backs have compromised this ability. Three business reporters have been poached by the Financial Post, including Ian Jack and Sandy Rubin. Over 40 talented reporters and editors took buyouts in the fall of 1996.

This means CP isn’t as well equipped as it once was to turn raw copy from reporters into high-quality journalism that can draw the respect and admiration of its subjects.

“Our reporters are not trained to write for a national audience,” emphasizes Jane Purves in Halifax.

Scott Edmonds doesn’t believe member contributors are a substitute for CP staff. “I’m very concerned about attempting to replace quality staf-written material that caters to a national audience and is written to uniform standards, with material picked up from newspapers that in some cases may be very good, but in some cases may not be of the same quality.”

There is a great deal of confusion over when the plan is supposed to kick in. One camp, which includes Jim Poling, sees it more as a gradual, evolutionary change that will take several years to fine tune. There are others who want to see trial runs. Still others believe there will be a date set for a total national switch-over.

Perry Beverley favours test sites and single switch-over date.

“Once that D-Day time is chosen for the switch-over into the restructured CP,” she says, “there will be an appointed person in the newsroom responsible for sending the schedule to CP.”

Purves favours a gradual switch. “A shot-gun approach might backfire. I’d rather have a gradual approach providing we had a starting date and an aim.”

“We don’t have to have a roll-out day,” says Poling. “But if all the managers and staff rise up and say ‘shit, we need test sites,’ then I will listen. Anybody who is waiting for a date will be disappointed. All of this started a long time ago and is a continuing process that will take a couple of years to get everything in place.”

Seven regional news committees will co-ordinate and oversee this new approach, each one staffed by representatives from member papers and CP. According to the plan, these regional news committees will act as enforcers for the new regime. They will work out the logistics of member exchange and use fines to penalize papers that miss deadlines or obstruct exchange.

How such an approach would work in practice is still up in the air. “At some point everybody is going to act against the interests of the co-op,” maintains Purves. “They will be wondering, ‘will I be fined for this?’”

Nobody contacted by SCAN could tell us what these fines would be, how violations would be investigated or what constituted offences. Purves wondered what deterrence value the fines would have if a paper thought it had acted in its best interests. If paper X decided to hold back a juicy scoop that was supposed to be that day’s CP story, a fine of $2,000 might be worth incurring if it sells more newspapers. It was generally agreed none of these committees would meet until after the federal election at the earliest.

For now, Poling is generally optimistic (though he won’t around past June and a replacement has yet to be found). He is talking about raising salaries for the first time in five years, about hiring new staff, about stabilizing life at CP.

The lower fees have lured back one newspaper group, British Columbia’s Sterling. A trial use of CP stories started at the beginning of May. It remains to be seen whether New Brunswick’s Telegraph Journal/Times Globe papers will return, after pulling out of CP in 1993 and hiring more of its own reporters with the money saved. Publisher Jamie Milne remains coy as to his interest in returning to CP, but Poling thinks a deal will be worked out by the fall.

And what about the mood of the man charged with overseeing CP’s transition? Jim Poling, as some CP staffers like to mention, is losing that cautious reserve managers usually have for talking to the media. He isn’t happy with the state of the print media in Canada.

“There has been a lot of cutting in this industry,” says an audibly frustrated Poling. “The fact of the matter is this: cutting isn’t the only answer to having an efficient operation. There has to be some money available to allow journalists to walk around a bit. People who walk around and poke at things and stare at things write good stories.”

With phones ringing all around us, Galloway begins to think out loud about possible wrinkles in the new CP plan: how newspaper reporters at trials will have to keep leaving the courtroom to file updates for CP, how stories written for local papers will translate for national readers, how hard it can be for local, non-CP reporters to cover elections when they don’t know what questions have been asked elsewhere on the campaign trail.

But Galloway has to get back to work. She has to push the Toronto Star to file a story early so the Hamilton Spectator can pick it up.

Scan magazine was published for media professionals in Toronto, Canada in the 1990s.
“The Big Dump”
Breaking the news to CP staff.
Categories
Archive Blogroll

Undercurrents: A Cancellation At CBC TV Raises A Host Of Issues For The Future

By David South

Scan Magazine (Canada), April/May 1997

The screensaver on an Undercurrents researcher’s computer terminal bears a maxim that might strike a chord in a lot of CBC units these days: “Only the paranoid survive.”

The quirky media and technology show will fade to black at the end of March. Its cancellation raises a host of issues for a CBC deeply troubled by budget cuts, an ageing audience, a dearth of alternative programme concepts and an inability to plan for a future.

In the show’s pilot, Wendy Mesley – Undercurrents’ host and progenitor – set the tone for this accessible look at the relationship among technology, media and society: “Like it or not we are living in a wired world where OJ Simpson, Big Brother, even your bank machine, all converge … we’ll explore all the issues, the undercurrents of the information age.”

To those who loved it, Undercurrents was a program that satisfied a vital public need, and an ambitious concept for a public broadcaster that some say had grown a little musty. The show promised avant-garde production and investigative journalism that critically explored today’s new media and technology culture. Youngish researchers and producers were hired from outside the CBC. They brought with them experience and new ideas from specialty channels, TV Ontario and CTV. Some came straight out of journalism school.

Critical reaction to the first programs was mixed. John Doyle, a critic with the Globe and Mail’s Broadcast Week, lauded Undercurrents when it launched, calling it “a superb example of  solid CBC-TV journalism and original reporting.” Others were less flattering. The Toronto Star’s Greg Quill accused the show of “flirting with infotainment.” At the Vancouver Sun, Alex Strachan wasn’t impressed by a report on a weekend conclave of computer geeks in the California desert for a kind of Hackerstock. “It sounds interesting,” he wrote, “but it isn’t.”

What hurt more was schedulers playing musicial chairs with the show’s slot. Switching Undercurrents from Tuesday at 7 pm to Friday at 7 pm midway through its life left viewers confused and sent ratings plummeting just as network programmers were casting about for places to apply a whopping 30 percent budget cut. As a result, some feel the show never had a fighting chance.

In the end, it was the show’s precarious financial arrangement that killed it. Undercurrents was never funded from the general current affairs budget. Instead, it drew on a special reserve of cash created by the network. When it came time to mete out the cuts in December, the special funding bubble burst. Rather than cut further into the budgets of flagship current affairs programs, executives chose to drop Undercurrents.

Executive producer Frances Mary (FM) Morrison acknowledges that gratitude for her program’s special funding obscured a recognition of its fragility. “That was really our Achilles heel,” she says. “We were just this little orphan that didn’t have its own money. We weren’t adopted into the larger family.”

With the network funding gone, Undercurrents’ budget (rumoured to be over a million dollars per season) was nowhere to be found. Discussions about chasing a corporate sponsor went nowhere because the show needed more money than any sponsor could have provided. “It was never an issue of $100,000 or $200,000,” says Morrison. “It was the issue of our entire budget. [CBC] would still have had to come up with the rest of it.”

CBC TV’s news, current affairs and Newsworld director Bob Culbert and former current affairs head Norm Bolen both say they wanted the show to stay on the air but couldn’t find a way to fund it withou seriously hurting programs like The Fifth Estate, Marketplace and Venture.

Bolen, now VP of programming at the History and Entertainment Network, says it came down to choosing between The Health Show and Undercurrents. The Health Show won because it had a “bigger audience, a broader demographic and was bringing in revenue from sales of programming to the specialty channels.”

Mesley has another theory. “The majority of people who worked on this programme are not traditional CBCers… They can’t bump, they don’t get huge severance packages. Of course, if you want a future, those are the wrong reasons for letting people go.”

With its intensive focus on issues like the abuse of computer-morphed images, surreptitious “data-mining” of consumer purchase records, or media “freebies,” there’s no question that Undercurrents has met a need in this media-saturated world. But controversy over the cancellation centres on the age-old question of CBC and the youth audience.

Morrison and Mesley both say they intended the show to appeal to a younger-than-usual CBC audience. But CBC executives weren’t convinced it was an audience the network could, or should, go after. According to Culbert, a youth mandate was something the production team brought to Undercurrents. “It started as a media ethics show targeted at a classic CBC audience. Nobody sat around one day and said ‘let’s invent the show that will go after younger viewers.’”

Bolen expresses a profound lack of faith in the under-30 audience. “People under 30 don’t watch information programming, okay? Let’s get that straight. I sure wouldn’t spend the rest of my life trying to get an audience that doesn’t watch a certain genre of programming. This is a business where you pay attention to reality. People under 30 watch trashy American sitcoms, which I’m not in the business of doing, and which the CBC isn’t in the business of doing.”

“I think that’s bullshit,” says Reid Willis, producer and director of CityTV’s Media Television. “People under 30 are interested in what’s going on in the media. The 20 to 30 group is more media savvy than the generation that preceded them.” But Willis thinks the lack of information programming pitched at a young audience is down to a lack of interest from advertisers.

Mesley and Morrison remain convinced Undercurrents did appeal to a younger audience, but felt it was sabotaged by the schedule shuffling. In the show’s first slot, Tuesdays at 7 pm, its average audience was 499,000. The biggest night came on Sunday, October 22, 1995 when a repeat aired at 9:30 pm got an audience of 865,000. But Undercurrents’ debut in the 96/97 season in its new 7 pm slot on Fridays was demoralizing for the crew. Morrison reports the audience for the season opener at 438,000 and 434,000 for a strong programme the following week.

She says the numbers built as audiences found the programme’s new location, peaking at 678,000 on December 6. According to CBC audience research figures, average minute audience for the 96/97 season to February 2 stood at 518,000 viewers.

“Friday at seven was not a good place for Undercurrents,” claims Morrison. “It’s an older audience. In fact the audience for Air Farce [which followed Undercurrents at 7:30] is quite old, surprisingly old. I was actually astonished to find out how old that audience was.”

CBC audience research bears Morrison out, reporting that the 18-34 demographic for both Air Farce and Undercurrents has been identical this season – a mere 14 percent of the total audience.

Fridays at seven is also a heavily competitive slot packed with overhyped American tabloid TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, Hard Copy and A Current Affair. Morrison says focus groups told her that audiences in that time period surf around looking for stories they like and then switch around with no loyalty to a particular programme.

“People build a menu. We took a leaf out of the tabloid book in terms of our presentation in order to survive in the seven o’clock environment.”

Undercurrents’ jerky camera work and flashy graphics didn’t endear itself to everyone, a fact the show’s producers recognized early on. “I can point to stories where we sabotaged ourselves with stylistic extremes,” admits Morrison.

But Mesley bristles at accusations the show was all style and no content, or a clone of Media Television. “We are the antithesis of Media Television. Obviously everyone has adopted their style from rock videos.  But they get nearly all their video as handouts. We are not saying, ‘This is hip.’ We are not saying, ‘This is the latest consumer thing you can add to your collection.’ We are saying ‘Think about this.’”

Undercurrents’producers express pride in the show’s innovations. They cite its lead role in web page design at the corporation., its efforts at promoting a more playful visual presentation, and its success in promoting an acceptance of media stories elsewhere in news and current affairs. But what seemed to enliven everyone interviewed for this story was a love of the public broadcasting ethos, where stories are told because they are important, not because advertisers say they are important. Many of the young researchers and producers at Undercurrents had done time at the privates, and appreciated the freedom and extensive resources offered by the CBC. But they felt they had come to a CBC whose values were in peril.

“It will be like C-SPAN here,” quipped an Undercurrents freelancer who has done time at the specialty channels.

Others who thrived in the upbeat atmosphere at Undercurrents say they’re not too keen to look for work elsewhere in the CBC. One such is 25-year-old researcher Bret Dawson. “It’s not a happy place,” he says.

It’s not clear what, if any, programming will replace Undercurrents. If the current trend prevails, it looks like any new programming will have to survive on a smaller budget, generate outside income and prove it can draw in viewers in short order. Under those conditions, people at Undercurrents and elsewhere wonder how long CBC’s commitment to innovative new programming  can hold out.

CBC TV’s Undercurrents host Wendy Mesley. Scan Magazine was published in the 1990s for Canadian media professionals.

In 2021 Wendy Mesley commented on the story in a Tweet.

More from Scan Magazine:

The Big Dump: CP’s New Operational Plan Leaves Critics With Questions Aplenty

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021