Heritage Committee chairperson applauds RTDNA’s ideas for the future of local news: Blog post

By Andy LeBlanc, past president RTDNA Canada’s voice has been heard. On Tuesday, our President Ian Koenigsfest and I appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage examining media ownership and its impact on local news. The text was prepared with considerable input from several members of our board. On May 6th,

By Andy LeBlanc, past president

RTDNA Canada’s voice has been heard. On Tuesday, our President Ian Koenigsfest and I appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage examining media ownership and its impact on local news. The text was prepared with considerable input from several members of our board. On May 6th, with 11 days notice, we were invited and advised we would have 10 minutes to present a prepared speech, followed by 50* minutes of questions.

There were many decisions to be made at the outset. What are the risks? What are the upsides? On one hand, the opportunity to speak to lawmakers about our journalism profession could be merely educational. It wouldn’t hurt for the Heritage Committee to learn more about the things on journalists’ minds at a time when the industry is undergoing rapid transition. It wouldn’t hurt for RTDNA Canada to gain more visibility on Parliament Hill and elsewhere. And the timing couldn’t seem better; an opportunity to show how the association is adapting to the digital realities of our time, with the recent name change to RTDNA and the revised Code of Journalistic Ethics to be more inclusive of all practicing journalists. All this was happening only days ahead of our national meeting and awards conference.

Then, there were the inherent risks. The committee’s mandate was clear, “That the Committee undertake a study of not fewer than ten (10) meetings on how Canadians, and especially local communities, are informed about local and regional experiences through news, broadcasting, digital and print media; the unintended consequences of news media concentration and the erosion of local news reporting and the impact of new media; that the committee make recommendations; and that the committee report its findings to the House.”

With most of our association’s membership coming directly from the newsrooms of the major owners, it was extremely important we weren’t going to bite the hands that feed us. This had the potential of becoming a political minefield. Would we serve our membership, journalism and democracy well with our responses? Still, the RTDNA executive needed to weigh the risks against the mandate of RTDNA to speak on behalf of all members, from the network newsrooms to the individual freelance journalist. Has there ever been a better time to address some of the key issues in our profession?

Some of the stuff Edward R. Murrow talked about 58 years ago at an RTNDA convention in 1958 still resonates in today’s climate. He was concerned about the influence of advertising on content and whether the relatively new television and radio would be used to entertain rather than inform, “surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must indeed be faced if we are to survive.”

In 1958, TV was still young. Today, journalists are still debating the same issues, about TV, radio and our newest child in the journalism family, digital.

As a few members on the board (Ian, Fiona, Kym, Marissa and me) crafted the paragraphs for our presentation, a flurry of emails and conference calls got the process rolling. Then, we created a live Google Docs document so we could all have access to the text and simultaneously edit. How appropriate a tool to use in building a speech about the way digital is impacting our profession.

As the words came together it was obvious we would brief the committee about RTDNA and we unanimously felt it crucial to put forth ideas that may offer positive outcomes for our members and all of journalism. We steered clear from the minefield, with this statement:

“While the sustainability of local TV and radio news is an important question for regulators to discuss from the advertising revenue perspective – that is not our expertise – and we wish to leave it to the employers and regulators to resolve.”
We focused on recommendations that would support local news and support journalism and its role in democracy.

1.  That RTDNA recommends that the CBSC’s scope expand to include online journalists who commit to abide by the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics. The CBSC could adjudicate formal complaints as they now do for traditional broadcasters.

2.  That RTDNA recommends that seed money be made available — for truly local news online sites that agree to abide by journalistic standards.

3.  That the RTDNA, in consultation with industry, could help to administer a fund that would help maintain the existence of viable local news in communities across this country.

4.  That the RTDNA supports a call for funding to research how the quality of journalism is being impacted by the concentration of ownership at the local and national level. How rapidly changing factors affecting broadcast, print and online journalism are being played out in communities across Canada.

I don’t know if these suggestions will make it to the final Heritage Committee report that will eventually go to the House of Commons for consideration, but I believe our association should discuss these ideas in more detail at the AGM and in the coming months.

After the speech, each member of the committee fired off questions at our president and me. As a journalist, I prefer being the guy asking the questions. Still, I hope we served our membership with the speech and the responses. It was an honour and a privilege to represent RTDNA Canada.

In addition to the recommendations, the line of questioning from the committee members reinforced our association’s need to find new ways to deliver and facilitate professional development that reaches beyond our conferences. It also reinforced the opportunity our organization has to collaborate with other journalism groups in Canada (BEAC, CAJ, JHR etc.) and abroad, (RTDNA International, Nieman Labs, etc.).

RTDNA Canada has a responsibility to shape and take the lead on these ideas.

We’ve had some dark clouds hanging over parts of our industry in recent years. If we act strategically during these stormy transitional years, we have the potential of reaching a limitless horizon, where the skies are clear for local, regional and national news, where transparency, openness and freedom of expression and ideas in a digital world is alive and well — and journalism thrives.

At the conclusion of our appearance before the committee, Chairperson Hedy Fry said: “Thank you very much. I want to thank our witnesses because this is journalism, the ability to have journalistic integrity in the news etcetera, has been an issue that we’ve been talking about for quite a bit and we’ve heard people speak to it. You’re the first one to have come and told us that there could be poss.. it could be possible with the Code of Ethics.”

You can listen to Fry’s comments here:

 

*The number of minutes of questioning was incorrectly reported as 15 minutes in an earlier version.

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