In­ter­view with Jen­nifer McGuire, Gen­eral Man­ager and Ed­i­tor-in-Chief of CBC News

In­ter­view with Jen­nifer McGuire, Gen­eral Man­ager and Ed­i­tor-in-Chief of CBC News

The Insider - - CONTENTS -

At our workshop/hackathon at the TED con­fer­ence in Van­cou­ver in April 2017, we were very pleased to have Brodie Fen­lon, man­ag­ing ed­i­tor for dig­i­tal at CBC News join us as an in­dus­try ex­pert, men­tor, and judge. Af­ter chat­ting with him about his work at the CBC, I wanted to learn more about the pub­lic broad­caster and so I reached out to Jen­nifer McGuire, the gen­eral man­ager and ed­i­tor-in-chief for CBC News.

There was so much to talk about! We cov­ered ev­ery­thing from CBC’s ex­pe­ri­ence with dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion to trust in me­dia, the im­pact of new me­dia and plat­forms on pub­lish­ing, her thoughts on the Pub­lic Pol­icy Fo­rum’s rec­om­men­da­tions on the state of legacy pub­lish­ing in Canada, what keeps her awake at night and the fu­ture of me­dia. En­joy!

You've been the GM and ed­i­tor-in-chief of CBC News for over eight years, so you've seen its trans­for­ma­tion over that time. How would you de­scribe this past year in me­dia?

We're see­ing the kind of dis­rup­tions in me­dia that we've seen in other in­dus­tries like mu­sic, where the pub­lic has more con­trol of what they con­sume, how they con­sume it, and where they con­sume it. Today, peo­ple have a plethora of choices.

In terms of the com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment, we’ve seen a bit of a con­ver­gence be­tween or­ga­ni­za­tions that wouldn't have seen each other as com­peti­tors in the past. Years ago, a news­pa­per and an or­ga­ni­za­tion like the CBC wouldn’t have been com­peti­tors, but they are ab­so­lutely com­peti­tors within the dig­i­tal space — not only within a coun­try, but world­wide.

We've seen big in­ter­na­tional me­dia brands like The Guardian and The New York Times es­tab­lish satel­lite of­fices be­cause they're now repo­si­tion­ing them­selves as in­ter­na­tional brands.

So tech­nol­ogy ef­fec­tively broke down bound­aries be­tween medi­ums and ge­ogra­phies.

Ab­so­lutely. I'll tell you how I talk to my edi­to­rial staff be­cause it goes to the heart of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, even to the point of how we or­ga­nize.

We tra­di­tion­ally de­fined our­selves by plat­forms — we were ra­dio, TV, a web­site, lo­cal, and na­tional. The plat­form took promi­nence in terms of how we iden­ti­fied where we worked at CBC.

But today, we in­te­grate what we do across var­i­ous plat­forms. We're now or­ga­niz­ing around sto­ries ver­sus around plat­forms like ra­dio and TV and have multi-dis­ci­plinary teams work to­gether on those sto­ries. Today, we iden­tify in terms of our au­di­ence and with our prom­ise to them.

We are the num­ber one me­dia brand in Canada be­cause we are trusted, have rigor in terms of jour­nal­ism, and po­si­tion our­selves around edi­to­rial lead­er­ship and in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing. This de­fines us for Cana­di­ans, more than where they choose to ex­pe­ri­ence us, be­cause a lot of them mi­grate be­tween the var­i­ous places we of­fer con­tent — some of which are not even owned by CBC — such as Face­book.

So, it's just a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about who we are and how we serve, while still be­ing true to our core prom­ise. Ac­tu­ally, this is a nice seg­way into the topic of trust in me­dia. Some stud­ies says it’s at an all-time low; oth­ers say that trust in spe­cific sources is still strong; while oth­ers say it is a nor­mal process that’s been go­ing on for decades — a re­sult of par­ti­san di­vides and eco­nomic chal­lenges. What’s your take on all of this? The Re­gional Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio As­so­ci­a­tion (RTDNA) re­vealed a study last year on fake news and trust in me­dia. They ac­tu­ally found, in this era of so-called fake news, that tra­di­tional me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions were en­joy­ing a bounce in terms of trust; they were far­ing quite well.

Cer­tainly in any bit of re­search that we do at CBC, trust is a theme that comes up in terms of our au­di­ence and us­age pat­terns. When big events hap­pen, peo­ple tend to turn to us.

But it gets re­ally com­plex in terms of the kind of in­for­ma­tion avail­able and how gen­er­a­tions are con­sum­ing me­dia. In the dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment, you find all kinds of con­tent bunched to­gether, in­clud­ing spon­sored con­tent and fake news. And you dis­cover con­tent in ways you can’t on more tra­di­tional plat­forms.

I think a lot about the topic of trust at CBC, not only in terms of how our val­ues as­so­ciate with the brand, but how we de­lin­eate and mark con­tent more clearly for au­di­ences. Be­cause even in our own ecosys­tem, where the pre­sen­ta­tion tends to look sim­i­lar and peo­ple de­lib­er­ately try to copy it, there’s al­ways been fake news. The dif­fer­ence now is the speed and the reach of the dis­tri­bu­tion and the fram­ing of things all living in the same en­vi­ron­ment.

So I do think me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions have to do more to de­lin­eate and I think the big ag­gre­ga­tors have more of an obli­ga­tion with re­spect to these things. I also think brands will be­come more im­por­tant in terms of what they rep­re­sent to au­di­ences. Or­ga­ni­za­tions, like the pub­lic broad­caster, have to do more ed­u­ca­tion around help­ing cre­ate crit­i­cal con­sumers.

I have two kids — a 17-year-old, and 13-year-old. My 17-year-old son was a keen fol­lower of the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, but he only got his in­for­ma­tion through the so­cial chan­nels he uses — noth­ing from tra­di­tional plat­forms. He didn’t nec­es­sar­ily pay at­ten­tion to sto­ries and sources in the way that we would tra­di­tion­ally.

It’s pretty clear that there is a de­lin­eation across de­mo­graph­ics in terms of how they ac­cess con­tent. The good news is that mil­len­ni­als are still in­ter­ested in the news; they just get it a dif­fer­ent way. So we have to find new ways of en­ter­tain­ing the next gen­er­a­tion, who will not come to tra­di­tional plat­forms, and be more trans­par­ent. We need to be clear about what we know, how we know it, and what we don’t know.

At CBC, we have an added obli­ga­tion; we reg­u­late our broad­cast plat­forms — ra­dio and TV. On ra­dio, we don’t of­fer ad­ver­tis­ing,

whereas on dig­i­tal ra­dio, we do. In tele­vi­sion, we have rules around ad­ja­cen­cies that you don’t see in the dig­i­tal space. We put up our pro­cesses around our jour­nal­ism, and we’re held ac­count­able by an in­de­pen­dent om­buds­man. Do you think that new me­dia plat­forms, let’s say the face­books of the world, be sub­ject to more strin­gent reg­u­la­tions than the pub­lic broad­cast­ers in that re­gard? Like other me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions, CBC is not reg­u­lated on the in­ter­net, and in a prac­ti­cal sense I’m not sure how that could hap­pen, given how con­tent is dis­trib­uted world­wide.

We’re al­ready see­ing a shift in how Face­book and oth­ers are not just dis­trib­u­tors any­more, they’re be­com­ing pub­lish­ers. They need to start think­ing of them­selves that way and think­ing of some of the obli­ga­tions that comes with that. With the US elec­tion, we wit­nessed Face­book aid­ing in the cre­ation of echo-cham­bers filled with like­minded peo­ple — a sit­u­a­tion which led to a few un­in­tended con­se­quences. As a pub­lic broad­caster that needs to re­main ob­jec­tive, how do you coun­ter­act the bi­ases that ex­ist else­where — not just on Face­book, but as in the US, for ex­am­ple, where many big broad­cast­ers are bi­ased, one way or an­other? The af­fir­ma­tion in­for­ma­tion bub­ble and the po­lar­iza­tion seen in some of the US ca­ble markets is not ac­tu­ally the same in Canada. It’s hard to in­volve Cana­di­ans in a col­lec­tive con­ver­sa­tion with dif­fer­ent points of view, pro­mot­ing the idea of tol­er­ance, and en­gag­ing peo­ple in things that they don’t know as much as things that they know, if they’re not talk­ing to each other or com­ing to a shared space.

So we ab­so­lutely have con­ver­sa­tions about this at CBC and we view it as our role. Au­di­ences want some cus­tomiza­tion and we have to serve that, but we must be care­ful not to al­low it to be­come a non-cu­rated ex­pe­ri­ence. As or­ga­ni­za­tions, and we’re one of them, move into the con­ver­sa­tions about how to use data, we need to dis­cuss how to ex­pose au­di­ences to dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tion, not just things that drive numbers or con­tent they ask to see.

I’ll give you an ex­am­ple. We did a huge ini­tia­tive a cou­ple years ago with the re­launch of the in­quiry into the miss­ing and mur­dered in­dige­nous women. We cre­ated huge im­pact with daily jour­nal­ism on­line and some on broad­cast me­dia. We made it an edi­to­rial pri­or­ity in the places that we pub­lished it, and we drove aware­ness and a col­lec­tive con­ver­sa­tion around an ini­tia­tive that was im­por­tant to Cana­di­ans, but un­der­re­ported at that time.

The idea of jour­nal­ism and or­ga­ni­za­tions cu­rat­ing and bring­ing con­tent dis­cov­ery to Cana­di­ans — dif­fer­ent views and per­spec­tives — and cre­at­ing a place for civil dis­course around that is re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant. So the peo­ple who of­fer it broadly like we do have to make sure that they re­tain that, but also, that they’re en­gag­ing enough in how they treat con­tent and how they present con­tent that com­mu­ni­ties will want to come.

Let’s shift gears a lit­tle bit and talk about the Canada’s Pub­lic Pol­icy Fo­rum re­port on news, democ­racy and trust in the dig­i­tal age, https://shat­tered­mir­ror.ca/ Shat­tered Mir­ror. Nowhere in the re­port could I see con­tri­bu­tions from cur­rent CBC em­ploy­ees (pre­vi­ous ones, yes, but not cur­rent). Given it is the largest Cana­dian news site by far with more than 15 mil­lion unique vis­i­tors a month, one would think CBC would

be in­vited to the ta­ble. Was CBC in­vited to com­ment and chose to de­cline? Or were there other rea­sons be­hind this?

Ac­tu­ally, that’s prob­a­bly a ques­tion for Ed Green­spon. Hon­estly, we weren’t in­vited to be part of the process, although there were in­sights that I would have hap­pily con­trib­uted. Some CBC man­agers at­tended some of the re­gional events and CBC did write a re­sponse to the re­port. We’re now en­gaged in the con­ver­sa­tion and open to con­tin­u­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.

It’s not like the is­sue has been fixed. I think we all agree that it’s a com­pli­cated time, and my own view is that the Shat­tered Mir­ror re­port opened up a re­ally im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tion. I don’t be­lieve it ad­dressed some of the is­sues that the in­dus­try is grap­pling with, and there wasn’t a real eco­nomic so­lu­tion.

The frame was re­ally from a news­pa­per view­point, so in my per­sonal opin­ion, there were gaps. But, that said, it is a re­ally im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tion to have and we should all be en­gaged in dis­cussing how we bet­ter serve Cana­di­ans with news and lo­cal news, and how we pro­mote di­ver­sity of voice.

It’s not only about a quan­tity con­ver­sa­tion; there is a qual­ity piece that’s needed. I’ve read the news in cities that still have a news­pa­per and some are pretty thin. So it’s not just about be­ing there, it’s about be­ing there in a way that serves your au­di­ence and com­mu­ni­ties.

So I think it’s a con­ver­sa­tion that hasn’t fin­ished. Ob­vi­ously Her­itage Minister, Mélanie Joly, came out with some com­ments about the fund­ing is­sue, but I’m fairly con­fi­dent that the con­ver­sa­tion will con­tinue.

In terms of CBC, sur­veys show that it is highly val­ued by Cana­di­ans. So the idea of a strong pub­lic broad­caster is prob­a­bly im­por­tant to the ecosys­tem. Now there could be other part­ner­ships or other ways of look­ing at it, and I think we’re all open to that, but we need to have a quo­rum for that con­ver­sa­tion.

I am on the record within my com­pany and in other places say­ing that I would sup­port an ad-free CBC. But it can’t be done in iso­la­tion of the big­ger pic­ture, be­cause it’s not sus­tain­able. Even within CBC News, we’re a hy­brid model — we’re com­mer­cial in some places and ad-free in oth­ers. Ad­ver­tis­ing is the rev­enue driver for CBC over­all, so one needs to look at it holis­ti­cally to make it hap­pen.

In the 1970s when ra­dio moved to be­ing ad-free, it was trans­for­ma­tive for CBC Ra­dio. I be­lieve, cer­tainly from the news and in­for­ma­tion side, there’s been an in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity there and for the me­dia en­vi­ron­ment as well. I agree. There have been clear in­stances in the re­port that leaned heav­ily on old mod­els and as­sump­tions. Can we work the in­no­va­tive el­e­ment into it?

There are a num­ber of rec­om­men­da­tions that have been made for CBC with re­spect to pub­lish­ing un­der a Cre­ative Com­mons li­cense and some sort of stop to ad­ver­tis­ing (per­haps mim­ick­ing a bit of the BBC model). In your po­si­tion as the head of CBC News, is this some­thing you think is worth ex­plor­ing?

As a pub­lic broad­caster, CBC (like the BBC, but to a less de­gree) has been crit­i­cized for us­ing pub­lic money to pur­sue the lo­cal news an­gle at the ex­pense of lo­cal legacy me­dia. Any com­ments on that?

CBC has been in lo­cal news for­ever. Even if you look at lo­cal dig­i­tal news, we were one of the first in the space. And I’m pretty sure news­pa­pers are shoot­ing video, pro­duc­ing pod­casts and do­ing other things. So I think it is a red her­ring ar­gu­ment and does noth­ing to solve their busi­ness case. It cer­tainly doesn’t serve the pub­lic in­ter­est, in terms of what the pub­lic says it wants and needs. And it pre­vents us from hav­ing the real con­ver­sa­tion. If we put the au­di­ence first and the pub­lic ser­vice first, that’s not the right way to frame the con­ver­sa­tion.

Let’s talk about the https://beta.the­globe­and­mail.com/news/politics/can­con-net­flix-melanie-joly/ar­ti­cle36415719/?ref=http://www.the­globe­and­mail.com& re­sponse to the Shat­tered https://beta.the­globe­and­mail.com/news/politics/can­con-net­flix-melanie-joly/ar­ti­cle36415719/?ref=http://www.the­globe­and­mail.com& Mir­ror re­port and the new fund­ing regime that has been an­nounced. There are points made about the lack of de­tail in this re­port, par­tic­u­lar when it comes to legacy me­dia out­lets. The re­port has been largely her­alded for not giv­ing in to the rhetoric about the need for a bailout of fail­ing non-in­no­va­tive busi­nesses. What is your take on what has been said?

CBC is en­cour­aged by the idea of a Cre­ative Canada and the for­ma­tion of a Cre­ative In­dus­tries Coun­cil. The in­creases to the Cana­dian Me­dia Fund were wel­come, as well as the man­date to take a look at the var­i­ous acts.

We’re pleased that the ideas of an ad-free CBC haven’t been shot down, although it’s not clear where we’re go­ing with it at this point. So what I would say is that there are things in it that were def­i­nitely wel­comed, but there’s still a lot that we don’t know.

So as you said ear­lier about the Shat­tered Mir­ror be­ing the be­gin­ning of the con­ver­sa­tion, I guess it’s fair to say that the Minister’s re­sponse to it helps keep that con­ver­sa­tion go­ing. But we’re nowhere close to fi­nal­iz­ing what the me­dia land­scape in this coun­try is go­ing to look like for the next five to ten years and be­yond. Right. There are dif­fer­ent is­sues and en­vi­ron­ments at the na­tional, in­ter­na­tional, and lo­cal lev­els. Peo­ple in­volved in drama (and CBC is a part of that) are com­pet­ing with the world pro­duc­tions that spend some­times five, six times what we would spend. So the cre­ation of a global mar­ket and try­ing to pre­serve Cana­dian con­tent and com­mu­nity sto­ries within that is a re­ally im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tion, but not an easy fix.

In your role at CBC, what keeps you awake at night?

I deal with com­plex is­sues pretty much ev­ery day, but I worry most about peo­ple en­gag­ing. I worry about cre­at­ing im­pact and telling sto­ries that mat­ter.

I’m al­ways wor­ried about money. Work­ing at CBC, I’ve seen my share of cuts year over year over year while our out­put con­tin­u­ally ex­pands.

We’re re­de­vel­op­ing our nightly news and cur­rent af­fairs pro­gram, The Na­tional, right now. It’s not just a tele­vi­sion show any­more. It’s a dig­i­tal brand that lives in dif­fer­ent ways — not only in one dig­i­tal en­vi­ron­ment, but in many. Even when you in­te­grate your work­flow, it re­quires added re­sources. So we’ve been very in­no­va­tive in terms of reimag­in­ing how news­rooms work, but there’s a cap on that. The ecosys­tem is closed and the out­put only grows. So as a busi­ness leader, that’s what I worry about.

As a pub­lic broad­caster, I worry about en­gag­ing Cana­di­ans and re­flect­ing the shift­ing and chang­ing of our coun­try.

As a jour­nal­ist, I worry about us con­tin­u­ing to lead and keep our stan­dards high and do­ing it in a trans­par­ent way. There are many things I worry about.

I guess as a pub­lic broad­caster, you’re sub­ject to a height­ened scru­tiny from the gen­eral pub­lic. Do you find it ex­hil­a­rat­ing or frus­trat­ing to be in the spot­light of Cana­di­ans who are ba­si­cally see­ing how their tax dol­lars are be­ing spent at CBC?

I be­lieve in the mis­sion of CBC and I be­lieve we need to be ac­count­able to the pub­lic. So it re­ally comes with the ter­ri­tory. I know that some of my coun­ter­parts in the pri­vate side of me­dia are amazed and shocked at what gar­ners pub­lic re­ac­tion. It is a dif­fer­ent way of op­er­at­ing and you ex­pect ev­ery­thing you do to be an­a­lyzed in a 360⁰ way. It can af­fect nim­ble­ness some­time, but the fact that we have that obli­ga­tion is some­thing I wel­come.

As a fi­nal ques­tion, what ex­cites you about the fu­ture of me­dia?

I think it’s an in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing time for me­dia. Sto­ry­telling is evolv­ing in terms of how peo­ple tell sto­ries, such as we see on YouTube and other spa­ces today. Tech­nol­ogy has made it eas­ier for more peo­ple to tell sto­ries and there’s all kinds of cre­ativ­ity out there.

I think CBC, in par­tic­u­lar, is well-po­si­tioned. We reach 54% of mil­len­ni­als in this coun­try — not on tele­vi­sion, but dig­i­tally. I’m ex­cited to see new for­mats and av­enues for sto­ry­telling we now have.

So I’m not daunted by dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion. I think it’s an in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing time to be in this busi­ness.

Jen­nifer, thank you so much for your time. I have to say we share your ex­cite­ment and be­lieve that me­dia plays an in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant role in a demo­cratic so­ci­ety. And the op­por­tu­ni­ties that tech­nol­ogy presents to us — although chal­leng­ing and per­haps scary at first — are mas­sive in terms of how they can bet­ter serve so­ci­ety.

I also like to add my per­sonal thanks for Brodie Fen­lon’s in­volve­ment in our TED workshop in Van­cou­ver ear­lier this year. From speaking with par­tic­i­pants, I know they ap­pre­ci­ated the in­sights com­ing from CBC’s Se­nior Di­rec­tor of Dig­i­tal News who got re­ally in­volved in help­ing to shape some of the ideas around solv­ing the chal­lenges our in­dus­try is fac­ing.

I would like to wish you all the best with The Na­tional and thank you once again for shar­ing your thoughts with us.

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