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
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.