Radio / Television

COMMENTARY: LaFlamme buyout evidence no one immune as broadcast journalism finds its place in digital age

By Connie Thiessen

WHEN WADE OOSTERMAN took the helm of Bell Media early last year, he signalled that the division was going through unprecedented transition following three rounds of top-down layoffs – from the executive level to more than 200 front-line employees – many well-known and long-serving anchors, reporters and hosts across radio and television.

In his first memo to employees as president of Bell Media in Feb. 2021, the former head of Bell Mobility called the restructuring “an unfortunate and often high-profile reflection of the change necessary for Bell Media to prevail in a transforming sector that has also been uniquely impacted by COVID-19.”

He added that the division’s updated structure reflected “the reality of sweeping change facing our organization…the way Canadians consume media, the ongoing torrent of new viewing and listening options…”

Lisa LaFlamme’s (above rightsudden release as chief anchor of CTV National News illustrates that no one is immune as terrestrial television audiences decline in the 18-49 “money” demo and traditional broadcasters struggle to carve out a digital revenue path, particularly where news is concerned.

Amid the outrage on social media some have mused it’s a clear case of ageism, others a diversity play with the hiring of Omar Sachedina, who will very capably take up the chief anchor and senior editor role in September. I myself was asked by the Toronto Star to weigh in for their coverage in which I suggested the move’s underlying motivation is likely Bell Media’s desire to chase revenue streams congruent with changing consumer behaviour.

Layoffs aren’t new, neither is the lack of civility, nor the shareholder return focus of media companies owned by publicly-traded entities.

What is new is the near certainty now that most journalists and other media workers will be packaged out prematurely, cutting short careers and in the process the earned wisdom, experience and knowledge that have historically been the guiding editorial lights in newsrooms everywhere.

As a reporter friend commented recently “the institutional memory of our newsroom is walking out the door day by day.”

There are few journalists in the current television landscape who will receive the kind of send off Lloyd Robertson (above left) was granted when he was allowed to gracefully exit the network at age 77 after 41 years as a national news anchor (albeit a decade ago before the significant shift to streaming) or Peter Mansbridge when he retired from CBC in 2017 at age 69, capping a more than 45-year career with the public broadcaster.

In the current climate, the life span of most broadcast journalism careers is now 20-30 years, not accounting for those who’ll leave to pursue opportunities outside the industry or escape the toll of increased workloads and growing harassment.

It’s not all bad news. The drop in traditional newsroom resources is being offset to a degree by the growth of digital positions and new media outlets and platforms. Good journalism is continuing to be produced, and many made redundant have reinvented themselves as podcasters and Substack bloggers. But in a precarious landscape for journalists working in a precarious time, let’s not forget the value of lived experience in our newsrooms as broadcast journalism finds its place in the digital age.

Connie Thiessen is the editor of Broadcast Dialogue, where this article first appeared.