Editor's Blog - How we work, how we make decisions, how we serve Canadians.

Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

Our Digital Mandate

Categories: Canada, Journalism

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There are some who would rather never see CBC News evolve.

When we began operations in the 1930s, a scene like you see in the picture above was pretty common. Given the intense look on some of their faces, they might very well have been listening to Lorne Greene convey some bad news from the early days of the Second World War. By the 1950s, that family would have gathered in front of a black-and-white television set, at a prescribed time, to find out what was going on in the world. But in the 21st century, a typical Canadian family gets news from multiple sources: desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, whenever it's convenient for them.

At CBC News, we have embraced that reality wholeheartedly. Our digital offerings are world-class: informative, creative and interactive. CBCNews.ca is immensely popular. It is the market leader in Canadian news. It's spawned its own community of voices and perspectives. Going digital has allowed us to experiment with formats that wouldn't even be options on radio or television - take as just one example our popular feature, Vote Compass, which has turned into a valuable resource for voters in five different federal or provincial elections. There are many other examples of different ways we serve Canadians uniquely online.

Some of our competitors have a problem with our success. One recently called us "the Death Star" of Canadian media, out to obliterate your local newspaper. Another said we're "nothing but a zombie" and we've outlived our usefulness, simply because we no longer restrict our activities to radio and television, which is what we're mandated to do by the Broadcasting Act.

While some private media commentators and owners have been calling for the demise of the public broadcaster for decades, their opposition to our expansion of online services is fairly recent. It often coincides with their own decisions to put their content behind paywalls. They're doing this not just because more and more people are viewing that content online for free, but because traditional print advertising is dropping dramatically. A report last year from Price Waterhouse Cooper predicts a $370 million drop in traditional advertising revenue for all Canadian newspapers between 2011 and 2016, to be offset by an increase of just $14 million in online advertising.

So newspapers would appear to have no choice but to ask readers to pay for online content. The jury is still out on whether enough people will subscribe to offset the loss of online advertising caused by the drop in visits of people who refuse to pay up. It seems to be working for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but not for many other organizations, at least not yet. Ironically, a decade or so ago many news organizations charged a fee for their featured online content, including their star columnists, and then decided to make all their content free. Now they want to charge again. It's always hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

We know that your news habits have changed. You may want the details of an important story right away, and you don't always want to wait for a radio newscast at the top of the hour, or one on television at suppertime or 10 o'clock. We also want to give you access to better context for our stories as well. On radio and TV, we can't re-broadcast every story related to the one you may be interested in now, but online, it's really simple to link to previous stories on the same topic.

We also need to make our content freely available online, to remain relevant, especially to younger Canadians. I don't have any comparable statistics for Canada, but I doubt they'd vary much from these findings from south of the border, in the Pew Research Center's State of the Media report earlier this year:

Online news consumption rose sharply the last two years, following the rapid spread of digital platforms. In fact, online was the only category of news that showed growth in Pew Research Center's 2012 News Media Consumption survey.

In 2012, about 39% of respondents got news online or from a mobile device "yesterday," (the day before they participated in the survey) up from 34% in 2010, when the survey was last conducted. And when other online and digital news sources are included, the share of people who got news from one or more digital forms on an average day rises to 50%, just below the audience for television news (which combines cable, local and network), but ahead of print newspapers and radio (29% and 33%, respectively). A further breakdown shows that 19% of respondents got news from social media and 16% did so from e-mail, while 8% said they'd listened to a podcast.

Our decision not to put our content behind a paywall has to do with our role as a public service broadcaster and our belief that access is part of that promise. And we're not alone among public broadcasters with respect to paywalls. The BBC, NPR, PBS and the ABC in Australia don't have one either. The other simple reason for not charging you for our news content is that you already own it. Canadians already pay for CBC. I don't want to think of the furor that would erupt if we decided to charge extra for our online news content. We have one exception, and that is the monthly fee charged for online streaming of CBC News Network. This is consistent with the subscription fees that are charged for that service on your cable and satellite bill.

As much as our critics would like to have us turn back the clock and stick to radio and television broadcasting, CBC News will not limit access to our content. Instead, we're finding ways to extend our reach to serve more Canadians and provide more value with our existing funding. It's why we've set up digital services in places such as Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, so we can provide more relevant content to Canadians living outside our biggest cities. We take our mandate to inform, enlighten and entertain seriously, and in 2013, we embrace digital distribution to achieve it.

I'll give the last word to a prominent Canadian newspaper publisher. Here's what Paul Godfrey of Postmedia said about all this to Steve Ladurantaye, who covers media issues for the Globe and Mail:

I'm not an anti-CBC person. It basically has a place in Canada, and I think getting worked up about [their free sites] won't change that so we've got to find a way to work it out. I've never been averse to competition, we'll compete for audience. I'm more concerned about Google.

Tags: How We Work

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