Free online content is not to blame for CHCH's failure

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Late last week the news broke that CHCH TV, a television staple here in my hometown of Hamilton, was slashing its local coverage and firing a good deal of its staff. CHCH is owned by Channel Zero via a shell company, Channel 11 L.P. (limited partnership). It was that company, which effectively covered Channel Zero's fiduciary ass, that declared bankruptcy, and so the bloodletting began.

Friday's newscast was cancelled and staff were seen leaving the property, their office gear in hand. Almost immediately the news broke on Twitter and Facebook, as the downsized staffers spread the word and fellow journalists retweeted the bad tidings, two weeks before Christmas.

And, on social media, a curious thing happened. A Facebook post from another journalist in town captured the sentiment exactly. He wrote:

"For all those who are upset about the layoffs at CH TV ask yourself this. Do you willingly pay for quality, accurate news or do you prefer to get your information for free via bloggers, Facebook or that guy on Twitter who is "pretty sure" he knows the true story..."

The comment started a fascinating discussion, with many participants agreeing that the problem CHCH faced was the availability of free alternatives. I couldn't agree less.

And, I found it fascinating that in this discussion thread, and others I followed over the weekend, there was traction for the notion that somehow potential viewers of TV news getting inferior information online for free was the cause of the station's hard times.

However, nowhere in the online and print coverage about the CHCH job cuts did I see any mention of a shrinking audience. What I read was that national advertising dollars were diminishing, as were federal media grants -- both revenue the station relied on.

I also read how CHCH was at the bargaining table with Unifor a day before the layoffs and the bankruptcy notification. And how the limited partnership, Channel 11 L.P. was set up as a shell, the sole purpose of which was to produce the news for Channel Zero, thereby reducing Channel Zero's financial liabilities. As the story developed over the weekend, some fired employees were offered new jobs at a new shell company. So, it's pretty clear union busting was at play as well.

So, how viewers who take advantage of free online content get to carry the can on this is beyond me.

Those viewers didn't bargain in bad faith, leave employees with little notice and basic severance. Those viewers didn't set up a weasely, union-busting shell company. Nor were those viewers national advertisers who notoriously use their volume to demand cheap ad rates in print, radio and television.

And, it's odd that the general public is being chastised for reading newspaper content for free online in this case. Back when I was in the Hamilton Spectator newsroom we constantly complained that radio and television reporters were just "ripping and reading" our stories on air, for free. The irony is strong in this one.

No, newspapers and television stations don't fail because there are free alternatives. They don't fail because nobody wants to pay for news anymore. They fail because owners (or the owner's shareholders) have gotten too greedy, or lazy. They fail because advertisers have gotten too greedy or lazy. They fail because they have an infrastructure that can no longer be supported when they move to a medium without scarcity and they fail to adapt to that new reality. They fail because they make crappy TV and spend money on buying American content.

But blaming their failure on their online audience would suggest that the same audience was somehow responsible for its previous financial success. And there is no evidence that was ever true, since television content was always free, and in the case of CHCH, audience numbers have remained strong.

It is, of course, sad that employees lose their jobs. It's unfortunate that a local TV station is crumbling. But blaming it on free is like watching the work of an arsonist and getting angry at the wind.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: SonicTheHedgehogDude/Wikimedia Commons

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