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The Impact of Bell Media Layoffs on the Future of News, Media, and Radio: What Lies Ahead?

A few days ago it became abundantly clear that Bell Canada was laying off and shutting down numerous radio stations, radio shows, and radio staff, both technicians and hosts; which translates into approximately 4,800 jobs (approximately 9-10%) and 45 of its 105 radio stations across Canada. This represents the most significant cuts in the past 30 years.

But the question needs to be asked, why?

There's no obvious and simple answer.

Bell Canada says the move is expected to save the company $150 million to $200 million in 2024 and $250 million per year thereafter.

The media industry says it's the government dragging its feet. The two legislative initiatives aimed at bolstering Canada’s beleaguered media industry - Bill C-18 (the Online News Act) designed to mandate compensation from tech behemoths to Canadian news providers for their content, and Bill C-11, which modernizes the Broadcasting Act, obligating digital platforms to advance Canadian content - were too long in the coming.

Laid off staff says it's corporate greed, citing profits and suggesting radio stations were still profitable and necessary.

Where does the truth lie? I think many other questions need to be asked.

When Bell Canada says the move will save the company $150-200 million this year and a quarter billion dollars each year afterwards, is this to say they are losing this money yearly? Or is this just corporate greed?

CEO Mirko Bibic said (and I need to break these down in points),

1) Bell Canada expects to lose over $250 million in legacy phone revenues every year.

2) Bell Media’s advertising revenues declined by $140 million in 2023 and

3) the unit continues to incur more than $40 million in annual operating losses despite having the most-watched network of local TV stations.

Legacy Phone Revenues....Let's call it what it is: Land lines. Antiquated Land Lines. Your telephone that's plugged into your wall. Bell is desperately clinging onto something that is so outdated, once the new generations take over, well, I doubt they will be any land lines left. It is a near obsolete technology. The old adage is true: if you're not riding the wave of change, you're under it. Keep up or get out. This quarter billion dollar a year loss will only go up.

Advertising revenue declined by $140 million in 2023. Compared to what? 2020? 2021? 2022? The news/media blitz of the pandemic, with everyone fearfully watching for any news? Is this a fair assessment?

And then there's the claim of "$40 million in operating losses despite having the most-watched network of local TV stations." There's a contradiction in this statement. Taking Bibic's claim at face value, if these are the most-watched network of local TV stations and they're still suffering a $40 million annual loss, you're doing something wrong.

What about the media industry's claim it is the government's slow reaction that's to blame?

Well, it would appear - right or wrong - a large majority of viewers are watching their media/news via social media platforms, and some larger platforms (ie Facebook) either won't carry these news medias or want to charge a fee to do so. Want a service? Pay for it. They certainly will charge you. Should a business or industry that can't (or as we've just seen, won't) keep up or compete be artificially bolstered to stay afloat? This would be the opposite of progress.

But there's another aspect that none of the above three points touches upon.

A model of news reporting had, years ago, slipped virtually unnoticed into our business model.

I have a 37+ year background in print/publishing industry (and that includes a brief stint at the Ottawa Citizen when it as a true newspaper).

Decades ago it began in the newspapers. There was a sudden shift in journalism from accuracy and truth to simply being the first to report. (If it was in error or missing details, this could be updated or retracted or corrected at a later date or in the back columns of tomorrow's news.) What was important was that they were the FIRST to report on something. In time this slowly but surely led to the reduction of editors (because, let's face it, having an article go through a true editor only would slow the reporting process down).

This created a Y in the road. Two divergent paths; one into writing, books, and publishing; the other into TV news media.

(Although not relevant to this topic, in the books and publishing industry, this would ultimately lead to the near wholesale decimation of true editors and the world we now live in where many (not all) online editors for hire do not have the qualifications and are ultimately just running your manuscript through a word processor and charging you for it).

But this reduction of editors would spill over into the TV news media. We would see this competitive race to be first evolve into the 24-hour news stream. The philosophy being, You can't be first if you're not broadcasting all the time!

Not considering the 24-hour news media channels, I believe we've seen this hit its crescendo during the Covid-19 pandemic; or at least we became painfully aware of it.

Did we really need to see the same news reported - nay repeated - at 6am, 9am, 6pm, and 11pm?

It's a rhetorical question. No, we didn't.

Like Netflix and Disney+ lamenting the perceived loss of revenue compared to 2020-2021, this was a spike; a unique period of time; not a benchmark.

The math is simple. What happens when you go from repeating the same (possibly true, but definitely first) news at 6am, 9am, 6pm, and 11pm down to a single newscast? It's a 75% reduction (or outright gone considering we can get our news via our phones instantly). Plain and simple.

Are the staff, technicians, camera operators, hosts, anchors, journalists, weather people, and any and all I've not mentioned to blame for this? Of course not. They are victims and are nevertheless still out of a job. The last thing I want to come off as is insensitive. These are real people, no different than you and I, that have lost their means of income and are going through a stressful and fearful time, and my heart bleeds for them.

But this path, this pattern, won't stop until we understand the why behind it.

It was years, possibly decades of quantity over quality.

I think the fault lies on an industry level. I don't think this is corporate greed.

I think this is a corporate pirate philosophy: take all you can here and now - give nothing back.

I think this is severe shortsightedness.

I think this is a lack of investment in technology and advancement - old fearful cronies desperately clinging onto their a crumbling empire.

I think this is an example of corporate head's complete bankruptcy of innovation.

I think this is a stifling of creativity.

This is a lack of progress and holding an industry back and outright fear of evolving.

But another - possibly callus - voice says, horror vacui. Nature abhors a vacuum.

That if radio stations are still profitable and necessary, this void will be filled.

This could very well be the catalyst needed. Remove Bell Media from the equation. Their corporate philosophy is flawed; greedy, fearful, shortsighted, innovatively bankrupt, repressive, neophobic.

The question I would like to leave you with, is this: What radio/news do you want to see Ottawa serviced with? What should the new Ottawa radio/news media landscape look like?


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