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Watching the Watchdog: Here's How the CBC can Survive the Cuts

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Veteran broadcast newsman Tim Knight contributes a regular column to HuffPost, analyzing and rating broadcast and online journalistic programs.

Date -- Thursday, March 29, 2012

Subject -- Open letter to the CBC president and CEO after the government budget announced this afternoon.

Dear President Lacroix,

By now, you know most of the gory details of the damage. Ten per cent cut to the CBC. Blood on the floor. From some, wails of anguish. From others, roars of applause.

You have my deepest sympathy, sir. I've worked as a journalist at both PBS and CBC so know enough about the importance of public service broadcasting in our democracy to fear, as no doubt do you, that it's greatly threatened.

You said recently that you and your team are already planning how CBC can survive the Big Cut: "We're talking about making some really tough choices."

So allow me to make a few suggestions about those tough choices.

First, recognize the overwhelming importance of the CBC's news service to Canada. Like the BBC, upon which CBC is modeled, news is the flagship of the Mother Corp. When people think of CBC, for better or for worse, it's the news that first comes to mind.

Because news is -- far more than other programming -- the soul of CBC's public service mandate.

Whatever happens to the other departments, CBC news must be saved. For that to happen, it must be entirely re-thought and remodeled, dragged -- no doubt kicking and screaming -- into the 21st Century.

The time of the great networks is over. The Internet and social media have won. Viewers and listeners can find any information they want, where they want, when they want. If it's any consolation, in the future the private networks will be just as threatened as the public broadcaster. But they are far more flexible and have no public service mandate.

I leave it to others, better qualified, to advocate breaking the corporation into separate companies, dropping advertising on T.V., getting out of sports etc. etc. And I leave it to others (mostly much younger than you or me) to work on the technical details of a new Internet-based organization.

Instead, let me concentrate here on news content.

If it is to survive and properly serve Canadians, CBC news has to learn to tell stories again.

In the end (with all respect to bloggers, citizen journalists, Tweeters, Facebookers and the like who specialize in pure information), the ancient art of storytelling is by far the most efficient way to transfer information and the meaning of that information in broadcasts or on the Internet.

Always has been. Always will be.

Storytelling isn't just having a beginning, a middle, and an end -- as in so many CBC news reports. Anyone can put a bunch of facts together, one after the other, and call it storytelling. It's not.

Storytelling is at the very heart of our humanity. And, through our humanity, our self-interest. So we hang in to find out what happens. And we care.

Storytelling has an ancient structure -- context, dramatic development, climax, sometimes denouement. It goes back through the mists of the millennia, to our very roots, touches something ancient, primary, and elemental inside us all.

Storytelling seems to be bred in the bone -- part of our genes -- like a child's ability to pick up language. Over the millennia, passing on information through storytelling has, quite literally, helped humans survive in a hostile world.

Storytelling makes information relevant, accessible, digestible, and retainable.

Storytelling's genius is that it enables the viewer to understand both the events and the meaning of those events.

Storytelling is pretty much the same in all tribes, everywhere.

Verdict -- When you unsheathe the axe or the scalpel and make the inevitable cuts sir, please keep in mind that CBC News, far more than any other CBC programming, is a precious national resource.

It must be saved.

It must be radically reformed.

And storytelling is the single most effective way to do it.

One other thing: Isn't it time the CBC Board of Directors seated a journalist again? There hasn't been a single journalist in that august gathering since Peter Herrndorf and Trina McQueen, both dedicated to public service broadcasting, were ousted.