12/07/2012 05:18 EST | Updated 02/06/2013 05:12 EST

Watching the Watchdog: Telling Them Who's Boss

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

What:Keeping You on the Tube, the Mission of Broadcast News

Who:Wendy Freeman, President CTV News; Troy Reeb, Senior Vice-President News, Global TV; Jonathan Whitten, Executive Director, CBC News Content

Where: TMX Broadcast Centre, Toronto

Full Disclosure: Years ago both Jonathan Whitten and Steve Paikin attended my broadcast journalism workshops.

It's not often that I get to publicly tell three of the big bosses of Canada's main TV news networks that too many of their journalists are lousy storytellers.

And have the bosses listen. And even (more or less) agree.

The occasion is a recent debate sponsored by the worthy, influential and very establishment Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) -- motto: As Journalism Goes, So Goes Democracy.

The evening is about how to keep viewers watching TV news in this age of hungry aggregators (like HuffPost), Facebook and Twitter and the rest of social media.

Moderator is Steve Paikin who hosts TVOntario's The Agenda withSteve Paikin, which is undoubtedly the best interview show in Canada. He previously moderated, to considerable acclaim, the 2006, 2008 and 2011 federal election debates.

Paikin starts by reminding this threesome of network eagles that a recent Ipsos Reid poll for the CJF finds that most Canadians still get their daily news from the evening TV newscasts. Not social media.

This proves to be a mistake. The happy news so comforts the eagles that they turn into pussycats.

For instance, the private networks Freeman (CTV) and Reeb (Global) represent have spent many years and considerable treasure trying to destroy CBC TV, so they can seize its viewers, along with its advertising dollars. This evening though, the private eagle's criticism of the public broadcaster is so polite, so Canadian, you have to be an insider to even notice it.

Even worse, and in spite of expert Paikinian prodding, all three network eagles mostly ignore the entire purpose of the evening: Keeping You on the Tube. Instead of debating how to keep viewers watching -- thus forcing social media to stick to the things it does so well like "citizen journalism," kittens and nipslips -- they mostly praise and promote their own networks.

The closest they get to any significant discussion of how to keep television news alive and healthy into a deeply troubled future is:

Freeman: "People still want the trust and tradition and the credibility that the networks provide. And I think it'll always be that way."

Reeb: "The idea of the 6 p.m. newscast and the 11 p.m. newscast is going to be a consistently challenged model because it doesn't fit in certain people's schedules."

Whitten: "Television and scheduled television, I think, will almost always be a part of people's lives. There's no indication that that's going away anytime soon."

Finally, it's the audience's turn.

I can't resist. (The following is my much-shortened version of one exchange):

Knight: The mission of this evening was ... 'keeping you on the tube, the mission of broadcast news.' I don't think we handled that. I don't think we handled anything about how to keep people on the tube ... which I assume is why we're all gathered here. My suggestion to you all -- to answer the question on how to keep people watching us -- is to do far better storytelling than any of your people do.

Paikin: What are they not doing right about the way they tell stories?

Knight: Oh hell ... they almost always start [stories] at the end. Then they work back to the beginning by which time you've forgotten what happened at the end. Night after night they tell stories that have no logical structure. And the logical structure of storytelling is drama. How will it all turn out?

Paikin: Which of these three networks is the most egregious at doing what you've said?

Knight: The one I love most. Which is CBC. I worked for it [as lead trainer, TV journalism training] for many years.

Paikin: (Turns to Whitten) Do your people have a problem with storytelling?

Whitten: We train people. We have storytelling courses. We do push this. It may not always be the best. It may be an art form that requires more vigour in defending, but we're certainly still pushing. We're not giving it up and I can't see us giving it up any time soon.

Paikin: (To Freeman) Wendy, you've heard his criticism ...

Freeman: (To Knight) I do think you're right about storytelling. I think storytelling is the most important thing we have to do... something that will keep network television alive. Good storytelling ... it's so important. And we tell that to our reporters every day. Because in the end that's what we're about. And I'm glad you brought that up.

Reeb: I'm actually fully in agreement. It's an ongoing criticism that our news managers have of our reporters when they come back. What's the real story here? [We're not] putting the resources into original, contextual storytelling, adding some drama, telling the story with beginning and middle and end.

Who'da thunk it? All three network eagles agreeing (mostly) with me that storytelling is not only so very important for the future of TV news, but that their own journalists don't do it well!

They're right, of course. Their journalists don't do it well.

For instance, their anchors usually start stories at the end, the climax, reveal all the main facts, before handing over to the poor bloody reporter. The reporter then has to wade through all the same facts again. But with the climax already known, there's no glue, no remaining tension, no drama, to hold the viewer.

That's not storytelling. That's just pushing out facts. And fact, by themselves, are meaningless.

Lest we've confused you -- storytelling in journalism simply means telling the story in the same way it happened. Chronologically. That's because a story told chronologically is by far the most efficient, effective and understandable way of passing on information, one person to another, humans have ever invented.

And that's because -- you may have noticed -- life itself is chronological.

In journalistic storytelling, the anchor starts with the context and provides just enough information for the audience to understand the story to come. Then the reporter takes over to detail the dramatic development, the unfolding of the saga. And finally the reporter reveals the climax, the end of the journey, the point of the story.

That's the way great books, poems, songs and jokes unfold. Ever since humans started passing survival information to each other so many millennia ago, it's been the way storytellers in all cultures and languages have built tension and interest into their stories.

It's called traditional storytelling. It's the best way to make the audience hang in, not go to the bathroom or open another beer. At least, not until its learned the answer to the timeless question -- how does this fascinating story turn out?

Only real exception to telling news stories chronologically is when -- for journalistic reasons -- the event is so important that the climax must come first. War breaks out, for instance. Or the Prime Minister is arrested. (Nipslips don't count.)

When that happens, the anchor starts the story with the important and obvious climax while the reporter looks for a secondary climax. Then the reporter tells the story chronologically, ending with that secondary climax.

I have no doubt that all three network eagles, Freeman, Reeb and Whitten, agree with the above.

And agree that the magic of traditional storytelling is likely the only really effective weapon we have if we're to save TV journalism from the ravages of social media and growing audience disinterest.

So why on earth don't the three eagles insist that their journalists tell news stories that way?

After all, they're the bosses.

Second disclosure: Tim Knight leads storytelling workshops. Check his two short articles on the subject -- The Art of Storytelling and The Art of Storytelling ll.