Kevin Newman: A messy goodbye to a respected figure in journalism
The abrupt end of an anchor’s career makes sense to HR experts and the executives hoping the audience will move on quickly, but it poisons the team.
By: Kevin Newman
I recognized all too well that stoic moment Lisa LaFlamme created on Twitter. Robbed of her usual platform for addressing an audience, she was on her own. Bell Media practice requires the instant elimination of your website profile, social media accounts and usual means of communication when you’re let go or lose your show. That’s what happened to me in 2014 when they abruptly cancelled a show I hosted on CTV News Channel without giving us the chance to address our audience. As I did then, Lisa turned to a platform she rarely used, and a new Twitter handle that headlined her name, minus the “CTV” that had been part of the corporate account.
She found another way to say goodbye.
She was at her family cottage, her familiar voice and face subdued but resolved, lifting the words of her statement so they sounded like she was just thinking them at that precise moment — the skill of an accomplished anchor — but undoubtedly she had thought about them for weeks. The weeks, I can only assume, it took for her lawyer to negotiate with the Bell Media executives who had taken the enormous gamble of cutting ties with an accomplished, successful and award-winning journalist, but also one of the main brands of their parent company. Her face will now have to be scraped off any Bell trucks nationwide installing fiber, digging new trenches, and trying to get you to sign up for their streaming subscriptions. Her smiling image at the CTV anchor desk had been used to represent authority and integrity for the entire Bell brand. And in one brash move, they trashed it.
I can’t really comment on the circumstances of Lisa’s departure, because I don’t know them. The dozens of texts I received from former colleagues generally aligns with the thesis of this unnamed source for Canadaland: there had been a power struggle with new management. Lisa is a friend, a former colleague, a former competitor, and someone I deeply respect, but we haven’t spoken in months. I have no insider knowledge of if or why her relationship with the new bosses running CTV News soured so quickly.
Soured most directly with VP Michael Melling, I am told, who was installed in January the day after Bell “parted ways” with former VP Wendy Freeman — another brutally fast transition that shocked the newsroom. Melling was the number two in the News division for several months before getting the top job, and is widely credited with championing a new business model for local newsrooms where on-air journalists also shoot their own stories, and sometimes edit them too. It’s a streamlined process that saved money, eliminated some jobs, and supported the corporate desire to respond to television’s challenging financial environment.
My remaining friends in the CTV newsroom hadn’t detected any significant changes he had in mind for CTV National News in his first six months on the job, and some found him easily approachable. But after Lisa’s brutal departure they worry something massive is afoot. If the anchor of Canada’s ratings-leading newscast, awarded best news anchor and newscast by her peers for many years, can be dumped so brutally, then is anything or anyone safe? What exactly was the “business decision” Bell Media PR talked about to justify the move? Or the “different direction” the company wants to take the venerable newscast and its new anchor? As is often the case in these moments, corporate PR and the people responsible for the decision would not comment. They had no interest in explaining their motives to their employees, let alone the viewers who pay the bills by watching. If there is a grand plan, no one is talking about it and that makes a newsroom super jumpy.
Lisa is certainly not the first to be eviscerated by television corporate executives eager to make their mark. It's what you accept and expect when you reach the top of the hypercompetitive and ego-driven business. Remember Anne Curry? Deborah Norville? Or … um … Kevin Newman? My seven-month tenure anchoring Good Morning America at ABC News ended with a phone call from my boss on my kitchen phone (yeah, it was a while ago) where he said he was replacing our anchor team the next morning. It was the third time it had happened to me. I had been bounced from the show’s weekend edition a few years earlier, and before that CBC Midday to make room for Ian Hanomansing (I left but he never took over, it turned out). In those cases of sudden change, ratings tend to continue to fall and the on-air team left behind struggles to paper over it. Ad revenue drops because of the controversy, and it can take years for the brand and ratings to recover. They often do, but not with the on-air choices abruptly chosen to replace a well-known anchor. The new folks, unfortunately, usually pay the price for the executive’s fickle fumble.
I have also been allowed to transition out of jobs when it was clear new leadership didn’t want me around any more. Here’s what I’ve learned. Transitions work when they are negotiated, followed with integrity by all sides, and business-like. They reassure staff, but more importantly they show respect for viewers who develop relationships with those who deliver the news. The brand is protected and the handoff appears evolutionary, not revolutionary.
When Lloyd Robertson retired as anchor of CTV National News, it was a six-month transition where Lisa gradually started becoming more familiar to viewers. When I departed Global National, audiences were given three months to know it was inevitable and I was able to hand off to Dawna Friesen. I honestly feel very badly for Omar Sachedina, who inherits none of that when he fills “the chair” Lisa will never sit in again. He is widely liked and respected within CTV News, and I have no doubt his considerable heart and kindness will carry him far. But the advice (or directives) he seems to have followed to conduct on-air interviews within 20 minutes of shocking viewers with the news of Lisa’s departure was abysmal.
The choice showed a tremendous lack of respect for legacy and was incredibly rude to viewers who had developed an attachment to Lisa over more than a decade. And it ensured Omar’s rough climb would be that much harder. Give the audience a few days’ grace, for heaven’s sake.
There is one other observation I can share, having watched and experienced many moments like these over my many years in television: the executives who execute a smooth on-air transition tend to last longer to make more changes. The abrupt end of an anchor’s career makes sense to HR experts and the executives hoping the audience will move on quickly, but it poisons the team. Undoubtedly some welcome the demise of those in powerful positions, but the instability and fear it instills makes people less trusting of a management team trying to ride and encourage change. When such a big gamble is met with silence and closed doors in the corner offices, bitterness sets in.
That’s not only true in newsrooms, of course, it applies everywhere.
Maybe it wasn’t Melling’s decision to advocate for LaFlamme’s removal so quickly. He hasn’t responded to attempts to reach him. If it was an edict from higher up he was left to manage, then he still faces a difficult future. His job, like that of a national anchor, is to protect his journalists from worrying about improper influence from powerful people. I know Lisa took that part of her work to heart, and it may have contributed to a power struggle that cost her the job she had poured her life into. But there had to be a better way to handle such a delicate transition at a time when trust in journalism is already ebbing. Eliminating one of the public’s most visible advocates of responsible journalism, a woman who broke the glass ceiling and sustained a ratings lead for a decade, is a strange way of protecting a rare legacy news brand, and ensuring reliable journalism endures.
Kevin Newman retired from CTV News in 2019.
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