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For eight months or so, I’d been working as a casual writer on the local CBC supper hour TV news. Eight or 10 times a month, they’d call me in when a regular writer was sick or on holiday. The casual writer’s job is to write the intros to reporters’ stories that are read from the teleprompter by our two anchors, Tony Parsons and Gloria Macarenko. We also write voice-overs: 15-second scripts of local, national, and international stories that the anchors read. We edit the video images of those stories. And we spend a lot of time writing “supers” (the names of the people who flash up on screen) and location tabs (cities, or street addresses) and other things.
To do this work, you need to be an editor, a software technician, a keyboardist extraordinaire, an expert in the style and spelling of place names and titles. And you have to work fast. So fast that often you just throw down the words, make sure the facts are approximately correct, and get it out. (Among the many economies in TV news copy is the elimination of verbs: “A raging fire in Surrey. Three firefighters with smoke inhalation. A devastated neighbourhood. Full story at 6!”)
One Thursday in July, I get a call just before 10 a.m. Can I come in right away? One of the two regular writers has called in sick. I’m in the newsroom on Hamilton Street at 11:30 a.m.—75 minutes into the normal shift. The projected lineup for that day’s show comes up:
1. A 30-second “sting” about the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
2. A 30-second voice-over on the London premiere of the final Harry Potter movie.
3. A 40-second voice-over about the rescue of a lost hiker in Lions Bay.
4. A voicer on a seniors’ home in Abbotsford targeted by a robber.
5. A voicer on a plane crash in Harrison Bay, with two dead.
6. A voicer about the coroner’s report on a UBC student overdosed on cocaine.
I have to find the videotape, assemble it, edit it, write the scripts to fit the allotted time, and make sure everything is ingested by the computer monster that delivers the show to our handful of viewers. I’m skipping lunch.
There’s more. I’m also assigned to three reporters’ “packs.” These are the full stories, prepared by individual reporters, that appear on the night’s newscast. “War Over” is a two-minute story on an Abbotsford couple who lost two sons in Afghanistan. “Stranger Tattoo” is an offbeat feature about a foreign student who asks strangers to tell the stories of their tattoos. (Hey, it’s local news.) The third story, “Hot Dog,” is about a police dog left in an SUV for three hours. That one will be fed in from CHEK-TV in Victoria by 5:15 p.m. I’ll have a 17-minute window to make sure the story is in our computer, and to write the intro and insert the proper super information.
The next two hours are a blur. I work furiously on seven voice-overs while the other writers, editors, producers, and reporters (the lucky ones) take lunch and toilet breaks. By 5 o’clock, I congratulate myself. One more voice-over, then the “Hot Dog” story, and my workday will be done. Another day, another $253.
The lineup editor drops the “Hot Dog” script on my desk. Holy Jesus, what happened to the time? There’s no time to scan the reporter’s script. Poor bloody dog. Who’d leave a mutt in an SUV, in sweltering heat, to die a cruel death? I write what I think is quite an evocative eulogy to a 10-month-old German shepherd that would not live to do the heroic police work he’d been trained for.
I type 100 words into the computer, include the super, and am delighted to see there’s a full minute to spare.
Tony reads my words exactly as I’ve written them, something along the lines of “Police on Vancouver Island are today investigating the death of a police dog left in an overheated vehicle,” then throws to the reporter’s story.
Somebody in the newsroom shouts: “The dog didn’t die!” My world freezes.
“Yeah, he survived,” somebody else says.
“Who wrote that he died?” It’s a Greek chorus of recrimination.
I raise my hand like a schoolboy caught passing notes.“I wrote that; it’s mine.”
“Somebody write a correction for Tony. Now!” I recognize the voice. It’s Wayne Williams, the executive producer. He’s hovering a few feet away but avoids eye contact.
A minute later, Parsons, veteran of a million newscasts, with a voice that can make even a mistake sound like music, apologizes on the air. I hear and feel nothing except a faint pressure in my ears. It’s a silence I remember from Bosnia during the war years, just after a bomb exploded. It sucks the air and all noise out of the environment.
The silence is broken when somebody shouts “Dog killer!” There’s laughter. I laugh back, recalling the National Lampoon headlined: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine We’ll Kill This Dog.”
Half an hour later, leaving the newsroom, it occurs to me to wonder why we’d carry a story about a dog that didn’t die; that was, in fact, in pretty good shape when they opened the SUV door. I hate that damn dog for surviving. He’ll never know my humiliation.
The next morning, Wayne Williams calls me into his office. “You’ve broken a trust,” he tells me. He doesn’t even bother to shut the door. “How can the anchors ever trust anything you write after this?”
I blink. “It’s a dog, Wayne. For Christ’s sake. A mistake made in the heat of the moment, at the end of a crazy shift. I was called in late, thrown into a—”
In any case, he interrupts, I’m not suited for the job. I’m too slow. There’s nothing wrong with my writing, but they need somebody who’s fast and can handle the technology. He’s sorry. I’m to invoice for the day’s work and get out.
I’m a 62-year-old hack working with a bunch of kids. I was doing this job because I needed the money, yes, but also because it’s a connection to the profession I love. Three of the people in the newsroom were my students when I taught broadcast at UBC. Now here I am, an anachronism near the end of his string, taking up an entry-level space, trying to defend a wretched piece of copy about an overheated dog.
I’m told everything in life, comedy and tragedy alike, carries a lesson. In the wreckage of this fiasco, there must be something useful to extract. For instance, how did a journalist with 42 years’ experience find himself in a newsroom, sweating bricks, writing about a dog left in an SUV? How is it that a news anchor, paid an enormous salary to read words from a teleprompter, was not given the opportunity to read his copy before he went on air?
Animal stories are—like murder, fires, sex, celebrities, and weather—a staple of “action news,” if you believe the style-over-substance gurus at Frank N. Magid Associates, advisers to the CBC and other networks for decades. If the stories aren’t powerfully visual (Anthony Weiner’s distended underpants, police lights flashing over a corpse on a dark street), they probably won’t make the local news.
The daily battle for ratings requires an embrace of the flashily trivial—talkers, they’re called, the stories people discuss around the water cooler. It’s why, during the Stanley Cup playoffs, a story about how much people were paying for Roberto Luongo jerseys held prominence over a more important report about the record-breaking debt load of Canadian families.
Long ago, TV news set public discourse; today, local news is an income generator that follows public appetite. That’s why you see so many “news” stories about iPhone apps, “barefoot” running shoes, and the new KFC bunless chicken sandwich (yes, I wrote that voice-over, too). News directors get instant updates on how many people are watching. The suits will tell you those ratings don’t dictate content—trust me, they do. And that creates a working culture that disrespects the talents and the professionalism of many fine reporters, producers, and writers.
On my long walk out, I shake hands with Drew Kerekes, the lineup editor. He is surprised and sympathetic—and distracted. “I hate to sound selfish,” he says. “But are they bringing in somebody today to replace you?”