‘The optics of it are not good’: Lisa LaFlamme’s shock ouster at CTV stuns colleagues, but not industry watchers

One of the most recognizable journalists in Canada announced Monday that her contract had been ended by her employer of more than three decades.

Lisa LaFlamme, who has been chief anchor and senior editor at CTV National News, delivered her latest news not from behind the desk where she has long been a fixture, but in a video posted to social media.

Former and current CTV News employees who spoke to the Star expressed dismay at LaFlamme’s ouster, with some in particular describing a “culture of fear” in the newsroom driven by staff cuts and management they said has at times reacted negatively to being challenged.

“If they could do this to Lisa LaFlamme, nobody at CTV news is safe,” one former employee speculated. They and the others who spoke to the Star requested anonymity due to concerns about professional repercussions.

“Recognizing changing viewer habits, CTV recently advised LaFlamme that it had made the business decision to move its acclaimed news show, CTV National News, and the role of its Chief News Anchor in a different direction,” read a Bell Media statement.

In a memo sent to staff and obtained by the Star, the company’s head of news, Michael Melling, thanked LaFlamme for her time with the network. Melling was appointed to his job of vice-president in January.

“Following an outstanding 30-year career with CTV, Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme is departing the network having made an indelible impact on journalism and broadcasting in Canada,” the memo read.

LaFlamme began her career in 1989 in Kitchener, Ont., according to CTV. LaFlamme has covered the war in Afghanistan, federal elections, natural disasters, the global pandemic and, most recently, the papal visit to Canada. She is considered a trailblazer for women in Canadian news broadcasting and in addition to a multitude of awards for broadcasting and journalism over the course of her career, has been named to the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada. She has been anchoring the network’s National News since 2011.

A producer described LaFlamme as “an idol” as well as “a mentor and a friend.”

Starting next month, Omar Sachedina will assume the role of chief news anchor and senior editor of CTV National News, the company announced Monday.

“This makes it all the more difficult for us, because Omar is an amazing journalist and we want to support and congratulate him as well.. ... But we are furious,” the producer told the Star.

Sachedina is a national affairs reporter for the network with 15 years of experience. Sachedina first joined CTV as a Toronto correspondent for CTV National News in 2009 and has covered national news and politics for the network.

In a separate email sent to staff, Melling said he was “excited” about the change.

“His journalistic experience and skill combined with a unique ability to connect with viewers make him the ideal choice to lead CTV National News,” it said.

Bell Media, Melling, Sachedina and LaFlamme did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment.

The stakes of the high-profile move could be high for CTV. Its nightly newscast consistently beats its competitors in the ratings, but has also struggled to become the definitive source on new media platforms.

The traditional Canadian TV industry is in the midst of widespread experimentation and significant change that has elevated the importance of building audiences on digital platforms, including YouTube and TikTok.

In June, public broadcaster CBC announced plans to shake up its newscast “The National” by putting journalist Adrienne Arsenault in the top anchor job ahead of plans to launch a free 24-hour live streaming channel this fall.

Omar Sachedina has been named Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor of CTV National News, effective Sept. 5. He replaces the long-serving Lisa LaFlamme, who was told in June that her contract would not be renewed.

CTV, owned by a telecommunications giant that for years fought against an inevitable move away from traditional TV, could be feeling similar pressures to appeal to digital audiences with news coverage.

In 2020, a business partnership with Quibi to produce bite-sized news segments fell apart when the billion-dollar U.S. streaming company folded.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, former head of the University of Toronto’s journalism program, said he imagines that executives might have been looking for a new face to lead the network in an increasingly digital media landscape.

“The demographics of journalism have changed so much in a short period of time,” Dvorkin said. “And the quest for a new, more diverse, younger audience is constant.”

Last year the union representing some Bell Media workers said a total of 210 employees in the Toronto area had been laid off, including about 100 union members connected to Toronto television newsrooms.

Kiran Nazish, the director of The Coalition For Women In Journalism who knows LaFlamme personally, raised questions of sexism and ageism.

“Compare this with male journalists of equal footing in Canadian media who lasted their tenures properly and respectfully. Lloyd Robertson retired at age 77; Peter Mansbridge retired at age 69,” Nazish told the Star. LaFlamme is 58 years old.

“It’s a blatant and concerning misjudgment by CTV management. Nonetheless, for Canadians, Lisa will remain a legend, who brought richness, compassion and a distinct voice to news anchorship that cannot be replaced by anyone.”

The move is in line with increased efforts by Bell Media to seek revenue generators outside of broadcasting, said Connie Thiessen, the editor of industry trade publication Broadcast Dialogue.

“This is not entirely unexpected,” Thiessen said. “You have an audience that is increasingly consuming the news products in other ways, so you have a dwindling terrestrial television audience and you have a senior anchor making, by all accounts, more than $750,000 a year.”

But, she added, the manner in which LaFlamme was let go raises questions about how the situation was handled, particularly as previous anchors for the program retired much later in life and in a more amicable manner.

“Whether you were a fan of hers or not, the optics of it are not good,” she said.

“On June 29, I was informed that Bell Media made a ‘business decision’ to end my contract, bringing to a sudden close my long career with CTV News,” LaFlamme said in the video. “I was blindsided and am still shocked and saddened by Bell Media’s decision.”

CTV is probably hoping the public has a short memory, added Thiessen.

A longtime employee at CTV spoke with praise of LaFlamme.

“She takes her role as senior editor very seriously. She has spoken up where she has seen a lack of coverage and where to devote more resources ... on the (war in) Ukraine, for example. She champions stories she believes in,” the source said.

In the newsroom Monday, journalists were “distraught, crying,” the source said, and felt “at a loss about what to do” because LaFlamme was “our biggest defender.”

The source added that, to her knowledge, LaFlamme had “several years” left in her most recent contract at CTV.

In her online statement, meanwhile, LaFlamme, thanked viewers and colleagues.

I guess this is my signoff from CTV,” said LaFlamme. “I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of you. To my incredible colleagues for their unwavering support, my dear friends and my loving family.”

“While it is crushing to be leaving CTV National News in a manner that is not my choice, please know reporting to you has truly been the greatest honour of my life.”

With files from The Canadian Press