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BOB WAKEHAM: All glory is fleeting, even in journalism

Fred Hutton was the subject of K.T.'s editorial cartoon last Saturday.
Fred Hutton was the subject of K.T.'s editorial cartoon last Saturday. — K.T./Telegram file cartoon

Watching the Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King journalistic soap opera a few weeks back — the two CBS stars keeping North America breathless as they debated where they might continue their millions-per-year careers — I had no way of knowing that right here in little old Newfoundland we’d have our own editorial shuffle on public display.

I’m talking, of course, about nomadic reporter Fred Hutton, who left VOCM News with great fanfare just a couple of years ago to take over the co-hosting job at CBC Radio’s “St. John’s Morning Show. Now, in a move that must have pissed off his Mother Corp bosses, he has left the Crown corporation offices and returned —gasp! — to VOCM to co-host its morning show.

The viewing and listening public, and not just the journalistic junkies, would be aware that this is the same Fred the Reporter who bolted from his long-standing seat alongside Lynn Burry at the NTV Evening News anchor desk not so long ago to head up VOCM News.

And, by the media gods, as if the Hutton curveballs weren’t enough to give us a Newfoundland taste of those U.S. anchor manoeuvres, Burry herself quietly retired from NTV, just a few weeks after her main competitor in the evening news racket — the CBC’s Debbie Cooper — made a more publicized departure to the journalistic pasturelands.

OK, so there weren’t millions at stake in the Hutton sweepstakes, but he has made as many moves as MHA Paul Lane, and his travels have given me pause to reflect a bit on the Hutton/Wakeham connections, the latest chapter in my old fart saga.

The viewing and listening public, and not just the journalistic junkies, would be aware that this is the same Fred the Reporter who bolted from his long-standing seat alongside Lynn Burry at the NTV Evening News anchor desk not so long ago to head up VOCM News.

I worked with Hutton for a brief period in 1989 when he took a summer job at “Here and Now” keeping track of cameramen at CBC TV, a position that did not portend the making of a journalistic figure of note.

And Hutton was anchoring NTV News when I was running “Here and Now” in the early ’90s, at a time when the Stirling newscast was being demolished in the ratings by the CBC. My late friend, John Furlong, would describe NTV viewership in characteristically saucy fashion: “There are more Newfoundlanders watching the security camera feed at Sobeys.”

But how things have changed. Hutton was a fixture at NTV when the private crowd gradually gained on the high-powered “Here and Now,” and eventually surpassed the public broadcasting types in the ratings battle, with the CBC now a very distant second.

There is an abundance of reasons for the dramatic switch in viewership, and it would take a good-sized essay to outline them all, but to the credit of Hutton, Burry and others, NTV took full advantage of some amazingly dumb management and editorial moves at the CBC, and left the corporation performer in their dust.

As for the “Morning Show,” I worked there for several years in the mid-’80s, not as a host like Hutton (the hosts back then were, for the most part, traffic cops with classic CBC voices, the journalism supplied by what were called writer-broadcasters, yours truly included.)

We couldn’t compete with the music and prize-winning jingles of VOCM, and were more than content to deliver virtually non-stop news and current affairs programming for a loyal audience in the eastern part of the province.

But some time ago (my aging skull prevents me citing specifics here), VOCM began to think of itself as a news station, not just a public relations endeavour, and began to provide journalistic options for the niche crowd of listeners at the CBC.

And the CBC, not coincidentally, began to take on some of the folksy look and feel of the privates, giving away mugs and tuques, and counting turkeys collected by both radio and television stars for “those in need” at Christmas. The two shows competed mightily for listeners.

And Hutton — God bless his cotton socks — was comfortable with both mandates, and so began his floor crossings.

I happened to see him at an Atlantic Journalism Awards banquet two years back, and he was proud as a peacock as he led his troops up to the podium to receive accolades for VOCM’s editorial achievements, a regular cheerleader, lacking only a set of pom-poms.

But it was to the CBC he scooted not long after that evening. Now, as I have noted, he is returning to nestle in the bosom of VOCM.

Hutton is in demand, and he should savour these times — the big fish in a small pond; because they won’t last forever.

Case in point: several years ago, I heard tell after the fact of a CBC editorial meeting during which producers were debating who they might contact to deliver a commentary on a matter then burning up the airwaves.

I was told that a very young member of the editorial troop thought I might be an asset.

“How about that old guy with the gravelly voice?” she wondered aloud.

So, Fred Hutton, it won’t be too long before you’re “yesterday’s hero,” and some producer with a pimply face, barely out of school, might be asking: “How about that bald guy who worked for both the CBC and VOCM morning shows once upon a time?”

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com


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