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Dawna Friesen: That billboard lady is actually shy

Dawna Friesen in Vancouver this week

The Globe and Mail

These are the things I take away from meeting Dawna Friesen. She doesn't own a TV set at the moment, but that will change. Her only appliances are a kettle and an iron. Her six-year old son is something of a soccer fanatic and supports Fulham.

She feels like she has attention deficit disorder but she doesn't, obviously. It's just that she's been a reporter for so long, exploring one issue at a time, that now she feels she's not giving an issue its due as a TV anchor person, whose job is moving from one news item to another.

Also, she's an introvert, and she has dissociated herself from "that woman" on all the billboards promoting her presence as anchor of Global National.

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This last point is significant. There can be few people in Canada unaware that this Dawna Friesen lady has returned home to Canada to anchor the news on Global. The broadcaster has made rather a point of letting Canada know in a major marketing campaign. It could give you the impression that Friesen is a superstar, and you'd better remember that.

"Seeing yourself on all these posters and billboards is a shock," she says. "They told me they were going to do a campaign, but until you see it, you have no idea what it means. I'm not sure it's me up there."

Her down-to-earth manner comes as something of a relief. Arranging a chat with Friesen on this Vancouver trip proved to be a small ordeal, one that descended into comedy. At one point, I was busy declining, very politely, the opportunity to talk to her for a few minutes while she was in makeup for Global National. She was oblivious to all the fussing.

The slight, 46-year-old Friesen has told other journalists that she was quite shy when she began a career in radio and TV. This seems entirely plausible when she arrives to meet me at a hotel lounge. She's only a couple of minutes late but is shyly apologetic. Then she disappears with the Globe photographer for a while. Little wonder. She has one of those faces, with compelling eyes, that a camera, any camera, likes.

I start by asking her how she came to be hired by Global National this past summer, an extraordinary time because CTV had announced the upcoming retirement of anchor Lloyd Robertson and his replacement by Lisa LaFlamme. Suddenly there were major changes afoot in the usually stable world of network news anchors in Canada.

"They called me, asked if I was interested," Friesen says." I asked for time to think about it, did that and said, 'Yes.' I had some worries at the back of my mind, but I got the answers to allay any fears."

At the time, Friesen was an NBC correspondent in London, and had spent 11 years with the U.S. network. Her career had begun in her home province of Manitoba and, after periods reporting for CBC in Vancouver and CTV in Ottawa, she joined NBC. "I had just signed a new four-year contract with NBC this year, and it was going well there. But when the offer came, I knew that in the back of my mind the return to Canada had seemed inevitable. I would be going from a very big news operation at NBC, to Global, so I asked questions about that. I also asked questions about CanWest Global's financial situation, which everybody was doing then. Everything has worked out."

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Friesen said the most difficult part of her job so far was the buildup to the relaunch of Global National in September, with her as the new anchor. "All these discussions about the set, the look of the newscast. I was involved, but it's not my thing, the packaging. We did a tour of Canadian cities, and that was fun. But there was so much emphasis on that opening night that I was reminding people we had to do it every night after that."

The changes in the Canadian news-anchor elite came just as a lot of pundits were predicting the demise of the national news program. It was said that if what was happening in the United States offered any indication, all-news cable channels and the Internet were quickly making the traditional newscast redundant. Friesen disagrees. "People too easily dismiss the national newscast," she says. "We're not dinosaurs. Global National has more than a million viewers. CTV National News gets more than a million. CBC's The National gets less, but that has more to do with CBC's positioning and the time slot [10 p.m. ET, as opposed to 11 p.m. ET for CTV National News and 5:30 PM ET for Global National]

"Nobody has a recipe for the perfect popular newscast. If they did, we'd all be using the same recipe and winning in the ratings. You can make changes to the look and packaging, but you still have to present news stories. What has struck me is how difficult it is to make national news stories relevant. In Canada, a story that's meaningful in Halifax is irrelevant in Toronto. You have to carefully gauge news value in Canada all the time. And you have to regularly do those stories that connect with everyone. Sometimes a newscast is criticized for putting too much emphasis on a story about a missing or injured child. But every parent in every part of Canada can relate to that story. National news in Canada is a very strange beast."

Friesen says she talked to journalism students in Winnipeg recently and asked them where they get their news. "I was taken aback when many of them said Twitter. I asked them, 'You're happy with 140 characters?' It turned out that they get links on Twitter to news stories from The Globe and Mail, CBC, Global, CTV. They're actually using traditional establishment news sources. It's just they get to it in a different way."

I ask her if she believes there's an American-style polarization coming to the Canadian news business - point-of-view news in the style of the U.S. all-news cable channels. She rejects the idea bluntly. "No. I think our sensibilities are different. We are looking for something more than a Bill O'Reilly telling us what to think."

Perhaps she's right. But right now, the conversation must end. She wants to get home to her young son and complete her move into a permanent home in Vancouver. And finally get a TV set. She is as gracious leaving as she is arriving - self-deprecating, a little shy and thoughtful about bringing the chat to a polite end.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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