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Old-style local news meets new media in Hamilton, Ont. by Simon Houpt

Jan 3, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

The CBC had a problem. Three years ago, the public broadcaster trumpeted a new strategic plan that promised deeper connections to local communities across the country. In the document titled Everyone, Every Way, it pledged to beef up its offerings in under-served places such as Kitchener-Waterloo, Kamloops and Saskatoon. But with a notoriously stretched budget even before cuts in 2012 to its federal funding, and facing an increasingly fickle, tech-savvy audience, it knew it had to find new ways to reach Canadians.

Which is how it came to be that Hamilton, Ont., once the cradle of Ontario’s heavy manufacturing, is now a laboratory for one strand of the broadcaster’s future.

CBC Hamilton is a news station that is on neither radio nor TV, a tiny and relatively inexpensive digital-only start-up which the network’s senior management is watching closely for clues on how to engage audiences across the country. If the operation has shown impressive promise since opening in May, 2012 – its fledgling audience has grown by more than 10 per cent each month – it has also come up against the limitations of a digital-only approach for media organizations that don’t want to indulge in crass click-baiting tactics to attract more users.

Staffed by a crew of seven journalists, most of whom appear to be in their 20s and 30s, the Hamilton operation is set up in a storefront on a downtown strip in the midst of a revival, down the block from a funky vinyl record shop and across the street from a long-shuttered fur store. The decor is Silicon Valley chic: exposed brick, visible ductwork, modular furniture, one long shared table where all the reporters tap away at their laptops and smartphones when they’re not in the field. And there’s a startup mentality, too, with everyone doing everything: These reporters conduct interviews, edit audio and video, write stories and post them to the site.

“What you won’t ever hear is, ‘That’s not my job,’ or ‘That’s not how we do things,’ which is often what you’ll hear in well-established newsrooms,” said Rick Hughes, a former editor with the Hamilton Spectator newspaper who joined CBC Hamilton as its executive producer last May. “We’re trying to make up the model for digital-only.”

A successful model exists already. High-profile operations such as Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have attracted the attention of millions of readers, not to mention hundreds of millions of investment dollars, with hot-button stories that readers feel compelled to share.

But, mindful of its federal funding and public mandate, CBC Hamilton is hoping an emphasis on local stories of interest to citizens and taxpayers – along with the old standbys, weather and traffic – will be enough to attract an audience.

So if CBC Hamilton occasionally makes a play for eyeballs, it tends to be of the sort that small-town newspapers have always employed: Last year, it covered the annual Santa Claus parade with a simple photo gallery of individuals in the crowd, posted to its Facebook page. But you won’t find photo galleries of funny cats – even if they’re from Hamilton.

© Globe and Mail