The departure of many veteran journalists will deprive the Spectator of experience and institutional memory, but open the opportunity to take the publication in a new direction.
By Joey Coleman
Published November 27, 2010
As the Hamilton Spectator enters its 165th year, the institution we've all come to know will undergo major changes in its editorial department as many veteran journalists take a generous buy-out.
Sources within the Spectator have told me that over a dozen journalists have taken the offer and will be leaving early in the new year.
Among those confirmed to be leaving is popular Streetbeat columnist Paul Wilson.
The losses are significant because those leaving have the greatest institutional memories and are the best connected to the local community.
Personally, Paul Wilson is the reason I touch the entertainment section three times a week. His was the first byline I learned to recognize as a child. Many of his articles from the late 1980s and early '90s form my first memories of reading the newspaper.
The losses could be compounded by the entry of arrival of another publication in Hamilton this January.
OpenFile will be launching their Hamilton edition shortly and the publication will be investing significant money in hiring local freelance journalists to cover community level stories. (Visit openfile.ca to see what they are all about.)
While OpenFile does not represent immediate direct competition to the Spectator, their online coverage of special events is often real-time and, within Toronto, beats the more established mainstream publications.
CHCH underwent a similar mass exodus in December of 2008 when ownership changed to Channel Zero and veteran personalities such as Dan McLean and Connie Smith were let go in favour of hiring lower-cost young reporters.
The lost of local knowledge and experience was obvious as the new talent came from outside of Hamilton and were unable to fully understand the unique culture of Hamilton. After two years, the "new" talent has settled into the city and have started breaking stories on a more frequent basis.
With news increasing being split between real-time information and long-view analysis, CHCH has positioned itself strongly in the real-time news category.
This brings us back to the Spectator and the challenge it faces with such a large departure of talent at a critical time.
CHCH could afford to lose some viewers during its restructuring, but the Spectator cannot. The Spectator's revenue model requires subscribers to continue their subscriptions.
High-quality written journalism is expensive to produce and the Spectator is one of the last outlets producing it in Hamilton. This is why the risks for the Spectator are much higher than they were for CHCH - but the opportunity is greater as well.
The Spectator will have to go on what passes for a hiring spree in today's journalism. The opportunity exists for the paper to hire a strong batch of journalists who can attract new readers to the publication.
It may appear self-serving, but I believe the paper needs to hire Hamiltonians with a strong belief in the digital future of what was once called the newspaper but really should be called a news-gathering and -analyzing organization.
The Spectator is a long-standing institution in the city. This is not the first time that writers have retired at the paper.
Every institution needs to revitalize itself from time to time. While the newspaper has redesigned its layout numerous times in the past decade, it has not properly revitalized its direction or content.
I often hear people refer to the Spectator as "yesterday's news, tomorrow" and for those of us who are connected in the community, this is often too true.
The new editor-in-chief, Paul Berton, has an opportunity few editors in an unionized environment receive: he gets to re-mold the Spectator's newsroom and set the direction of the paper for the next 25 years.
The question is: what direction will he and publisher Dana Robbins take the paper?
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