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.
On one afternoon in November when yet another revelation about Rob Ford was topping news sites across the country, including the Spectator's, CBC Hamilton had nothing on the Toronto mayor; its lead item was an online chat conducted earlier in the day about making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
Its local stories occasionally break through to a national audience. Last spring, a Hamilton reporter appeared on the CBC News Network to discuss the city's effort to equip all local restaurants with EpiPens. In May, when the Ancaster man Tim Bosma went missing and his body later turned up on a nearby farm, CBC Hamilton reporters appeared on CBC's radio and TV networks with breaking news about the case.
"In the past, we didn't have that kind of richness, the on-the-ground presence. We would be deploying someone from Toronto," said Susan Marjetti, the senior managing director of CBC Toronto and region. "It's made a tremendous difference."
But while CBC Hamilton's traffic is up more than 240 per cent in the past 12 months, and its Twitter followers now number more than 10,000, executives are still grappling with how to strengthen the audience's loyalty to the site, especially when users can't simply flick a switch and connect with a friendly, dependable voice, as they do with CBC Radio personalities in other communities.
"People connect with people," acknowledged Marjetti. That's one reason bylines are used on CBC Hamilton stories. "We have to continue to look at the personality of the service, because digital is personal in terms of a one-on-one usage, and it's very much connected to personality and voice."
"I think that's for all of us, not just CBC Hamilton, I think that's a critical piece to be pushing forward on and developing," added Marjetti. "And what better place to be finding some of those key takeaways and experimenting than CBC Hamilton, where there isn't a complementary radio and television station in this city? For them to find that voice and that perspective and that point of view really could help us in all of our other stations and markets as well, because it actually is a critical element to digital's success going forward."