The future of news in Hamilton
Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor
THE STATE OF PRINT MEDIA
The constant drive of Hamilton print media is largely owed to the Hamilton Spectator, the city’s near-daily newspaper published since 1846. Sold to a parent company, TorStar, in 1999, the Spec may be owned across the lake, but it has been run, staffed, and read by Hamiltonians since it first began publication.
In August 2019, the Spec’s printing press stopped rolling. TorStar had decided to send the paper to a contracted plant. With the Spec’s final issue rolling out of the historic printing press this August, 73 full-time and 105 part-time staff will be out of work. The building itself might be sold off in an effort to cut costs. The Spec will still be in print, but printing will be outsourced to a plant outside of Hamilton.
Despite the changes, John Boynton, TorStar’s chief executive, emphasized the company’s commitment to fully supporting the Hamilton community. If the Spec building is sold, Boynton anticipates keeping the head office of the Spec in Hamilton, but they are not required to do so. The headquarter’s future location will likely be based on TorStar’s financial interests, despite the importance of the Spec in the Hamilton community. With no promises from Boynton, the future of the Spec in Hamilton is not guaranteed.
The Spec has been experiencing the same issues as other organizations in the news industry, with potential readers opting for digital media or bypassing reading altogether, where readers are being lost to the recent media ‘pivot to video’ and podcast boom. Sasha Dhesi, a Silhouette alumna and the Ontario representative for the Canadian University Press, said that the printing press’s closure is unfortunate as the city is losing an important part of the community. While she is not surprised by the move of media to a digital space, she acknowledges the downsides.
“It's really sad to know that it's not in Hamilton anymore. I used to drive by the Hamilton Spectator printing building . . . every time I came into Hamilton when I was visiting my parents … knowing that the building isn’t going to be [printing] anymore is sad,” said Dhesi.
Another blow to Hamilton print media came with the closure of Hamilton Magazine. Founded 40 years ago, the publication has focused on local news, community and arts. Hamilton Magazine ran independently for a number of years before being bought out by the Toronto-based media company PostMedia. With this summer’s issue being its last, two of Hamilton Magazine’s three employees will lose their jobs, while one will assume another PostMedia position. Marc Skulnick, Hamilton Magazine’s former editor, was unable to comment.
Despite the precarity of print media, the federal government has committed to spending almost $600 million over a five year period, along with providing other incentives, for big media companies to stay afloat. It is unlikely that benefits from government media bailout would trickle down to Hamilton news publications such as the Spec.
An independent panel made up of media unions and associations across the country will dole out the government incentives. Panel members include the Canadian Association of Journalists, News Media Canada and the Association de la presse francophone, among others. Independent news organizations, small media outlets and individual journalists don’t have a seat on the panel. The panel gets to decide which companies received government bailouts while also representing the interests of their organizations. The very groups with a stake in the decision are the ones making it.
"I just don't think it's the right solution. I think it carries the potential to do more harm to news agencies' credibility than it does to actually do anything more than protect existing systems in the short term," said Russell Wangersky, a columnist at the St. John's Telegram, in an interview with CBC.
While legislation at the federal level will affect large news corporations, the provincial Student Choice Initiative is likely to impact student publications across Ontario.
Proposed last year, The SCI will come into effect this school year. The guidelines mandate that universities offer students the option to opt-out of ancillary fees for any services the Conservative government deemed non-essential. Essential services include athletics and recreation, student buildings, health services and academic support. Student news organizations are classified as non-essential under the SCI.
A survey by OneClass, a Toronto-based education-technology company, said that 57.4 per cent of students would opt-out of fees to support student newspapers. Jerry Zheng, a growth marketer at OneClass, administered the OneClass survey.
“I think it will definitely mean the end of print distribution for the student newspapers,” said Zheng in an interview with the Waterloo Chronicle.
The fate of student news might not be as dire as Zheng suggests. However, the option to opt-out, if taken by a significant number of students, could effectively defund campus media. Student newspapers are responsible for holding institutions accountable, providing the student body with important information and act as training grounds for journalists. Defunding student media across the province effectively silences student voices.
“If 80 per cent opt-in we’re a bit tight on cash but we’re not ruined. If only 20% opt-in then we’re destroyed. No one else is covering university content to the same degree,” said Dhesi, “Most newspapers, especially now … don’t have the resources in the same way that student news does. Student newsrooms are probably the only place where people can find stable work in news media.”
Dhesi also reflected on her own experience in a student newsroom and the diversity of voices she found there.
“If you look at student newsrooms versus actual newsrooms, you’d be shocked at which ones are more diverse — but not really. I definitely think that losing student newsrooms and losing local media that have that effect reduce[s] the amount of people that [go on in the field] and diminish[es] the quality of journalism overall," said Dhesi.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
While the move to the digital sphere may be the product of old industry adapting to the times, it could mean negative impacts for journalists and the free press as a whole.
“And I think when we think about what makes up the Canadian media landscape, more and more publications are dying off everyday, and we really need those … we rely on three major corporations to give us all our news, and that's just not a good thing,” said Dhesi.
Perhaps the Spec, the Silhouette and Hamilton Magazine represent different stages of the same trends. All have encountered the monopolization of the media industry, reliance on casual labour and decreasing funding or revenue. Stifling student news could snuff out future journalists before they even learn the trade. Overall, this constrains the field that holds the powerful accountable and keeps the public informed.
As for the future of student news, the Silhouette isn’t going anywhere yet. Hamilton print media has persisted despite challenges that come with over 100 years of publication. As print media in Hamilton moves toward a new era, journalists, publications and readerships must adapt with the changes. Still, news publications have always been more than just print. While the printing press may slow its roll, the voices of journalists will persist.