Where Geography and the News Meet: An Inside Look at CBC Hamilton

This week the Hub takes an inside look at the newly launched, innovative CBC Hamilton digital service in Canada. The Hub talks to one of the co-chairs of the Hamilton project, Rachel Nixon, director of Digital Media, CBC News and Centres.
Launched on May 10, the beta site is a digital service focused on serving local news and information to the citizens of Hamilton in Ontario, Canada with a unique offering. It features a map front and center on the site that geo-locates the news happening in Hamilton.

The map features different color pins tied to news, the commute, talk, the local economy, and things to do in the city. The content of the site comes from CBC Hamilton staff as well as from aggregated tweets and blogs from the community and local organizations.

In addition, the site offers other ways for people to view the content – by time (most recent first) or via a curated experience called All Hamilton which includes original CBC news and features, tweets, blogs and traffic information.

The service was launched as part of a five-year strategic plan at CBC/Radio-Canada called 2015: Everyone, Every way.

According to the CBC site, their 2015 strategy aims to, “make its already overwhelmingly Canadian content even more Canadian, to improve and extend its services to local communities, and to make significant investments in its online and digital platforms to bring programming and services to more Canadians in new ways.”

CBC/Radio-Canada is a national broadcaster with 82 radio stations and 27 television stations across Canada but not all parts of the country have access to local CBC content.

According to Nixon, CBC has a strong regional presence across the country but there are still some markets that are underserved.

Nixon said that CBC had tried to get service into the city of Hamilton for some time but there were no available FM radio frequencies. So the CBC decided to launch a digital service there instead that would allow them to still serve this community in a different way. It’s the first exclusively digital news and information initiative the CBC has launched.

The site is maintained by a small staff of five which includes an executive producer, producer, two reporter-editors, and a video journalist. They operate off a hybrid model – producing their own original content and also aggregating and curating content from the Hamilton community via tweets and bloggers from Hamilton.

The Hub spoke with Rachel Nixon, director of Digital Media, CBC News and Centres, to find out more about how this innovative news site was created and where CBC will take it next.

Q&A with Rachel Nixon

Amy: What kinds of tools are you using for the site?

Rachel: There are a number of different components. It was important for us to make the service available across a variety of different platforms – desktop, tablet and smartphone. Previously we have developed individual apps for mobile, the most prominent of which is the CBC News app, a corollary to the CBC news website. This time, we wanted to create something that would work across platforms, across all major device types and so we used responsive design to make that happen. It instantly recognizes the screen size you are using.

Since the technology we are using is new, not everyone has caught up with responsive design and how it works – specifically third-party content like ads, so we have had to make work arounds for ads to display properly from one device to another from one screen size to another.

There is also a big geo-location piece – you can’t fail to notice the map when you visit the service. We are using a Google map as the engine that underpins the service.

Amy: Why did you decide to highlight the map first on the website?

Rachel: One of the things we wanted to try with the map was to really locate the service in Hamilton and to offer something that people would instantly recognize. You can look at the macro level by zooming out to Hamilton as a whole but also view it at the micro level and zoom into your neighborhood. We want people to associate with things happening in their neighborhood: not only the news stories but the other kinds of content that we have there – talk, things to do or traffic issues around the commute. It geographically roots the user in the service and provides another avenue into the content.

Amy: What has been the reception to the site so far?

Rachel: Overall the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive for two reasons. Hamiltonians have waited a long time for CBC to come there and there is now this feeling that we are now in their town and we are listening. I was present at one of our launch events in our new offices in Hamilton and it was great to hear from people who were really excited about what this service could offer and especially the fact that this is something new as well – this isn’t something anyone else in the country has from CBC – and that we are offering a service that is different and forward-looking. We also have taken time to listen to the community pre-launch – to listen to what they are interested in and it’s been important for us to reflect that conversation in the kind of stories that people say they want and don’t get from some of the competitors.

Amy: What has been most successful so far?

Rachel: We are seeing promising numbers of people consuming original video content, which is something that not a lot of outlets offer in Hamilton. Primarily not a surprise, but we also see the traffic is being driven by big news stories – big news that is important to Hamiltonians. We see a good uptake of our Talk content – whether from our columnists or discussions around a specific topic that day.

Also, we were aware that food was a big issue for Hamiltonians – in particular the availability of local food and the local food movement. We did a series of pieces that address the issue and where people can get access to local food in Hamilton.

For selections from the series, check out the links below:

Amy: What do you think is the future of journalism and how much do you feel this kind of initiative of Hamilton represents that future?

Rachel: I think it’s a really important part of the future of journalism. Everybody says all journalism is local and understanding what that actually means is something that I think has not been sufficiently cracked. There are two major components to it.

First, having an ongoing conversation with the community to understand what are the stories you want told and what are you really interested in rather than adhering to the traditional models of “let’s call the police and find out what happened overnight.” The community conversation piece is really important.

Also, the technology that underpins it. The responsive design and geo-location pieces are important, but also on a day-to-day basis we have so many tools available to us now to tell stories. We have so many formats that are easy to use and you don’t need a huge team of people to create that content – and it’s easy to consume. There are numerous ways to provide and create content that people are interested in and experimenting with those tools can help us evolve with new forms of journalism for the community and at the network level.

Amy: If someone wants to develop a similar initiative, what kind of advice would you provide?

Rachel: One of the keys to the success of this project has been the connection we established with people in the community. It’s impossible to do this kind of thing from a distance even though technology facilitates that. The personal connection can never be overestimated – you can develop blog templates and aggregate content without ever being present in the community but that is only half the battle. It’s really important to go into the community and listen to what people have to say, what their concerns are, and what stories are not being told.

Developing a service takes longer than you think it will even if it’s going to be straightforward. You are always going to be faced with difficult questions such as “Do we launch now or later?”

People have a strong appetite for news and what is happening in their community. So really look at what are the alternatives being offered in the community and find out the niches that are not yet being filled by other news providers.

Amy: What is your future plan for the site?

Rachel: Right now we are starting to look at how people are using the service from the feedback they are giving us, and having digested that, see what adjustments we need to make to it in the next few months. CBC’s 2015 expansion plan also continues and the lessons learned from Hamilton will be used to inform our existing regional services as well as potentially any new services we plan to launch.