Five questions for CBC Hamilton executive producer Roger Gillespie
It’s been two weeks since CBC Hamilton launched, marking the Corporation’s entrance into the local and responsive news website business. Angelina Irinici spoke with executive producer Roger Gillespie about the challenges they’ve faced so far, on taking criticism and what it’s like running CBC’s first digital-only service.
J-Source: Since the launch of CBC Hamilton on May 9 (one day earlier than expected), how has it been going? What is the reaction and feedback you are getting from Hamiltonians?
Roger Gillespie: The response has been overwhelmingly positive, as in 99.9 per cent positive. I worked in Hamilton for 20 years then was at The Star for five years so this is a return to Hamilton for me, so I was very pleased with the response we got. I think that the staff — who are all not from Hamilton — were kind of taken aback by the friendliness of people here. I’ve worked at big news organizations, where essentially most journalists are anonymous. There is no anonymity in a place like this and the response from the community has been very encouraging, very welcoming and I don’t think we could have asked for a better reception.
J-Source: What are the pros and cons of being CBC’s first local responsive website?
RG: Oh, I love your question! I can probably spend a lot of time talking to you about that. The pro is that we are actually creating something new that has not really been tried anywhere in the country by an organization as mainstream as the CBC. We are doing the Twitter feeds, the blog alliance that we have and the information flow that is coming through the site is just not common on news sites. It is fascinating to help develop it and very interesting g to see the community’s response. The application of things that people talk about in terms of website feeding, we are actually getting to do it. We live-streamed a school board meeting last night and that was very cool because we were able to broadcast the meeting as it took place. We were delivering dynamic, unfiltered information to the community as it was happening. That’s really one of the things that are exciting about a digital service like this one.
We’re obviously new at it so we aren’t brilliant yet, but the concepts we are testing out, I believe are brilliant. With a bit more experience we’ll be able to refine the delivery of those things. The downside of it is that we are working very long hours because we are a news service. Now, this isn’t the usual pitch of somebody who wants more staff, but I think that what the city is capable of giving a news service in terms of material is far larger than what we are staffed for. Keep in mind Hamilton has half a million people so I’m not surprised by the volume of material that we are covering nor am I surprised by the volume we are not covering because we’re not staffed for it. And we make mistakes in the way we do things and what cover and so on, but we're learning quite quickly. I mean this is so much fun! We don’t think about it much, but we understand that what we are doing is brand new and could actually begin to set a different way of doing news in this country.
J-Source: On the topic of staff — can you explain the relationship CBC Hamilton has with the community bloggers? What role do they play in the site and vice versa?
RG: There’s a rich blogging community in Hamilton, I don’t think that’s much different from most cities in Canada. I spent a minimum of an hour just chatting with each of the bloggers whose feeds we’re bringing into the site. I had conversations about their work, they are all passionately committed to whatever area they are covering with their blog. I’ve been in the business for 25 years and what I was listening to from these people was a depth of knowledge of areas of expertise that was not dissimilar from what I’ve heard from beat reporters.
There’s no voice for them in mainstream media and I think that’s a mistake.
I think blogging has come a very long way and there’s a lot of first-rate blogs and first rate bloggers who contribute content to their community everyday, and the public should have access to it. We're simply giving people access to some different opinions, views and talent in their own community. These are people who are already doing that work; we are simply giving them potential of a bigger audience for it.
[Editor’s note: CBC Hamilton does not pay its bloggers. A further explanation for this decision can be found here.]
J-Source: The stream of Twitter feeds is an interesting component to the site. Can you explain how CBC Hamilton filters and chooses which tweets get displayed?
The filtering is a magic formula that’s done by technology. For the most part, it filters for the usual obscenities—hate and that kind of thing. For the choice of who comes in is pretty simple but it’s not possible to review all the tweets coming from Hamilton.
The tweets that were the most prolific and were contributing constructively to community conversation were the first people I approached. I approached them personally, and usually had a coffee and conversation with them. But, it’s not an exclusive club. I have a long list of people who will be included. We want to include everyone in the community who we think will make a constructive contribution.
J-Source: There has been some complaints that says CBC Hamilton is not responding to criticism including the use of social media and some website interface navigation issues. How do you respond to that?
RG: There’s a big beta at the top of the site because anyone who knows anything about the digital world knows that it’s always in transition — and we are listening to those things.
When I get constructive, intelligent, questions I send them along to the senior people in Toronto and they look at them. We never intended for the site to be in three months what it is today. We will have a developer on site, I can’t say when, but probably within the month. One of the reasons we're getting that resource is because there are lots of things that need to be changed.
We understand that for this to be successful we need to listen to the audience. We are listening to those issues around navigation. For an example, someone asked me about RRS feeds, I said there is an RRS feed and sent them a link to it. So we do listen to those people who actually have a point. If people simply don’t like, well there’s not much I can do. But I think it would be unfair to say that I have not responded to constructive, intelligent questions where there was something I was supposed to respond to. People who want to throw stones and expect me to open the windows so they can get a better shot? It’s just not going to help.
If people want to have constructive conversations on how to improve the site, I’m always happy to have that. But, people who throw rocks? I’m just way too busy to spend time on that.
Roger Gillespie is the executive producer of CBC Hamilton. He is a veteran of the Hamilton news scene, having worked for The Hamilton Spectator for over 20 years before spending the last five years at the Toronto Star.
This interview has been edited for brevity.