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Calling for a miracle for local journalism

Hamilton's public relations ranks vastly outnumbers reporters in this city and that's bad news, says one of those PR pros. Jay Robb says supporting The Hamilton Spectator is a 'crucible moment' for Hamilton.

Editor’s note: This piece by Jay Robb originally appeared in The Hamilton Spectator on Oct. 21 as his final column. We are reprinting it here, with permission of the writer and The Spectator, because it serves as a crucial reminder of the importance of local journalism. Metroland Media Group, which owns The Spectator, is in bankruptcy protection after ending its weekly print publications of 70 newspapers across Ontario in September and eliminating 605 jobs. The fate of the 177-year-old Spectator is still uncertain as the bankruptcy process continues. As we near the end of 2023, Jay’s words paint an alarming picture indeed. Please commit to supporting The Spectator and local journalism in all its forms.

I’m lousy at goodbyes. But after reviewing more than 600 business books, I owe some last words to everyone who’s followed along, with extra thanks to all the editors who cleaned up my copy for 24 years.

I’ll spare you the reflections on what I’ve read. Instead, I’ll sign off with a lament on what I’m seeing plus a few ideas on how to pull off a miracle.

I moved to Hamilton in 1995. I joined the public relations department at Chedoke-McMaster Hospitals after a brief and unspectacular stint as a cub reporter and two years as a PR rookie at a non-profit.

The hospital’s PR department had a manager, an admin assistant and a communications officer who’d arrived a few months before me. Most other PR departments in town were around the same size. Some had one PR pro. A few had none.

Our departments were dwarfed by The Hamilton Spectator’s newsroom. The third floor of 44 Frid St. was full of general assignment, beat and investigative reporters, columnists, photojournalists, an editorial cartoonist and writers, librarians, a rotating cast of interns plus editors who knew everyone and everything.

They kept us busy and our employers honest. The Spec called us out when we messed up and gave us chances to publicly fess up. The Spec spread our good news to more people than we could reach on our own. We met with The Spec’s editorial board to introduce new leaders and make major announcements. We courted The Spec as a partner for events, fundraisers and community-building projects. I couldn’t have run a free media relations camp for non-profits without The Spec’s help.

Today, it’s PR pros who outnumber Spec reporters. Our PR departments keep growing while the Spec’s newsroom keeps shrinking with the exodus of advertising revenue to Google, Meta, Amazon and TikTok. The oft-cited stat of 6.2 PR pros for every journalist rings true for Hamilton. The ratio might even be higher.

This isn’t good news for our community.

PR pros can’t step into the breach. Yes, many of us are journalism school grads who worked in newsrooms. We have a journalist’s news sense and instincts. We know what makes for a good story and how to tell it. We put out a ton of content that keeps our audiences informed, educated and entertained.

But PR pros aren’t journalists. And our content isn’t journalism.

We’re in the reputation business. We build, defend and repair it for our employers. Our content is a means to that end. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable isn’t in our job descriptions.

That’s been The Spec’s job since the first edition hit the streets on July 15, 1846 — just over a month after Hamilton was granted official city status. Our community’s been blessed with generations of talented, tenacious, fearless and award-winning journalists. I’m married to one of the best.

The Spec’s been the voice of our community for 177 years. They’ve told us the who, what, when, where and why behind Hamilton’s defining and crucible moments. Try to imagine going through those moments without The Spec.

Now look ahead to the waves of misinformation and disinformation headed our way. Feeling confident that we can separate signal from noise and fact from fiction without The Spec? And what will your favourite go-to source for local news on TikTok do if she can no longer rip and read stories written by Spec journalists?

The business editor who loaded me up with that first stack of books never missed an opportunity to remind everyone that putting out a newspaper was a daily miracle.

It’s our turn to deliver a miracle to The Spec. Please subscribe and renew. Advertise locally. You’ll reach real people in our community instead of wasting your money on clicks from bots and digital ads on fake websites.

PR pros can put our powers of persuasion and influence to work in building the case for The Spec. It’s also a good time for foundations, philanthropists and business leaders to look at creative ways of supporting local journalism without sacrificing editorial independence. Sports teams, ribfests and music festivals have sponsors. Why not a newsroom? Covering the salary of a journalist might be a smarter and smaller investment than adding another PR pro to your ranks.

As everyone working in PR knows, showing is better than telling. Proud to call Hamilton home? Serious about civic engagement and democracy? Committed to openness, transparency and public accountability? Walk the talk. Support The Spec. As an added bonus, you’ll put your less open, transparent and accountable competitors on their back foot.

Other communities are figuring out how to get local journalism off life support. This is another crucible moment for Hamilton. Let’s show the world how it’s done.