Kirk LaPointe, whom Conrad Black once called a “presentable young man,” sits in the front row of an auditorium filled with restless teenagers and their beaming parents. The new editor and associate publisher of The Hamilton Spectator is out on this cool October evening for two reasons. The first: to introduce the Hamilton Public Library’s fifth annual Power of the Pen awards, a celebration of poetry and short fiction by aspiring young writers. The second: yet another opportunity to tell area residents that the Spec is in the midst of an editorial revitalization. Seven months earlier, LaPointe returned to the paper following an unexpectedly short stint at the National Post. Since then, he’s attended dozens of local events as part of his plan to reverse a decade of decline in circulation, advertising and morale brought on by, among other things, a flurry of ownership changes (from Southam to Sun Media to Quebecor to Torstar in eight months) and relentless cost-cutting. His goal is to transform the Spec into the city’s leader of discussion and debate -? and he’s doing all he can to make himself the public face of change, whether through his regular Saturday column, a speech to a Rotary Club meeting, an appearance as co-chair of the United Way campaign, a shift as a Meals on Wheels delivery man, or as guest speaker at the Power of the Pen awards.

“He was born in Toronto,” says the library board member by way of introduction, “but we won’t hold that against him. The magnet that is Hamilton pulled him back.” It’s a reference to LaPointe’s first stint as Spec editor from January 1997 to March 1998, before the Post lured him away.

Earlier in the evening LaPointe looked exhausted, but as he steps up to the podium he seems to undergo a little personal revitalization. He jokingly refers to the brown stage carpet and how it reminds him of one he and his best friend used to wrestle on in elementary school. “If I decided to go into wrestling instead of journalism, I’d be beaten up pretty badly everyday,” he says. “So I’m really happy I went into journalism instead.” Comfortable with the crowd, LaPointe switches from cool guy to serious journalist: “I’m proud to say that we are making some inroads at the Spectator in the way we tell stories,” he says. “Our writing is more direct than it’s ever been. We are shedding many of the techniques of journalism that stood in our way.” As an example, he cites a “broken-back sentence” in this typical newspaper lede: “‘A man has been charged with 23 counts of murder, comma, police said yesterday.’ That’s not a sentence anyone would say. Why write something no one would say? And yet journalists commit this offence every single day.” Journalists, he adds, often “write things in a way that appears to be sophisticated and elevated and designed to show how informed and enlightened and intelligent they are, when in fact what they produce is less likely to be understood, less likely to provide meaning.”

By providing meaning, LaPointe hopes he can reverse the decline in readership. Shrinking numbers, after all, leave newspapers vulnerable to a trend that has seen chain ownership squeeze extra profits and journalistic aggressiveness out of once vibrant dailies. But can he succeed? The teenagers and their parents are receptive. They laugh at his jokes and applaud his message, but will they buy his paper?

A few weeks before the awards, I meet LaPointe in his office in the Spec’s three-story bunker of a building. On this afternoon, he’s wearing an olive green shirt with earth-coloured tie and brown dress pants that don’t hide the slightly bulging thigh muscles he developed from years of running marathons. He’s a remarkably self-assured and attractive man?a cross between Ricky Martin and Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. On his feet are eight-hole Doc Martens. They’re comfortable, he says. He has five pairs.

LaPointe is eager to talk. “I’ve had significant impact on this franchise,” he says. “People can actually keep their heads up when they walk into a room and say they work at the Spectator. Not purely because of me, but if the publisher hadn’t been interested in having stories told at length or exploring issues or widening the scope of the newspaper, then the paper could still be garbage. It could still be scandalously uninteresting for a city that is interesting.”

He shows me how a reader might have handled the Spec a few years ago. Holding an imaginary newspaper, LaPointe goes through the motions: “Boop, boop, boop, open the pages, open the pages, open the pages, skim this, skim this, skim this and away you go,” he says. “That was the paper’s mysterious approach: ‘We’re going to get out of your way as quickly as we can, we’re going to take our story size down, we’re going to make it so easy to digest, we’re going to write at a Grade 6 level. Everything is going to be so snappy…We will not make it difficult for you.'” He enunciates every word in his mocking tone. “And Christ, if you only have seven minutes to deal with us in the morning, we’re there for you.” LaPointe then rummages through today’s edition. He spots an awkward sentence. “This is crap,” he says. “Who speaks like that? Those responsible for it should be taken to the woodshed.” Perhaps a little embarrassed by his outburst, the man who once threatened to take himself to the woodshed over a factual mistake in his own column says it’s “irritating when there are simpler ways to do things.”

Once the flagship of the Southam empire, the 153-year-old Spec has been underperforming for years. In the late 1980s, the Spectator’s circulation stood at 140,000. Today, it’s at 107,000. In the past 10 years, the paper has had four redesigns, five publishers and four owners. It was also whacked by the double-whammy that hit most North American newspapers in the early ’90s: sky-high newsprint prices and falling revenues brought on by the recession. In 1994, 22 out of approximately 130 people in the newsroom lost their jobs. Throughout it all, there was weak editorial leadership. “What they had were really superb beat reporters,” says John Miller, author of Yesterday’s News and a Ryerson journalism instructor, referring to the fact that the Spec has always been a big winner at the Western Ontario Newspaper Awards. “But there was no direction in the paper. If a person happened to write a good story, it was in the paper, but there were a lot of dull days.” Jeff Mahoney, a Spectator entertainment columnist, and former president of the local guild, adds: “The coverage just seemed to be all over the place. There was a crisis of morale. There was a real malaise and lack of confidence in the leadership.”

When Pat Collins, former vice-president of finance at Southam newspapers, was appointed publisher in January 1996, he realized that major reinvestments had to be made in the newsroom. He found his leader in LaPointe, now 42, who graduated from Ryerson’s school of journalism in 1980. His first jobs were with Canadian Press as a reporter in Toronto and then on Parliament Hill, as lifestyles editor and television critic, and as news editor. In 1989, he joined CBC Newsworld for two years, anchoring coverage of the Gulf War and hosting several current affairs programs. In 1991, CP hired him to be its Ottawa bureau chief. He continued contributing to Newsworld but gave up his eight-year freelance job as Canadian editor of Billboard magazine. In 1995, he became editor-in-chief and general manager at Southam News. A year later, Gordon Fisher, vice-president of editorial at Southam and assistant publisher at the Post, suggested to Conrad Black and Collins that LaPointe could help the ailing Spectator.

“It didn’t matter that he wasn’t from a newspaper,” says Fisher, but it did matter “that he was recognized to be a journalist of importance who had done some serious work in the business. He knows how to energize a newsroom and what motivates people to read. He knows what’s important to community because he’s very community-minded himself,” he says. “His weakness is an intellectual certainty that is sometimes a bit too rigid. He is so confident that sometimes he doesn’t see when he might be veering on the wrong road.”

“He’s a personality,” says Collins. “He comes with an ego. We needed somebody to believe this would be a great newspaper, who had a passion. Someone to mobilize a newsroom that had been demoralized.”

In January 1997, LaPointe’s editorial mobilization began. He hired about a dozen new reporters and shook up all the beats in an effort to gain fresh perspectives. Not surprisingly, some writers welcomed the switch, while others were irritated by the changes that moved a court reporter to education, the labour reporter to city hall, the food writer to the society column and the theatre critic to the university beat. When LaPointe first arrived, court reporter Barbara Brown says, “People thought he could be cantankerous and that he was going to be a hard-ass and we all deserved to have our asses kicked.”

During this period, LaPointe encouraged staff to do long, investigative stories. He also put more emphasis on Canadian and world coverage and rebuilt the Life section with the expertise of former Chatelaine editor Mildred Istona. Only a few months into the job, LaPointe was called to assist in inventing Black’s new national newspaper and the Spectator became home to the team charged with the task. In May 1998, with only five months to go before the launch, the Post’s editor-in-chief, Ken Whyte, asked LaPointe to be his executive editor, a job in which he’d be in charge of everything from picking out carpet and computer systems to human resources. LaPointe accepted, but not without regret. “I brought a lot of people here, I’ve given a lot of people different positions, I rearranged all the staff, I blew up all the systems and then I bounced out of town, and it bothered me a lot,” he says. “When you leave, you know it’s like a mother hen leaving her chicks. Some of them are going to die. Someone’s going to come and kill them, or they’re just going to die on their own because no one’s interested in fighting for them.”

Howard Elliott, deputy editor of the editorial page, jokes that after LaPointe left, he and Dana Robbins, deputy editor of news, called themselves the two-headed editor. “It was difficult to maintain the momentum,” he says. “The editor has to keep control, not only in the newsroom but in the community as a source of leadership, a symbolic power. There was no way that two people doing a whole other job could step in and do that.”

It took Collins until November 1998 to replace LaPointe with Maryanne McNellis, a former editor of the Financial Post, then owned by Sun Media, which now owned the Spec. When they hear her name, most people at the Spec simply roll their eyes. “Quite frankly, she didn’t want to be here,” says Collins. Three months later, McNellis was gone and Torstar was finalizing its purchase of the Spectator when LaPointe let it be known that he’d be interested in coming back?this time with the added title of associate publisher and an editorial budget of close to $10 million, an increase of 12 percent from what he’d had before. LaPointe attributes the decision partly to the hellish daily three-hour commute from the Post’s permanent office in Don Mills to his home in Hamilton. Moving his family to Toronto was not an option. He’d uprooted them several times already during his career. His wife, former CBC television host Denise Rudnicki, had sacrificed her own career by moving from Ottawa to Hamilton, and the family lives close to gifted schools for the two children, Michael, 12, and Vanessa, 14, and stables for the daughter, a promising dressage rider.

But LaPointe’s decision to return to the Spec was also professionally motivated. The opportunity to be number one at the Spec, rather than number three at the Post, had appeal. At the Post, LaPointe “was helpful in a lot of editorial decisions,” but his role was “largely administrative,” says Whyte. What LaPointe didn’t expect was Black to counter the Spec’s offer with the editorship of two other Southam dailies. “Barbara Amiel even called my wife and told her how important I was to the next generation in leadership at Hollinger.”

When he returned to the Spec in April, he brought in his little black book full of 150 new ideas. Since then, he’s implemented nearly every one. They include: hiring a training and development editor, increasing the freelance budget by over five percent and newsholes by 25 percent; adding new beats; increasing local content and world analysis; boosting coverage of kids, seniors, teenagers and relationships; and adding better-quality photography. He’s also taken a few risks. An example: on November 29, the Spec ran a story on the penis in the new Men and Women section. “It was like, whoooah,” LaPointe says. “This was new territory for a lot of our readers who will always come back and say it’s a family newspaper and we shouldn’t be doing these things. And so, we’ll do a lot more as time goes on. Not to be oblivious or insensitive to the readership, but if we want to make an appeal to anyone under the age of 40, we’ve just got to do some of these things.”

LaPointe believes the paper must fight for people’s time?so it had better be engaging. Today’s Spec is indispensable, he says. You can no more turn off the water supply than you can turn off the Spec. One of LaPointe’s complaints about the old paper was that there was “no hierarchy in news coverage. There was no decisiveness of what’s a big deal to us today. It was a totally flat situation.” He’s referring to the fact that most stories were the same medium size of nine-, 10-, 11-inch stories. “It sends the signal to the reader: ‘We don’t actually know what’s a big story.’ ”

Now, when the Spectator wants to make a bang, readers notice. For example: a December 18 look at the Hamilton harbour and a deal made between the city and the harbour commissioners to make it a place for heavy industry as well as people. The Spec turned it into a major editorial package. The front page story was 24 inches, but there were three supporting articles inside plus a primer explaining the history of the harbour, an analysis on what the historic agreement will mean and an editorial.

For LaPointe, big stories also mean investigative, idea-driven initiatives, like the seven-part series called “North of Barton” that also ran in December. It was a thoroughly researched look at Hamilton’s north end, an area of the city categorized as a cesspool of poverty, pollution and health concerns. To pull readers in, the Spec commissioned seven paintings by Hamilton artist Chelo Sebastian. On the last day of the series, the main article looked to the future of the north end and offered a prescription on how to reverse its decline. To illustrate the feature, the artist depicted a rosy future for the troubled neighbourhood by showing three boys playing street hockey, surrounded by images of Hamilton’s landmarks, parks and harbour.

Another LaPointe innovation has been to assign a daily full-page feature, about 2,500 words, to a rotating group of 30 journalists. The feature could take a philosophical look at time, profile a local rabbi or investigate academic dishonesty at McMaster University. Now many readers complain there’s too much to read in the paper. “I wanted it to be a daily commitment, like a contract with the reader so they would believe in us,” he says. “A newspaper needs also to be a magazine in order to justify its price and value.”

Local and regional news coverage has also been emphasized, in order to compete with the prosperous, Southam-owned Brabant weeklies in the suburbs. Under previous regimes, the front section was reserved for national and international wire stories. Most local news appeared in second, third and sometimes even fourth sections. “The Spectator somehow lost its interest in covering suburban politics and tended to focus only on the city and parts of Burlington, and the consequence of that was it lost its impact in the community at large,” says John Bryden, MP for Wentworth-Burlington, who was also city editor at the Spectator during the 1970s. Now the front section is filled with news from Hamilton, Burlington and the surrounding suburbs, thanks to a redeployment of reporters and a large network of stringers and freelancers. “The trick is to do enough that people feel the majority of the significant local events are being covered by the paper,” says LaPointe. “They have some prominence.”

In addition to finding money to boost local news, LaPointe has spent five percent of his $10-million budget on world news. Since 85 percent of his readers don’t get The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail or the National Post, international coverage is a draw, so he subscribes to such news services as those of the New York Times, Washington Post and Knight-Ridder, and has exlusive Canadian rights to London’s Independent. As well, LaPointe has created “Home Fires,” a section with news gathered from the Internet for readers who have roots in other countries.

LaPointe also wanted to light a few fires in Hamilton, which is why he chose crime reporter Susan Clairmont to be the new city columnist, the Spec’s answer to Rosie DiManno, the Star’s provocative and unpredictable bad girl. As Clairmont herself says, she was hired “to create a ruckus.” In his October 2 column introducing Clairmont’s inaugural piece, LaPointe called her “brave and proud to represent the underdog.” In an in-paper ad campaign designed to emphasize the Spec’s columnists, the sweet looking Clairmont is shown in a full-page, gritty black-and-white close-up, placed beside a photo of a bundle of dynamite and a copy block that reads: “Every day there are debates waiting to explode behind the headlines. I’ll take you smack into the middle of the action and then light the fuse.”

And she’s done just that. Her first column on October 2, was a response to the request for a private funeral from the widow of a police officer who had been killed in a car accident. Clairmont stood up for the widow’s choice and wrote that police officers who attend the funeral of a fallen officer they never knew “are just part of the spectacle… Dignity, privacy and genuine grief are swamped by a selfish pop-psychology need to share the moment.” The column sparked dozens of angry letters, phone calls and subscription cancellations, mostly from police officers and their families. Karen Henshaw, chair of the Halton Regional Police Association wrote: “I have often been enraged by articles The Spectator prints, but not as much as Susan Clairmont’s column… Because of the bond, which you don’t seem to understand, when an officer is killed, the entire community feels it… Don’t make such cruel, off-the-cuff comments about things you definitely haven’t researched, except possibly from articles in the newspaper or a couple of calls. This is our life.”

“She’s a hit in that respect,” says LaPointe. “As long as she doesn’t get irresponsible or flabby, she’ll help define the paper’s image.” Since then, Clairmont has taken stabs at, among others, an anti-abortion extremist who e-mailed the newsroom a gruesome poem called Ode to Slepian, about the murdered American abortion doctor (“I should pick up the phone, call his number at Pro-Life Virginia and tell him to rot in hell. I should yell obscenities, compare him to Satan, question his intelligence, his morals, his right to exist on the planet”) and a convicted rapist who demanded conjugal visits with his wife (“Well listen up Reggie. Sex is a privilege you earn. You earn it through respect and consideration and?pay attention now?consent… If you hadn’t raped anybody, you could be having sex right now.”)

On November 4, Clairmont and LaPointe raised their biggest ruckus thus far. That day the newspaper chose to ignore a publication ban on the criminal history of a 19-year-old “gun-loving, convicted car thief” who had violated probation and was loose in the community. In her column, Clairmont described the man’s history including his 60-plus Young Offender convictions for such crimes as car theft, weapons offences, escaping custody and engaging police in two standoffs. In addition, LaPointe wrote an explanation about why the Spec ran the story: “We believe our loyalty is to our readers and the community; We believe that, at large, this young man represents a threat to public safety.” The Spec also ran several follow-ups and an editorial. Since then, LaPointe, Clairmont and two other reporters have been charged by police with violating the Young Offenders Act.

“The last time he was on the lam it was a serious situation, so we chose to tell all,” says LaPointe. “The right thing to do for our readership was not simply to describe him as an adult who had reached probation, who has three convictions. That was wrong. That was only part of the story. We had to tell his whole life history.”

It’s the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Post, and back in LaPointe’s office, he’s received several e-mails and phone calls and is feeling a bit nostalgic. Of the few decorations that adorn the walls are the front page of the first edition of the Post and a mock-up front page given to him as a going-away present. It features a photo of the staff holding up letters to spell, “We’ll miss you Kirk.” The headline reads: “LaPointe catches last berth on the Titanic: Day one typo cop caps career with a scenic cruise to Hamilton Harbour. Says Kirk: ‘From now on, I’m content just to be a spectator.'”

There are signs that LaPointe’s changes have had the desired effects. Hamiltonians are talking about the paper. Circulation is slowly increasing, from 103,000 on weekdays in 1997 to 107,000 in 1999, showing the first signs of steady growth in 10 years. And advertising is up 30 percent since Collins took over in 1996. This year, the Spec will enjoy a record year in revenues.

It’s a good start, but will his revitalization reagain lost readers? One journalist who has closely followed LaPointe’s career is skeptical. He calls the Spec editor an opportunist, referring to his job-hopping. “He’s a good talker,” he adds. “But everybody’s hard-pressed to point out any achievements in his career, other than his personal advancement.” Of LaPointe’s abilities as an editor, the journalist says he’s a “profound bullshitter…with a profoundly shallow view of a newspaper.” He says his ideas are unoriginal and formulaic. “He’s kind of like the Martha Stewart of editors,” he continues, referring to LaPointe’s obsession with new trends, like the decision to put Britain’s sexy new virtual newsreader on the front page of the Spec on January 26. “How lamo.”

LaPointe admits that people are speculating on where he’ll go next. After all, he’s become one of the country’s most sought-after journalists. “LaPointe is probably the brightest, most innovative editor of a newspaper in Canada,” says Miller. All LaPointe will say is that “I want to be able to stay long enough that I see what happens when success isn’t an alien word in our dictionary.”

As LaPointe stands by his desk, I look again at those Doc Martens on his feet. They may be comfortable, but they’re menacing-looking, too. “I don’t see this as a desperation situation right now, just as an urgent situation,” he said on an earlier day when he was clearly impatient with some of his employees. “I wish I could fire people. I actually wish I could walk them out to the parking lot and wish them well…we’re all too bloody busy to defend or to get into denial about our mistakes,” he said.

Outside the office, cars full of potential new readers are streaming down the highway that passes by the Spectator building. Inside, LaPointe looks to a future when the paper will be seen not just as a vehicle for carrying information, but one that holds knowledge and wisdom. “I think it will take a long time for readers to feel that a newspaper should be something other than just an instrument of news,” he says. “But I think if we can move them along, if we can say we can deliver you not just the facts today, but we can deliver you some context, some meaning and once in a while, some great insight, then we can become more valuable to readers.”