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For some people, home smells like baking bread, apples and cinnamon, maybe even hay and manure. For David Estok, it smells like ink. When he arrived for his first day as editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectatorand climbed up the back stairs, boxes in hand, the smell of the ink from the presses down the hall hit him in the face like summer heat. It was March 5, 2007, one day before his 50th birthday.

The ink told him he was home: back to Hamilton, back to journalism and back to the Spectator. It had been a long time: 12 years since he’d worked in journalism and more than 20 years since he’d worked at theSpectator. In the last 25 years, his career has balanced out pretty evenly between public relations and journalism.

Those on the outside found it strange that a job-jumping PR flack could be out of daily journalism for a long, long time and suddenly land a plum job at one of the country’s healthiest newspapers. But those on the outside don’t know David Estok, a Hamilton boy from a blue-collar family who carries the pride of the city in his heart like a brand. After two highly publicized, controversial redesigns in 2003 and 2006, the Spectatorneeded Estok. Public perception was that the paper, once as much a part of the fabric of the city as the steel mills and the Tiger Cats football team, had lost touch with Hamilton.

Although the Spectator has resisted decline better than many other North American city dailies in the Internet age, readership has suffered. Since Torstar Corp. bought the paper in 1999, circulation has declined by roughly five per cent, trimming revenues and profits in the process. There has also been something of a revolving door for senior management, with five changes of editors-in-chief and almost as many publishers in the past eight years.

For Estok, who was born and raised in the city’s east end, the job was to put the Hamilton back in theSpectator. Local news would be the only thing to help his paper stand out from the clamour of media competing for Hamiltonians’ attention. “You can go on the Internet and get The Wall Street JournalThe New York Times and The Independent,” Estok says. “You can look at all the best reporting, nationally and internationally, in a moment. But what you can’t really get is local news.”

In a recent news meeting, Estok—a man whose simmering energy is barely contained by his five-foot-six frame—is a model of restraint. For most of it, he sits quietly, his dark hair and eyes made even darker by the low lights of the room, and listens to his staff hash out details. But there’s no doubt he’s engaged with the discussion: his eyes never stop sweeping the room, moving from editor to editor like searchlights.

It’s a slow news day, and everyone’s a little punchy, trading sarcasms across the boardroom table. Definitely going on the front page is a story about the Oriental Blood Brothers, an east-end gang that has recently graduated from petty crimes to Mafia-style shakedowns. There’s a throw from A1 to the Go section—a story all about bagels. Art director Bob Hutton riffs off the proposed caption: “What’s in a cinnamon raisin bagel?”

“It’s like, who’s buried in Grant’s tomb!” he says. “Are we really going with that?”

In managing the Spectator’s newsroom, Estok has leaned more toward evolution than revolution. For the first few months, his changes were minor, and invisible to outsiders. The 3:30 p.m. news meeting used to start at 4 p.m. Estok changed it to give the day a sense of urgency, and to get people to think earlier and faster about major stories of the day. He did the same thing with the 10:30 a.m. meeting, which used to get going at 11, jump-starting the journalistic juices before the Tims have a chance to cool off.

Then editorial team members saw their responsibilities shuffled, and suddenly everyone had a new job. News schedules were changed. Estok’s management style emphasized decision-making from the bottom up. “In a smaller newsroom, you have to push the decision-making down,” he says. “At the beginning, some said, ‘Tell me what to do.’ I’d just push back and say, ‘What do you think you should do?’”

For a newsroom used to sweeping, rapid transformation—the hallmark of Estok’s predecessor, Dana Robbins—the slow pace of change to the paper itself was initially a little stressful. Some staffers scratched their heads and wondered what exactly their new editor was going to do. Bill Dunphy, manager of Metroland’s web training programme, remembers thinking, “Why is he waiting? Come on, let’s see what you want to do here!”

Estok began to deliver in September 2007, starting with a Saturday editorial titled, “Putting the Hamilton Back in the Spectator.” The following Monday, readers opened a redesigned paper with a renewed emphasis on local news: a front page “heavily tilted” towards local stories, and a local section that started on A2 and continued from there. On the op-ed page, the paper requested columns from readers. In the Go section, there was a Local People page, anchored by Paul Wilson and Suzanne Bourret. The Sports section now featured a Game Day package for Ticats games.

Beefed-up local coverage has been anchored by more ambitious projects. One of the largest to date is a continuing series called “Hamilton Next.” Under Robbins, the Spectator had run the three-year “Poverty Project,” an inquiry into poverty in the city and what could be done about it. “Hamilton Next” was the next logical step, says Wade Hemsworth, a member of the series’ reporting team; it is an effort to “determine what Hamilton should do differently to achieve the kind of prosperity that appears to have passed our city by while it has lifted other cities in the Golden Horseshoe.” Along with compelling articles, the project included a multi-section stand-alone publication that was distributed with the paper in late October. There was also a Hamilton Next blog, and a SimCity-esque game called Future City in which readers could log on and choose initiatives for the city while watching the results of their decisions through the course of the game. And with that, the Hamilton was definitively back in the Spectator. “The revolution was a brilliant, brilliant thing,” Estok says, diplomatically. “The trick is to find ways to improve the paper without reversing what had been done in the past.”

Estok grew up on Martin Road, the middle child in a Slovakian Catholic family of five kids. He had two brothers, two sisters, a father who worked for a die-casting company, and a mother who was a secretary for a local developer and was active in church life.

Estok read the Spectator as a kid, particularly the sports pages, but it wasn’t until he went to Carleton University in 1979 to study journalism that he developed an all-consuming passion for news. After school, he interned at the Spectator in the summer of 1982—with Dana Robbins, among others—and quickly became known as a crackerjack reporter who made up for what he lacked in, as he puts it, “natural abilities,” with sheer dogged hard work. Robbins recalls that Estok was “so much better than the rest of us,” and veteran reporters regularly asked him to work on projects that, as a student, “he had no damn right being involved in.”

The Spectator hired him full time later in 1982 and he quickly became a city hall reporter, working with the man who would become his friend and mentor, Jerry Rogers. Together, they regularly skewered Hamilton’s dysfunctional city council, their efforts culminating in a municipal election where fully half the councillors lost their seats. Later, Estok became the Spectator’s labour reporter, winning the Journalist of the Year award in 1988 from the Western Ontario Newspaper Association (now the Ontario Newspaper Association).

It may have been tempting to hunker down and get comfortable on those laurels. “It’s very easy to be mediocre,” he says. “You hit your five years, you’re a veteran reporter, you make the calls and you punch out the stories.” But easy never interested Estok. That year, he jumped ship to work at the Financial Post where he covered the steel and automobile industries. The business paper had just gone daily, playing David to The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business’s Goliath, and needed a stable of hard-assed general reporters with daily news experience. Estok joined other young reporters such as Eric Reguly, James Walker and Andy Willis—all now established business journalists—in the aggressive, scrappy, underdog’s newsroom, and quickly established himself as a boundlessly energetic idea machine. Willis remembers Estok coming in “every day with 20 ideas that he thought up in the car.” Others noticed Estok’s talents and he quickly moved on to the assignment desk and then to a senior editor’s job.

By 1991, he had tired of business reporting (“Dow was up, Dow was down,” he remembers thinking), and moved into public relations, becoming the director of communications for the Workplace Health and Safety Agency. Four years later, he stepped into the associate business editor role at Maclean’s, but he was now living in London, Ontario with his wife, Kathy, and two small daughters, and the commute to Toronto was wearing. In 1996, Estok made a second move into public relations, this time to the communications and public affairs department at the University of Western Ontario, with a sideline job teaching business journalism and newsroom management to bright-eyed j-schoolers. “David ran our PR shop like a newsroom,” says Malcolm Ruddock, one of the department’s communications directors. “I don’t think the newsroom ever really got out of his blood.”

He stayed at Western for 10 years, until the siren song of journalism called him back to Hamilton. Someone Estok would rather not name phoned to ask if he’d let his name stand for consideration as editor-in-chief of the Spectator.

The newspaper Estok heads was first published in July 1846, the same year the city of Hamilton came into being. In 1877, the Spectator was the first newspaper William Southam bought; his family would go on to form one of Canada’s leading newspaper dynasties for more than a century.

However, the venerable past has given way to a sparse present. Like other daily newspapers, the Spectator’s circulation declined in the face of alternatives, particularly the Internet. This gradual falling away of subscribers had an attendant effect on profit margins. A spring 2007 article in Biz, a Hamilton-based business magazine, estimated that annual gross revenues at the Spectator had dropped from approximately $78 million in 1996 to $70 million in 2006. The magazine also speculated that profit margins had shrunk from 20 to 25 per cent to 12 to 15 per cent.

In response to the Internet and other threats, cost-cutting has become a permanent discipline at most papers. In the Spectator’s case, regular ownership changes in the late 1990s, culminating in the sale to Torstar, did not help staunch the bleeding of journalism positions. Since the Toronto-based corporation took over, the newsroom has shed at least 22 reporting and editorial jobs through buyouts, and has undergone periodic hiring freezes.

From a reader’s perspective, the biggest upheaval at the paper came on October 1, 2003 with then-editor-in-chief Dana Robbins’s “revolution.” Robbins and the Spectator’s senior managers had been impressed by the groundbreaking Impact Study released by Northwestern University’s Readership Institute in April 2001. Sparked by slow and steady circulation declines in the United States, the study outlined strategies to reverse the trend, including increased local content, lifestyle news and feature writing. The study also spoke of making newspapers easier to read and navigate, and changing the culture of newsrooms to encourage adaptability and innovation. Change became the official religion of the Spectator, and the study was its Bible.

By 2003, Robbins had initiated the Spectator’s first revolution, collapsing the paper’s six sections into four, eliminating separate sections for business, entertainment, and national and international news. Sports went tabloid. Baby boomers and suburban women between the ages of 25 and 49 were targeted with a new section, a broadsheet “magazine within a newspaper” called Go, that covered health, fashion and lifestyle news, in a graphic and photo-heavy format. Regular news stories got shorter, but there were also much longer series, usually heavy on crime and drama, which according to the study, were of interest to female readers.

The reaction was initially positive. Readership went up 6.3 per cent in the first year, with even higher gains among boomers and women. The Spectator won a 2003 National Newspaper Award for Special Projects, and favourable attention from the Newspaper Association of America and the Associated Press Managing Editors website. The paper was even featured in a May 2006 presentation by the Northwestern Readership Institute, the very author that encouraged the changes in the first place.

The second phase of the revolution, in 2006, was less dramatic. There were no more turns off the front page. The news mix in the front section was shuffled, with a photo montage of major international stories at the beginning of the section followed by wire stories on national and international news. Local news, opinion and business made up the last half of the front section.

The relegation of local news (and its overemphasis on crime) didn’t sit well with readers. “The paper had gone into a lot of negative coverage,” says Ron Foxcroft, a Hamiltonian and CEO of Fluke Transportation Group and Fox 40. “It had deteriorated to a National Enquirer kind of paper.” Steve Petherbridge, a former managing editor at the Toronto Star and Estok’s former boss at the Financial Post, who reads the Spectator“in spasms,” says that the page-three photo montage looked like “a child had cut up a number of tabloid pages and stuck them together in a scrapbook.”

Many in the newsroom weren’t happy. “Reporters never thought the revolution worked,” says veteran columnist Susan Clairmont. “The integrity of the journalism we were doing was compromised by the design of the paper.” Writers stopped wanting their stories to land on the front page, since stories there were more likely to be severely cut to fit the space. Reporter Wade Hemsworth also says reporters were “a little uneasy that local news was pushed farther back in the section.”

Readers made their voices heard, too. Their letters, phone calls and emails argued for more prominent local news. Estok points out that there was an industry-wide push towards local content—sparked in part by that same study that inspired the revolution—and the Spectator needed to follow suit.

Robbins left the Spectator in December 2006, shortly after the second phase of the revolution began, to become publisher of both The Record in Kitchener-Waterloo and the Guelph Mercury. Any changes made during his tenure could never be considered definitive, he believes. “We always need to be evolving to meet the needs of our readers,” he says now. “If I’d stayed, it would have changed.”

Robbins left a list of people he thought would be ideal to help the paper readjust its sights. One of them, according to then-publisher Ian Oliver, would not only bring a much-desired outside perspective to the newsroom, but was “passionate about journalism and passionate about Hamilton.”

Estok says that working at the Spectator is a “great privilege and a special joy,” although he admits he had no intention of getting back into daily journalism. But he jumped at the opportunity. “How many times does someone call you up and say, ‘How’d you like to run one of the best local newspapers in Canada?’” he says, the glee fairly making him dance. “I was just a bit surprised they would consider someone like me.” But those who know Estok say the move was a natural choice, both for the paper and for Estok. His PR and academic experience was a plus, according to Ian Oliver. “He always stayed in touch with Hamilton, but brought back a bigger world perspective, which shows in the paper,” he says. “By having David there, you expanded the role and the knowledge of the newsroom.”

It wasn’t just the bosses who were happy to see Estok assume the top chair. Those who knew him, both from his work at the Spectator 20 years earlier and in other positions, thought he’d be ideal too. Nicole MacIntyre, the Spectator ’s only city hall reporter and one of Estok’s former journalism students at Western, says that when a few staffers spotted him in the lobby during the selection process, rumours started and there was “a real energy of people really hoping that he was going to get the job.”

The way ahead will be hard. The Spectator ’s circulation has grown 1.4 per cent in the past year, to 106,530 for weekdays and 117,172 on Saturday according to audited figures released by the Canadian Newspaper Association, but that increase is overlaid on a decade-long decline. Telemarketing, which once accounted for 75 per cent of new subscriptions, has been severely limited by privacy laws. Increasing or even maintaining ad sales, which account for 80 per cent of the paper’s revenue, is a constant challenge for the paper’s ad execs. According to Kelly Montague, the Spectator ’s vice-president of advertising, local advertising is strong, whereas the paper’s national ad campaigns, which are arranged partially by Torstar and partially by Metroland, are “flat,” and classifieds are “a mixed bag.” As in editorial, the payoff for the ad department is local. Following the example of community-oriented parent company Metroland, which has managed better than most news outfits to resist the shrinking revenue epidemic, the Spectator highlights local advertising through a variety of means—calendars, consumer magazines, the website and even a banner on the building’s outside wall—as well as in the daily paper itself.

Of course, the great conundrum for the future is the Internet and how to profit from it. No one seems to have figured that out yet, but like other papers, the Spectator is working hard at developing its website with video footage, blogs and breaking news. Spectator staffers go through a week of training at WebU, Metroland’s Internet training centre. There, reporters learn how to file stories to the web and how to shoot video to lend their stories the requisite online visual appeal. Blogs from reporters go behind the scenes and take an in-depth look at issues concerning Hamilton. Estok hopes to get readers interested in the fate of the city. More eyeballs looking at the website’s ads wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.

With the reader jury still out on his changes, Estok is getting ready to reduce the width of the paper to save on the cost of newsprint. The weekend paper was retooled in mid-February. So far though, his critics are giving him passing grades. “With the previous publisher and editor, you got the sense that he drove in from Burlington or Oakville, got off the highway, went into the Spectator ’s parking lot, and then operated from inside that environment,” says Ryan McGreal, editor of Raise the Hammer, a magazine devoted to urban issues in Hamilton. “Estok seems to identify with Hamilton in a way that management hasn’t necessarily in the past. He identifies with Hamilton as an urban environment, not as a bedroom community.” For Naomi Powell, who covers Estok’s old steel beat and sits at his old desk, the changes are logical. “We’re a local newspaper, right? Local news is our bread and butter.”

It’s November 3, 2007, the first night of the year when snow is no longer a hypothetical consideration. At Ivor Wynne Stadium, smack in the middle of the north end, the Ticats play their last game of what’s been a dismal, 2-15 season.

David Estok sits in section 26, row D, seat 13—same as always. His brother and best friend sit with him, in the seats his parents bought when Estok was a young boy. He rarely misses a game, rooting for the team, cheering them on, hearkening back to the glory days when winning a Grey Cup wasn’t a distant memory and it seemed certain that great things were just around the corner.

Loving the Ticats these days is a little like loving Hamilton itself, a lunch bucket steel town with the highest poverty rate in Ontario. Appreciating the city requires a sure and unshakeable faith that its fortunes are bound to improve some day. Estok loves both.

Estok knows he’s come back to daily journalism at a challenging time, but he says he’s never been happier. Even his friends have commented that he looks 10 years younger. “What do you do on Saturday? You wake up, put coffee on, go get the newspaper, sit at the kitchen table and read the newspaper. On Monday, I come in to the Spectator, get my coffee, sit at my desk and read the newspaper.” He leans forward and grins. “In other words, they’re paying me to do what I do on my own time!”

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About the author

Sara Chappel was the Online Editor for the Spring 2008 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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