Dance, little monkey, dance! A BC webzine says 'we'll write what you buck up for'
A great amount of interest was stirred by BC's thetyee.ca webzine last month when they asked their readers to give them money and tell them what to write. The request of readers seemed to come out of the blue. Although The Tyee had sought financial support from readers in the past (which they channeled through the Tides Canada Foundation), the call for donations seemed to signal that a change was afoot for the BC Liberal-damning überblog.
In an email to readers editor David Beers as usual cited his Big Media bogeyman to solicit interest in his cause:
Which [issue] do you believe is most crucial? We at The Tyee are asking you to let us know. Because now is the critical moment when great reporting really matters.
But do you trust Big Media to truly inform us? Especially when news corporations are pulling back budgets?
We're asking you to help The Tyee lead B.C.'s news media in the coming weeks.
The questions began. Were The Tyee's mysterious financial backers drying up? Was this a ruse to make them seem more grassroots? Was the global economic crisis affecting left-wing propagandists too? Was Rafe demanding a raise?
It was an eye opener for online commentators like us who probably ask themselves every day, who will grease our palms for our writing? It reminds me of the one red paperclip blogger from a couple years back who eventually traded up for a house in Saskatchewan. Apparently there's value in them thar posts, provided you can make the case for donations with readers.
Beers was interviewed by a UK journalism blog on his reasons why they sought direct donations to write stories about the provincial election:
"The corporate media around here is perceived by some as favourable to the government in power... [Due to Big Media] there is some concern that the full conversation won't be had during this election, and apparently our readers think that The Tyee can help round out that conversation."
The interviewer asks Beers, "What do you say to people who think you are reliquishing the news agenda to your readers?" Beers shrugs off the concern saying, "What's wrong with that?"
"Our readers are asking us to focus on issues," Beers continues. "They're not saying get that politician, try to defeat him or her. They're saying – 'poverty'."
If Beers set out to counter what he perceives as a corporate agenda in mainstream media with The Tyee, then by that standard his magazine has had questionable success. In fact, The Tyee presents not balance, but counterbalance. If the Vancouver Sun and The Province present an "extreme" in the eye of Tyee readers (hard to believe, for example, that The Province's editorial cartoonist Kreiger is anything but sympatico with The Tyee, as well several of their columnists), then Beers' webzine shifts hard in the opposite direction by attacking the government in power ad nauseum.
Most are familiar with the roster of writers, but who are the people behind thetyee.ca? The Tyee Online Magazine was formerly registered as a numbered company (0773044 B.C. Ltd.) and is now listed in company records as a property of Countercurrent Media Ltd. with a mailing address in downtown Vancouver. Its two directors David Levi and Eric Peterson are among other things well-known for their relationship with the New Democratic Party. Company directors are not to be confused with owners, whose names are not disclosed in the company registration.
Levi is the former CEO of VanCity, and was rumoured in recent years as a potential mayoral candidate for Vision Vancouver, or even a possible NDP opponent to BC Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell in his Vancouver-Point Grey riding. Levi ran as a City Council candidate in a precursor to Vision Vancouver, the Civic New Democrats.
Eric Peterson signed on as a supporter with The Tyee in 2007. Peterson made his wealth in a Waterloo, Ontario based technology firm (Mitra) which he sold before moving to Quadra Island, BC. He and his artist wife are listed among the largest personal donors to the Federal NDP ($5,000 each) in 2005. The couple's Quadra Island home is written about in Canadian Architect magazine. Peterson has applied his wealth also to the cause of nursing education in Guatemala through his Tula Foundation.
The privilege of his great wealth and remote residence allows Peterson to remain well behind the scenes of The Tyee's more bold attempts to discredit centre-right politicians. And Levi continues to work very closely with the labour movement through his Working Opportunity Fund (Growthworks).
According to the UK interview with Beers, the $15,000 raised in the first weeks of their online drive represented about "4 to 5 percent" of their annual operating budget, or about $300,000. For a web publication, that represents a fairly significant amount of money that would be very hard to generate through online ads. Beers says thetyee.ca receives "250,000 page views" per month (by comparison CityCaucus.com received about 37,000 last month). It's hard to speculate how much Google and banner ads add to The Tyee's bottom line. As a comparison CityCaucus.com generates under $100/month for its smattering of Google ads, which is not uncommon with sites with more sophisticated readers.
Beers discusses the ongoing funding he receives for his website from the BC Fed in this 2007 interview.
The B.C. Federation of Labour has been a Tyee financial contributor from the outset — providing 27 per cent of start-up costs and now about 12 per cent of operating costs — raising the issue of prounion bias. Beers sucks air at the question. "Everyone knows all about that," he says, referring to early concerns that the B.C. Feds were using the Tyee as a union mouthpiece. "If it reads like a union rag, come to my house, take me out back and put a bullet in my head," was his response.
Let's hope the key to the Beers' rifle cabinet is well hidden for David's sake.
As for the ongoing jihad The Tyee began with CanWest, remarks from a former Georgia Straight editor indicate that the website sees its mission is to counter the influence of ownership:
Charles Campbell, who worked with Beers as entertainment editor at the Sun and later sat on its editorial board for two years, believes the daily’s CanWest owners exercise a "troubling" influence on the paper.
Is The Tyee's problem now the amount of "troubling" influence of their donors? It's certainly a new course for journalism to invite your readers to tell you what to write. Time will tell if it succeeds into making blogs like The Tyee into the giant-killers they aspire to be.