It's lights out for Webster award winning Public Eye Online

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

9 comments

holmanheadshot.jpg
Sean Holman was the editor and publisher of the successful Public Eye Online

If you are a provincial politician or political staffer in British Columbia, there are few things that put more fear into you than receiving a voicemail that says:

Hi. This is Sean Holman from Public Eye Online. I'm working on a story about...and I'd like to get your comment.

Why do I know that? Because at one point in my career I was on the receiving end of one of those calls. It was intrepid reporter Holman calling me to confirm if I had in fact taken a job with provincially funded 2010 Legacies Now.

At first I thought long and hard as to whether I should even call him back as he wasn't a "real" journalist. In the end, it was my assistant that spoke to him and gave him all the information he needed. Not long after I was the subject of one of Public Eye's 6000+ posts spanning back to 2003. Since then Sean and I have spoken on numerous occasions and I've even had the pleasure of being invited on his CFAX radio show as a political commentator.

I contacted Sean earlier today and joked with him that reading all the nice things being said about him on Twitter was akin to being able to participate in your own funeral. We both had a good laugh before we got into a deeper conversation about why Public Eye Online (PEO) was shutting down for good.

As you can appreciate, both Sean and I have a lot in common when it comes to being a one-man show online. Having established PEO back in 2003, he was a pioneer in this new medium known as blogging. There are many people who see him as the Godfather of BC political blogs. In fact, although I have never told him this directly, I would credit him for helping to inspire the development of CityCaucus.com.

Public Eye Online was not only an excellent resource for people wanting the inside scoop into the backrooms of Victoria, it also became a news maker. Holman dug deep into countless stories and was using Freedom of Information legislation to help uncover facts and figures few other reporters could get their hands on. That's why he ended up winning a Jack Webster award back in 2004.

But in the end, despite all of his hard work and dedication, Holman openly admits there were only a handful of people willing to financially support his efforts. Unlike other online journals, PEO did not have a sugar daddy in the form of a charitable organization willing to pay the bills. It's for that reason that after eight years, Holman decided to call it quits. Here is a copy of his last post from his website:

Since 2003, I've been honoured to be your eyes and ears in British Columbia's capital city, providing daily investigative coverage of provincial politics. That coverage now amounts to an archive of more than 6,000 stories - many of which have had a substantial impact on public policy and governance. But all good things must come to an end. So today I'm announcing the suspension of the site's daily reporting.

Public Eye has been supported for the past two years by a small group of readers who have made monthly $10 contributions to keep me filing freedom of information requests, poring over government reports and holding politicians of all stripes to account. That support has been supplemented by the site's advertisers, whom I'm appreciative of. I'm also grateful to Business in Vancouver, CFAX 1070, The Globe and Mail, News 1130, Shaw TV, the Squamish Chief, The Tyee and the Whistler Question for welcoming my reporting and commentary. But all of this is not enough to sustain an investigative news service that last year was read by more than 200,000 unique visitors.

I have not made this difficult decision lightly. I founded Public Eye because I deeply believe journalism - the reporting of "something that somebody somewhere wants to suppress" - is an essential part of civic society. It informs and engages the public and, in doing so, safeguards democracy. So it troubles me that fewer and fewer resources seem to be devoted to this investigative function.

Indeed, I know there are stories I've covered that would have gone uncovered without Public Eye. I know some of the stories I'm presently researching will likely now go unwritten. And I know there are those who may celebrate Public Eye's absence, having one less media filter to interfere with their narrative.

Unfortunately, Public Eye is unsustainable so long as it's principally me, a computer, a camera and a telephone line. So what's next? Well, Public Eye and its syndicated column may return in another form should a sustainable business model be found. In the meantime, I'll continue hosting Public Eye Radio on CFAX 1070, providing a weekly political commentary on News 1130, as well as teaching aspiring journalists at the University of Victoria. I'll also be filming a documentary and exploring, as is oft said, other opportunities.

So thank you for being part of Public Eye's success - whether it was as a reader, a donor, a source, a colleague or a mentor. These eight years couldn't have happened without you. These stories couldn't have happened if you hadn't cared.

Sincerely

Sean Michael Holman
Publisher and Editor, Public Eye

Although there may be few federal, provincial and municipal politicians willing to admit it, I think most of them have come to respect Holman for what he has contributed to the public dialogue. I also happen to think a lot of mainstream media will find the closure of PEO a big loss to their industry.

I posed a few questions to Sean earlier today and here is his response:

Q: Can you tell our readers why Public Eye Online has shut down?

Unfortunately, Public Eye just wasn't financially sustainable. It had a fantastic readership, having had more than 200,000 unique visitors last year. But those who were willing to donate to Public Eye on an ongoing basis were few and far between and advertising dollars didn't make up the difference. It was a difficult decision, however, because Public Eye was the love of my life until I met the love of my life - who I'm now married to.

Q: What do you consider your proudest moment as editor?

Out of the 6,000 stories posted on Public Eye, it's hard to narrow down which of them I'm proudest of. Some went through a difficult birthing process - my reporting on Patrick Kinsella comes to mind. I was immensely proud of that work, along with the Doug Walls affair. But, in some ways, what's been more rewarding has been my coverage of issues such as the underfunding of wildfire prevention, the risks associated with allowing taller wood-frame buildings and intersections between the public and private sector. These are substantive public policy issues that, in my opinion, continue to warrant substantive public attention.

Q. What advice would you give to a young upstart blogger who was thinking of setting up his own version of Public Eye Online?

Write a business plan first. I launched Public Eye as a public service - because I deeply believe in the civic value of journalism. I still do. But that journalism can't be sustained without funding behind it. It's something many passionate young reporters don't think about. I certainly didn't. As a result, the public service I launched isn't able to continue. And I think that's unfortunate.

Sean, from one fellow blogger to another...you will be missed. But I somehow feel like we haven't heard the last of you. I'm fully expecting to hear those frightening words again soon - "Hi. This is Sean Holman. I'm working on a story about...and I'd like to get your comment."

- Post by Daniel. You can follow us on on Twitter @CityCaucus or you can "like" us on Facebook at facebook.com/citycaucus.

9 Comments

I just read his comment on his site and had him on my favourite bar, thanks Sean Holman for keeping us informed, Im sure we will see you on the Voice of BC asking tough questions.

Great tribute to THE Sean Holman!

He IS a living legend and I did financially support him until I lost 75% of my clientele while he was being blasted by BCNDP commentators for taking my support.

At least CFAX will still have him on come Sunday mornings.

Daniel - even though at this time of the Vancouver municipal election and our different views, I'm glad we agree that the loss of Public Eye Online and Sean Holman's unique contribution to BC journalism is a terrible shame.

Thanks for your thoughtful article.

I have long thought that citycaucus.com should create a mechanism for monthly contributions made by the readers. Free work is just not sustainable.

The contributions model is usually not sustainable either. There are ads and banners on this site; it's obviously being monetized to some extent. Leveraging traffic is both a verifier of one's constituency and an organic means to facilitate publishing.

bobh, CityCaucus accepts donations... it is right in the menu bar. They even accept paypal.

Thanks Daniel, great post. We need to find ways to make political blogs sustainable, they have become part of our basic civic fabric.

The Thought of The Day

"As it happens The Departed are always the Good Ones!"

I am completely numb.
Sean, this is for you:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkJNyQfAprY

As for future reference:

Here's A Business Plan: Blog Sponsored Through private Equity, An Investment Fund vehicle,Based On Charity Donations.
Voila!
Who Knew? So Easy... Even Your Sister Could Run It!

More here:
http://twitter.com/#!/glissandoremmy

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

@ Daniel

Still getting to know your blog, but I find it hilarious that you identify so closely with Sean. That's almost as funny as your insistence that what you write here constitutes journalism. Too funny...

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