Jesse Brown dishes on Canadaland and why we need more media criticism
By Aeman Ansari, Reporter
Jesse Brown was 17 when he won his first award for starting an underground student newspaper. Today, he is a National-Magazine-award winner and media critic and his work has appeared in Toronto Life, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail and CBC among others. He also hosted a CBC Radio show and Search Engine, a podcast on how the Internet affected politics and culture. He also runs Canadaland, a weekly media criticism podcast that has become a must-listen for any Canadian media watcher.
Brown, 37, spoke with J-Source about his podcast and crowd-funding campaign as well as his opinions on Canadian journalism and his media criticism strategy.
J-Source: Can you briefly tell me about how you became interested in journalism?
Jesse Brown: I began in high school when I launched an underground student newspaper at Northern Secondary (in Toronto). I did a survey of a hundred students and included a report card of the teachers in the paper, which my principal wasn’t so happy about. He contacted the parents of all the students that contributed, I was threatened with expulsion and he even called my advertisers. I presented my case on (CBC’s) Metro Morning with Andy Barrie and my principal presented his case. The result was there was a lot of interest in the newspaper. I then expanded it to become a Toronto-wide underground project. It was tremendous fun to start doing a certain kind of journalism as a high school student.
J-Source: Why did you feel the need to start Canadaland?
JB: We are undergoing an incredible transition, and it’s not a transition that I like to describe as particular to one field or to the journalism industry. A big aspect of this major change is known to all: that newspapers are in free fall. The state of legacy media and legacy broadcast media is up for grabs. News organizations the world over are feeling that pressure. On top of which there were particular aspects of the problems in Canada that are unique to us. Our industry is a small club that runs on influence, there is an elite and we know not to ask certain questions of people at a certain level. Perhaps this has always been true, but you begin to wonder when you run into a situation when an entire generation of journalists is being pushed out of the field and simultaneously we are failing to provide the core competence we are looked upon for. So I think it’s absolutely necessary and entirely fair game to look at the decisions that are being made within both private and public news organizations. I should also mention that whatever courage I mustered to talk about this stuff, I probably only came up with because like anybody who is mid-career in this field I was worried about whether or not there is going to be a future for me. When you see your peers losing their jobs and moving to other industries entirely, it helps you find the bravery to talk about things I probably would not have spoken about if I was in a more secure position in the field, and if the field itself was secure. I feel like if not now, then when we will talk about this?
J-Source: Would you say your podcast has been successful?
JB: It’s more successful than I hoped. I wasn’t sure if anyone would even listen and right off the bat I had a couple of thousand people listening to my first episode and now I have over 10,000 people listening a week. Beyond the numbers, there is the actual influence of the show and I know its being listened to outside the industry. In the U.S, you’ve got The Daily Show, Gawker and David Carr at The New York Times. It’s pretty thrilling to be the only person doing it [media criticism] here, but having said that, I would welcome much more in Canada..
J-Source: How profitable has Canadaland been?
JB: It’s not a profitable endeavour. I have been lucky enough to have support from corporate sponsors from the beginning and, in particular, Freshbooks (an accounting software service designed for small businesses) helped me get it off the ground. They gave me enough of a runway to run the show for six months as a half-time gig. Since then, I have been relying on less lucrative sponsorships, and while the show has been mounting a very loyal audience, it has started to lose money. So in addition to covering the future of journalism and what new models we might move towards or develop, Canadaland is in itself a part of that story. I think Canadians are beginning to understand that if they want to have something different than what we’re getting from mainstream news, they will have to financially support it. Canadaland will always be free and I’m never going to put up a paywall, but I am launching a crowd-funding campaign.
J-Source: Tell me a little bit about your crowdfunding campaign.
JB: I think that the plan for Canadaland has always been to spend the first year figuring out what the show is and whether I want to do it all the time. This is something I want to do full time and there is nothing else my audience wants me to do, but I can’t do it if the audience doesn’t support it financially. It’s a microbeat and at this point I would be very happy if I could sustain myself as I cover it. I don’t want to have to go running around for other work, which might be hard to find in Canada now. I really needed a sustainable model. I think there is the possibility of making this bigger and stronger, bringing more voices in and becoming a little news organization, but I will have to work for years to make that happen.
J-Source: What is the technical process involved in producing your podcast? How many people are a part of your team?
JB: It’s a lot of work, but it’s work that I love. Technically speaking there is not a ton going on and I get some help from my producer, Christopher Demelo. I rent a desk at a music company’s production house in Toronto and there’s a recording studio in the space. The work is really about choosing a topic and chasing the guests—all of the stuff that someone else did for me when I was a CBC Radio host. It’s also researching the interview, writing the questions and all the logistics that go into having these wonderful conversations. It becomes this sanctuary for people where they know if they are coming to my studio, it’s a place where they can say what really matters to them and tell the truth. Lately I have been trying to make the show less Toronto-centric so I’ve been travelling and interviewing people in different parts of the country.
J-Source: You usually have one guest per podcast. How do you manage to get all sides of a story with only one interview?
JB: As John Oliver illustrated with the climate change debate, not everything is an equal debate between two opposing sides. What I’m doing in many cases is a response and filling in the vacancies that exist elsewhere. I’m creating a space on my podcast, which though increasingly popular and one of the most popular podcasts in Canada, is still just my podcast.
J-Source: Your show is essentially a forum for critiquing the work of organizations and journalists that you have worked for in the past and probably hope to work for in the future. How does this affect your job opportunities and your relationship with your peers? Are you more hesitant to offer criticisms of certain organizations based on the projects you are working on?
JB: There is no question in my mind that it has had a negative impact on how much work I get. I used to get a lot more offers on the freelance work I did. I would get an invitation to be on the CBC and other places every week to talk about the stuff I wrote about as a journalist. That has almost completely evaporated. I don’t think there is a black list or conspiracy of “let’s never let this guy work in this town again,” but I think when I’m out there in the public posting photographs of people who run major news organizations and when I’m saying very critical things, it definitely hurts my standing as a working journalist. At the same time, I get daily encouragement from other journalists. I’m getting cheered on by senior journalists and retired journalists like Jeffrey Dvorkin who ran CBC Radio news. These are intelligent people who care about journalism and the work they do. They know the stuff I’m talking about needs to be talked about.
J-Source: Can you name any organizations or individuals that have made efforts to improve the quality of media criticism in Canada?
JB: There are some people who do this professionally and are pushing the ball forward. I would point to Andrew Mitrovica at iPolitics; I don’t think anybody has put the focus on media criticism with the exception of Andrew. For all of the shit Huffington Post gets from traditional journalism, Huffington Post Canada and Michael Bolen over there are willing to print stuff that the big organizations are not and to do some original reporting when necessary. There are even special interest groups like PressProgress doing some interesting stuff. They were first to report on the Rex Murphy oil talks scandal. And I think J-Source is a good industry magazine.
J-Source: You have been quite vocal about recent controversies with the CBC, specifically its decision to allow freelancers and full-time journalists to do paid speaking engagements from organizations that were being covered in the news. You also did a podcast on “The CBC’S Secret Deal with Harper” in which you mention that the CBC should be held to higher standards of transparency than other news organizations because it is paid for by public funds. Can you expand on that idea?
JB: I talk a lot about the CBC, both as a bitter, disgruntled ex-employee and as an optimistic, idealistic public broadcaster. I also talk about the CBC as a citizen, as is any citizen’s right to do and which the CBC benefits from. I am not one of the voices calling for the privatization of the CBC or for the disassembly of the CBC. Everything that I am covering in terms of the privates and their faltering commitment to news coverage and the implosion of news as a business in Canada only makes me more certain that we need the CBC and that we need the CBC as a strong news organization. My chief frustration with them is that they seem to be more interested in putting on really shitty sitcoms than in maintaining their presence as a world-class news organization.
J-Source: Can you expand on why you take a humorous approach to reviewing pieces of journalism?
JB: Gavin McInnes from Vice, who I have also taken some issue with, said a great thing once. I don’t know if it’s his thought or some else’s, but it’s a wonderful editorial approach which says: treat the smart stuff really stupid and the stupid stuff really smart. I want to get people to care about and engage with stuff that can come off as dry and boring. It’s not that media doesn’t cover these things; they are not as entertaining as I am when they cover it. What I hope to do is dispel the view that Canada is boring. It’s not boring. It’s really weird, corrupt in places and it’s backwards. I think the first thing I need to convey is that it’s interesting. I wouldn’t be covering it if I didn’t think so.
This interview was edited and condensed.