Sean Holman says goodbye to Public Eye
Over the last seven years anyone wanting to know more about who was pulling the levers of provincial politics in British Columbia inevitably turned to Public Eye, a unique online news source, created and doggedly maintained by journalist Sean Holman. After thousands of stories and many exclusives, Holman has now called it a day for Public Eye. Here he tells us in five lessons what worked and, ultimately, what failed. This story was originally published by the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting.
Over the last seven years anyone wanting to know more about who was pulling the levers of provincial politics in British Columbia inevitably turned to Public Eye, a unique online news source, created and doggedly maintained by journalist Sean Holman. After thousands of stories and many exclusives, Holman has now called it a day for Public Eye. Here he tells us in five lessons what worked and, ultimately, what failed. — Bilbo Poynter
Journalism might not be a cause worth donating to for most Canadians
It’s tough to convince Canadians that good journalism, in and of itself, is a cause worth contributing to.
In part, I think that’s because there’s no guarantee they’ll like the resulting coverage.
In my eight years covering British Columbia’s legislature, I have investigated both sides of the political aisle – exposing controversies within government and the opposition, as well as the Greens and the Conservatives.
As a result, I wasn’t able to make a partisan or ideological appeal for donations. And, when my reporting hit hard, I lost donors.
For example, between October 2010 and May 2011, I provided in-depth, market-leading coverage of the New Democrat Party of British Columbia’s internal struggles – from caucus infighting to the aftermath of that revolt.
During the same period, 16 of my monthly contributors cancelled their donations – a big loss for a publication that never had more than 60 at any given point.
But I think getting Canadians to donate to the media might also be hampered by the fact we don’t have a history of providing that kind of support.
By comparison, many media outlets in the United States – where the societal role of the fourth estate appears better established and is aggressively championed – have long had their hands out for donations.
Even unsolicited advertising can create problems for small media outlets
While most of Public Eye’s more than 200,000 unique visitors last year didn’t donate to the site, some of them vigorously complained when Public Eye ran paid advertisements they disagreed with.
Among the most controversial was a campaign that promoted cabinet minister Kevin Falcon’s bid for leadership of the BC Liberal Party.
“Your claim to be unbiased would look a lot better without Kevin Falcon's face all over your front page,” one reader complained, even though all of Public Eye’s ads were unsolicited – except for banners on the site promoting the availability of that advertising space.
“How do you maintain any kind of semblance of a creditable [sic] non-partisan Legislative reporter and website with Kevin Falcon ads all over the place?” another questioned, despite the fact political parties and interest groups regularly purchase space in bigger media outlets.
My answer was to continue covering Mr. Falcon just as a rigorously as any other leadership candidate, exposing a number of his campaign’s missteps in the process.
But the complaints prompt another question: if the public doesn’t want to donate to the media and if some of its members believe advertisements can compromise an outlet’s coverage, how exactly should online journalism – especially of the watchdog or independent variety – be funded?
Perhaps subscriber pay walls, which force the public to pay for news stories, are the answer? But, so far, their success has been limited.
Investigative reporting can be done on a daily basis
Investigative reporting is often thought of as the most time consuming form of reporting, precluding the possibility of daily publication.
That can often be the case. Certainly, one of my biggest stories took five months to break while another was four years in the making.
But I’ve also written more than 6,000 stories suggesting investigative reporting doesn’t have to be a drawn-out process.
Almost all of the articles published on Public Eye were exclusives, with usually three to six articles posted each day, five days a week.
The secret behind that quantity was twofold: first, I became the journalistic equivalent of a lint roller on my beat.
I would report about anything that hadn’t already been reported on and wasn’t in a news release – even stories that might otherwise have been written-off as being “inside baseball.”
Sometimes those stories led to bigger stories, occasionally years later. Sometimes they wouldn’t.
But they would always lead to more tips and more stories by reinforcing my reputation as a reporter who was willing to dig.[node:ad]
Second, I serialized many of my investigations, publishing major elements of them as they were confirmed rather than waiting to write a 1,500 word plus feature piece.
This resulted in the news equivalent of a soap opera.
“Remember, what I was telling you about yesterday. Well, you’ll never guess what I’ve found now” was the approach I took.
That kept the needle moving on Public Eye for seven years.
It allowed me to break countless stories that had a substantive impact on public policy and governance while driving daily traffic to the Website.
Show the public how reporting works
I believe the public isn’t just interested in consuming the sausage that results from the reporting process. I believe its members are also interested what ingredients went into it.
That’s why, from the very moment I launched Public Eye’s Website in 2004, I started publishing leaked documents, as well as those obtained via freedom of information requests, alongside the stories those records resulted in.
That now happens at many media outlets.
But, in early 2009, my audience had donated enough money that I could add an additional feature to the site – raw footage of interviews and scrums with MLAs and other officials.
Recorded using a Canon Vixia HF20, a Rode NTG-2 shotgun microphone and a Litepanel Micro, that footage allowed me to bring to bear an extra level of accountability to the politicians I was covering.
As every reporter knows, public and private officials are trained to do anything but give a straight answer to our questions, sticking to their message box at all costs.
That dodging and weaving is often inadvertently obscured from the public due to the space, time and narrative constraints of traditional print, radio and television outlets.
Indeed, politicians rely on the compression of the 15-second sound bite to hide the fact they’re giving the media non-answers.
But, by posting the tape of those encounters in its entirety, my audience was able to see just how secretive – and downright amatuerish – some of their elected officials are.
As an added benefit, it let my audience judge the fairness of my coverage by giving them an opportunity to inspect the ingredients that went into it.
And, in my life as an educator, it has proven to be an invaluable classroom tool for teaching my students how scrums and interviews really work.
Canadian media outlets need to be more generous
Most of the stories I wrote as a journalist covering provincial politics were exclusives.
Some of them were followed by bigger media outlets, while others weren’t.
But if they were followed, there was no guarantee the work I had done would be credited – an experience that isn’t uncommon in the Canadian media.
This long-standing tradition puts us out-of-step with what increasingly seems to be common practice in the United States, where the Associated Press’s policy is to credit whichever “organization that broke a story first, even when we match it – or advance it – through our own reporting.”
As a result of not adopting a similar gold standard, we are inadvertently undermining smaller and independent media outlets, depriving them of exposure along with the young and not-so-well-paid journalists who often work at them.
It is my hope that the Canadian media will revisit this practice and, in doing so, improve our industry as a whole, as well as giving journalism students a better chance at breaking into it.
Sean Holman, is a journalist and educator in Victoria, B.C. Public Eye radio will still run Sundays on CFAX 1070.
Bilbo Poynter is executive director of the CCIR.