This is the third in a series about Canadaland
I got my first newspaper job when I was 20, working as a summer student at the Hamilton Spectator. Later, I was a student reporter at the Globe and Mail and the London Free Press.
It was tough to break into journalism back then. I went on the full-time job
market at the beginning of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The once-mighty Montreal Star folded as I sent out my resumes. The Ottawa Journal and Winnipeg Tribune also went down.
Surviving papers were laying off, not hiring, and any paper that did want a proven reporter could snap up some of the casualties of the ongoing carnage. (The newspaper industry in this country has never recovered, and the decline that started then continues now.)
I started this blog to provide commentary and analysis based on my decades as a journalist and my current profession as a lawyer. I also taught journalism for two years, meeting some incredible young people who have become fine journalists.
The purpose of this website is to look at various examples, good and bad, of reporting from Canada and abroad that can be used as “teachable moments” for people in journalism, lawyers and news consumers.
Journalism, and the ability to do accurate investigative journalism, is an acquired skill that needs to be upgraded over the years. Much like the game of golf, it can never truly be mastered. But in order to play the game, you must learn the rules, practice the fundamentals, and play the game with integrity. Otherwise, you’re in danger of making a mockery of the game, and yourself.
When thinking of some of the great investigative journalists I think of Linden MacIntyre from the CBC’s The Fifth Estate; James Dubro, whose brave and pioneering work exposed Mafia links in Canada; Michelle Lang, whose brilliant career was cut short by her death in Afghanistan; Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer from the New Yorker, and Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! What truly sets those journalists apart – beyond their tireless and inscrutable reporting – was their integrity. They were always seeking the truth. The story – not fame, not ego, not adulation from colleagues or fans – is what was important. And they would never cut corners for a byline.
One important cautionary tale that I often encourage those new to journalism to study is the saga of disgraced New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair. Eager to be a top New York Times journalist, the 27-year-old filled in the gaps that his reporting missed. But his fall was even faster than his rise. Blair wasn’t the only reporter who ruined his own career because he thought he had to please his masters.
Stephen Glass’s fabrications for magazine articles were so bold, and his fall so dramatic, that his story became a sort of warning to everyone in journalism. The real tragedy of his life was so compelling that Hollywood even made a movie about it.
The more recent case of Claas Relotius of Der Spiegel drove home the fact that journalists are still self-destructing. Some crash because of their own failings — fabrications, mistakes, sloppy reporting, — malice. Others go down because they are not properly mentored. Some make bad career choices, starting out at the wrong publication because it’s the only place that will hire them.
Jaren Kerr, a young freelance journalist hired by Jesse Brown’s Canadaland, was assigned to an investigation into WE Charity, led by its co-founders, Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger. I’ve described, in earlier posts on this site, the gaping holes in that coverage and the obvious bias that Brown brought to the WE story — to the point that, when reading WE’s statement on a Canadaland podcast, he played maudlin music behind it.
Giving Kerr, a new freelancer, the WE investigation to do alone was a serious failure by Brown.
I meet Kerr at a conference in early May. He’s bright, dedicated and dedicated to becoming a top-tier journalist. I was impressed by his intelligence and ambition. But he’s just 23 years old. He needs a few years of adult supervision, and he’s not getting it. I hope he quickly moves to a media outlet that’s professionally-run.
I like him, and I hope someone in media who reads this gives him a real shot.
People like The Globe and Mail’s Robyn Dolittle have argued on social media that it’s wrong to criticize a young journalist. And that’s true, which is why I have criticized the work and not the man, and believe the fault ultimately lies with Brown.
The reporting was not fact-checked and, at the very least, Kerr (like Dolittle when she worked on Rob Ford stories at the Toronto Star) should have been paired with a more experienced reporter.
Kerr was most recently a summer intern with the Toronto Star, and covered, among other things, in March 2018 a bed bug infestation at Ryerson University. He was part of a team that covered the brutal killing of ten people by an alleged “incel” who drove a van down a Yonge Street sidewalk. This team of experienced and new journalists was nominated for a National Newspaper Award for spot news coverage. However, under Jesse Brown, Kerr was immediately promoted to an “investigative journalist” — though a freelancer — and, after being hired full-time on money raised by his WE investigation, now serves as Deputy News Editor of the web site.
Kerr’s WE coverage began in the fall of 2018, when Canadaland was doing its annual fundraising drive.
The posts were titled “Craig Kielburger Founded WE To Fight Against Child Labour. Now The WE Brand Promotes Products Made by Children” and The CANADALAND Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement”. The blogpost was accompanied by a 48-minute podcast in which Brown – Canadaland’s owner and publisher, and Kerr’s employer who assigned the story– interviewed Kerr about his report.
Kerr’s second piece, “Is the Media Afraid of the Kielburgers?”accused the Kielburgers of entering into partnerships with media outlets in order to obtain favourable media coverage. This piece was also accompanied by a Kerr/Brown podcast (26 minutes this time).
As I mentioned in the second post of this three-part series, I spent a lot of time fact-checking the Canadaland reporting on WE Charity, parsing out the Canadaland coverage, reading the documents provided by WE to Canadaland in advance of publishing their articles and podcasts (the majority of which Canadaland posted on their website), and looking at WE’s web page. I also read a report by retired judge Stephen Gouge commissioned by WE which debunked much of the Canadaland coverage.
I’ve read the Notices of Libel, and the responses from Canadaland.
This kind of hatchet job is par for the course for Jesse Brown. I wrote about his tactics in a previous post, explaining it was one of the worst pieces of “journalism” that I have ever seen. However, for a young reporter like Jaren Kerr, his career could be tarnished by his association with this “investigation.” Journalists start making their reputations in college and firm them up in their first job or two. A bad reputation is unshakable.
Since last October, Kerr has not had any other major stories on Canadaland.
Canadaland has been a very bad launch pad for young journalists. Brown invariably hires recent grads and pays them very little. It might be worth it for new journalists, if they could build a rep that helps their career. This hasn’t happened.
Katie Jensen, Vicki Mochama, Jane Lytvynenko and Supriya Ddwivedi – all very talented young female journalists – helped get Canadaland running. In 2016, they all quit. For a time, it seemed like Brown would not be able to keep some Canadaland podcasts on the air.
Any organization with such a high turnover and so many disgruntled employees should take a hard look at the way managers treat employees.
Jensen wrote on social media about her struggle to live on what Brown paid her. She couldn’t afford prescription medicine for her chronic illness, bought her clothes at Value Village and the Sally Anne, and didn’t have the money to insure the expensive audio equipment she needed for her career. This insurance was important, since she lived in a tiny apartment in a high-crime neighbourhood.
She worked 60 hours a week without overtime and had to teach part-time to make ends meet — $27,000 in her last year with Canadaland.
The irony, of course, is Brown is a multi-millionaire. He sold his internet start-up he co-founded, Bitstrips, to Snapchat for a reported $100,000,000 USD. He receives tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees, despite lambasting others for the same practice. Brown does not want to share the full details of his wealth and conflicts because it would negatively impact the hard-working students and other supporters who “donate” $5 a month via Patreon to his private company.
In his own “transparency report” Brown has no problem disclosing his own salary of $48,000. But there’s a catch that is deceiving. He only discloses the amount he takes as a salary from Canadaland’s crowdfunding – not from the total profit of the business as the owner.
He stated that approximately half of the income comes from Patreon supporters (approx. $420,000 according to the 2018 Transparency Report), and the other half is from business income such as advertising. Brown provides detailed accounting for how the Patreon dollars funds the business, and frequently pleads with the audience to increase their contributions to pay for costs such as employee salaries, but Brown does not provide the same transparency for the other approximately $420,000 in business income. He frequently boasts about Canadaland’s profitability, including on his recent TVO interview with Steve Pakin.
So, how much does Jesse truly earn? Well, it’s salary + advertising revenue + ownership equity in the site itself + other revenue (don’t forget his speaking revenue of at least $5,000 a pop, plus freelance work, and he hasn’t updated his list of speaking clients for a few years). In short, we don’t know the answer because “Mr. Transparency” really doesn’t want to be transparent. However, it is safe to assume he is among the wealthiest media owners in the country. Despite Canadaland’s profitability and thus ability to pay higher salaries, and Brown’s own multi-millions from the sale of Bitstrips, he takes advantage of his young staff, including those who have had to shop at Value Village and go to the Salvation Army simply to make ends meet.
The HR problems at Canadaland were highlighted when Jonathan Goldsbie, formerly of NOW Magazine, replaced Jensen. She blew the whistle on Twitter about Goldsbie being paid $20,000 a year more than her. Brown made a free market argument: to snag Goldsbie, Brown had to match his salary at NOW.
All this came out when Brown published his 2017 transparency report. It didn’t show the salary discrepancy. Brown had followed up the posting with a tweet: “I run a small media org committed to fair treatment of our workers, respect for their privacy and transparency to funders. Ask me anything!”
That did not go well, as former employees and Canadaland listeners took him up on that offer and peppered him with questions about Canadaland’s low pay rates, disclosed in the 2017 report.
Jensen, now a content creator for Ryerson, said more of Brown’s former employees should come forward: “When people are cowed into silence because of fear of retribution, media companies get away with murder,” Jensen tweeted.
In this article, Jensen talks about the brutal hours, the grinding work and the low pay at Canadaland. She was new to journalism and thought this was normal. (As a music and culture journalist, however, her career was at least not put at risk, like Kerr’s, by being pressured to do hatchet jobs on Brown’s political and social targets.)
Since she left Canadaland, her life’s gotten better: “…I haven’t felt that same grind since then – I think it was a Canadaland thing.”
Vicky Mochama, a Canadaland podcast host and reporter who quit at about the same time as Jensen and backed her up on Twitter, had a short career as a Toronto Star-Metro columnist and is now a freelance podcaster. Ddwivedi has a talk radio show. Lytvynenko is writing for Buzzfeed.
This year, Brown didn’t post an “ask me anything” tweet.
In this podcast, Buzzfeed writer Scaachi Koul puts Brown’s feet to the fire about his treatment of female Canadaland employees. It’s should be a wake-up call for Canadaland Pateron supporters that their own dollars are perpetuating this type of negative work environment, especially towards women, as well as questionable journalistic practices.
Brown’s hypocritical HR and his ethics violations are compounded by the fact that in some pockets of Canada, both the New York Times and Canadaland are both equally in the media zeitgeist, especially among journalism students. Ryerson j-school profs seem to adore Canadaland. This is a serious problem: in the age of social media, people do not adequately discriminate nearly enough on the source of their media.
I can understand the tremendous pressure facing young journalists to try to make it in today’s media industry. Jobs are ever more scarce and salaries are low. There must be a strong motivation to rise through the ranks by breaking a huge story – no matter what must be sacrificed to break it and make a name for yourself.
Add to that the pressure of having to come up with a story that’s so riveting that people will contribute to your hiring. No big scoop after a four-month investigation = no job.
Unfortunately, that pressure can create Glasses, Blairs, and Relotiuses. Jaren Kerr must not let himself be pushed in that direction by Jesse Brown. Possibly it was the reason for Kerr’s terrible work in the WE Charity articles and podcasts. My own suspicion was Kerr had been told to come back with dirt on WE, and that his future with Canadaland depended on it.
On the October 17, 2018, Canadland podcast, Brown says “…if we reach our next goal of this crowd-funder, Jaren Kerr will be offered a permanent full-time job with us.” That’s a lot of pressure in this media job market.
That’s just sad.
Seeing Canadaland on a journalist’s resumé could be a red flag to every major newsroom across the country, because if they hire someone from Canadaland, they are getting someone who has directly learned from Jesse Brown that headlines and clicks are all that matters. Ethics, process, and standards be damned.
More than fifteen years after the NYT saga, Jason Blair said he was sorry for the damage he caused to journalism and its reputation. I hope Jaren Kerr and Jesse Brown have that same reflection before more damage is done.
Kerr was asked on April 30 if he would like to comment on this piece. He declined, saying he stands by his reporting.
Editor’s note: This article was edited to tighten the intro and to add feedback from Dolittle and Kerr. I updated this post in May to make it clear that my criticisms of the WE coverage are professional, not personal, and to make clear I believe Kerr is a strong young reporter who needs a real start. Based on significant feedback I have received since the beginning of my analysis, I will continue to follow Jesse Brown, Canadaland as well as specifically the Canadaland / WE Charity situation closely and write about any further developments.
Update: June 3, 2019: As reported on fairpress.ca, I was present at a journalism conference in Toronto in early May where Jaren Kerr explained how Jesse Brown “sold” him on the idea to do the takedown pieces on WE Charity. Moreover, it was clear from Jaren’s comments, that Brown is the driving force behind them.