Get connected to B.C. news
BY Mason Wright
Photography by Christoper Grabowski
When people want old-fashioned, muckraking journalism, they generally turn to newspapers, magazines or news radio programs. But in British Columbia, many citizens have instead begun to rely on an upstart news outlet on the web—just as David Beers, founding editor of The Tyee, had hoped they would.
The two-year-old news site focused on B.C. affairs has been propelled into a place on Vancouver’s media landscape where it can’t be ignored. The Tyee publishes original articles each day (over 1,000 since it launched), features a vibrant community of more than 1,500 registered commenters and in August alone reached 89,458 unique visitors.
An award-winning writer and former features editor at the Vancouver Sun, Beers was a victim of CanWest Global’s now infamous 2001 purge of top-level newspaper people, for reasons he suspects went beyond simple economics.
“When I was fired it was kind of a wake-up call,” Beers says. “I was writing some forthright things after 9/11—they weren’t radical, I didn’t think, but they challenged the jingoistic tone of many commentators and politicians in Canada as well as the US.”
After that wake-up call, Beers made no secret of his opinion that CanWest—owner of the majority of the province’s daily newspapers—had abused its position and failed to provide “fair and balanced” coverage.
Using the popular US website Salon.com as a model, Beers contemplated a move into the world of online journalism, and was encouraged by a conversation with an anonymous philanthropist who had a similar goal—and the money to back it up. The plan was straightforward: Take a traditional approach to journalism, attract local attention by limiting the audience to B.C., recruit experienced reporters alienated by mainstream competitors and put it all online on a budget of less than $200,000 a year.
By November 2003, The Tyee was up and running at www.thetyee.ca, with financial backing from a group of “socially responsible venture capitalists,” as Beers calls them (he won’t disclose names) as well as some support from the B.C. Federation of Labour. The result, says Beers, is “lean and mean independent journalism.”
“It is journalism by traditional definitions. It’s not a rant blog, it’s not indie media. We have some of the very best journalists in the province working for us.”
That list includes Barbara McLintock, a former legislative reporter for the Province; former Social Credit Cabinet minister Rafe Mair, who hosted B.C.’s highest-rated radio show for years, and Beers himself, who was once an editor at Mother Jones magazine.
The experience hasn’t been without its challenges though, from instances of comment abuse—which Beers says is startling for an editor accustomed to comfortable distance from readers—to accusations of left-wing bias due to the site’s ties to big labour.
“I’m grateful the union movement has invested in media diversity,” Beers replies. “That’s all they are though: one of our investors. I have total guaranteed autonomy as Tyee editor, which certainly wasn’t the case, say, when I was an editor at CanWest.”
Beers says The Tyee is an online experiment in media democracy “in the same way that alternative weeklies were a radical idea in the sixties.” Plans for the site, which have already begun, include lifestyle articles from a social-justice perspective and coverage of issues that go beyond B.C.’s borders.
In the end, Beers says The Tyee’s job is as old as journalism itself. “We just hold the government accountable,” he says. “We also hold corporate Canada accountable, which is increasingly difficult for the mainstream media to do. When I grew up that was Civics 101, that was what media was supposed to do.”