Five Questions for David Beers

J-Source talks to Tyee editor and founder David Beers about being the puffer fish of social media, why long-form works online, and how the B.C.-based online publication is rounding out the journalistic conversation in Canada.

J-Source talks to Tyee editor and founder David Beers about being the puffer fish of social media, why long-form works online, and how the B.C.-based online publication is rounding out the journalistic conversation in Canada.

J-Source: This summer, you won a national Edward R. Murrow award for the second time. No other Canadian website has ever received one. Now that you've had time to digest it, tell me why the Tyee is tops: What is it doing that no one else is doing?

David Beers: The Murrow people have told me they admire the Tyee's independence and creative commitment to a local focus — in our case a regional focus on BC, though a fair amount of our coverage extends to Canada and beyond. There aren't many other sites in Canada with that same focus, though more and more in the U.S. Our full time BC Legislative reporter Andrew MacLeod is superb, and we regularly publish original in-depth series on critical issues. This year our reporter Geoff Dembicki went to Washington and wrote a 15-part series on oil sands lobbying there, and and we published a 17-part series on strengthening local food economies in Ontario and B.C. reported by Colleen Kimmett, Jeff Nield and Justin Langille. We pick key areas for investigative or solutions-focused reporting, and then we really go for it.  

J-Source: The Tyee puts its focus largely on the written story. A lot of big media thinkers believe that in order to succeed as a news website, you've got to go big on added interactive and multi-media content. What are your thoughts on this and the Tyee's strategy on multi-media?

DB: We are sort of like one of those puffer fish. We look a lot bigger online than we really are. If we had the people and in-house resources to produce quality video and audio, we'd be doing it. Given our limited resources, and our goal of publishing journalism that can't be ignored by influentials and decision-makers, we put most of our resources into text. That said, we run a lot of photography and have had great results with 'crowd sourced'
photography. The Tyee flickr pool draws thousands of amazing images, and we feature a new one every day on the site. We also often use them in our stories, and run photo essays by readers. On Labour Day, for example we'll be running 20 images of people at work, taken by Tyee readers. That approach yielded a main feature on The Tyee every day during the Olympics: 'The People's Podium' included a dozen or more photos by our readers that were funny, poignant, ironic, even scathing — very, very different from the merely spectacle-enhancing photos the other media kept cranking out. We are taking this idea forward into video in the fall. We'll be launching a multi-media window that features videos and photo slide shows provided or recommended by our readers.

J-Source: When does long-form journalism work online?

DB: When it is definitive. Or when it is long form because the telling of the story, the narrative structure, demands it. We run four features a day that almost always run over a thousand words, often 1500 words, and many times we break a 4,000 word piece into two or three parts and run them over the course of two or three days. The series function on The Tyee includes a yellow button on the story and a page where the entire series it's part of is collected, allowing the series to be viralled around as one url. That's a design example of how we strive to make long form journalism digestible on the readers' own terms.

The rise of social media — which many people decry as confining thinking to 140 characters — has actually been a boon to long-form journalism. If you figure the audience for a long piece is going to be either people wanting the definitive piece, or people whose tastes cause them to want to immerse and invest in in a creatively structured piece of storytelling, then that audience is probably pretty dispersed yet potentially very passionate about your article. Social media — trusted recommendations via Facebook, Twitter, etc. — allows these people to find long form journalism that satisfies their needs and desires. The Tyee's Twitter feed has nearly 12,000 followers, so our longish stories don't seem to be discouraging those people. Instead, I'd submit that these are a loose-knit tribe of long-form journalism appreciators. And we reward that, by, for example, peppering our stories with hyperlinks, so that readers can check our work or go deeper if they want. The supposed rule is that hyperlinks allow people to leave your site, so don't put them in. We see hyperlinks as another way to say to our
readers: we get that you are intellectually curious and don't want dumbed down journalism. We're going to extra effort to satisfy you.

J-Source: The Tyee appears to be pretty successful when it comes to fundraising. What do online news organizations need to do to stay afloat — and will there ever be a profit?

DB: Our readers have been generous whenever we hold a fundraiser, but so far we have tied those drives to specific projects — fellowships for reporters or beefed up election reporting — so readers have provided the gravy to the meat and potatoes paid for by investors and advertising, our day to day operations. Without the patience and generosity of our investors, The Tyee would not have achieved its measure of quality that allows it now, years on, to attract enough readers to be attractive to advertisers — and this year we've seen a lot of interest from internet advertising networks wanting to include us as a key buy. So that's a very promising for smaller, independent online media — the rise of networks that pool our audiences and get us a fair rate from advertisers while diminishing the amount of in-house expense to land ads.

Two years ago we launched The Tyee Solutions Society, a non-charitable non-profit that exists to fund 'hubs' of journalists focused on particular areas: food security, education and youth wellbeing, etc. TSS is separate from The Tyee, and the journalism it produces is intended to be shared with other media outlets as well, sort of like the Pro-Publica model in the U.S. Journalism produced by TSS is guaranteed an outlet on The Tyee but we also seek to engage the public by sharing the content with other media, creating PDFs and books and public events and any other means to bring the journalists' findings to the public's attention. The Tyee Solutions Society, with Michelle Hoar as director and Fen Hsiao on staff, has had good luck attracting foundation support for such journalism projects. They've included series on affordable housing, food security, green building and, soon to be released in partnership with the CBC, aboriginal education. Philanthropy is filling the vacuum in journalism in the US more and more, and that seems now be to be happening in Canada. Philanthropy can't be the new funding model for journalism, but it has to play a bigger role for public interest journalism to thrive. The Tyee's balance of many revenue sources is probably the future.  

I just want to add that this Tyee Solutions Society model allows us to actually employ journalists who remain focused on one field — that old-fashioned idea of a beat. That's very different from just having a limited amount of freelance money and paying small amounts, or even nothing, to whoever wants to write for you on any given day. Sadly, that is the natural mode for start-up, underfunded independent media — and, I might add, the way the Huffington Post seems to do it! I feel great when foundation support for The Tyee Solutions Society allows journalists to have a regular pay cheque and develop their expertise. Because while I'm a big believer that The Tyee rounds out the journalistic conversation in Canada, our model certainly isn't replacing the hundreds of decent jobs with resources that corporate media and the CBC have provided.

J-Source: Let's talk advantages of online. What can the Tyee do that independent print media can't? And, on the flipside, what would the Tyee like to be doing that it currently isn't? In other words, tell me about some of your future goals.

DB: Unlike print, online is immediately accessible wherever you are. It's publishing schedule is minute to minute. It allows 'coopetition' — the aggregating and sharing of other people's content to create media aligned with your community's interests. It's tied into the immense power of social media. And, done right, it can be productively interactive. That last fact is one we're focusing on this year, trying to do a better job of 'opening up' The Tyee so that our readers get a better sense of who we are and what we're about, and so that we give our community more opportunities to contribute to The Tyee's daily content. We who produce The Tyee also need to be less virtual, and more present in the actual physical world, so we're looking at holding more public events. After eight years, it's time we came out from behind our screens and started shaking hands with the thousands of people who visit The Tyee and make us a vibrant community.