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As 'Public Eye' Shuts, Hopes for Online Reporting Take Hit

Pioneering blogger Sean Holman broke stories, toppled politicians, won awards and can't make money.

By Andrew MacLeod, 2 Nov 2011, TheTyee.ca

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Ace political reporter Sean Holman discusses decision to suspend operating his Public Eye website. Photo: A. MacLeod.

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Independent investigative reporter Sean Holman found it ironic that on a day he was shutting down the British Columbia politics website Public Eye, one of his subjects was found to have broken federal lobbying rules.

"It kind of puts a strange capstone on Public Eye's final day of daily reporting," said Holman. "A story I did three years ago has now resulted in Mark Jiles being found in breach of federal lobbying guidelines."

That coverage of the finding failed to mention Holman's work, didn't seem to bother him. "It was a long time ago, so I'm not sure if people remember," he said. "That's what journalism is, ultimately. Journalism is more than about the reporter . . . Clearly the story I did had an impact."

For eight years, the 35-year-old Holman has been producing such stories, many of which had significant impacts, sometimes for public policy and sometimes for people's careers.

'Not financially sustainable'

"On a long-term basis, it's not financially sustainable," Holman said. "I think it says that there are a lot of barriers to breaking into the industry as an independent journalist."

Public Eye started out as a weekly newsletter, that Holman soon converted to a website. He figures he's posted 6,000 stories in that time and had 200,000 unique visitors last year, suggesting there is an appetite for B.C. political coverage with depth.

"The success of such a publication is dependent on just how engaged citizens are with politics," said Holman. "If you don't have a politically engaged public, there's less interest in political coverage. If there is less interest in political coverage, there isn't a politically engaged public."

Dropping voter turnout would suggest a general turning off from politics, but Holman says he's optimistic people do care, even if he couldn't translate that into financial support for the website.

In recent years he asked readers for 10-dollar-a-month donations, which supported the website and gave access to an emailed newsletter. The numbers varied month to month, but never passed 60, he said.

He also carried ads. At times readers criticized him for taking money from a salmon farmers organization or Kevin Falcon's leadership campaign.

"If the public isn't willing to donate, and if the public doesn't like advertising, and thinks that somehow compromises publications and media outlets, the only thing left is for them to purchase subscriptions," he said.

There are few examples so far of Internet publications succeeding by selling subscriptions and time will tell if that's a viable model, he said. "Being a watchdog journalist is a full time job. It can't be done by ordinary citizens. So somebody has to pay for it."

Holman posted a farewell statement on his website, as well as a summary of his record.

It's hard work, says Sun's Palmer

News of Public Eye's suspension was met with disappointment from colleagues in the press, as well as politicians.

"I am very sorry," said Vaughn Palmer, the Vancouver Sun columnist and the person who has been a member of the legislature's press gallery the longest. "The first thing everybody out there needs to know about Sean is he worked as hard at this as anyone I've ever seen. . . It's hard bloody work putting out the calibre of what Sean did."

Holman was digging out information, not just passing on his opinions in blog posts with a couple links pasted in, Palmer said. "The unusual thing about what Sean was doing is he was generating original content every day," he said. "I admire hard work. When he was on, every day you'd go to it and think, 'Wow, I didn't know that.'"

Public Eye's funding problems are similar to what all publications face, he said. "Both print and online print are struggling with a model where you find some way to get enough people to pay for it," he said. "Some have managed and some are struggling."

There are plenty of readers, but they are accustomed to getting content without paying, he said. "They used to pay people to write the entries in the encyclopaedias. Who knew people would do it for free?"

Many reporters, including ones with the Globe and Mail, Times Colonist, CTV and CKNW tweeted their condolences.

No steady work

"Sean's work at Public Eye Online has been pretty much required reading for anyone interesting in B.C. politics for years now," said Times Colonist legislative reporter Rob Shaw in an email. "He's broken countless stories that I've seen turn into blazing-hot issues on the floor of the legislature or dominate scrums with cabinet ministers and premiers."

It's shocking there isn't a job for Holman, he said. "I find it profoundly disappointing that he hasn't been hired by a media outlet, because I think the kind of journalism he's produced has been exemplary," he said. "I don't know what it says about our industry that a guy like Sean can't find steady work when he’s as skilled as he is. His departure is a big loss for the coverage of B.C. politics."

Bill Tieleman, columnist for The Tyee and 24 Hours Vancouver, said Holman's site will leave a hole in the province's political media. "It was the go-to site for investigative journalism," he said.

Holman worked briefly for the Vancouver Sun, a job he acknowledges was not a good fit. A stint at the commuter daily 24 Hours was better, but ended when he was laid off along with others as part of cost cutting.

Holman also wrote a column for Victoria's Monday Magazine for a time, but was replaced by Brian Kieran, a former reporter who was a partner in the Pilot House lobbying firm implicated in the BC Rail scandal.

A Tyee contributor, Holman said he will continue hosting a show on Victoria's CFAX radio, teaching journalism students at the University of Victoria and working on a documentary about provincial politics, but will no longer cover day-to-day politics for the website.

Scrutiny good, says Falcon

"I think it's too bad," said Finance Minister Kevin Falcon. "I think Sean's added some great value with his website over the years . . . I think he's always worked hard to try to be accurate in the information he's put on his site."

Public Eye's disappearance is sad, he said. "Anything that lessens that opportunity for the public to get information is not a good thing. That's just from someone in public life who wishes that people could have more time . . . to inform themselves of public policy issues, because they are important."

Falcon said politicians need to be open to having reporters taking a critical look at what they do. "I think more scrutiny is always better, to be honest, I really do," he said. "Even if someone's scrutiny we find uncomfortable at times, that's a good thing."

He added, "It's kind of like auditor general reports. You might not like every one, but often there's information in there that can get you to think maybe we should be doing things differently and you can adequately adjust course."

Public Eye will be missed, said NDP house leader and Juan de Fuca MLA John Horgan. "I think he was ground breaking in 2003 to 2004 when he set up the website. He was covering stories that other people would not cover."

He said, "He's a very talented fellow that never shied away from taking shots at the mighty and the powerful," noting that Horgan himself had been placed on the hot seat by Holman reports. Still, he said, "I'm going to miss him"

By bringing a video camera into scrums and posting them uncut, Holman provided a window for the public on what scrums are like and "gallery activity around politicians," he said. "I think that was very revealing and groundbreaking."

It's disappointing the website had financing troubles and is being suspended, Horgan said.

Horgan said he relies on the opinions of bloggers and other independent media as much or more than more traditional sources. "As an institution the media is not keeping pace with the public's desire for information, not spin, not government messages and opposition messages, but what's going on. That's what I believe Sean provided through Public Eye online."

Internet reporting remains the future, said Horgan, who admitted he grew up wanting to be a journalist himself. "Unfortunately the revenues seem to be going to the old institutions not the new institutions," he said.

In the hours after Holman announced his decision, Public Eye trended on Twitter. "I'm absolutely stunned and amazed and appreciative of the outpouring that's happened today," Holman said. "It's a testament to how much people cared and the goodwill that there is for the work that Public Eye has published over the past eight years."  [Tyee]

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