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The Tyee Is a ‘Piece of Blue Sky’ Made for Hopeful Investigation

Founding editor David Beers on the wild early days of digital media, the job of solutions journalists and the need to laugh.

Mashal Butt 23 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Mashal Butt is a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media. She is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @mashalbuttt.

David Beers started his zoom chat with a show-and-tell of an object that has sat on his desk since the day he founded The Tyee in 2003. It’s a photo of wisps of clouds against blue, folded to be a paper airplane.

“This is what The Tyee is,” said Beers. “A piece of blue sky, made into a paper airplane and then just flung into the air to see what happens.”

In the latest addition of The Tyee’s interview series Three Things, Beers spoke with outreach manager Emma Cooper, reflecting on The Tyee’s origins, solutions journalism and finding a joyful balance while doing serious work.

Before starting The Tyee, Beers had worked in a number of roles in 20 years in journalism, including as a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine and as chief features’ editor at the Vancouver Sun. By the early 2000s, he was growing weary of seeing a few large corporations consolidating all the newspapers in town. The corporate model seemed to “strangle” possibilities for wide and diverse discussions about issues, essential for a healthy democracy.

Beers pondered a “solution to this problem of super-concentrated, ad-driven conservative media.”

And voilá! The Tyee was born.

Beers points out that back then, in 2003, much of what’s powerfully transforming about the internet had yet to happen. There was not yet Facebook, Twitter, wireless or mobile devices. Huffington Post didn’t exist, and Google had not yet achieved dominance as the search engine of choice.

It was hard to know if anyone was paying attention to the little Tyee with its strange sounding name. But at least one person was. Beers recalls an early days surreal moment when Michael Bublé, or someone identifying himself as Michael Bublé, left a voice mail wanting “to come down and fight us physically” after The Tyee published a piece criticizing his crooning.

At another moment early on, Beers realized the comments feature on The Tyee was designed with too much naive idealism. At first a small community of regular commenters took up residence and exchanged their views with general good will. But soon an anti-Semitic troll showed up, and Beers realized his only option was to manually delete every hateful post as soon as it showed up. A bottle of whiskey by his side for strength, Beers battled the troll for hours overnight. It was only afterwards that the team built in a mechanism for blocking toxic commenters.

When a viewer asked for advice on whether and how to start a new publication today, Beers emphasized it’s a fine time to try. His advice is to look at the project as assembling not a media product but a community of creative, committed people working towards a common goal. He also advises aiming to serve a particular audience, a particular niche, that you want to engage with.

“If after not too long you can get 1,000 people to give you $5 a month, you’re going to be okay,” said Beers. “So, think about who are your 1,000” who might care passionately about what you publish.

The Tyee operates on a model that combines ongoing "angel" investment from stewards Eric Peterson and Christina Munck, who view journalism as a public good, with its main source of revenue: financial support from readers who become member "builders." Unlike many other media organizations, The Tyee does not depend on advertising revenues, nor foundation grants. The Tyee is now exploring a shift to non-profit status.

That model happens to be well adapted to the current moment, when many news businesses are hard hit by the pandemic financial downturn. If The Tyee is proving the potential of member-supported media with hard-nosed reporting and diverse perspectives, that is appropriate, explains Beers. Solutions are in The Tyee’s DNA.

Over the years, the site has published many solution-focused stories and series, such as Good to Grow, No Fares! and The Housing Fix project.

Most major media ask “what went wrong yesterday and who is to blame,” Beers summarizes. “Solutions journalism asks what might go right tomorrow and who is showing the way.”

Traditional media considers it enough to point out society’s problems and leave the solutions up to the decision-makers. But Beers finds such thinking to be a crude understanding of how journalism remains independent yet serves its potential role in advancing positive social change.

“The media is embedded in a very complex ecosystem of change. It’s either beaming status-quo messages that serve certain entrenched interests, or it is positing change,” said Beers.

Most newsroom cultures are leery of being seen as promoting change, so the default is to expose problems without reporting on who is helping to solve them, Beers noted, having worked as a senior editor at two corporate newspapers.

From the outset of The Tyee, Beers wanted to demonstrate that investigating solutions need not be an exercise in spin or abstract wishing. He says there are three ways journalists can report on what might go right tomorrow.

First, find a solution being tried out elsewhere and explore whether it might be imported here (an example would be Europe’s experiments with harm reduction approaches to drug use in the early 1990s, which Beers reported on for Mother Jones).

Second, find a small experiment having good results in your midst, and in reporting on it explore whether it could be scaled up and replicated to have a wider, positive effect (an example would be writing about the InSite safe injection clinic in Vancouver).

Third, live the proposed change and report on one’s own experiences and quest to find others with relevant knowledge (an example he cites is the 100-Mile Diet, a personal experiment carried out by James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith, first launched on The Tyee).

In each case, Beers notes, journalists need to see themselves as humble investigators of experiments that are already underway. “We’re not spin doctors. We find the experts and the experiments that are happening” and after doing serious reporting, “package” the findings “clearly.” Then it’s up to the citizenry to decide whether to advocate for the change they see is possible.

A key to success, he says, is to have a diverse team of journalists so to guard against easy assumptions about which problems to explore, and which solutions experiments bear investigation.

“Start at the community level.” Ask community members, “What’s the problem that you identify? Who in your community are already working on solutions? Collect that information and then reflect that back to the community,” said Beers. “Then you empower the community to have an informed discussion about how to solve those problems.”

Interviewer Cooper asked what other independent media outlets offer hopeful business models, based on member support rather than big business advertisers. Beers named the National Observer and the Narwhal in British Columbia, and the Halifax Examiner as significant experiments showing resilience.

Cooper relayed a question about how public-minded journalists can stay positive when what they cover involves a lot of heartbreak and sadness. He said his own approach is “to know that you have to be critical to make some positive change,” while at the same time “savouring the absurdity of human existence.”

He offered a peek into the work culture of The Tyee, noting that even with the office closed, online the team exchanges a lot of kidding and humour as they go about their serious mission.

Beers described himself as an “ironic idealist.” The paper airplane made of blue sky has become a place where dedicated journalists can pursue investigations and solutions-focused reports and joke around, too. In times like these, not a bad place to land.  [Tyee]

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