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Be more than a name on a resumé, says Jesse Brown

By Will Sloan

Jesse Brown

Jesse Brown (centre) spoke with profs April Lindgren and Greg Elmer at the Jan. 20 event, hosted by RTA School of Media and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Perhaps you’ve heard that two months ago, a freelance journalist brought a story to the Toronto Star that accused a major Canadian media personality of sexual assault. The story instantly turned a popular broadcaster into a pariah, and made the freelancer a household name. On Jan. 20, in a Q&A sponsored by the RTA School of Media and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, Jesse Brown was asked how an independent journalist was able to find a story like Jian Ghomeshi.

“I hung my shingle and said, ‘I’m interested in stories about the media,’ and then the stories came to me,” said Brown, host of the Canadaland podcast. “I had no idea about the extremity of the stories. I thought I would be talking about things like plagiarism and editorial and that kind of thing. Then I get a story about sexual assault. Let it be known that you are covering something that nobody else is covering.”

Through his Canadaland podcast, Brown has become one of Canada’s most respected media critics, exposing scandals ranging from the Amanda Lang conflict-of-interest allegations to Margaret Wente’s alleged plagiarism. At “The News, Jian and Me: A Conversation with Jesse Brown,” the Canadian media critic told told an audience of Ryerson journalism students how he turned his podcast into a moneymaking enterprise, and himself into one of the most respected and feared personalities in Canadian media: “If you can just carve out a little territory for yourself, I think that stories will come to you.”

A longtime freelance writer and former CBC host, Brown conceived Canadaland when he struggled to sell stories about Canadian media to Canadian media venues.

“ ‘It’s Canada, it’s insular, who cares what some Canadian columnist did wrong’ – that’s the kind of stuff I was hearing,” said Brown. “I had to make the decision as to whether or not I thought there would be an audience for this. And it was a pretty consequential decision, because I felt I would be taking my career into my hands by writing about my colleagues.”

Canadaland launched in October 2013. In February, Brown exposed a major conflict of interest issue when he reported that newscaster Peter Mansbridge accepted speaking fees from big oil companies—and that CBC management encouraged it. The “culture of entitlement” at certain major outlets has become a frequent subject.

“A lot of media personalities in this country have been protected by the market,” said Brown. “We’ve lost the plot as to whether or not they actually move papers. They draw incredibly huge salaries you could actually hire three young people for. Are they needed? Are they well read? Is their stuff important? It’s a weird thing: there was an age in journalism where you could graduate to a point where you were too big to fail.”

While Brown sought sponsors in the early days of Canadaland, the podcast is now fully supported by listeners, who can be become monthly donors through the crowdfunding venue Patreon. Currently, 1,831 patrons contribute over $9,200 per month; when it hits $10,000 Brown will hire freelancers, launch a politics podcast, and “start a micro news organization.”

When asked for advice to J-school students, Brown said, “A name on a resumé is just another name from J-school. … Don’t look for that entry-level position in the Radio Room. Start doing what you want to do now; find the beat that nobody else is covering that you’re obsessed with; and just start blogging about it, tweeting about it, writing about it.

“When you’re trying to monetize by crowdfunding or selling stories to other organizations, you’re not just selling your story or your labour, you’re selling your audience. You’re already proven: ‘Hey, I’ve got this many people who listen every week; I’ve got this many people who follow me on Twitter; and this story will have traction.’”

He added, “If you are obsessed with it, there’s a good chance other people are too.”

To watch the complete event, go to