This week’s Canadaland episode, “One Rich Man Won’t Save Journalism,” is about the Overstory Media Group, which goes by the clever acronym OMG.
It’s worth a listen, but the gist of it is that a tech almost-billionaire named Andrew Wilkinson teamed up with an editor named Farhan Mohamed to start OMG, with the avowed goal of “revitalizing local news,” but is suddenly hitting hard times.
“Overstory Media Group, which operates newsletter-based journalism outlets in British Columbia, including the Burnaby Beacon, Decomplicated and the Capital Daily, has announced plans to hire 250 new journalists and launch 50 new outlets by 2023,” wrote Leyland Cecco in the Guardian in May 2021.
“While Overstory plans to offer resources to each of the publications, Mohamed envisions the brands operating independently. Funded by Wilkinson as well as growing advertising revenues, the group’s current titles have shown they are sustainable and profitable, Mohamed says.”
One of those publications is The Coast, which OMG bought in April of last year.
Well, that was then. Recently, those rosy projections have hit a wall.
In December, OMG laid off three reporters, including Kaija Jussinoja at The Coast. But besides the disruption to the reporters’ personal lives (which shouldn’t be ignored), the layoff of three reporters nationwide didn’t necessarily mean anything dramatic was happening with the company.
But a few weeks ago, OMG fired half its editorial staff at its flagship publication, the Capital Daily in Victoria, BC: managing editor Jimmy Thomson and journalists Brishti Basu, Shannon Waters, and Jolene Rudisuela.
“Mohamed, Overstory’s CEO, and Wilkinson say it was a financial decision,” reported Zak Vescera for The Tyee. “Capital Daily simply wasn’t making enough money from subscribers, the company had expanded too quickly, and they expected advertising revenue was about to drop. In a call with staff, Mohamed told them Overstory forecasted Capital Daily would lose $250,000 in the upcoming year.”
This struck me as odd. If Wilkinson’s wealth is ‘just,’ say, half a billion dollars, he could lose $250,000 a year at the Capital Daily for 2,000 years, no sweat. Even if all 50 hoped-for OMG publications lost $250,000 a year, Wilkinson could make a run of it for 40 years before worrying about having to eat cat food in his retirement.
So the money angle seemed like a red herring.
Better possible reasons for the Capital Daily firings soon presented themselves.
“[N]ewly uncovered cases of interference with the outlet’s editorial independence, in one case to promote Wilkinson’s own business — efforts that managing editor Jimmy Thomson rebuffed — suggest the firings may have had more to do with journalistic ethics and independence than the bottom line,” reported Ethan Cox for Ricochet:
In one example, Mohamed sent a message directly to the newsletter team (bypassing the managing editor) one week before the firings ordering them to “lead” Capital Daily’s newsletter the next day with the “huge news” that Tiny, a company co-owned by Wilkinson, was going public in a merger with WeCommerce. A plug for the boss’ company that Thomson rejected, once he got wind of it, describing it as an “obvious conflict.”
One week later he was fired, along with half the organizing committee working to create Overstory’s first employee union.
My sense is that Wilkinson is behaving as he is: a product of the tech industry. A tech industry full of tech bros who think they are smarter than the rest of the world, and with their huge brains they can parachute into any field and do it better than the people who have been doing that work for years and decades, people like, say, the very talented and respected journalist Jimmy Thomson.
Moreover, Wilkinson’s OMG is looking increasingly like every other tech business.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but in the actual world we live in, the tech industry exists mostly to take our attention. It doesn’t matter why we point our eyeballs this way or that — we might be captivated by TikTok shorts, doom-scrolling on Twitter, raging about some dumb thing someone said, or amused by cat videos — all that matters is that our attention and data are purloined and packaged up for sale to advertisers.
Canadaland reports that in the wake of the Capital Daily firings, OMG is shifting to a “community” focus in the style of BlogTO, which I take to mean fun and distracting takes on local restaurants and the like. I’m sure there’s profit in that route, but it leads to a product that is essentially anodyne and uncritical of the powerful.
Whatever the reason for the Capital Daily firings, I was disheartened to see Wilkinson and Mohamed disparage their former employees on Twitter. One of my biggest fears is that one day I’ll have to lay people off, but should that happen, I’ll do whatever I can to recommend them to potential future employers, including by praising their work done for the Examiner. Or, if I can’t do that, I’ll simply remain silent and let them get on with their lives without my interference.
Bousquet talks awkwardly about The Coast
I don’t write much about The Coast, in part because I have a complex relationship with former owners Kyle Shaw and Christine Oreskovich.
I truly admire Kyle and Ori for starting The Coast in a conservative small city far from everywhere, and making it work for nearly 30 years. That doesn’t just happen. It took a lot of gut instinct and understanding of their readership, even more hard work, and still more business acumen.
Moreover, they took a chance by hiring me, an American immigrant no one knew. They gave me the latitude to work freely, and they had my back when needed. As a result, I prospered. I would not be where I am now were it not for Kyle and Ori, and I appreciate it.
But it came time to leave The Coast in 2014. In the changing market The Coast found itself in, I was no longer as free to do as I pleased, and our interests no longer aligned. It was time for a no-fault divorce. I wished them well, took a vacation, and then started the Halifax Examiner.
In the years since, the alt weekly business has taken a tremendous hit, made even worse by the pandemic. But while most alt weeklies across North America were falling like flies, Kyle and Ori hung on, one of the last. That speaks to their business acumen. Still, the realities of the market were ultimately inescapable, and it didn’t look good for The Coast, so I was happy for Kyle and Ori when OMG bought up the paper.
Happy for them, but kind of weirded out about the OMG thing, to be honest.
I never considered the Examiner as a business competitor to Kyle and Ori’s Coast — The Coast was an advertising-based free paper with no paid subscribers; the Examiner is a subscriber-based digital publication, with no advertising.
But Wilkinson’s entry changes that equation, as he has turned The Coast into a subscriber-based digital publication.
It’s impossible for me to think about Wilkinson’s purchase of The Coast in the abstract.
I started the Examiner by dumping my then-life savings — $10,000 — into it in 2014. I’ve worked hard for these nine years to build the Examiner, hired more reporters, and expanded coverage. We grew to a $400,000 annual operation with seven full-time employees, three regular freelancers, and one part-timer. But then Wilkinson waltzed in with his almost-billion dollars and pursued a limited subscriber pool that includes subscribers to the Examiner.
Hey, competition is good. Having reporters across town who are trying to best us keeps the Examiner on our game. I’m good with competition. But from a capitalization standpoint, the deck seems loaded. OMG is like Walmart, and the Examiner the mom-and-pop store.
I mean, Wilkinson says he’s going to “revitalize” local journalism, but he enters a local market to directly compete with an existing successful, albeit small, media operation?
Does that sound whiny? Yeah, it’s whiny. I’ll cut it out.
Hedge funds, tech bros, and profit, oh my
I have no idea what Wilkinson wants.
Does he want to “revitalize local journalism” or just make another almost-billion dollars? The Canadaland podcast talks about OMG’s investors and profit margins and business strategies and such what, so I’m guessing it’s the latter, but who knows?
For myself, my aim is to keep the Examiner going, give some work to worthy reporters, publish important journalism, and at the end of the day, when it’s time for me to retire, hand the operation over to the workers.
Notice that ‘profit’ doesn’t enter the equation.
Halifax Examiner, Inc. is technically a for-profit operation, but any time we actually show a profit, it just gets plowed back into the operation. I own all the stock, but I don’t get any dividend payments, just a twice-monthly paycheque like the rest of the crew, and I get paid less than all the other full-time employees at the Examiner (part-timers and freelancers are paid less). And there’s no hedge fund or tech bro leaching off the operation.
Building a meaningful local news outlet is about more than money. Of course money helps. But my hope is that over these nine years, the Halifax Examiner has earned readers’ trust. And I hope you know this is not some grand scheme to “revitalize journalism” across the continent, but rather a small scheme to actually do journalism right here in Nova Scotia.
Ultimately, that’s what journalism is all about: a pact between reporters and readers, with reporters creating important work in return for readers supporting it financially. Everything else is simply a distraction.
Every few months, I write an article or a Twitter thread exhorting you, Dear Reader, to turn a bit of your hard-earned cash over to the Halifax Examiner. I hate doing this. I’m not good at it, and I feel a little icky afterwards, even though it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for me to do.
Well: This would be a good time for you to turn a bit of your hard-earned cash over to the Halifax Examiner.
Money’s tight. The end of pandemic restrictions mean people are going out into the world more, and leaving their computer screens. That’s a good thing generally, but for the Examiner it means a small drop in subscriber numbers. I don’t know if OMG has affected our numbers or not, but it can’t have helped.
We’ll keep doing what we do. If you find what we do worthwhile, please consider subscribing.
All I can say is … thank you, Tim, for all that you do. You are a true reflection of your staff and not just the writers. The people with the by-lines are special, but so are the staff the never get the by-lines, but keep things going. It is an honour and a privilege to support you and your wonderful ‘paper’ with an annual subscription, which is worth much more than the fee.
Yes, flattery is the sincerest form of imitation. I know it well. You’ll be fine, you have earned a loyal following.
This was a great article Tim, and honestly, how you think about this stuff is part of the reason I support The Examiner. The hyperfocus on profit for shareholders has destroyed, and continues to destroy, entire segments of industry along with the planet. It is sad that just wanting to operate something that sustains itself and employs some people for reasonable wages is so counter-culture these days. If I owned a company it is what I would want to do, it is what you do with the examiner, and you put out some of the best NS journalism available. So kudos
After you left The Coast there was no point in picking it up.
I feel very grateful for the high quality newspaper you and your team are making available to me. I can only imagine how pleasant it must be to work for the Examiner. This is really a privilege in a country where such journalism is devalued.
Never ever bothered with the Coast, mostly because I don’t live in nor particularly care about Halifax, its night life, etc. But I will keep on subscribing to the Examiner even though I don’t read it daily (gasp! I know, but life is busy…) because of your ethics, the quality of the writing, the wide range of stories and topics covered…you just keep doing what you all do. But please, Tim, don’t burn out. I do worry (hey, I’m a mother, it’s in my job description to worry. I’m also an editor and writer, so I know some of what you’re up against).
I don’t think the Coast is a threat to the Examiner in any format. I was a faithful reader for years but that dropped off in the mid 2010s probably with the same changes to the business model that Tim references. It lost the edge. There has been some good journalism out of there since but the independent feel was lost long ago. I miss it. I’ll subscribe to this pub as long as I can afford to!