Within a week of the Halifax Examiner querying the owner of local anonymously run content aggregation blog, the Halifaxer, as to whether he is also the creator of the anonymously run campaign encouraging the re-election of disgraced former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly, Draft Kelly, both the Halifaxer and Draft Kelly have gone offline and closed their social media accounts.
The Halifaxer, created in May 2015 and posting at the URL Halifaxer.com, frequently published articles borrowing heavily from stories recently published by local news outlets — without attribution.
For example, one month after The Coast published a story broadly analyzing public documents detailing Halifax city councillors’ expense claims, Halifaxer published a story focusing on one angle out of the data presented in The Coast’s story: “Councillor David Hendsbee is the city’s most expensive local travelling councillor.”
Halifaxer’s story neglects to cite a source for the figures presented, but they are the same numbers The Coast published.
The councillor expense “article,” like almost every other Halifaxer “article,” was simply attributed to “Halifaxer Staff.”
Only one of the site’s stories was given an author: “No changes to Senate without more representation in Ottawa: N.S. Premier McNeil,” where “Hal Jesso” holds a byline.
“The story’s lede is semantically identical to the opening of the Canadian Press story on the same topic.
The CP story opens: “Premier Stephen McNeil says he is willing to discuss changes to the Senate as long as the changes don’t negatively impact Nova Scotia’s representation in Ottawa.”
The Halifaxer story, published the same day, begins: “Premier Stephen McNeil is open to discussing changes to the Senate, but only if Nova Scotia is protected against a negative impact on the province’s representation in Ottawa.”
Meet Hal Jesso
The Halifaxer’s contact page named none of the site’s editors or administrators, meaning this single mention of “Hal Jesso” is one of the only clues from where one can start to seek an explanation for the Halifaxer’s content, or its disappearance.
A Google search for “Halifaxer” and “Hal” reveals a thread on the Nova Scotia Live message board where user “GreyEyes” said the owner of Halifaxer says his name is “Hal,” writing: “Anyone heard of it? The owner says his name is “Hal. Not Harold”.
The origin of this anecdote was not explained.
After GreyEyes’ comment, user “mr. mom” wrote that the Halifaxer looks just like now-defunct Halifax content aggregation blog Halifax Journal.
The Halifaxer’s Twitter handle is @HalifaxJournal.
Additionally, a cached version of the WordPress theme website “MH Themes” features a testimonial for the Halifax Journal, attributed to Hal Jesso.
Like the Halifaxer, the Halifax Journal mostly published rewritten press releases and other articles while not including contact information.
Another clue suggesting Hal Jesso created Halifaxer is a signature in the corner of the first and only installation of the site’s editorial comic, Savageland, reading “Jesso.”
Looking deeper into the name (or pseudonym) Hal Jesso, the Examiner found this name has been associated with online content regarding municipal politics in Halifax as long ago as November 2005.
This was when Jesso first published articles on now-defunct Halifax news site HalifaxLive.com, where the four columns he published in total often recapped the Rick Howe show and referred to a “culture of entitlement” in Nova Scotia.
While Hal Jesso’s HalifaxLive articles often referenced Rick Howe interviews, the Halifaxer sometimes tweeted along with Howe’s show.
In April 2006, Jesso published a column criticizing Chronicle Herald columnist Ralph Surette’s opinion that Halifax was not prepared to host the Commonwealth Games.
“The Commonwealth Games can and will be a catalyst that will help transform Halifax and this region into a place where our smartest and brightest will want to live and work,” wrote Jesso.
After Halifax was chosen in 2005 to aim to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the controversial campaign to bring the Games to Halifax was led by former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly, who withdrew the city’s bid in 2007 after it was finally decided the costs would be too high.
Jesso has a decade-long history of writing about provincial and municipal affairs, has had his name listed as the owner of an anonymous news site regarding Halifax news, and once sided with Peter Kelly’s controversial stance that Halifax should host the Commonwealth Games.
The Halifaxer also shares an SSL security certificate with Draftkelly.ca, the anonymously-run site campaigning to re-elect Peter Kelly in February 2016 that captured headlines in May, according to website analysis site Userexp.com.
Both sites use Cloudflare services — Cloudflare is a domain name server services company selling security features to web hosts.
People owning sites using Cloudflare services have reported their own sites appear under the same certificate listings.
Userexp.com shows Draft Kelly and Halifaxer are registered to the same certificate as Saintjohner.ca, a site that mirrored the Halifaxer to reflect Saint John news, as well as Digitalartloft.com — another site that Hal Jesso gave a testimonial for, according to the same WordPress theme site that hosted his alleged testimonial for the Halifax Journal.
But while Draft Kelly and Halifaxer share a certificate, this does not necessarily imply the same person (or people) created them.
It’s as if these sites appear next to each other in the phone book because they share the same last name, and while they share a very rare last name, this does not necessarily mean they are related.
Additionally, the Halifaxer and Draftkelly.com are both hosted by GoDaddy.
Beyond the sites’ similar hosting setups, they both present a perspective critical of Halifax mayor Mike Savage.
Just as the Savageland comic satirized Halifax mayor Mike Savage, showing Savage calling himself “unsustainable, bloated, entitled and pompous,” Draft Kelly used its criticism of Savage as an argument for Kelly’s re-election:
On the evening of August 31, I shared my theory that Halifaxer is operated by someone local named Hal Jesso on Twitter after The Coast reporter Jacob Boon and others were discussing the potential origins of the mysterious site.
The same evening, I emailed the Halifaxer’s editor(s) through the contact box on their website, asking whether the Halifaxer was created by Hal Jesso and whether Hal Jesso was also the creator of Draft Kelly.
I did not identify myself as asking these questions for a story, but included my full name and an email where I could be reached.
I have not yet received an answer — but as September 6, the Halifaxer and Draft Kelly websites were offline, the Draft Kelly Twitter and Facebook pages disappeared, the Halifaxer Facebook page disappeared and the Halifaxer Twitter has gone private.
All of these pages were active and running as of August 31 when I emailed the Halifaxer.
In May, the CBC identified Halifax resident Chad Hudson as a spokesperson for Draft Kelly.
Hudson, emailed on the evening of September 6, has not responded to questions about the status of Draft Kelly and whether Hal Jesso played a role in its creation.
The White Pages list a single “H Jesso” within Halifax. When called, the phone number attached to the name has a full voicemail inbox.
WHOIS records show Halifaxer.com was created on May 21, only three days after the creation of Draftkelly.com.
Draft Kelly never broke the 50-fan-total mark across Facebook and Twitter, but the Halifaxer had broader appeal, with hundreds of followers and likes on both networks.
Was the Halifaxer, with its commentary on local politics and plans for a comic series critical of Mike Savage, more than just a blog aggregating and sharing cheap Halifax content for ad revenue?
Is it possible the site was also — maybe without direct intent — a blossoming attempt at shifting public opinion towards a fourth mayoral term for Peter Kelly?
Unless parties with direct knowledge of these sites’ operations come forward with answers, we may never know.
Draft Kelly?! File under joke of the day.