How the National Observer became a niche publication that brings politics and the environment together
Update: Linda Solomon Wood, editor of the National Observer, disputes the characterization of the Observer as “anti-corporate” and “green.” It is the Review writer’s own analysis and does not necessarily reflect the mandate of the publication. The Observer would rather describe itself as “anti-corruption.” Also, while the Observer did indeed win a CJF award for Excellence in Journalism in 2012, it also won the award in 2014.
Bruce Livesey has been working for 30 years, putting time in with CBC’s the fifth estate, Al Jazeera English’s People and Power and Global TV’s 16×9—all investigative shows. His beat is corporate affairs. In late 2014, when he was researching a story about the Koch brothers, owners of the second-largest private business in America, and their Canadian connections, he uncovered what was only to be expected: big money, American influence and pipeline politics. 16×9 commissioned and approved the story and published a teaser on its website, but in late January 2015, two days before the air date, the show pulled the piece from its broadcast schedule without explanation. Soon, a Canadaland post blamed the documentary’s removal on Global TV’s associations with the oil industry. Rishma Govani, a spokesperson for the network, says the story was “set aside solely for editorial reasons.”
Livesey says that he was later fired because of the Canadaland article, though he maintains he wasn’t the one who leaked the story of his documentary’s removal. He took the Koch brothers story with him when he left. Three months later, the National Observer published the piece as part of the independent publication’s launch.
The National Observer, which debuted in April and markets itself as Canada’s national news source for both environment and politics, has a mandate that’s resolutely green and anti-corporate. Energy journalism in Canada has generally been split—on one side, corporate coverage from energy business reporters in national publications, and on the other, green bloggers and activists. The Observer delivers the attitude of the activists with the quality reporting of national publications. “This is what I like about the Observer,” says Livesey. “It’s a journalistic enterprise, but it definitely has a point of view.”
The news site is the second founded by Linda Solomon Wood. The Vancouver Observer, a local daily she launched in 2006, won the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Award for Excellence in Journalism in 2012. Following that success, Solomon Wood took the concept of a grassroots, crowdfunded news site and made it national and green.
As a Vancouver-based site, the National Observer has an advantage over publications that have their heads wrapped up in Toronto and Ottawa, says Solomon Wood. Readership quadrupled to 1.2 million unique readers from across North America between April and November 2015. Still, a lack of funds means the Observer, despite its energy focus, doesn’t have an Alberta correspondent. “It’s always been hard,” says Solomon Wood.
A link on the website asks visitors to “support our reporting” with a monthly donation or one-time contribution. A series last May about the April earthquake in Nepal includes sponsored content—a reported multimedia article that promotes Kina, a non-profit organization that educates Nepalese girls. The Observer also asks for donations via letters to its readers, and it relies on advertising, subscriptions, crowdfunding and fundraising to pay for everything—from daily journalism to the salaries of its 10 staff members to its investigative projects. The Tar Sands Reporting Project produced by the Vancouver Observer raised $53,040 by January 2016 with the promise to explore the relationships involved in the tar sands industry—local workers to green activists to First Nations leaders—on the West Coast.
The National Observer focuses on the type of stories Livesey produces and uses grabby headlines to lure people in (and, once they’ve read the article, to donate). When Livesey produced his story on the Koch brothers for 16×9, it was called “The Koch Connection.” For the Observer, it became “How Canada made the Koch Brothers rich.” Other stories he’s written for the site have a similar tone.
The website is a mix of the social activism of Rabble and the headlines of BuzzFeed. But Solomon Wood says that instead of producing clickbait, which drags people in only to disappoint them, she tries to publish stories that only get better once on the page. The investigative team has completed 11 special reports on topics ranging from the global refugee crisis to animals in the face of climate change.
An energy beat reporter might call the website biased toward environmentalists in the same way the Observer might call mainstream newspapers biased toward the industry, says Shawn McCarthy, global energy business reporter for The Globe and Mail. But he simply covers a “different side of things.” Energy reporters at other publications watched the website’s launch with enthusiasm. Most are impressed, says McCarthy. “The Observer is filling an important niche here.”
Rebecca Penty, energy industry reporter at Bloomberg News, agrees. But she says she can’t see a clearly defined strategy from the Observer. Within the jumbled array of stories, from the Nepalese earthquake to senate scandals, it’s hard to define the site’s mission. The website covers the environment and energy industry, she says, but it seems to still be in the process of determining its priorities as a national publication.
Perhaps that’s why, for Livesey, working at the Observer offers freedom. He can write stories about corporations and corruption from his home office, and Solomon Wood gives him the time to follow wherever his research may lead. Livesey adds that he doesn’t have to worry about his stories getting cut because of corporate influence. “When you work in the private sector media, they’re generally not interested in going after big companies,” he says. “With the Observer, that’s never an issue.” Quite the opposite: going after corporations is part of the mandate.
Viviane Fairbank is the Senior Editor of the 2016 issue of the RRJ.