When I first heard about Ricochet, the proposed new bilingual media outlet that sells itself as a counterweight to “corporate” journalism, I wasn’t terribly excited. As someone who works as a journalist for the so-called “corporate” media, I’m well aware of its faults. I know that the drive to stay profitable has led to the blurring of lines between news and advertising, cost-cutting that has gone beyond cutting to the bone, and a hesitation to be too critical of the hand that feeds you.
So I welcome new voices. I want to see people investigate where others aren’t, to hold accountable people who aren’t used to being accountable.
But what bothered me about Ricochet was three things: First, its business model, based on crowdfunding and actually asking readers to pay for the journalism being produced, while also guaranteeing that everything that will be published will be free.
The second was the people behind it: Ethan Cox, who regularly goes back and forth between journalist and NDP/Projet Montréal political activist; Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the most radical student association during the student strike; and a host of others whose backgrounds include things like NDP candidate, Idle No More organizer, environmentalist, feminist, philosophy teacher, and the catch-all “activist”. Is this really an endeavour to create a new type of journalism, or is this about creating left-wing journalism, doing for the left what Sun News Network does for the right? (And if that’s the case, don’t we already have plenty of outlets like that, from Rabble to The Tyee?)
Finally, duplication. Why not join forces with The Tyee, or Rabble.ca, or any of the other socially progressive non-profit Canadian media outlets out there?
I spoke with Cox recently to ask him about his project and give him a chance to respond to my concerns.
The business model
“We’re going to be building in these tools of sustainable crowd funding,” Cox says of the model that will sustain the website once its initial crowdfunded seed money runs out. “We’re going to explore all options.”
Most of the money will come from voluntary reader donations. A system, for example, could be set up so that whenever a certain writer publishes a story, a reader gives 50 cents. A few hundred of those, and the piece is paid for.
Cox said there would be plenty of different ways for people to contribute, and they would be experimenting with the one that works best.
Voluntary donations are hard. Maybe one in 100 people who read will decide to give any money. Look at much larger institutions like PBS and NPR, and you see that no matter how good the content or how much people like it or how altruistic it is, the vast majority won’t give a cent to keep making it.
I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations. I spoke recently with the president of Vermont Public Radio for another story, and she noted that the average donation from a paying member is about $100 a year. If Ricochet wanted to pay a full-time journalist $50,000 a year, assuming that figure included taxes, benefits, insurance, office space and any other expenses associated with an employee, then 500 people would need to donate just to support that journalist.
That seems like a lot.
Cox pointed out that, at least at first, the editors of the website won’t be paying themselves. All the money raised will be going to paying freelance writers directly for their stories. This is a key point of Ricochet’s business model because many other websites, corporate and otherwise, left-wing or right-wing, make money off the back of free or poorly paid writers, and that’s something Cox and his colleagues are strongly opposed to.
The freelance rates, Cox said, would vary based on the complexity of the story, but “we don’t want to pay less than $100 for a piece.” For long-form investigative journalism, rates could go up to $500 or more.
“It’s not the greatest rates in the world right now,” he admitted. “Hopefully if we’re able to raise money, then we’ll be able to pay better.”
I’m sure freelancers have heard that one many times in various forms.
Cox points to other attempts to do crowdfunding for journalism. You can read about them in stories by J-Source, King’s Journalism Review, and Columbia Journalism Review. But successful cases are few, and tend to involve individual journalists more than media organizations. Most importantly, they’re new, and getting people to donate to a new idea is very different from keeping an organization solvent through continued donations.
Ricochet will start with some generous seed money, but can those donations come in at a steady enough rate to keep it going a year or more after it launches?
I also wondered about a potential issue with their funding model, especially the part about tying donations to the work of individual journalists: Couldn’t this lead to the very same sort of bias in favour of financially beneficial stories that Ricochet’s supporters decry in corporate media?
I gave, as an example, a journalist focusing on anti-oilsands stories getting donations from people connected to natural gas companies. Cox laughed at that suggestion, “We’re not too concerned about influxes of money from natural gas companies,” he said. But he admitted that, at least theoretically, various corporate interests could use straw men (like they do in Quebec politics) to secretly funnel money into Ricochet in support of journalists whose stories benefit them financially.
It’s not because Ricochet is on the left that giving it a stronger voice can’t have financial benefits for someone.
Maybe it’s a paranoid conspiracy theory. But when you open up journalism to be so directly affected by money, you have to ask the question.
Still, Cox is reassuring. “We’re going to do everything in our power to ensure that quality content comes first,” he said. “It’s not going to be the Hunger Games.”
Cox also said they’ll look at other sources of funding. Foundations, perhaps, or even some advertising. But sponsored content is definitely out, he said.
Media of the left
My second concern was simple: Isn’t this just another left-wing media outlet that’s going to be preaching to the choir and be ignored by the very people whose minds it hopes to change?
“Our bias is on our sleeve. We wear it with pride,” Cox said.
Fair enough, I suppose. I’m all for transparency. But like Rabble, The Tyee, Mother Jones and MSNBC (and right-wing media like Sun News, Fox News and Drudge), its journalism, no matter how solid, is likely to be dismissed by people who don’t already agree with its political bent.
The fact that the site would be a mix of journalism and opinion concerned me further. I wondered if, when lacking money for serious investigative journalism, the site might end up with far more opinion than news. Cox assured me that wouldn’t happen.
But clearly this website will have a political bent. While not being “elitist”, the “opinion side will seek to redress an imbalance. The editorial position of this media outlet is progressive.”
As Cox explained in various interviews, the genesis for the idea for this site, and the fact that it would be bilingual, came up because of a perceived disconnect between the way English-language media outside of Quebec was reporting on the 2012 student strike. (More specifically, that it was so negative toward the students.)
There were, of course, plenty of left-wing media covering the student strike with a strong editorial bias in the students’ favour, but the right and the mainstream dismissed CKUT, Rabble and others because of that. I don’t know how Ricochet is going to be different there.
Which brings me to my third concern, that Ricochet will try to replicate what so many others have done.
To his credit, Cox points out a few ways that it will be different from other left-wing media. The biggest is that Ricochet will pay its journalists, rather than expecting them to work for free, like other websites do (often hypocritically, when they’re simultaneously condemning other organizations for insufficient worker compensation).
The fact that Ricochet will put money toward paying writers before paying editors certainly differentiates itself from other media. But I don’t know if that will be enough.
Jesse Brown, host of the Canadaland podcast, touched on this issue when he asked Cox about his history with Rabble. Cox had a falling out with that organization, and resigned in October saying it was not paying its workers (a charge Rabble denies). Derrick O’Keefe, who’s also on the Ricochet team, was Rabble’s editor. So you can understand why this might give the impression that Ricochet is a collection of disgruntled former Rabble-ites.
Cox was clearly uncomfortable when asked about it by Brown, and wanted to avoid badmouthing Rabble. But that didn’t stop “Ricochet vs. Rabble” from becoming a discussion point.
I can understand Cox’s point here, and left-wing media compensating for its poor business models by taking advantage of writers has been a thorn in my side as well. (See: Huffington Post)
If Ricochet can be successful, that will answer this question quickly enough.
But I’m skeptical that it will be.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that people are experimenting with new forms of media. The more journalists out there, the better, whether it’s Sun News asking questions about CBC and David Suzuki that nobody else is, or The Tyee uncovering some serious issues about oil pipelines in Canada. And Ricochet’s commitment to putting writers at the top of its expense list is admirable.
I just wish its commitment to good journalism outweighed its commitment to provide “balance” to what it considers a right-wing bias in mainstream media.
With two days to go, Ricochet has reached more than 90% of its $75,000 goal on IndieGogo. Donations will be accepted until 11:59pm on Friday, June 20. UPDATE: The campaign is now complete, having raised $82,945 of its $75,000 goal in donations from 1,548 people, 892 of whom gave $25.
Cox says he expects the site to be running by the fall, at which point it will publish “several posts a day.”
For a taste of what Ricochet offers, it has posted this story about a town in Maine opposed to Alberta oil sands oil, the first of “a six-part cross-continent investigative series.” It also has a piece in French on Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia and a joint English-French editorial against the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
- Ricochet’s website
- Reddit Ask Me Anything with Ricochet’s team
- Ethan Cox’s interview with Jesse Brown
- Ethan Cox’s interview with Jian Ghomeshi
- Ethan Cox’s interview with Jamie Orchard on Focus Montreal
- Anne Lagacé Dowson’s interview on Radio-Canada
- Canada.com story on Ricochet
- Financial Post story on Ricochet
- Projet J story on Ricochet
- Globe and Mail story on Ricochet