Jesse Brown talks about the CBC, crowdfunding and the future of his podcast


Staff Reporter

After launching a successful crowdfunding campaign for Canadaland, his podcast and news site covering Canadian news media, Jesse Brown says he is developing a brand new podcast dedicated to Canadian politics.

The new podcast’s objective, he said during a presentation at Ryerson University, will be to talk about Canadian politics in a more transparent and engaging way free of political jargon, and to tell stories that no other news shows are covering. Brown said he will be hiring someone to host the show because he is “ignorant” about Canadian politics.

“This is a really dark, shady, corrupt era in Canadian politics,” he said. “There’s lots of good stories.”

Brown discussed expanding Canadaland at a Jan. 20 talk, entitled “The news, Jian and me: A conversation with Jesse Brown.” The presentation was a collaboration between the Ryerson School of Journalism, the RTA School of Media and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Plans to extend Canadaland’s reach beyond coverage of news media come after a tumultuous year when Brown broke a series of high profile stories, grew his audience and launched a successful crowdfunding campaign. Brown now produces two weekly Canadaland podcasts that reach approximately 60,000 downloads each week. He said that his episodes covering the Jian Ghomeshi scandal – he took the story to the Toronto Star – reached 250,000 downloads.

Since its inception in 2013, Canadaland has covered controversies in the national media, such as unpaid internships, conflict of interest cases and abuses of power in a candid, confessional way. It has garnered Brown both fans and enemies.

“I think that I have been painting a giant bull’s eye on myself, and I’m absolutely fair game for criticism,” said Brown before a sold-out audience of faculty, students and members of the public. “I think that’s healthy and good, and I don’t want to be immune to that sort of thing.”

On Jan. 14, in a staff kitchenette on the fourth floor of the CBC’s Toronto headquarters, a message written out using children’s magnet letters was displayed on a fridge door: “Jesse Brown snitches get stitches.” The kitchenette was located near the studio where The Exchange with Amanda Lang is produced – Canadaland had recently reported that Lang tried to “sabotage” a story about the Royal Bank of Canada’s use of foreign workers. Whether the message was intended as a joke or as a threat by one or more CBC staffers unhappy with colleagues leaking information to Brown is uncertain, but some employees took the message to their union. A photo of the message made its way to Brown some days later.

A recent Globe and Mail article by media writer Simon Houpt was also critical of Brown and Canadaland, accusing him of self-promotion, trying to emulate Jon Stewart, New York Times columnist David Carr and Gawker, and failing to man up to errors when they occur.

Brown said that when he was looking for ways to fund Canadaland beyond sponsorship by Freshbooks, an accounting software service, he briefly considered Kickstarter, but later settled on Patreon. It’s a crowdfunding platform that allows Brown to receive a monthly contribution from listeners rather than a one-time donation. After launching the campaign on Oct. 7, Brown is almost at the $10,000 a month range.

Brown acknowledged that the road to success has been long and bumpy. A freelancer in the Canadian media for more than 15 years, he wrote about technology and other issues for Maclean’s and Toronto Life, and hosted several radio programs for the CBC, including The Contrarians and Search Engine. After unsuccessfully pitching his ideas to a variety of publications, he decided to go to work on his own terms. Canadaland, he said, was born out of being “summarily rejected again and again.”

While Brown said that he continues to be a supporter of public broadcasting in Canada, three of his biggest stories – conflict of interest concerns arising from news anchor Peter Mansbridge’s paid speaking engagements with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual assault scandal and most recently, controversy over business correspondent Amanda Lang’s paid speaking engagements – are directly tied to the CBC. When asked whether he was taking advantage of a “train wreck” at the public broadcaster, he admitted that he was.

“I don’t claim to be any kind of white knight whose standards are so much higher than everybody else’s,” he said, later adding during the presentation that if the CBC had green-lit Canadaland, he would have had much to lose by breaking the Ghomeshi story.

Brown said that since he made it clear from the beginning that he would be covering the media, the stories he reports have actually found him, and not the other way around. The Ghomeshi story, which was eventually written by Star staff reporter Kevin Donovan, started when he received an email from a young woman.

“Most people who get into this do actually have a commitment to the truth, and I think that there’s a sickness that happens in institutions when you realize that there are two sets of standards,” said Brown. “One for the talent or the stars, and another one for rank and file.”