Journalist and editor of the Vancouver Observer and National Observer, Linda Solomon Wood discusses the importance of accessible online media, her life's commitment to in-depth reporting, and how storytelling is a fundamental piece of the human experience.


Tracy: It's an honour to meet you. You're originally from the US, but after moving to BC you started the Vancouver Observer and later launched the National Observer. Want to tell me a bit about both publications?


Linda: Yes, I'm from Tennessee and I was living in Manhattan before I moved to Canada. I'd lived in Paris before that. So I went from Paris, Manhattan, Cortes Island, to Vancouver. The National Observer was launched in May 2014 and we cover climate, environment, and politics. We're serious about our business coverage, as well. Our lead investigative reporter is Bruce Livesey who wroteThieves of Bay Street. He is a talented reporter and writing and his stories are rich, fascinating portraits of Canada's one percent. His six part series about the Irving family is an example of the quality and depth of his work.  My associate editor is Sandy Garossino and her brilliant and eloquent analysis is hugely popular and agenda-setting. And in Ottawa, we have Canada's top environmental reporter, Mike De Souza.  He is also our Managing Editor, and he works with reporters across Canada, and also, in the U.S. with talented writers like Amanda Robb and Audrea Lim in New York City. Both of these writers publish work in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. It is exciting to bring their voices to Canada.  People told me you couldn't start a national publication from Vancouver, that you had to be in Toronto, and we've proven that isn't true.  Interestingly though, our largest audience is in Toronto.  I'm very excited that after a year, we've reached more than 5 million people in Canada, and last week, just launched our digital subscription strategy, which includes micro-payments, which I believe is going to allow us to become financially sustainable without constant fundraising.  I've been fundraising for a decade now to make the reporting we do possible.  But I believe we have a product Canadians will recognize as well-worth paying for. So, this is an exciting time for me.

The Vancouver Observer has been publishing news about the city for ten years, showcasing culture, business innovation and telling the stories that have captured the imagination of our writers in far flung parts of British Columbia as well. Our energy and climate reporting started on VO and became the inspiration for a new publication, when it was clear that our reporting on the oil sands was reaching a national audience, an international audience, and had outgrown the local brand.


Both the Vancouver Observer and the National Observer publish strictly online. How has the internet changed journalism in your opinion?


It made it possible for people with not much more than a dream and a computer to create unique publications. It shifted the power from old media to new media.  In hindsight, it was an incredible moment in time, ten years ago, when I jumped in and it is much more difficult to get started today. 

After building an audience for ten years, we can give attention to stories and voices that would never be heard if it weren't for our reporters.  And we have a very loyal, engaged audience that is very politically active and aware. Our surveys have shown that our readers are university-educated, they're interested in pushing political leaders to find sustainable solutions, and to act on climate change. They're very progressive. In short, they're the Canadian mainstream.

I do see that online publishing isn't perfect. The changes that have happened to media present new problems. As readers, we risk living in silos. Only hearing one side of an argument,  turning to publications that only reflect our opinions. It's so important to remain open to hearing many sides of an argument. The world is so much more complex than it often looks in the media. There are many sides to stories, not just two. Definitely not just one.


An important point. So how do we hear each other's side more often? Is there a way to avoid having a polarized media: one set of outlets for the Left, and another set for the Right? 


Obviously, this problem is vivid in America. Canada, less so. What's going on now is dangerous, and scary. Trump, Sanders, Clinton and a media that has become more infotainment than informational. It's the perfect storm for disaster. Yet in Canada, my opinion is that the vast majority of people here essentially identify along the centre line, which used to be true in the U.S., too. Canadians are centrists and moderates. We saw this in the last federal election: I was surprised by the landslide victory for the centre, the Liberal Party. It was such a resounding rejection of the Harper Conservatives. But by American standards, Harper wasn't that far right.


Your focus is on telling the stories of the people. You uphold their voices, as opposed to those who focus on stories only through the lens of elites or industry professionals. How did you come to a desire to change that aspect of the old media?


I agree with Amy Goodman that we need a media that covers power, not covers for power. We need a media that is the fourth estate, not for the state. And we need a media that covers the movements that create static and make history. Vigorous, critical reporting and investigative journalism are vital to democracy. But on a personal level, I've been drawn to journalism because it allows me to hear the stories of many different kinds of people, as you say, people who aren't elites. Everyone has a powerful story to tell. Our world needs stories. Stories touch hearts and minds; they soften rigid preconceptions.

Since starting the Vancouver Observer, I've always tried to focus on the stories other media were ignoring or only briefly touching upon. Given the media environment today, that left vast territory open. And I've always been drawn to tell the stories of ordinary people fighting against forces much larger than them - these are universal stories. The First Nation chiefs from a remote band that has been living as it is today for the last thousand years pitted against the interests of the multinational oil companies that want to push a pipeline through their territory. The doctor working to protect the health of his patients who are living downstream from the oil-sands.  The First Nations elder who falls to her knees and sobs at the edge of a tailings pond, recalling the way the land once looked before it was taken away...  These iconic stories touch on the universal struggles happening to all of us, wherever we are, whoever we are, as we grapple with the enormous issues confronting us.


Which is an incredible goal. It touches on another question I had: your opinion on the ethics of journalism. Do you agree that journalists have a strict mandate to create content that isn't simply click-bait, but that digs deeper into untold, impactful issues. The movie Spotlight was a fantastic example of telling a story of what in-depth investigative reporting should look like. 


The journalists working in Canada today are as ethical and motivated to improve society as they've ever been. Journalism is a calling and it attracts people who are driven to expose injustice and tell stories that matter. That said, it's harder than ever for journalists to find employers who give them the time to perform at the high levels they're capable of. This is obviously a huge problem in journalism today, but I see an enormous amount of innovation that give me many reasons to be hopeful about where things are going.

We need in-depth, well-funded, deep investigative journalism such as Spotlight's to keep society on track. But we need click-bait to relax and have a good time. There's room on the Internet for creativity to be in a constant state of explosion. Has any era seen more creative expression than we're seeing today? Go Buzzfeed! But, I realized after a few years in the online journalism business that the click-bait business that Buzzfeed does wasn't attractive to me. That said, turning excellent reporting on energy, environment, and politics into super-clickable pieces is my business.  Marrying the two concepts is golden. Great writing, great reporting, depth, impact, substance that you just have to read:  that's my goal for National Observer, every day.


So does seeing celebrity gossip pieces ever bother you?


I [can appreciate] gossip pieces. Gossip is good. But it's not the business for me. What does really bother me is how the news has become unified, if you're looking at headlines in the U.S.  it's like, Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump... And as I said earlier, it's the perfect storm for disaster. Every time we see another Trump, we bring him closer to the White House.

We live in a celebrity culture, whether I like it or not. So I have a sense of humour about it now, because I know that what I care about and think is important is probably not going to go viral. But does that mean I shouldn't do it? No. But it does mean that I'm going to have to put a lot of energy into selling it. I'm going to have to write it in a way that when someone starts the first sentence, they can't stop reading, the writing is so compelling. Then I have to get it out to the people who I know will care about it. I spent four months working on a piece about Palestinians and Israelis settlers and their fledgling non-violent movement in the West Bank in Israel. It was a huge undertaking and I'm really proud of it; it has a lot of meaning to me. It has 8,000 Facebook likes. I wish it were 80,000, but that's okay. 8,000 is not nothing and being 'liked' isn't everything.  


Are you familiar with Arundhati Roy? 


Yes, of course. She's wonderful.


When she spoke here in Vancouver last year, they introduced her as an "activist and writer". She responded to the introduction by saying, "I find it a little uncomfortable to be hailed as such, because it is the duty of a writer to be an activist." Further, she expressed that there was nothing radical about simply telling the stories of the people. Do you consider yourself an activist by virtue of being a journalist?


That's very interesting, because I think it shows confusion on what activism is. It is not the duty of a writer to go out and be an activist. I have a lot of friends who are activists, and that's how they self-identify. As a writer, I don't self-identify as an activist, I'm a storyteller and that's my first love. I agree that this isn't a radical act - to tell stories. I do believe in the power of story to touch people's hearts and minds and to inspire them - but maybe the story wont. The power of storytelling is that it will deliver truth to the reality of a situation--it would be impossible to observe otherwise. But that is not activism, it's storytelling. Narrative is such a fundamental part of the human experience and of our need to connect with one another. It's how we understand the world and learn about the world.

As journalists, our first job is to tell a great story. But we have to also tell a great story that's based in fact. Our jobs are very similar to novelists and screenwriters; we have to make our audience care. We have to grab them and keep them because the story's so damn good you can't stop watching, or in our case, reading. Some have criticized the Vancouver Observer saying, They're just activists," because we're writing about activists, we're covering their demonstrations and giving them space in the publication.   We have never been anything other than journalists telling a story. Activists are part of the story, but they aren't the whole story, of course. If we're talking about the pipeline stories which my publications have covered in such depth, the executives in corporate offices are a very important part of the story, consumers and ordinary citizens are a huge part of the story, First Nations, the elderly, the young, city officials, federal and provincial officials. In Canada, we all have a stake in the energy story, and for many people, that stake is deeply felt in history, in Canada's heritage and values. So when we focus our efforts on a certain topic, as we have done with this, it's because no other publication is doing it as thoroughly as we see it could be done. They leave us an open stage, and we walk onto it.


I think that's a beautiful note to end on. Thank you for doing all that you do, and congratulations of the National Observer's Kickstarter campaign. I look forward to all your future reporting. You'll be a part of history that helped combat climate change.


Why thank you Tracy.

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