Canadaland Is a Great Place To Flee: Can Jaren Kerr Survive the Curse of Canadaland and Jesse Brown?

April 4, 2019
Fair Press by Mark Bourrie logo

This is the third in a series about Canadaland

I got my first newspaper job when I was 20, working as a summer student at the Hamilton Spectator. Later, I was a student reporter at the Globe and Mail and the London Free Press.

It was tough to break into journalism back then. I went on the full-time job market at the beginning of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The once-mighty Montreal Star folded as I sent out my resumes. The Ottawa Journal and Winnipeg Tribune also went down.

Surviving papers were laying off, not hiring, and any paper that did want a proven reporter could snap up some of the casualties of the ongoing carnage. (The newspaper industry in this country has never recovered, and the decline that started then continues now.)

I started this blog to provide commentary and analysis based on my decades as a journalist and my current profession as a lawyer. I also taught journalism for two years, meeting some incredible young people who have become fine journalists.

The purpose of this website  is to look at various examples, good and bad, of reporting from Canada and abroad that can be used as “teachable moments” for people in journalism, lawyers and news consumers.

Journalism, and the ability to do accurate investigative journalism, is an acquired skill that needs to be upgraded over the years. Much like the game of golf, it can never truly be mastered. But in order to play the game, you must learn the rules, practice the fundamentals, and play the game with integrity. Otherwise, you’re in danger of making a mockery of the game, and yourself.

When thinking of some of the great investigative journalists I think of Linden MacIntyre from the CBC’s The Fifth Estate; James Dubro, whose brave and pioneering work exposed Mafia links in Canada; Michelle Lang, whose brilliant career was cut short by her death in Afghanistan; Seymour Hersch and Jane Mayer from the New Yorker, and Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! What truly sets those journalists apart – beyond their tireless and inscrutable reporting – was their integrity. They were always seeking the truth. The story – not fame, not ego, not adulation from colleagues or fans – is what was important. And they would never cut corners for a byline.

One important cautionary tale that I often encourage those new to journalism to study is the saga of disgraced New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair.

This reporter was just 27 years old when his career was destroyed by his own dishonesty. Blair started out as an intern at the Times and was – in only four years – promoted to senior reporter.[1] But his fall was even faster than his rise. Just five days after a story he wrote about the family of an Iraq war veteran killed in action hit the front page of The New York Times, he was finished in journalism.

The story was fake.

Fellow journalists, specifically an Express-News reporter and her editor, raised questions to the Times about Blair’s sources and practices. Blair’s story ran on a Saturday and he resigned the following Thursday after being challenged by his own editors to produce notes and other corroborating information.[2]

The Times immediately opened an internal investigation and charged some of its best reporters with fact checking Blair’s previous work. [3] They uncovered a journalistic disaster.  Blair was routinely publishing unsubstantiated and/or fabricated quotes, materials, and datelines, and plagiarizing stories. He focused on sensationalism to advance his by-line and career, instead of facts and proper journalism.

When it was done, the internal review found problems with 36 out of the 73 national stories Blair wrote for the Times.[4]

Blair’s cheating ended the careers of the Times’ executive editor, Howell Raines, and managing editor, Gerald Boyd, who were forced out because of their failure to properly fact-check and substantiate Blair’s stories.

Blair wasn’t the only reporter who ruined his own career because he thought he had to please his masters.

Stephen Glass’s fabrications for magazine articles were so bold, and his fall so dramatic, that his story became a sort of warning to everyone in journalism. The real tragedy of his life was so compelling that Hollywood even made a movie about it.

The more recent case of Christophe Scheuermann of Der Spiegel drove home the fact that journalists are still self-destructing.

The Blair, Glass and Schuermann scandals kept popping into my mind recently when I started to review the Notices of Libel issued by lawyers from the WE organization to Canadaland. The notices were sent in response to a series of articles and podcasts starting in 201. Later, Jaren Kerr,  a young freelance journalist hired by Jesse Brown’s Canadaland, was assigned to an “investigation” into WE Charity, lead by its co-founders, Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger.

Jaren Kerr was most recently a summer intern with the Toronto Star, and covered, among other things, in March 2018 a bed bug infestations at Ryerson University. However, under Jesse Brown, Kerr was immediately promoted to an “investigative journalist” and, after being hired full-time on money raised by his WE investigation, now serves as Deputy News Editor of the web site.

The most problematic pieces by Kerr (with the support of Brown) were from the fall of 2018, when Canadaland was doing its annual fundraising drive.

The posts were titled “Craig Kielburger Founded WE to To Fight Against Child Labour. Now The WE Brand Promotes Products Made by Children” and The CANADALAND Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement”[5]. The blogpost was accompanied by a 48-minute podcast in which Jesse Brown – Canadaland’s owner and publisher – interviewed Kerr about his report.

Kerr’s  second piece, titled “Is the Media Afraid of the Kielburgers?”[6] accused the Kielburgers of entering into partnerships with media outlets in order to obtain favourable media coverage.  This piece was also accompanied by a Kerr/Brown podcast (26 minutes this time).

As I mentioned in the second post of this three-part series, I spent a lot of time fact-checking the Canadaland reporting on WE Charity, parsing out the Canadaland coverage, reading the documents provided by WE to Canadaland in advance of publishing their articles and podcasts (the majority of which Canadaland posted on their website), and looking at WE’s web page.

I’ve read the Notices of Libel, and the responses from Canadaland.

This kind of hatchet job is par for the course for Jesse Brown. I wrote about his tactics in a previous post explaining it was one of the worst pieces of “journalism” that I have ever seen. However, for a young reporter like Jaren Kerr, his career could be forever tarnished by his association with this “investigation.” Journalists start making their reputations in college and firm them up in their first job or two. A bad reputation is unshakable.

Since last October, Kerr has not had any other major stories on Canadaland.

Canadaland has been a very bad launch pad for young journalists. Brown invariably hires recent grads and pays them very little. It might be worth it for new journalists, if they could build a rep that helps their career. This hasn’t happened.

Katie Jensen, Vicki Mochama, Jane Lytvynenko and Supriya Ddwivedi – all very talented young female journalists – helped get Canadaland running. In 2016, they all quit. For a time, it seemed like Brown would not be able to keep some Canadaland podcasts on the air.

Any organization with such a high turnover and so many disgruntled employees should take a hard look at the way managers treat employees.

Jensen wrote on social media about her struggle to live on what Brown, paid her. She couldn’t afford prescription medicine for her chronic illness, bought her clothes at Value Village and the Sally Anne, and didn’t have the money to insure the expensive audio equipment she needed for her career. This insurance was important, since she lived in a tiny apartment in a high-crime neighbourhood.

She worked 60 hours a week without overtime and had to teach part-time to make ends meet — $27,000 in her last year with Canadaland.

The irony, of course, is Brown is a multi-millionaire. He solid his internet start-up he co-founded, Bitstrips, to Snapchat for a reported $100,000,000 USD. He receives tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees, despite lambasting others for the same practice. Brown does not want to share the full details of his wealth and conflicts because it would negatively impact the hard-working students and other supporters who “donate” $5 a month via Patreon to his private company.

In his own “transparency report” Brown has no problem disclosing his own salary of $48,000. But there’s a catch that is deceiving. He only discloses the amount he takes as a salary from Canadaland’s crowdfunding – not from the total profit of the business as the owner.

He stated that approximately half of the income comes from Patreon supporters (approx. $420,000 according to the 2018 Transparency Report), and the other half is from business income such as advertising. Brown provides detailed accounting for how the Patreon dollars funds the business, and frequently pleads with the audience to increase their contributions to pay for costs such as employee salaries, but Brown does not provide the same transparency for the other approximately $420,000 in business income. He frequently boasts about Canadaland’s profitability, including on his recent TVO interview with Steve Pakin.

So, how much does Jesse truly earn? Well, it’s salary + advertising revenue + ownership equity in the site itself + other revenue (don’t forget his speaking revenue of at  least $5,000 a pop, plus freelance work). In short, we don’t know the answer because “Mr. Transparency” really doesn’t want to be transparent. However, it is safe to assume he is among the wealthiest media owners in the country. Despite Canadaland’s profitability and thus ability to pay higher salaries, and Brown’s own multi-millions from the sale of Bitstrips, he takes advantage of his young staff, including those who have had to shop at Value Village and go to the Salvation Army simply to make ends meet.

The HR problems at Canadaland were highlighted when Jonathan Goldsbie, formerly of NOW Magazine, replaced Jensen. She blew the whistle on Twitter about Goldsbie being paid $20,000 a year more than her. Brown made a free market argument: to snag Goldsbie, Brown had to match his salary at NOW.

All this came out when Brown published his 2017 transparency report. It didn’t show the salary discrepancy. Brown had followed up the posting with a tweet: “I run a small media org committed to fair treatment of our workers, respect for their privacy and transparency to funders. Ask me anything!”

That did not go well, as former employees and Canadaland listeners took him up on that offer peppered him with questions about Canadaland’s low pay rates, disclosed in the 2017 report.

Jensen, now a content creator for Ryerson, said more of Brown’s former employees should come forward: “When people are cowed into silence because of fear of retribution, media companies get away with murder,” Jensen tweeted.

In this article, Jensen talks about the brutal hours, the grinding work and the low pay at Canadaland. She was new to journalism and thought this was normal. (As a music and culture journalist, however, her career was at least not put at risk, like Kerr’s, by being pressured to do hatchet jobs on Brown’s political and social targets.)

Since she left Canadaland, her life’s gotten better: “…I haven’t felt that same grind since then – I think it was a Canadaland thing.”

Vicky Mochama, a Canadaland podcast host and reporter who quit at about the same time as Jensen and backed her up on Twitter, had a short career as a Toronto Star-Metro columnist and is now a freelance podcaster. Ddwivedi has a talk radio show. Lytvynenko is writing for Buzzfeed.

This year, Brown didn’t post an “ask me anything” tweet.

In this podcast, Buzzfeed writer Scaachi Koul puts Brown’s feet to the fire about his  treatment of female Canadaland employees. It’s should be a wake-up call for Canadaland Pateron supporters that their own dollars are perpetuating this type of negative work environment, especially towards women, as well as questionable journalistic practices.

Brown’s hypocritical HR and his ethics violations are compounded by the fact that in some pockets of Canada, both the New York Times and Canadaland are both equally in the media zeitgeist, especially among journalism students. Ryerson j-school profs seem to adore Canadaland. This is a serious problem: in the age of social media, people do not adequately discriminate nearly enough on the source of their media.

I can understand the tremendous pressure facing young journalists to try to make it in today’s media industry. Jobs are ever more scarce and salaries are low. There must be a strong motivation to rise though the ranks by breaking a huge story – no matter what must be sacrificed to break it and make a name for yourself.

Add to that the pressure of having to come up with a story that’s so riveting that people will contribute to your hiring. No big scoop after a four-month investigation = no job.

Unfortunately, that pressure can create Glasses, Blairs, and Scheuermanns. It can also create young Jaren Kerrs. Possibly it was the reason for Kerr’s terrible work in the WE Charity articles and podcasts. My own suspicion was Kerr had been told to come back with dirt on WE, and that his future with Canadaland depended on it.

On the October 17, 2018, Canadland podcast, Brown says “…if we reach our next goal of this crowd-funder, Jaren Kerr will be offered a permanent full-time job with us.”[7]

And finally, on October 22, 2018 (at 1:22 of Canadaland): “Our goals this year are to improve compensation and to hire Jaren Kerr full-time. He is the talented young reporter who worked for four months on the investigation of the WE organization that we brought you last week.”[8]

That’s just sad.

Seeing Canadaland on a journalist’s resumé could be a red flag to every major newsroom across the country, because if they hire someone from Canadaland, they are getting someone who has directly learned from Jesse Brown that headlines and clicks are all that matters. Ethics, process, and standards be damned.

More than fifteen years after the NYT saga, Jason Blair said he was sorry for the damage he caused to journalism and its reputation.[9] I hope Jaren Kerr and Jesse Brown have that same reflection before more damage is done.

Editor’s note: Based on significant feedback I have received since the beginning of my analysis, I will continue to follow Jesse Brown, Canadaland as well as specifically the Canadaland / WE Charity situation closely and keep you posted on any further developments.


[1] Mnookin, Seth. “Scandal of Record.” Vanity Fair. January 31, 2015. Accessed March 28, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “New York Times: Reporter Routinely Faked Articles.” CNN. Accessed March 30, 2019.

[5] “The CANADALAND Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement.” CANADALAND. October 15, 2018. Accessed March 26, 2019.

[6] “Is The Media Afraid Of The Kielburgers?” CANADALAND. November 19, 2018. Accessed March 26, 2019.

[7] “The Toronto Sun Is Going To Get Somebody Killed.” CANADALAND. Accessed March 30, 2019.

[8] “Thunder Bay.” CANADALAND. Accessed March 30, 2019.

[9] “Why He Did It: Jayson Blair Opens up about His Plagiarism and Fabrication at the New York Times.” Duke Reporters’ Lab. August 02, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2019.