It’s About Jesse Brown’s Money

Opinion
By
Mark Bourrie
June 22, 2019
Jesse brown talking

An overview:

The Government of Canada’s proposed $600 million media tax credit has dominated news blogs and chatrooms.[1] At the heart of the criticism is whether the temptation of dollars will influence coverage of the government.[2]

I’ve taught journalism and media studies at Concordia University and the history of media propaganda at Carleton University. I underscore for my students the fundamental principle that seeks to protect the integrity of their profession:  the division of the financial considerations of owner/publisher and journalistic freedoms of editor/reporter. This church and state separation is a matter of good governance of media institutions.

Journalists rightly rail against the slippery slope of sponsored content. I wouldn’t buy an Ottawa Citizen the day after the Raptors’ win because I didn’t like the front page being sold to the Province of Alberta for a political ad. Journalists vehemently defend their freedom to report the truth, without publishers leaning on them to spin a story to drive clicks to hit quarterly financial targets. Even Andrew Coyne, no fishing buddy of mine, resigned his job on the National Post editorial board during the 2015 election because he thought his employers had gone too far in support of the Tories.

What would happen to the Canadian media landscape without such a separation? This is a question at the heart of the future business models of that profession, and the ethics of what it means to be a journalist.

How would journalism be influenced if the role was collapsed of owner/publisher/editor/journalist? There’s an interesting case study answering this question, which is playing out in real time with devastating consequences.

I keep coming back to it because there’s nothing like it in Canada. Some publications are doing deep investigations of the oil industry. Some are doing kick-ass work on Indigenous issues. Canadaland’s own podcast on Thunder Bay, though overtaken by events (the mayor and the police chief have been replaced), was  fine work, and a template for real investigations. But no publications, except Canadaland, are trying to wreck an established charity. And it’s noteworthy that no other media have picked up on Brown and Kerr’s “story”.

And I find the WE series morally repugnant.

I’ve written in the past about Jesse Brown’s bizarre campaign against WE Charity. He has never previously written about a charity, yet he has publishing six  podcasts/articles about WE since October 2018[3] with shocking accusations that have been consistently disproved in reports by retired Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Gouge, a highly esteemed lawyer and judge who chaired the Gouge Inquiry and wrote many important appeals court decisions.

As I mentioned in my last piece on the Canadaland–WE Charity saga, Jesse Brown’s team revealed they are working on a seventh story/podcast about WE Charity.

Jesse Brown is the owner/publisher/editor/podcast host of Canadaland. In this post, I will show you an analysis mapping Canadaland’s financial performance based against Jesse Brown’s editorial decisions, which appear to be directly linked to fundraising and profit.

With click-bait headlines, an almost exclusive reliance on anonymous sources, and ignoring facts that go against his chosen narrative, Brown follows a pattern time and time again. I expect nothing different this time, including Brown’s tactic of getting a largely inexperienced, junior reporter (in this instance, Jaren Kerr) to attach his name to the piece and bear the brunt of the fallout.

I have also been given Canadaland’s questions and WE’s answers for all the Canadaland stories, and have seen a simple pattern: Kerr and Brown never ask WE direct questions about the allegations they plan to make. They nibble around the edges, ask yes-or-no questions, then build a theory using fragments of fact and a lot of innuendo, buttressed, at times, by allegations of anonymous sources.

And there’s no need to keep those sources anonymous. Brown has libel insurance and the personal wealth to protect them from legal repercussions. They are anonymous because Brown and Kerr do not want their allegations to be scrutinized, or their existence to be checked.

A look at Jesse Brown’s Patreon Dollars

Canadaland is partly funded by reader and listener donations through Patreon, a crowdfunding web site which encourages artists to “regain creative freedom” based on a model whereby “fans” can help give monthly pledges to support the work of the “creator”.

Based on the amount of money pledged on a monthly basis, fans can receive certain rewards such as the ability to stream content free of advertising or gifts of merchandise. In the case of Canadaland, this includes everything from branded keychains to socks.

Pateron as also a social platform has been highly debated and, at times, controversial.[6] It has been criticized for allowing people to openly support and participate in hate crimes, online abuse and various forms of harassment.[7] Patreon has also been also criticized as becoming a place which degrades women providing funding for “adult stars” can connect with their “fans” around “lewd content”.[8]

Canadaland is one of the most “successful” Patreon users, currently generating $24,000 USD per month to support its work.[9] In fact, Canadaland has been cited by Patreon itself as an example of a “Top Earner”.[10]

The most famous and successful Canadian on Patreon is controversial author Jordan Peterson, who became famous for refusing to use his students’ chosen pronouns and who, until January 2019, was making $80,000 USD a month on Patreon. [11] But Peterson recently deleted his account in protest to a number of editorial decisions made by Patreon, namely its decision to de-platforum the controversial YouTube personality, Carl Benjamin.[12]

The WE attacks were also the main focus of Jesse Brown’s fundraising appeals. Included in his frequent pitches was a plea to hire the “author” of the WE attack pieces, Jaren Kerr, as a full-time staff member.

On the October 15, 2018, Canadaland 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.”[18]

According to the Notices of Libel  issued by WE Charity against Brown and Canadaland, Brown then made at least six more fundraising appeals in October and November, 2018.[19]  

In the two months following publication of the initial piece in October 2018, Canadaland increased its Patreon subscribers by 44 percent and its revenues by 53 percent.

Subscriber numbers continued to climb until the end of the year and then began to trend downward again. On December 31, 2018, Canadaland hit its apex with 5,408 Patreon subscribers and $27,254 in monthly revenues.

The attacks also created a lot of online buzz for Canadaland, with Google search trends again spiking up following the release of the WE Charity pieces.

Increase in Canadaland's search trends during attaches on WE graph
Canadaland’s search trends during attaches on WE (2018-2019)

(Graphic from Google Trends query).[24]

The final WE attack piece came on January 18, 2019. After falling off in early January, the mid-January WE story gave Canadaland one last boost in its numbers, rising up briefly to 5,384 subscribers and $27,003 by January 24, followed by a slow and steady decline ever since.

Canadaland's steady decline in Patreon support and fundraising in the last 6 months (without WE Charity attack) graph
Canadaland’s steady decline in Patreon support and fundraising in the last 6 months.

As of June 1, 2019, the numbers had dipped to 4,924 subscribers and $24,643 in monthly revenue. Those represent declines of 10% in subscribers and 9% in revenues. It’s telling that there has been a steady decline over the last six months, which is also the same length of time since the last attack on WE Charity. The trend line above certainly doesn’t bode well for Canadaland, which has spent many years trying to build up its financial base. I’ve read that Canadland has even started to do outdoor advertising to try to reverse their downward trend, something that they have not done before to my knowledge.

Canadaland's current decrease in supporters and funding in the last 30 days graph
Canadaland’s current decrease in supporters and funding in the last 30 days

There is nothing to indicate that the trend will reverse on its own, with the last 30 days showing a significant continued decline.

Moreover, the amount listed on Canadaland’s web site outlining monthly donations is no longer correct and it has not been since January. Perhaps Jesse Brown and the Canadaland team feel they don’t need to make any changes to their site and ensure the number is accurate, knowing that if they do their next WE attack, their Patreon numbers will simply trend upwards making up the financial loses.With all these financial considerations in mind, does it seem like a “coincidence” that there will be another “investigation” into WE Charity and a seventh article on the heels of subscription numbers and revenues trending downward for six straight months?

Inaccurate Patreon funding amount on Canadaland website as of June 13th, 2019
Inaccurate Patreon funding amount on Canadaland website as of June 13th, 2019

For Jesse Brown, transparency is a one-way street:

I explained in my last article that during my research phase, I reached out to both the charity and to Canadaland. WE Charity answered, and sent me the full list of over 140 questions posed by Canadaland and each of the charity’s detailed answers in response.

But Canadaland would not answer my questions. I asked about Canadaland’s corporate funding, the amount of money it’s made from the WE Charity stories, and other questions about how Canadaland operates. Unfortunately, transparency seems to be a one-way street for Jesse Brown and Canadaland.

Asking 140+ questions on dozens of topics is nothing but a fishing expedition. It has nothing to do with “responsible communication” in libel law. It’s the journalistic equivalent of throwing everything against the wall and hoping that something sticks. I simply don’t see a story here. Y

Recall his Twitter exchange with Craig Silverman (who was then Media Editor at Buzzfeed News), who asked similar questions following the release of Canadaland’s 2017 Transparency Report.

Silverman asked: Can you say what the total commercial revenue was last year? And what portion of it went to pay additional compensation for people who also receive compensation from crowdfunding?

Brown responded: nope, we don’t open our books on our commercial revenue.

This is basically Silverman asking how much money Jesse Brown truly earns. That response prompted several former Canadaland employees to call out Brown for the lack of transparency.

Jane Lytvynenko wrote: there are people who, according to the website, work for you but who are not in the report. how can you claim equal pay without income transparency?

Vicky Mochama wrote:Transparency!” and went on to say “this is how you defend the lack of transparency and obvious pay gaps? what. a. choice.”

This “commercial revenue” statement is important to note. What Canadaland Transparency Reports does reveal is that the company’s revenue comes from two main sources:[28] monthly subscriptions through Patreon (a crowdfunding membership platform) and “commercial revenue” (i.e. advertising revenue). The 2018 Transparency report states that the amount of revenue from each source was split relatively evenly, or as the report says:

The ratio fluctuates as patrons and advertisers come and go, but Patreon vs. commercial revenue in 2018 averaged about 50:50.” [29]

Canadaland will only report on how it spends its Patreon dollars. Thus, approximately half  (or maybe more) of Canadaland’s revenue is a black box. Based on Canadaland’s Transparency report, that amounts to several hundreds of thousands of dollars annually unaccounted for. How does that much money influence someone’s “journalistic” decisions? It’s up for you to decide.

In another Twitter thread, Brown stated his Canadaland salary is $48,000. This appears on its surface to be a very reasonable amount – perhaps similar to the compensation earned by the people giving him $5 or $10 a month via Patreon. In reality, the number is deceiving. This base salary doesn’t include Jesse Brown’s share of the profits – including the commercial revenue – as the 80% owner of Canadaland. Brown has boasted that Canadaland is a profitable business, but when pressed via Twitter for more information about how much he personally earns, he tweeted back “… with respect, it’s not your business.[30]

Nor does that include the growth of Brown’s equity in the business, which he can sell anytime he wants.

For example, Jesse Brown wanted to know the sources of revenue for purchases made by the Kielburger parents. He further wanted to know the total real estate holdings of the Kielburgers. Why is that information “his business” if Brown’s own finances are not also fair game? Especially since it is widely known that both Craig and Marc Kielburger have never taken a dime of income from WE Charity.[31] A subject’s relatives, particularly their 80-year old parents, should always be off-limits.

Nevertheless, in my detailed analysis outlined in my last post, I believe that WE showed a remarkable level of  disclosure and transparency. They shared the level of compensation the brothers received from ME to WE (the social enterprise that funds WE Charity) with Canadaland.

Based on the documents available on the WE website, previous to Canadaland’s questions their salaries were analysed by KCI, third-party experts who previously published that it was industry appropriate.[33] But Canadaland felt that they should know the exact number of someone’s salary. So, the Kielburgers disclosed that it is $125,000 a year. It seems quite below market value for two brothers who have degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and who have  a law degree (Mark) and an MBA (Craig). The brothers even had a former judge (Justice Stephen Goudge) from the Ontario Court of Appeal review their T4 forms and related information to confirm its accuracy.[34]

In a pretty remarkable display of transparency (and underscoring how bizarre Canadaland’s vendetta has become), the Kielburgers also had their 80-year-old parent’s finances reviewed by Justice Goudge.[35] In that case, it turns out that the parents have been buying and fixing up homes with their own hands since 1975.[36] When they sold the family home, they bought two small offices for the use of the charity, and provided a decade of free rent to the charity, totalling a value of several million dollars, without even claiming a tax receipt.

(Edited in February, 2021, to shorten the piece and remove redundancies. Since the posting of this blog, Jaren Kerr has left Canadaland. He had a stint at Yahoo News and now writes for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business.)

Notes

[1] The Narwhal. “What the Federal Budget Offers Canada’s Struggling Journalism Industry.” The Narwhal. March 20, 2019. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://thenarwhal.ca/what-the-federal-budget-offers-canadas-struggling-journalism-industry/.

[2] As it Happens, CBC Radio. “Tax incentives for news industry could lead to ‘friendly coverage’ of Liberals: Raitt.” CBC. November 23, 2018. Accessed June 13, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.4918054/tax-incentives-for-news-industry-could-lead-to-friendly-coverage-of-liberals-raitt-1.4918066

[3] “Kielburger.” CANADALAND. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/?s=kielburger.

[4] “Kelloggs Graphic – Final.” CANADALAND. Accessed June 13, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/craig-kielburger-founded-we-to-fight-child-labour-now-the-we-brand-promotes-products-made-by-children/kelloggs-graphic-final/.

[5] “CANADALAND: Patreon Earnings Statistics Graphs Rank.” Graphtreon. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://graphtreon.com/creator/CANADALAND.

[6] Goggin, Benjamin. “Crowdfunding Platform Patreon Defends Itself from Protests by ‘intellectual Dark Web,’ Publishes Slur-filled Posts from Banned YouTuber.” Business Insider. December 18, 2018. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/patreon-crowdfunding-platform-defends-itself-amid-boycott-2018-12.

[7] Fleishman, Glenn. “The Problem with Patreon: Nazis, Pedophilia Pushers, Harassers, and More.” Glenn Fleishman Writes Words about Things. November 26, 2014. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://glog.glennf.com/blog/2014/11/26/the-problem-with-patreon-nazis-harassers-and-more.

[8] “Top Patreon Adult Photography: Top Earners Biggest Highest Paid Successful.” Graphtreon. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://graphtreon.com/top-patreon-creators/adult-photography.

[9] “CANADALAND Is Creating Podcasts & News.” Patreon. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.patreon.com/CANADALAND.

[10] “These 34 Creators Earned Over $150,000 Each on Patreon in 2016 – Meet Them!” Patreon Blog. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://blog.patreon.com/top-earners-2016.

[11] Hern, Alex. “The Rise of Patreon – the Website That Makes Jordan Peterson $80k a Month.” The Guardian. May 14, 2018. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/14/patreon-rise-jordan-peterson-online-membership.

[12] “Jordan Peterson Speaks out on Patreon Controversy.” The Post Millennial. December 15, 2018. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.thepostmillennial.com/jordan-peterson-speaks-out-on-patreon-controversy/.

[13] Brown, Jesse. “Only a Country Like Canada Could Produce a Guy Like Jordan Peterson.” The New York Times. April 06, 2018. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/06/opinion/jordan-peterson-canadian-deference.html.

[14]  All further references to Patreon revenues are in USD as that is the currency used in Patreon’s disclosures. All further subscriber and financial data comes directly from Patreon’s Canadaland page: https://graphtreon.com/creator/CANADALAND.

[15] “Patreon Makes a Change for Better Transparency.” Podcaster News. Accessed June 12, 2019. http://podcasternews.com/2015/12/19/patreon-makes-a-change-for-better-transparency/.

[16] “CANADALAND: Patreon Earnings Statistics Graphs Rank.” Graphtreon. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://graphtreon.com/creator/CANADALAND.

[17] “The CANADALAND Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement.” CANADALAND. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/the-canadaland-investigation-of-the-kielburgers-we-movement/.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “WE Corrects Canadaland: Notice of Libel.” WE. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.we.org/formal-notice/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Canadaland 2018 Transparency Report.” CANADALAND. April 04, 2019. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/2018-transparency-report/.

[22] “Craig Kielburger Founded WE To Fight Child Labour. Now The WE Brand Promotes Products Made By Children.” CANADALAND. October 15, 2018. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/craig-kielburger-founded-we-to-fight-child-labour-now-the-we-brand-promotes-products-made-by-children/.

[23] “How The Kielburgers Handle The Press.” CANADALAND. January 18, 2019. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/how-the-kielburgers-handle-the-press/.

[24] ” “Search of Canadaland, Last 12 Months, Worldwide.” Chart. Google Trends. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=canadaland.

[25] “Sector Impact.” Sector Source. Accessed June 12, 2019. http://sectorsource.ca/research-and-impact/sector-impact.

[26] “The CANADALAND Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement.” CANADALAND. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/the-canadaland-investigation-of-the-kielburgers-we-movement/.

[27] https://fairpress.ca/dissecting-the-shame-wizard-part-ii/

[28] “Transparency Archives.” CANADALAND. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/tag/transparency/.

[29] “Canadaland 2018 Transparency Report.” CANADALAND. April 04, 2019. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/2018-transparency-report/.

[30] “Digital News Disruption.” TVO.org. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.tvo.org/video/digital-news-disruption.

[31] “Transparency Report – Reviews by Justice Goudge.” WE. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.we.org/we-movement/transparency-reporting/transparency-report-reviews-by-justice-goudge/.

[32] “Annual Reports.” WE Charity. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.wecharity.org/about-we-charity/financials-and-governance/annual-reports/?_ga=2.5677371.944070302.1560365598-16844893.1560365598.

[33] “Oversight and Accountability.” ME to WE. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.metowe.com/about-us/oversight-and-accountability/.

[34] “Transparency Report – Reviews by Justice Goudge.” WE. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.we.org/we-movement/transparency-reporting/transparency-report-reviews-by-justice-goudge/.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Spiering, Brenda. “Two Teachers Who Helped Their Kids Start a Movement.” Canadian Living. March 22, 2019. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadianliving.com/life-and-relationships/community-and-current-events/article/two-teachers-who-helped-their-kids-start-a-movement.

[37] The Narwhal. “What the Federal Budget Offers Canada’s Struggling Journalism Industry.” The Narwhal. March 20, 2019. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://thenarwhal.ca/what-the-federal-budget-offers-canadas-struggling-journalism-industry/.

[38] “Media Critic Jesse Brown on Ottawa’s Ill-conceived Media Bailout – Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge.” Enterprise Podcasting Made Simple – Omny.fm. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://omny.fm/shows/afternoons-with-rob-breakenridge/media-critic-jesse-brown-on-ottawas-ill-conceived.

[39] “Federal Government Names Organizations That Will Help Spend $600M Journalism Fund | CBC News.” CBCnews. May 24, 2019. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/journalism-support-fund-panel-1.5144282.

[40] “How A Meeting Of “Press Barons” Shaped The Government’s News Bailout.” CANADALAND. April 12, 2019. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/meeting-of-press-barons-shaped-the-governments-news-bailout/.