Linda Solomon, Vancouver Observer

Linda Solomon, Vancouver Observer
Linda Solomon, founder and publisher of the Vancouver Observer, runs the web magazine from her False Creek apartment.

As Vancouver gears up for 
November’s municipal elections, the 
city’s top players and pundits take 
the fight online.

The offices of the Vancouver Observer are on the 15th floor of a condo tower with a view of False Creek. This three-bedroom apartment also doubles as the home of Linda Solomon and her two young sons. In an open-concept living area where the work space is strewn with toys and an Xbox, Solomon, a journalist-turned-entrepreneur originally from Tennessee, presides over an informal editorial meeting of her online magazine with a half-dozen staffers and interns in their 20s.


The room waits for feedback from Solomon, whose investigative reporting on insurance companies for the Tennessean newspaper earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination. In a throaty drawl, she offers suggestions to intern Zi-Ann Lum on a story about multiculturalism among Vancouver high-school students.

For the 54-year-old Solomon, who fled Manhattan for Vancouver (making a pit stop on Cortes Island) after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Observer (vancouverobserver.com) is both a get-rich-gradually scheme to leverage the shift in advertising money from print and broadcast to online media, and a platform for emerging voices that haven’t broken through in traditional media. Founded in 2006, the online magazine covers a mix of politics and culture in a manner reminiscent of Salon. The winner of a Canadian Online Publishing Award in 2010, it has brought extra attention to civic issues such as the proposed downtown Vancouver “mega casino,” bike lanes and housing affordability.

“Rather than saying it has a progressive bent,” insists Solomon about the Observer, “I’d say it reflects the mainstream of urban Vancouver.” Referring to a Google Analytics report, Solomon notes that the Observer had 107,000 page views in February 2011, and a doubling in the number of visitors to the site over the past year. Along with websites such as City Caucus (citycaucus.com) and Frances Bula’s State of Vancouver (francesbula.com), the Observer is creating online communities for Vancouverites to get their news on civic affairs and to debate contentious issues. 


Much in the way that Solomon’s apartment merges workplace and home, however, the world of online journalism highlights the narrowing separation between politics and the media in a city where Mayor Gregor Robertson posts on Twitter regularly and a province in which a radio host, Christy Clark, left her job to become premier. Websites and blogs from writers with clear political allegiances, which once only commented on news from traditional outlets, are now breaking news and supplying stories for reporters. Consequently, they are inspiring accusations of biases and low standards from city hall, even as its staffers scan these sites for updates. With substantial followings, some of these sites aim to become viable businesses or income streams for their authors; others are simply banking on the notoriety and name recognition that a prominent web address can bring. As a civic election looms in November, the Internet has become the newest battleground for capturing votes. 


On the opposite side of the political spectrum from the Observer is City Caucus, a source of news and gossip on Vancouver City Hall. For Daniel Fontaine and Mike Klassen, the site’s co-founders, informal editorial meetings are generally conducted on the fly. After finishing his “boot camp” workout in the morning, Klassen, 49, will chat on the phone from his car about potential stories for the day with Fontaine, who commutes by SkyTrain from his home in New Westminster to his day job in communications near UBC. Both juggle writing for the site with other commitments; when I spoke with Klassen in the spring his time was split between City Caucus and his new media communications firm, Thinking Cap Inc.

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City-Caucus_Daniel-Fontaine_Mike-Klassen_3.jpg
Bloggers Daniel Fontaine (left) and Mike Klassen,
the pair behind City Caucus, aren't afraid to show
their political colours.

The City Caucus Blog

Launched in December 2008, shortly before Gregor Robertson was elected mayor and his Vision Vancouver party grabbed a stranglehold of city council, according to its founders, City Caucus now generates 100,000 page views a month and has 3,500 followers on Twitter. (They say that during the Olympics, when the site pushed politics aside and blogged about free events, it generated 2.5 million views.) “There wasn’t a place for people to be engaged and have a dialogue about municipal government,” says Fontaine, 42, about the site’s inspiration. “Mainstream media was cutting back, and the city desk is what gets chopped first.” 


The site, designed by Klassen, costs the pair about $100 for web hosting and a lot of what the two call “sweat equity.” In its early days, when Klassen and Fontaine were first attracting readers, they would post multiple times to “feed the appetite” of their new audience, spending up to two and a half hours a day on their posts. (They’ve since cut down to one daily post.) Some of that effort has paid off. During the Olympics, Klassen says, City Caucus secured about $10,000 in advertisements from Tourism BC and Dueck GM, and about $5,000 from Google’s pay-per-click program. During the BC Liberal leadership race, MLA and leadership candidate Kevin Falcon, hoping to tap into City Caucus’s specialized audience, bought “a few thousand dollars” worth of advertising, according to Klassen. 


That audience is very much a function of the site’s principals. Fontaine is the former chief of staff to Non-Partisan Association (NPA) mayor Sam Sullivan. Klassen, who has worked as both a journalist and as a video game designer for EA Sports, also did communications work for Sullivan, and served twice as campaign manager to Liberal MLA and former cabinet minister Colin Hansen. “People have accused us of being right-wingers,” says Klassen. “Our politics are extremely moderate and pragmatic.” Their past affiliations, he adds, are openly disclosed on the website.


In the past three years, City Caucus has acted as a persistent gremlin of dissent for the political machinery of the mayor and Vision Vancouver. “Amazingly, there are entire news broadcasts today in our city that would never think of producing one pixel of bad coverage for Gregor Robertson,” Klassen wrote on the site last September. By contrast, City Caucus’s treatment of Robertson’s city hall – from his handling of the Olympic Village development to the way food carts have been selected – is uniformly hostile. 


Among the most embarrassing revelations produced by City Caucus was a leaked internal memo from city hall in August 2010 that showed staff morale had dropped “into the dumper.” Leaks like this one and the revelation, since denied by the mayor’s office, that city hall had ordered 15 iPads and iPhone 4s for Robertson and his staff, often come cloaked in Watergate-style secrecy. “We’ve had brown envelopes delivered to us late at night,” says Fontaine. Two months earlier, Klassen and Fontaine used a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request to unearth blacked-out Olympic invitation lists for taxpayer-funded parties during the 2010 Games, which were indicative, in their opinions, of a secretive, unaccountable operation.


“Mike and I come from a certain slant for sure,” admits Fontaine, pointing to the site’s comment threads, and to guest editorials given to former COPE city councillors Fred Bass and Tim Louis. (Though their politics lean left, both Bass’s and Louis’s editorials were critical of Vision.)


Among the blog’s admirers is the sole NPA member of city council, Suzanne Anton. “My one voice in council isn’t very much for a political critic; the other voices in the world have been extremely influential,” she says, adding that everybody in city hall pays attention to what Klassen and Fontaine say, “because you never know if you might show up on the blog.” 


To many outside observers, however, City Caucus appears to be more political ammunition-gathering than reporting. In a Sept. 13, 2010, Globe and Mail column, Gary Mason described it as an “educational and useful blog,” but one that “is embedded with blatant bias, personal attacks, juvenile vituperation and hypocrisy.” Allen Garr, in his Sept. 24, 2010, column in the Vancouver Courier, wrote that “[the] stuff they crank out would usually fail to pass muster by conventional journalists’ standards.” Both of these remarks were prompted by an unprecedented decision by city hall to respond with a news release to Fontaine’s criticism in the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao of a 12-day, $120,000 trade mission to China last September. In a series of blog entries for the Vancouver Observer, Ian Reid, a former Vision campaign manager, attacked City Caucus for its bias and, using his own FOI-secured documents, accused Klassen of taking advantage of political connections to secure nearly $30,000 in untendered contracts for Thinking Cap from Mayor Sullivan’s city hall. 


Klassen, in response to Reid’s blog entries, says he was a victim of a “hatchet job” by the Observer, and notes Linda Solomon’s close relationship to the mayor through her brother Joel, a key advisor to and backer of Robertson. In 2008, the Observer endorsed Robertson as “the manifestation of what Vancouver is and can be,” and in 2010 it ran a story entitled “Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Twitter Posts Reveal Relentless Schedule and Concern for Homeless.” The site has also run advertisements from the city. 

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The impact of Vancouver's political bloggers

Whatever its biases, there’s no doubt that City Caucus is having an impact on the mainstream media and how they report civic issues. Global TV News Hour ran a story in June 2010 about the Olympic party lists. And in January 2011, Frances Bula wrote in the Globe and Mail about the abrupt departure of city inspector Carlene Robbins after three men perished in a December 2010 house fire, a story unearthed by City Caucus. Klassen’s suggestion that Robbins might be taking the fall for the accident (which is now the subject of an inquest) was reinforced when Robbins filed suit against the city, claiming that, after the fire, she suffered from working conditions “of hostility, embarrassment and humiliation.” 


“News outlets really monitor what City Caucus produces,” notes Bula, a long-time civics reporter. Bula, who also teaches journalism at Langara College, compares the sort of partisan blogging found on City Caucus to the early era of print journalism in the 19th century when “ranting political newsletters functioned as the infrastructure of political movements.”


Bula’s State of Vancouver website, by contrast, is a must-read city blog that doesn’t betray its author’s political leanings. She maintains the blog, she says, as a tool to enable her freelance writing career; it’s not a source of revenue. Bula decided not to allow ads on her site, which she says gets 130,000 monthly page views, to sidestep any discussions about her independence. “I use the blog to have a conversation with my audience,” says the former Vancouver Sun reporter. State of Vancouver, which costs her between $200 and $300 a year to maintain (“mostly,” she says, “to keep from getting Viagra spam”), also functions as a virtual newsroom where Bula can receive press releases and news tips: “I have people who get in touch with me at the same time they get in touch with the Globe and the Province.”


While politicos hoping to shape media discourse represent one type of blogger and the freelance journalist using a blog as calling card represents another, there are also gadflies like Alex G. Tsakumis, a fiery commentator and journalist who understands that, with blogging, “you are connecting at a very elemental, crude, emotional level where feelings are rawest, but most clear.” On his website (alexgtsakumis.com), Tsakumis – the son of prominent property developer George Tsakumis, CEO of Trigate Development Corp. – lists a long and varied resume. He says that in the private sector, he’s been an executive vice-president at Lexington Warburg, an asset management firm, and COO at a resort development company called Playa Investments. In the political realm, he says his credits include serving as an aide to Premier Bill Vander Zalm and on the NPA board of directors. 


Speaking at a White Spot near his Kitsilano home, Tsakumis, who wrote a civic affairs column in 24 Hours for three years, says he now “lives modestly” off private investments (which he declines to discuss). His real passion, he says, lies in his blog, for which he can spend up to two days writing a single entry. Although he shares some political associations with City Caucus, his snarling-Rottweiler prose is aimed at perceived hypocrisy on both political extremes. Like Bula, he refuses to take advertising to maintain his independence.


Often pictured in a pinstriped suit, Tsakumis is wearing a dress shirt with sleeves rolled up to reveal Japanese-inspired tattoos on both forearms when we meet. He seems to revel in his status as a provocateur. “I hold two things dear: the public interest and the public trust,” says the father of three. “The mainstream media – I call them the drive-by media because they’re so goddamn lazy – aren’t doing the job. That’s why I see 176,000 readers.” 


One of the more scintillating posts on Tsakumis’s blog includes a “hit list,” procured from an unnamed source last August, of 15 media figures that Vision was hoping to discredit. Tsakumis was number two on the list, between Klassen and Fontaine. A month later, Tsakumis posted documents showing payments of $27,500 from the mayor’s office in October 2009 to the marketing communications company FD Element for work on Robertson’s personal website (mayorofvancouver.ca). FD Element also kept Jonathan Ross, a pro-Vision blogger, on its payroll for something called “conversation mining,” and paid for the design and hosting expenses of Ross’s blog, Civic Scene (civicscene.ca). In a Global News story that cited Tsakumis’s scoop, FD Element denied paying Ross to stump for the mayor’s party online. Ross, who hasn’t blogged since January, never responded to BCBusiness’s request for an interview.


Vision Vancouver’s executive director, Ian Baillie, denies the existence of any hit list and dismisses sites like City Caucus and Tsakumis’s blog as nothing more than “political vehicles” that are “not built for having two sides.” In reference to Fontaine’s remarks on the China trip, he adds, “sometimes things do need being responded to. Because of time pressure, you’ll sometimes see a reporter go to a blog, accept a few assumptions, and go with it.” 


Swarmed by Vision councillors, Anton can barely contain her scorn when told about Baillie’s concerns about media balance. “Vision is whining that there’s somebody out there not drinking their bathwater?” she asks, laughing. “Oh my goodness gracious me.”

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The orgins of the Observer

As she gears up for the fall elections, Linda Solomon eagerly relates her plan to hire three interns – one each to cover the NPA, COPE, and Vision. Additional interns who speak Chinese or Punjabi could also be brought in. For Solomon, these editorial decisions are a welcome distraction from her other role as a business person. “I’d rather be out interviewing people,” she says, “but I have to sell ads.”


Having launched the Observer with donations (from sources she won’t disclose) and her own savings, Solomon now generates enough traffic at the site to capture advertising from the likes of Festival Cinemas, Tofino resort Ocean Village and the city-owned The Village on False Creek condo development. They pay anywhere from $300 for the smallest ad to $3,250 for a package that includes a custom-designed advertisement and advertorial. In February, the Observer made $7,000 from advertising. Out of the advertising revenue, Solomon pays $2,100 per month apiece to assistant publisher Meghan O’Neill and editor Jenny Uechi (who both work part-time), a $20-an-hour wage to UBC journalism graduate Darren Fleet and three-figure honorariums to other editors, videographers and interns.


When not selling ads, Solomon the accidental business person is devising strategies to boost readership, which include search engine optimization techniques to push her site up Google’s search rankings. “What would really have an impact is if we got over a 100,000 monthly readers,” she says. Solomon cites the Huffington Post, a left-leaning U.S. news site recently sold to AOL for $315 million, as an example that advertising revenue is shifting online. “It’s just a matter of time before 90 per cent of ad dollars are online.”


Peter Ladner, who’s been both a journalist and an NPA member of city council, believes the Huffington Post example is similar to an aspiring musician who says, “‘Hey, Bryan Adams is making millions of dollars!’ The average musician is living in poverty.” He says “the vast majority of blogs are not viable.” 


David Eaves, a Vancouver-based consultant on open government and public policy, concurs. “The market just isn’t big enough; the U.S. blogs that get 100,000 daily page views have a 330-million-person market,” says Eaves, who sits on the Vision board of directors. “I think these partisan blogs have a way of engaging a core of voters, but struggle to grow beyond their base.”


Indeed, the benefits that most civic-affairs bloggers derive from their efforts can be harder to quantify. With 22,000 unique visitors and 73,000 total views, Sean Holman’s blog on provincial politics Public Eye Online (publiceyeonline.com) generates a modest income from reader donations, advertising from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union and various politicians. However, the Victoria-based Holman, whose five-month investigation in 2004 into the dealings of B.C. Liberal insider Doug Walls resulted in the resignation of cabinet minister Gordon Hogg, mainly considers his site a “promotional tool and loss-leader that ends up supplementing the money I make from being a syndicated columnist and a talk show host.” 


Mike Klassen describes City Caucus as an investment in reputation. “It’s opened some doors,” he says. “I’ve got some connections with mainstream media and thought leaders.” Two weeks after our meeting in April, Klassen declared his intention to run for City Council in the November elections, campaigning on issues he’s blogged about such as urban densification, homelessness and rapid transit on Broadway. “I’m here to make it official,” he said in his speech, and to let Mayor Gregor know . . . I am an NPA hack.” 


As politics move into the unpoliced terrain of cyberspace, Eaves believes that the news will become even more partisan. “People who write about these issues, they care – and they have their own axes to grind,” he says. “I think we can only expect more of it.” Additionally, a politician with the ability to interact with voters through Twitter and social networking, he adds, can “look more human in the eyes of the voters, which is often hard.”


Even though Klassen stopped blogging regularly for City Caucus shortly after his campaign announcement – turning over his duties to Fontaine, who is currently seeking additional contributors – his time as a blogger has given him an advantage in this new-media age of politics. “Just ask yourself, ‘Who knew about Mike Klassen in 2008, besides my family and friends?’” he says to me when we talk post-announcement. “This has brought me front and centre in civic politics.” 


Time will tell if his page views will turn into votes.