David Beers is making his pitch: He's trying valiantly not to take all the credit for his online news site, thetyee.ca , and its growing list of awards. To that end, he'd rather The Globe and Mail photograph him alongside his colleagues; and he hopes, he says earnestly, that this profile will recognize it was teamwork that scooped The Tyee a prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award last month (the first Canadian online publication to do so), and in June, the Canadian Journalism Foundation's Excellence in Journalism Award.
Admirable though his motives may be, as the architect and founder of the left-leaning, alternative British Columbian news hub - named for a feisty chinook salmon that grows to 30 pounds or more - Beers is unquestionably more than simply an editor. "Small media organizations are hugely dependent on one person's vision," notes veteran Vancouver journalist and Tyee contributor Charles Campbell. "Right now, The Tyee is hugely dependent on David Beers."
And it always has been: When he launched the site in 2003, modelling it on U.S. online site salon.com, Beers was taking a step into the journalistic unknown. A former chief features editor and columnist at the Vancouver Sun, he thought he was engaging in an interesting experiment, but had few illusions about its potential for longevity. He expected to be wrapping the whole thing up within a year or two.
"The first question was: Would anybody read it?" Beers says, shrugging amiably over lunch a half block from his house in Vancouver's SoMa neighbourhood. "When you launch a website, the first person who comes along is your mom. She wrote a little comment: 'Dave, this is a nice project. Good luck.'"
Six years later, The Tyee boasts 250,000 page hits a month. That may be a tiny fraction compared to mainstream media sites, but next to its peers, The Tyee is more than holding its own. The biggest similar site in the United States, minnpost.com reported 200,000 hits a month last year, while Californian site voiceofsandiego.org, "San Diego's non-profit source of local news," mustered just 18,000 over the same period.
After breaking a few stories with legs early on - including the B.C. Liberals' plans to reduce drunk driving from a felony to a misdemeanour just months after Premier Gordon Campbell was arrested for driving under the influence in Hawaii - the Tyee's profile also gained momentum from publishing James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith's blog that became the book (and cultural phenomenon) The 100-Mile Diet.
"The whole idea was to modify - to change - the media ecosystem," Beers says softly, "not to dominate or replicate what other people are doing, but to add to it to see if that changed the conversation."
Does he think The Tyee has achieved that? "Go and look at the website," he says. "See if you think you see something distinctly different from corporate media."
The corporate media is one of Beers's bugbears - perhaps no surprise, considering the stories that swirled around his firing from the Vancouver Sun after five years, in 2001. Now 51, the American-born Beers bristles slightly at the subject. Though the official reason involved "budgetary restraints," various rumours circulated at the time of his leaving: that he was fired because one of his columns strayed too far from the political position of the paper; and that he left embittered and furious. Some former colleagues say that Beers's management style was too writer-friendly. One former Sun employee says Beers just wasn't career-minded enough: "He refused to kiss ass."
There's no denying that one. Beers slammed the door on the Sun with a no-holds-barred riposte in a column for Vancouver Magazine published in June, 2002. "There was not enough diversity of voice, not enough free-flowing dissent and debate, too much control and command and not enough bottom up," says Beers now, with a dismissive shrug. "It wasn't personal."
In hindsight, he says, it all worked out just fine. He moved organically from something he saw wasn't working, to crafting the opportunity to create an alternative. The first incarnation of The Tyee was built, he says, "like my aunt's K-car - a bench seat and a radio with five buttons." He wanted to keep it simple to transitional readers, in order to encourage people who knew nothing about online media to try it out.
Content-wise, the focus these days remains on alternative coverage of issues that resonate deeply with British Columbians; it was The Tyee's work on homelessness, but also its coverage of the last federal election, that swayed the Murrow judges. Currently, The Tyee is pushing hard on the downsides of the soon-to-be-imposed harmonized sales tax in B.C., supporting a move to recall Liberal MLAs.
But the presentation has changed a lot since the early days. A more complex redesign was unveiled last month, layering in a continuous feed of stories from the Canadian Press. Several new initiatives are due to be rolled out in the coming months. Cagey about going into too much detail, Beers will say only to expect more communal blogs similar to the Tyee's political daily slot, the Hook, and a greater focus on community-building.
All this costs money. Work on the redesign was started before the economic downturn hit the site's finances. "The joke around The Tyee is: 'Can we sell all these awards on eBay?'" Beers says, smiling.
Though it was created as a for-profit enterprise (the limitations of which Beers now regrets), there was never any expectation that The Tyee would turn a profit. Original financing included $190,000 seed money from a venture-capital fund owned by the B.C. Federation of Labour. The other two major investors and company directors are former VanCity bank CEO David Levi and local philanthropist Eric Peterson, founder of a successful medical-imaging company.
With an annual operating budget of about $600,000 (about 20 per cent from advertising) and six staff on his payroll, Beers says that The Tyee continues to move toward its goal of breaking even.
Campbell argues that as a "nascent experiment," The Tyee is attempting to create something more valuable than cash: an open door to journalists in a city where alternative voices aren't always heard.
The project does have its critics. Some say its tight operating budget prevents Beers from enticing some of the city's more senior writers to contribute, resulting in too many personal pieces from inexperienced journalists, and not enough solid investigative reporting.
Beers acknowledges that much of his time is spent looking for innovative ways to raise funds. Prior to this year's provincial election, The Tyee posted a request for donations, with the twist that donors could vote for which political issues they would like the site to cover, with the money divided accordingly. Over $10,000 poured in, with individual donations averaging about $50. There are also revenue drives to fund fellowships: Writers receive $5,000 to work on an in-depth investigation.
Beers's ultimate fascination with The Tyee is both journalistic and sociological. "I would like to become an alternative hub, a home to a revolving set of journalists with expertise. Give them enough to pay their mortgage, and then let them get really into something for six or eight months."
Beers leans back in his chair and sighs. "I want to create a work atmosphere that enables excellent journalism," he concludes. "That's my Holy Grail."