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Go Big or Go Home - Part IV

Alan F
Original Publication Date

Welcome to Number Four.

AF: For a while there, IWT seemed to vanish from view. When I searched on the Web, I found an 8-month block where no one was talking about IWT at all.

PJ: That's very deliberate. In June 2005, when we launched the website, we were doing a feasibility study. We were not planning to launch a campaign. We had posted a survey and a video that would take about 10 minutes to do in total. We figured we'd be lucky if 500 or 600 people would take the survey. We did no PR. We were hoping that maybe 10,000 people would come over 6 weeks, which was the time we'd established for the survey. Then we figured we'd just stop. The truth is, we blame you -- and I mean this in all seriousness -- by you, I mean Daily Kos. I did an interview with the Tyee Report, which is a blog out of British Columbia. Daily Kos picked it up. Again, I did not think that much would happen. Anyway, the whole thing exploded. When Daily Kos released it, then the whole blogosphere got a hold of it. Then the Canadian print media got a hold of it. The Globe and Mail did a full page. The Toronto Star did a big piece. Le Devoir in Quebec did a full page. CBC Radio got in on it. The blogs in the U.S. went nuts. In 6 weeks, we had 80,000 unique visits. Instead of 500 or 600 people doing the survey, 6000 people did the survey. We had a contribution button up there. We were dealing with our advisors on the marketing, and they were telling us "Be happy if people do the survey. No one's giving you money just based on an idea and video." But 600 people gave us money. Anyway, all this activity was June 2005. We had no second act. We weren't planning to go public. We wanted a little contained feasibility study. So when all this happened, we tried to keep the site active, doing some aggregated text stuff and interviews. We didn't have the website ready in terms of the database capability, e-mail capability, the whole back-end. We didn't have any money to sustain any kind of production. The fact that it's been this much in people's attention has a lot to do with how badly people want it.

In June 2005, we didn't have enough money to produce in any kind of regular way. Now we do. That's the difference. We think we can now start a certain modest level of production that we can sustain. We can do some short documentaries, we can do a weekly program, and we can sustain it. As far as the cost of staffing goes, for a long time it was just me and a couple of people. If I'd gotten involved in producing earlier on, we wouldn't have raised any serious money. I've been mostly raising seed money for the past two years.  It's a full-time occupation. Our target is to raise 15 million dollars before we start full-fledged daily news production. The people who may want it sooner should help us develop this fundraising campaign to make it possible.

For example, we have a lot of organizations that are friendly to us that have big e-mail lists. If you could put all the friendly organizations together, we probably have 5 or 6 million e-mails that could be sent out on our behalf. We have not asked them to send anything out. We have not wanted that kind of noise. We weren't ready. As you know, I even kept trying to put this interview off.

AF: Yes, I noticed.

PJ: I didn't want to do this interview until I knew for sure we'd have something to talk about. We did some damage with the launch in June 2005. While it showed the interest, it raised a flag, "Well, where are you already?" If we'd known better the kind of response we'd get in June 2005, we would have waited. Now we're closer to being ready for that kind of attention.

Again, it was all about "Go big or go home." [See Part 1 of this series.]

AF: Will the blogosphere play a big role in connecting with The Real News and the network in terms of research and leads?

PJ: We think one of our biggest resources is going to be the collective intelligence of all our wired interested people. Starting on the research side, and then later in terms of actually producing and shooting. We're going to start training citizen journalists and develop that side of our work. Right now, there's tremendous talent when it comes to research, and we really want to tap into it. So one of the things we're going to do is publicize the stories we're working on, and ask people whether they want to join research teams to work with professional journalists on these stories. We'll need full-time people just looking at that intake and giving it some serious respect.

AF: So is this your full-time job or do you have another job in addition to this?

PJ: I stopped doing everything I was doing. I was the executive producer for the main debate show on CBC in Canada. I made 30 long-form documentary films. The last film I made was "Return to Kandahar" [about Afghanistan], which aired on television. I made the film "Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows" which is, I think, the cult wrestling film of all time. I had a very, very active career. I started the "Hot Docs" film festival in Toronto, which is now the biggest documentary festival in North America and second-largest in the world. But I stopped doing everything and am just doing this. Now, we're starting to hire other full-time staff.

AF: So do you have other full-time staff at this point?

PJ: As of today, we're up to about ten, and we'll be up to fourteen within the next few months.

We just hired a CTO, Director of Development, Director of Broadcast Operations, two full time writer/researchers, a team for development/fundraising work in US, and will soon be hiring a DOF; as well as, staff who will producing the daily show. This is all possible because we spent so much time raising seed money, before we started producing.

AF: So have you given any interviews recently?

PJ: No, I have not. I've been saying no.

AF: So I just happened to come in at the right time?

PJ: You came at the right time. Also, Daily Kos played an important role in the past. So we have a kind of special soft spot for it.

AF: People have probably asked you how you compare to Al Gore's Current TV. [See Wikipedia article.] I took a look at it and saw that it had nothing to do with hard news. It's a very different model from what you're doing.

PJ: It's a completely different model. First of all, it's advertising-driven, so the problem of ratings and attracting advertising has to influence what they're doing. They're not doing hard news. We are. Anyway, it's such a different model that it's apples and oranges.

AF: So, I see that you're very much thinking in terms of U.S., obviously not just Canada. Is there going to be much of a role of covering Canadian politics, that kind of thing?

PJ: Well, it's a good question. First of all, our target countries to start with are U.S., Canada, and India. We're going to be paying a lot of attention to development work in India, in terms of the news operation, the membership model, seed money. India is as important to us as Canada . But there is a special place for the U.S. in this scenario. I should add that we're going to be focusing on Australia, later the U.K. And then later, who knows where. But the U.S. has a special place for us in the sense that the state of democracy or lack thereof in the U.S. has such serious consequences for the rest of the world. The whole world has a stake in making sure that Americans have more understanding of the real world. I used that formulation earlier [see Part 3], bringing the Americans to the world, and the world to Americans. Take the elections: what kind of policies do they support or don't support? The consequences of that can be either good or disastrous for everyone el.. Most people around the world, I would say, have a very stereotyped view of America. They see Americans as rednecks and supporters of George Bush and so on. Anyone who knows the U.S. knows what a complicated place it is. An interesting survey was done by Pew about a year and a half, two years ago, where they took moral social questions -- you know, abortion, gay marriage, things like that -- and they tried to compare American attitudes to Canadian attitudes. When they released the report, the title was "Two Nations Going in Different Directions." Then someone went back and reexamined the data. They compared American big urban cities to Canada. The data was almost identical. There are so many different Americas. How many big cities did George Bush win? Almost none. So we think people in the rest of the world need to understand the complexity of America.

Then, we want to make the world real for Americans. Other than the odd big event, it seems so abstract to a lot of Americans. Even that's a stereotype. How many Americans are just a generation away from living somewhere else? Millions and millions. So the U.S. has a very special place in our strategy. It has to work there. It can't be so international that Americans don't get it and don't watch it.

Will Canadian politics matter? Of course. For example, what Canada's doing in Afghanistan right now is a very important international story.

There are many cross-border stories. We're working on a story, on the state of organized labor, (especially in the U.S.), how low the number of unionized workers is, and what's happening in terms of campaigns to organize workers.

When we talk about bringing the world to Americans, that includes Canada. Bringing Americans to the world includes bringing Americans to Americans. The real-life America, Americans don't get to see. For two weeks around Katrina, there was actually such a thing as race and class. On the whole, that door is closed.

AF: I'm wondering how prominent conservatives and a conservative viewpoint would be on your network. I've seen that Pamela de Maigret and Eric Margolis are on your website.

PJ: There are two parts to the answer: our journalists will be people good at doing verifiable journalism, and we're not going to do ideological litmus tests. We want someone who can really come back with facts, and really dig, and do good journalism. Good, but we want to separate that from their opinions: here's our investigation, here's what facts came out, and then here's what conclusions a journalist reaches and opinions they have. Let's be clear about what's fact and what's opinion. Within that mix, we hope for a diversity of opinions. But first and foremost, if they're doing journalism, they need to do verifiable journalism. We don't just want people yapping off about their opinions whether they're left or right. Number two: we want a place for debate, real debate and diversity in debate. That includes any opinion, that's in the public dialogue, that has some kind of legitimacy. For example, when we did Counterspin, the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] debate show, we were debating U.S. foreign policy, and we wanted someone there to defend the White House foreign policy. We're going to do regular debate segments on The Real News. There we want a full spectrum of debate.

We don't believe in showing both sides when it comes to doing journalism, because we don't believe there's such a thing as two sides when doing journalism. There are many sides. It's not partisan politics that are going to guide us. These questions are far more complicated than two sides. It's about facts and  the courage to come to the conclusions the facts lead us to. When we present those facts, if someone wants to scream and call them liberal or left, so be it. Some of the conclusions our journalists will reach, perhaps the left won't like. Well, too bad. Our journalism is not seeking balance. We're seeking truth. Then there'll be debate about what conclusions to draw from those facts, and there conservatives will have a voice. What's the point of having a debate if we're not debating all those positions?

Then you have to break down conservatives: people like Eric Margolis, who's a contributor to American Conservative magazine, his analysis of Afghanistan or Pakistan is not much different from those of the left. Facts are facts. There are some conservatives whom one might disagree with on a whole range of things, but they also want to be realistic about what's happening on the foreign front, and they should have a voice. We think anyone who wants to grapple with facts should have a voice.

This is a united front for enlightenment, in the sense of Copernicus and Galileo. It's a united front for rationality. A lot of the old arguments, and a lot of the old dialogue, and a lot of the old rhetoric -- people are fed up with it. They want rationality.