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All good things must come to an end: An interview with Public Eye founder Sean Holman

At the beginning of this month Sean Holman was forced to suspend Public Eye indefinitely due to unsustainable costs associated with its operation. After eight years of reporting, filing Freedom of Information requests and receiving leaked documents, he has posted over 6000 stories – many of which were groundbreaking. He was awarded the Jack Webster award in 2004 for best print news reporting of the year and is currently a journalism professor at the University of Victoria. Holman also has a radio show on CFAX 1070, and is developing a documentary on provincial politics. This week, he agreed to hold an interview with The Cascade.

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By Joe Johnson (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: November 23, 2011

Sean Holman is a journalist and the man behind Public Eye, a hard-hitting website dedicated to accountability and oversight. At the beginning of this month he was forced to suspend Public Eye indefinitely due to unsustainable costs associated with its operation. After eight years of reporting, filing Freedom of Information requests and receiving leaked documents, he has posted over 6000 stories – many of which were groundbreaking. He was awarded the Jack Webster award in 2004 for best print news reporting of the year and is currently a journalism professor at the University of Victoria. Holman also has a radio show on CFAX 1070, and is developing a documentary on provincial politics. This week, he agreed to hold an interview with The Cascade.

Joe Johnson: What was your philosophy behind Public Eye?

Sean Holman: First, I’m a very big believer in the importance of the media, and the importance of the media in safeguarding democracy by informing and engaging the public. So I think we have an important role in the media to play in [doing this] and performing a watchdog role of [public-public partnerships] institutions, private institutions, public officials, private officials – that’s our core mission… I started up Public Eye because I believe in that mission, and… I think that… the record shows that it did make a substantive difference when it came to public policy and governance in British Columbia. Now I guess the other sort of operating philosophy of Public Eye was that you didn’t need to reach everyone to make a difference. You just needed to reach the right people; people who are engaged, people who are in the media, people who are in politics. And they would do the job of disseminating whatever reporting I had done. And that also proved to be true – there were a lot of stories I did that were followed by the media, used by the opposition, used by the government in some circumstances.

JJ: You had to suspend the website simply because the costs of running it, right?

SH: Yes.

JJ: What was the biggest cost? Is it the actual hosting of it with the bandwidth?

SH: The biggest cost is my time. You know, Public Eye was a website that took between 12 and 14 hours a day to run in terms of reporting. It wasn’t… the bandwidth or the cost of FOI requests, it was the amount of time that I was personally expending to produce the content for Public Eye… And at the end of the day if I’m not earning an appropriate income related to that cost, I can’t reasonably continue to do that… And that’s too bad. At the end of the day, probably I never had any more than 60 monthly donors at any given point in time, and they were contributing 10 bucks a month. So you can do the math, 600 a month maximum, multiplied by 12, that’s not a lot of money. And yes there was some advertising, but that wasn’t a lot either… Yes, it resulted in other things: I also had a column, and I continue to host my radio show on CFAX 1070. But even all that… did not really pay for the amount of time that it took to generate that kind of content to generate those kinds of stories.

JJ: Especially if you’re teaching and you have a radio show; I don’t know how you did it.

SH: That’s right. That’s a pretty intense gig for very little money. And it was a gig that I happily did for eight years, four of which were basically on my own hook, four of which were [for] 24 hours Vancouver. But at the end of the day… doing watchdog journalism is a time-consuming activity that cannot be done off the side of someone’s desk. It can’t, right? I think we need to have a conversation in this country about how we intend to fund that kind of journalism.

JJ: Do you think there’s anything that will fill the void of Public Eye, or is this going to be felt pretty widely?

SH: Well, certainly there are others who have said it will leave a void. I guess I’m of two minds on that… I guess obviously from an egotistical standpoint, I hope the work that I did was valuable. So I hope that it will be missed… But on the other hand, I hope that it doesn’t leave a void because I do think that this kind of journalism, this kind of reporting, is necessary. And I do hope that politicians will still be held to account, public institutions will still be held to account. And certainly there are a lot of journalists in this province who do good work other than me.

JJ: What are some of the media that you read?

SH: Well, Vaughn Palmer with The Vancouver Sun is a must read for anyone who has an interest in politics in this province. But I guess I do a lot… my mandate I guess is a bit different than a lot of other journalists. I don’t know, I guess the people that I always sort of looked up to and sort of modeled myself after were people like I.F. Stone, for example, or Russ Francis, who was formerly a journalist with Monday Magazine, or Jack Anderson was another American journalist, right? … People who really tried to dig up information that the public didn’t already know about, reporting on something that somebody somewhere wanted to suppress. That is what journalism is supposed to be all about. So I really modeled myself after those journalists.

JJ: What do you think about the majority of the media today, do you think it’s doing a good job or do you think it’s losing ground?

SH: Well, I think what I’m really worried about when it comes to the media is the fact that the media has fewer and fewer resources, and as a result has fewer and fewer on what I think is the core function of journalism, the investigative function of journalism.

JJ: You teach at the University, right?

SS: That’s right, I’m a journalism instructor in the writing department at UVic and I’m also the acting director of the professional writing program.

JJ: What was it like breaking the news to your students?

SH: I actually didn’t have that conversation with my students. But I imagine they found out… I do have a little conversation I do at the end of every year in Writing 215 where I talk with them about the media, and the state of the media, and how to get a job in the media and all of that. So I imagine that I will talk a little bit about it then.

JJ: With Public Eye, where do you go from here? Is it something that you’re actively working to bring back or do you have new ventures that you’re going to replace it with?

SH: I don’t rule out any possibility. It’s entirely possible that if I can figure out a business model for Public Eye that works, then I’ll bring it back. It’s entirely possible that I may end up working for another media outlet, or not. At the present moment in time I’m working on a documentary and continuing to teach at UVic.

JJ: Do you think Canadians care about having to have to suspend Public Eye, and the loss of investigative journalism?

SH: I hope they care. As I say, there is good work going on in the media. No one should believe that there isn’t. I like saying that Public Eye was a part of that good work. But what the public should be aware of is that we in the media have fewer and fewer resources to do that work. And Public Eye’s suspension is reflective of the larger difficulties that are being experienced by the media, not just in this country, but in other countries, as well. As we all struggle to figure out how to deal with the impact of the web and how we pay for the news business… because it is a business at the present moment in time, at least. Should Canadians be concerned about the fact that we have fewer and fewer resources?  Absolutely. Should Canadians be concerned about the fact that as a result of having fewer and fewer resources, we have fewer and fewer resources to do investigative journalism? Absolutely.

JJ: Over Public Eye, you went after both sides of the political spectrum, but do you have a political leaning yourself that you put aside, or do you just go with what’s in the current political climate?

SH: Prior to becoming a journalist, I worked in the civil service, in the provincial civil service for both the New Democrats and the Liberals when they were in government, respectively. And when I was in university, prior to becoming a journalist, I was a member of the federal Young Liberals. So… I suppose… I could best be described as a democrat… And I mean a small ‘d’ democrat. I’m a very big believer in democracy, I’m a very big believer in accountability and I like to think that as long as that’s working, the system is working correctly. So… I think I’ll probably have to sit down and think about, after eight years of covering this, where exactly do I stand.

JJ: Take a step back and think things over.

SH: Yeah, absolutely. You know, as I say, when I was in university I was a federal Young Liberal and I’ve never made any secret about that. I mean, I think that to cover politics and to be interested in politics and not have some general overall thought about the political system… would be difficult. But you know, I’ve always structured my reporting around the accountability function and around the democratic function. That really has been my key focus over the past eight years. I think that probably sums up my own current belief system best. Which I suppose is why you know, I did report, and report in some cases aggressively on both sides of the equation.

JJ: It’s sure going to be felt, I know by at least myself and a few others, actually – politicians that loved your website.

SH: Well, it was a very difficult decision. I mean, it was something I put an enormous amount of time into over the past eight years. But I guess at the end of the hill, all good things must come to an end. And it did, at least temporarily.

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