Transcript of a Conversation between Forum Co-Producer Doreen Ashton Wagner & Distruptive Journalist Jesse Brown:
This interview took place on April 10 by video call. Due to technical difficulties (or the interviewer’s technical ineptitude) the video and audio files were of low quality. Here is the transcript instead.
Doreen Ashton Wagner (DAW): Hi everyone, this is Doreen Ashton Wagner, Co-Producer of The Engaging Associations Forum, and I’m here today to interview Mr. Jesse Brown who has been called at various times a “disruptive journalist,” a digital media expert, and a futurist. Jesse runs Canadaland, a crowd-funded news site that has disrupted the way traditional media works. He pioneered this new business model after uncovering some things at the CBC and in other news media, is that right Jesse?
Jesse Brown (JB): Yes, Canadaland is journalism about journalists. Perhaps the biggest story I was involved in was the Jian Gomeshi scandal, and there were a few other stories about the Globe and Mail. We are a disruptive digital company that is able to do stories that I don’t think we would have been able to do in traditional media.
DAW: Now Jesse comes to us with a great referral from our friends at Speakers’ Spotlight. Kelly Macdonald specifically recommended Jesse after we told her about the opening session we will be doing which is called, Association Management and Leadership in a Trump World. She just immediately thought of you Jesse and she said, “He would be the perfect guy to be there, the perfect foil for this Town Hall”! We do have a tradition at the Engaging Associations Forum, to being disruptors ourselves. Since you’re a disruptive journalist this was seen as the ideal fit.
During the session of course we will be talking about what the future holds for Canada and you’ll be sharing your thoughts about how our institutions and our economy really are at odds with what’s happening with technology. Plus we will be hearing a lot from our audience during that whole time. The Town Hall is going to be highly participative. So Jesse, welcome! It’s so great to have you here.
JB: Thank you so much for having me.
DAW: I have a couple of questions for you. The objective of what we’re doing here today is to whet the appetite for our audience to see what the Town Hall session will be all about. As a reminder of course the Engaging Associations Forum takes place July 19-21, and you are slotted to be in this opening session on July 20th at 9 a.m.
So I’d love to hear your thoughts, Jesse, on what you see as the biggest forces that are at play these days in Canadian society and what we’re calling here at Engaging Associations the “Trump World.”
JB: Well I think your title hits it right on the head. We’re all trying to figure out what the meaning is of the choice America has made and the impact it’s going to make on us and on everyone. The election of Donald Trump itself is a reflection of large global forces tied to things like xenophobia, economic uncertainty, and push back against globalization with things like the Brexit.
Where it currently stands, I think, is that we’ve jumped the gun because we’ve elected Justin Trudeau, who is associated with values different from Donald Trump. We think that we are immune or past this or somehow insulated from those forces. I’m not so sure myself.
It’s obvious that Justin Trudeau was elected here before Donald Trump and you might see him more in response to Obama as opposed to maybe in response to Trump. We may be getting in late on the Obama values rather than getting in early on where the world is heading now. I think we are going to withstand a very chaotic time and no one really knows what that means.
We talked about this word disruption which is funny for me because it’s become a sort of buzz word, a positive word. We look for companies that are disruptive. I used to get disciplined for being disruptive when I was a kid in school instead of being a positive thing!
I think with the election of Donald Trump we’re going back to that original meaning. While disruption can mean a lot of wonderful things, it can also mean a lot of uncertainty; people get hurt in disruption. Even the most famous disruptive company, Uber, which in many ways is a wonderful technology because it’s making people’s lives easier and cheaper; but it’s disruptive. And there are winners and losers in the disruption. Of course the taxi industry is the big loser and we can see that across-the-board.
I see a lot of these things have been as a result of technology and what it’s doing to the world. So what that’s going to mean for Canada specifically has to do with these political forces, but also I think it’s motivated by the internet, by networking, by what that means to our economy, globalization. I think of that is definitely having an impact on the world of associations.
DAW: Hmmm… It’s interesting that your observation is that perhaps Justin is our Obama and we’re just a little bit behind. Because I know a lot of Canadians pat themselves on the back that we’re just different. So that is something to think about!
Jesse you’re no stranger to associations. You’ve spoken at many association gatherings, and you actually did get a few associations into hot water over hiring some high profile journalists to speak and so on, and maybe we can talk about that some more at the event. But what do you think all these disruptive forces mean for professional and trade associations in Canada?
JB: I think it speaks to the core of this Digital Revolution because what the internet is about is reorganizing our ability to organize, to associate and to form associations much more easily. You can be a member of as many associations as you want. It’s a different way of operating and giving the power to the individual. That has wonderful effects and it has some negative effects. I think what professional associations traditionally offered is now in many parts available elsewhere.
There’s also another aspect which is that professional associations traditionally appeal to people who are career professionals in a specific role, and a specific trade, in a specific profession. But how does that mesh with the new workforce, where people work at different companies, and often in different areas completely throughout their career, sometimes even at the same time. Are you going to self-identify as a member of one profession? Are you going to commit to a membership? Are you going to spend on expensive travel for the networking aspect? I think a lot of young people are not going and there’s a crisis I’m aware of within the world of professional associations because people are finding other ways to network and make those types of connections.
Where I think associations do well is to highlight the very special things that others can’t, which is that crucial face-to-face interaction, in a real life meeting space. I think there was an early reaction where professional associations tried to mimic the internet and create their own digital communities. And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the thing that associations can provide that no one else can is that face-to-face experience.
But the pressure points are recognizing that young people who might work in the profession might not feel as welcome because of fee structures, might not feel welcome if they are not accredited because they are not working in a nine-to-five position, or “blessed” by a company to attend these meetings. What is their a point of entry to experience this?
I think the smart associations are the ones who do everything they can to create a sense of real physical community to reach out to these young people and to ease the path so that these young people can physically attend their meeting.
[One of] the stories you were referring to [earlier], and for people who are listening to this, we did some reporting on how the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers paid Peter Mansbridge a lot of money to speak at their event. That was more of a story about Peter Mansbridge because of course he covers the oil industry as a journalist. I think that itself reflects more of these trends that I’m talking about which mean a conflation where everybody does a lot of different things these days and there are inevitable conflicts of interest as you wear different hats.
The Golden Rule from my point of view is transparency. If you are simply upfront and tell the public, tell everybody, what you’re doing, especially if your job is to be held accountable as journalists are. People need to know where I get my money if I expect them to listen to me. If I give them my opinion on various topics they should know if I’m getting paid by any interests in those stories.
DAW: No of course being a journalist, a disruptive one at that and having outed the likes of Peter Mansbridge, what are your thoughts with what’s going on right now with fake news? Are there any niches that associations could address about fake news and how it could affect their stakeholders?
JB: The fake news online is really interesting and I saw this grow from something that was being completely ignored by Facebook; the ability for more companies that look a lot like newspapers, a lot like news organizations, the way they show up on Facebook it’s hard to tell them apart. Facebook was just turning a blind eye and then all the sudden some of them, a very small handful actually, started to absolutely fabricate sensational stories that were widely shared that had an influence in the American Presidential election. [Facebook] went from ignoring it completely to a state of absolute panic, and it affected all news outlets.
All of a sudden everyone started calling fake news if they didn’t like the new story. Of Trump doesn’t like CNN, they’re fake news. That’s very different from calling out the small companies. Some of [these small companies] were run by Macedonian teenagers who were just trying to fabricate total lies in order to get clicks.
The truth is in Canada we have not seen that type of news media, really. It hasn’t had an impact. So I’m a little bit skeptical of some of the vast measures that some people in my industry, in journalism, want to take.
I think the larger lesson is that we’re seeing a flattening of sources of information. To a certain extent this is the media’s own fault. Some of the things that the main media have done have undermined their own credibility and have made it possible for just anybody to look like a news organization. So I think that we need to promote media literacy. People need to be vigilant and I think one possible effect for associations is that people are looking a little bit harder on the logos on the news story before they hit that share button. Where that fits I think with professional communities is that my answer for that information, mis-information, is GOOD information. People can do a wonderful job [calling out mis-information], especially people with expertise and professionals.
If I did something wrong in a news story – I hate getting things wrong but it does happen – I depend on someone who knows more about it than I. Journalists are always pretending to be experts on new topics, and they have to learn a whole new field every time they cover a new story. I value the people when they actually can point out something that is not quite accurate in the story and one thing that the internet allows us to do is to pay attention to those comments and emails. And it’s important not to have a thin skin about those. It’s very important to have an accurate story.
DAW: Yes, that is very interesting. I look forward to chatting more about that at the Town Hall!
Now of course you’re coming out with a new book and our participants who register between now and the end of April are going to get a copy of your new book! It’s coming out in May. So tell us a little bit more what is the book all about; what is it called and what do you cover in this wonderful new novel piece? And by that I don’t mean to call it FICTION I’m saying it’s a NEW, novelty publication.
JB: (laugh) well I hope it’s novel! It’s the Canadaland Guide to Canada and it is a work of satire. It’s a humour book. Our goal was to write a rude book about a polite country.
We are in the throes of this Canada 150 celebration, and there’s much to celebrate in the book. And I think Canadians – this is to Canadians’ credit – are very uncomfortable with patriotism and flag-waving and these types of celebrations. We’re experiencing this everywhere everyone is trying to get us to feel very patriotic about Canada.
I feel very good about being Canadian but part of what I like about being Canadian is that you don’t have to be a flag-waving patriot. So we decided to to write a book that makes fun of Canada, that makes fun of these celebrations. It talks about our culture, our history, our present, and our media. A lot of what is in the book is actually is just factual stuff that we need to learn about Canada. And and a lot of it is just silly things that I hope people I hope will appreciate. We had a lot of fun putting the book together.
DAW: Oh that sounds great! Actually your reference to poking fun at ourselves is not just polite self-deprecation but often it can hopefully open our eyes look at things differently as opposed to accepting things blindly, I guess. So good on you Jesse! Hopefully at the event you can share with us some of those fun and irreverent facts. And you’ll probably get asked to sign books in person as well so we’ll make sure we equip you with a sharpie and all that.
Jesse, thank you so much for making time to be with us this morning. We really, really appreciate it because we know how busy you must be, running different businesses and so on. I also want to convey my thanks to Kelly Macdonald of Speakers’ Spotlight for connecting us. I look forward to meeting you in person on July 20th in Ottawa and good luck with the book, with Canadaland!
Again the book is called The Canadaland Guide to Canada. It’s published by Simon & Shuster, (see http://www.simonandschuster.ca/books/The-Canadaland-Guide-to-Canada/Jesse-Brown/9781501150630) or visit your favourite bookstore.