In early March 2002, Byron Christopher, senior journalist for CHED radio in Edmonton, stumbled onto a story. While looking into a lawsuit against Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc., he discovered that the company had been accused of bombing, raping, enslaving, kidnapping and executing citizens in Southern Sudan, where it operated the Heglig and Unity oil fields. In the course of his research, Christopher contacted a Talisman executive, who made it clear the company didn’t want anyone to know about the lawsuit. Barry Nelson, Talisman’s communications officer, sent a letter to CHED indicating that Talisman could sue if the story about the lawsuit went to air.
Christopher filed his story anyway, only to find out how powerful a weapon the threat of libel can be. Fearing a suit from Talisman, the station delayed going to air with the piece. Christopher asked his news director whether the station retained a lawyer for such matters. The director said he didn’t know. “Translation: fuck off,” says the reporter now.
But Christopher didn’t give up. He tried to interest other outlets in the potentially explosive story. He faxed court documents to Global TV Edmonton, which passed them onto its affiliate, Global TV Calgary 7. It also avoided the story. Christopher found out through a friend, who was also a Global employee, that the station was scared of a lawsuit. Christopher then tried the Edmonton Journal, the city’s largest newspaper. The paper wasn’t interested in the story either. After all these rejections from mainstream media, Christopher finally turned to rabble, a Web site that publishes underreported or unreported stories. Rabble was definitely interested.
Rabble published Christopher’s Talisman piece on March 19, 2002, after Christopher waited three days to see if CHED would air it. About a week after the story ran, The Financial Times in London, England picked it up. Then major wire services – including Associated Press, Canadian Press and Reuters – started running with it. Even after the piece had hit the wires, the Journal didn’t touch it. According to Christopher, eight people wrote to the editor complaining about the omission, but the Journal didn’t publish the letters. Christopher phoned the Journal to ask business editor Kathy Kerr why she didn’t run anything on Talisman. She replied, “It must have fallen between the cracks. The international response was astounding given the lack of media coverage in Alberta. As a result, pressure increased from human rights groups and shareholders for Talisman to pull out of Sudan. The company sold its interest in the country to an Indian oil company about one year later.
If a story this big “must have fallen between the cracks,” it makes you wonder what other stories are wedged down there. “There really shouldn’t be any rabble, or sites like it,” Christopher says, “but they exist because the mainstream media aren’t doing their jobs.” It’s important for alternative media to act as watchdogs, but lately the lack of funding has limited rabble to volunteer contributions and republished work.
Rabble is the brainchild of longtime social activist and feminist Judy Rebick. Previously, she was marginally involved in an effort to produce an independent national newspaper, but it made more sense to start an online publication because it is interactive and links to other progressive publications. Rabble became the next best solution. “In the same way that the dawn of radio spurred the creation of institutions like the CBC,” says Mark Surman, the site’s business developer, “we now have emerging public interest models for the Internet like rabble.”
Rabble is one of many progressive Canadian sites. Others, like Straight Goods, Dooney’s Cafe, Supporting facts and The Tyee, were similar to American counterparts such as Z Magazine Online, Alternet.org, Common Dreams News Center and Counter Punch. Many journalists visit these sites for commentary and news not found in the mainstream. Antonia Zerbisias, media columnist for The Toronto Star, figures she spends about half her life online. “Mainstream media just don’t cover all the bases,” she says. “Part of it is because they’re old and calcified. A lot of young people who don’t have access to mainstream media have access to the Internet, so you have fresher takes.”
Rebick envisioned rabble as Canada’s answer to Z Magazine Online. Both aim to publish different perspectives on mainstream stories and occasionally break a story that interests the mainstream media. It helps that rabble’s message board, babble, has become a hotbed for 5,000 media-savvy social activists. “In a time when the neo-liberal agenda has significantly reduced our democratic space,” Rebick says, “there’s nowhere for people to get together anymore for discussion. Rabble’s message boards provide that.”
Rabble was launched with support from Alternatives, a Montreal-based NGO, and the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The Atkinson Foundation contributed $40,000 as a startup grant, and $60,000 in donations came from various wealthy individuals. ‘The word ‘rabble’ represents the site’s promise to deliver news “for the rest of us” – meaning those seeking a progressive point of view. The majority of rabble’s audience is under 35 and the next largest group is over 50.
The first story appeared on rabble on April 18, 2001. The site’s launch coincided with the anti-globalization protests at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Today, rabble republishes columns by Rick Salutin, Naomi Klein, Thomas Walkom and Linda McQuaig, and includes work from less established writers like ubiquitous protestor Jaggi Singh. Some dismiss rabble as a rehash of already available content, but it does reach a national and even international audience. The site averages 100,000 visitors and over two million page views per month.
Rabble focuses coverage on demonstrations and NGOs, which mainstream media usually ignore, or cover only when there’s conflict. For example, there were very few mainstream reports from the World Social Forum in India in January 2004, although there were 75,000 participants. And when Singh was arrested at the Summit of the Americas conference the mainstream press missed a real story – that police had manipulated the law to arrest a prominent protestor. “Rabble had the perspective of the demonstrators right away,” Rebick says. “I was reporting from Quebec City and not from the perspective of the government, which most of the media reports were.”
The absurdity of Singh being arrested for using a teddy bear catapult wasn’t picked up by regular media until after rabble had run the story repeatedly. Judy MacDonald, rabble’s then editor, responded to the arrest by posting a tongue-in-cheek press release from the Deconstructionist Institute for Surreal Topology, which claimed Singh had nothing to do with the catapult the group had built. Although the press release was humorous, it certainly wasn’t in-depth reporting based on facts or interviews. While rabble claimed its mandate was to combine the “cool eye of journalism with the hot energy of activism,” it failed to measure up on the journalism side. This story served as little more than a thumbing of the nose to mainstream media.
Rabble publishes stories that might otherwise go untouched, but the site has struggled financially for most of its existence, and has almost gone under twice. Its first near-death experience occurred around September 2001. A couple of years later, in November 2003, rabble almost ran out of funds, but a fundraising effort coordinated through the babble message board saved it. Over six weeks, the drive brought in a $50,000 cash infusion from donors, readers and unions providing sustaining partnerships. The “in cahoots” section, which posts stories from NGO Web sites, brings in money from sustaining partners who donate $5,000 to $10,000 per year. Most of the donations come from various unions, but they aren’t allowed to exceed the self-imposed $10,000 limit.
Most of the time the site endures a hand-to-mouth existence, spending money as quickly as it is donated. When rabble started, its budget was around $40,000 a month; now it’s about $15,000. Becoming partners with OneWorld, an international portal for NGOs, in January 2004 meant many employees now work for both organizations, which has helped rabble cut costs. Between the two organizations there is a global budget that also helps to pay rabble’s two exclusive employees, editor Sharon Fraser and bulletin board moderator Audra Estrones Williams. Since August 2003, when Rebick accepted her teaching position at Ryerson University, she has worked for rabble on a volunteer basis.
Rabble generally relies on volunteer effort for original content, and cutbacks haven’t yet affected its usual output of one new story a day. But when the site began, it was able to pay writers, whereas now it relies on volunteers. Fortunately, there are reporters like Christopher who have a passion for reporting, a sense of justice and ethics, and are willing to work under conditions where expenses far outweigh income.
The site’s main drawback is that it is too financially feeble to expand. “Financial weakness feeds through the whole site,” says Dennis Sherbanuk, former CBC radio producer and avid reader of many alternative sites, including rabble. “They need more intensely researched pieces and a wider variety of stories to move beyond their leftist political perspective. Stories on technology and economics could round out their coverage, but it’s expensive.”
Financial weakness also affects the types of stories covered. MacDonald, who published the Talisman story, comes from the feminist and anti-globalization movements. She had more money to work with and her mandate went well beyond the mainstream. Fraser is against globalization as well, but here’s the irony – rabble was created to showcase cutting-edge journalism, but now it’s so broke it offers refried columns from dailies while its editor, by default, covers mainstream politics.