Important journalism costs; its absence costs even more

I’ve been writing for the Halifax Examiner since November 2016, mostly weekly columns and a few occasional features. But I’ve also been a subscriber and faithful reader since Tim Bousquet officially launched the publication in June 2014, nearly 10(!) years ago.

From the beginning, Tim’s self-declared and almost singular mission/mantra was to create “an independent, adversarial news site devoted to holding the powerful accountable.”

For me, those words echoed the equally ambitious ambitions of another feisty journalist-turned-publisher for whom I wrote — and from whom I learned much — early in my journalism career.

In the late 1960s, Nick Fillmore’s The 4th Estate set out to become — and did become for close to a decade — “an independent second viewpoint [to the staid, stolid monopoly daily Halifax Herald], and a questioning voice in print in our city and province.” His work mattered and helped change our city for the better at a time when it needed changing.

Much has changed — can you say the internet, digitization, the corporatization of media, the infotainments of news, the decimation of the mainstream media advertising model, etc., etc.? — in the more than 50 years since The 4th Estate’s first edition.

But one thing hasn’t changed. There is still — perhaps now more than ever — a pressing public need for determinedly independent voices like Fillmore’s and Bousquet’s, journalists who are prepared to hold the powerful to account, no matter the cost in time, money, and energy.

That’s worth thinking about, especially during the Examiner’s November subscription drive.

Consider Tim’s recent available-nowhere-else reporting on the re-trial of Randy Riley, a trial that raised important questions about how our justice system works.

Riley was convicted in 2018 in connection with the 2010 murder of pizza delivery driver Chad Smith and spent nearly eight years in prison as the legal process played out. Finally, in 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned his second-degree murder conviction and ordered a new trial.

Tim covered it all.

Riley’s retrial finally began this September. As Tim noted at the time:

… it’s worth noting that I was the only reporter at court yesterday. That’s right: there’s a murder trial in Nova Scotia, and there’s only one reporter in the room.

I get it. All newsrooms are stretched thin. There are fewer reporters available for the work. Heck, the Halifax Examiner isn’t able to cover every murder trial, although if I knew no other media outlet was there, I’d make a point of sending a reporter.

Still, consider the contrast between Riley’s trial and the murder trial of William Sandeson, the Dalhousie student convicted of killing Taylor Samson. CBC was thereSaltwire was thereGlobal was thereThe Canadian Press was there. The Halifax Examiner wasn’t at the trial, but we covered many issues related to it after the fact.

So, why did the Sandeson trial get near universal local media coverage, while the Examiner is left to cover the Riley trial solo?

I can’t answer for other media, but evidently a university fraternity drug deal gone bad is of more interest than a lower-class pizza delivery driver probably dealing drugs out of the trunk of his car getting killed in North Dartmouth, in a messy case dealing with a couple of Black people accused.

But I would argue that the issues raised by the Riley trial are more substantial than those in the Sandeson trial. And more than the constitutional issues is the role of race in the legal procedures, both in Riley’s 2018 conviction and the Crown’s handling of the case. It’s worth noting that Riley is now being tried by an all-white jury.

The trial itself turned out to be dramatic. Two of the key witnesses against Riley from his original trial testified they had lied in their previous testimony. One, Kaitlin Fuller, had been placed in the witness protection program because of her changed testimony which, as Bousquet noted, itself became “a central element in the retrial of Randy Riley.”

When all was said and done, it took the jury just three-and-a-half hours to find Riley not guilty.

Other journalists did show up to cover the easy pickings of the verdict, of course.

But not its before or after.

Two days after the verdict, Tim wrote:

…the federal Crown lawyer threatened me with criminal prosecution related to my reporting on the Randy Riley trial. This morning, the court has issued an interim publication ban related to my [previous] reporting. Soon after this article is published, I’ll be meeting with a criminal lawyer to help defend my position.

The issue apparently involves Fuller and the Witness Protection Program…

I’m a reporter. It’s my job to inform readers about what happened in a murder trial, to explain and give context for the jury’s decision. And in this trial, there’s no way to understand the jury’s not-guilty verdict without diving into Kaitlin Fuller’s involvement with the Witness Protection Program. To prevent me from doing that reporting makes a mockery of the open court principle, the idea that for the public to have confidence in the justice system, it must know what happens in court. We don’t have secret trials in Canada.

Moreover, Fuller’s involvement with the WPP raises other very serious questions about the WPP itself, and those questions should be interrogated and explored by a free press.

So just doing my job as a reporter, I’ve investigated Fuller with regard to what she testified to in court. I’ve obtained court documents related to her past, I have interviewed people who were not witnesses or participants at trial, and I found things on the internet.

Through the course of that reporting, I obtained information that sheds light on her relationship with the Witness Protection Program, and on both her testimony at trial and, crucially, on the Crown’s own representations at trial.

As a result of doing his due diligence as a reporter…

…the Halifax Examiner will be absorbing enormous (for us) legal costs. Frankly, it’s money we don’t have. I’ll max out the corporate credit card and line of credit, and exhaust my own meagre savings, but I worry that even that won’t cover costs.

That’s one reason I hope you’ll buy a subscription or make a donation during the Examiner’s annual subscription drive.

But that’s only one reason. There’s the work Tim has already done — his investigation into the wrongful murder conviction of Glen Assoun that helped lead to Assoun’s exoneration as well as the Examiner being named a finalist for the Michener awards, Canada’s most prestigious journalism award for meritorious public service. His deep-dive reporting on COVID, his leadership of the Examiner’s coverage of the 2020 mass murders, his reporting on Carrie Low’s experiences and evolution as a sexual assault survivor, which led to an ongoing series featuring sexual assault survivors telling their stories in their own words

Most recently, there was his shocking story behind the story of the firetrap that is the former Bloomfield school property, which was published just last week.

Last month, I reported that Halifax Fire officials had ordered Banc Investments Limited to take action on the abandoned Bloomfield school property. Banc co-owner Alex Halef appealed that order. As a result, the entire appeal record is now public, and the documents are alarming, to put it mildly.

And then, of course, there is this incredible still-to-come, in-progress true tale:

The story is this: [Former Halifax Police Chief Verdin] Mitchell [who died by suicide in 1968] may have been responsible for Halifax’s oldest unsolved murder, that of Michael Resk, a Gottingen Street grocer who in 1955 was gunned down gangland-style in the back of his delivery van. My source explained that sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, the Halifax Police hired an outside investigator to look into the Resk murder and that the investigator wrote a report about it, but that report was ‘disappeared,’ never to be spoken of again.

Like much of what Tim writes, this investigative series-in-the-making, “Original Sin,” is about more than its specifics. It’s about Nova Scotia, and race, and power, and politics, and justice, and accountability.

There comes a moment when a story crystallizes in my mind, when I see all the disparate parts come together into one meaningful whole. That moment came to me a few weeks ago, when I was having drinks with my podcasting colleagues Janice Evans and Nancy Hunter (we made the Dead Wrong series together). I was telling them how I kept getting pulled away from the story, this time by the Riley trial. And then it struck me: no, the Riley trial wasn’t pulling me away — rather, the Riley trial is the same story, just in a new iteration.

I realized this is not just the sweeping historical tale I had worked on for so long, but also the story about our police and justice system, our community, our city, today.

Tim has already done an amazing amount of archival and interviewing research into this story — I know that because we’ve talked a little about it — but there is still much more to be done. And that requires time. And time means money — “money for the Halifax Examiner to carry the day-to-day reporting load without me doing as much of it. Money to hire a freelancer to cover some of the morning posts I write. Money to hire a part-time researcher to help with the Original Sin series.”

Tim estimates he’ll need 400 new subscribers to make that a reality.

Buy a subscription.

Buy a subscription for a friend.

Make a donation.

Make it happen.

Our province will be a better place because of our support for this kind of journalism. Important journalism costs; its absence costs us even more.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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