On International Women's Day, we share a story about National Observer's roots, courtesy of Nieman Lab, a Harvard-based organization that investigates the future of journalism.
In January, Nieman Lab deputy editor Laura Hazard Owen interviewed and wrote about National Observer founder and CEO Linda Solomon Wood. With Owen's permission, we reprint the article in its entirety below.
'We stepped in and started doing it' How one woman built an award-winning news outlet from her dining room table
Linda Solomon Wood is the American who threatened to move to Canada — and then actually did it. Once there, she did something else perhaps even more improbable: She launched a national, investigative digital news site that, just three years in, is winning prestigious awards (including the first-ever National Newspaper Award to a digital-only site), and is on the path to becoming entirely funded by readers.
“I am that American,” Solomon Wood said, recalling how she moved her family to Vancouver, British Columbia, shortly after 9/11. In fact, little about her story is typical.
National Observer, which Solomon Wood founded in 2015, is a daily news site covering issues like government, the environment, health, climate change, and human rights, all with a progressive bent. It has 10 full-time employees split between work spaces in Ottawa and Vancouver, as well as five part-time contractors and a host of freelance journalists. With that small staff, the site has done big things: Last year, Bruce Livesey, then the outlet’s lead investigative reporter, won a National Newspaper Award in 2017 for his series on New Brunswick’s powerful Irving family — the first time a digital-only outlet had won the award.
“Thank you so much to the investors, Kickstarter supporters, subscribers and monthly donors who have empowered [Livesey’s] reporting since our launch two years ago,” Solomon Wood said in a statement at the time. “It all comes down to you. This is your award, too.” National Observer was also the first digital-only outlet ever to receive a Michener citation of merit in public service journalism, earning the team a trip to Rideau Hall, Canada’s equivalent of Buckingham Palace.
The site generally publishes three to five original stories per weekday, as many as 10 on a busy day. In one ongoing series, “The Price of Oil,” National Observer is collaborating with the Toronto Star, Global News, and other partners to look at the health impacts of oil and gas development on local communities. But most of National Observer’s work originates with its staff. “We’re small, but we punch above our weight and are positioning ourselves to grow significantly,” said Mike De Souza, the site’s managing editor and the reporter behind National Observer’s award-winning investigation into TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline project. (His investigation into the secret meetings held around the project ultimately contributed to TransCanada’s termination of the pipeline project last fall.) “We’re taking over space that is being abandoned, I think, by a lot of older media outlets” as Canada’s newspaper market drastically contracts.
Solomon Wood, 61, is a Canadian with a Southern accent. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and her first job was as an intern at The Tennesseean in Nashville, in 1979. John Siegenthaler, the publisher at the time, was a civil rights activist who let reporters work on investigative stories for months or years. As an intern, Solomon Wood got to investigate and report on the exploitative industrial life insurance that was sold to poor people; The Tennessean’s coverage of that issue led to Senate hearings, a 60 Minutes episode, and the ban of that form of insurance. Solomon Wood went on to spend years as a freelancer, doing “lots of one thing and another over many years.” She profiled Wangari Maathai, the woman who launched the Green Belt movement in Kenya and went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace prize; Noerine Kaleeba, the woman who organized Uganda’s reponse to the HIV/AIDS crisis; and Medha Patkar, the Indian social worker who organized the protest against a World Bank dam that would have displaced nearly a million peasant farmers.
“These women inspired me,” she said. “I left them feeling that one person really could do a lot. What I saw them all doing was building strong relationships, often with other women. It wasn’t really that they thought they were going to accomplish these huge things. I don’t think they knew what they were going to accomplish. It was just that they felt like they had to do what they were doing.”
After the years of freelancing, Solomon Wood ended up in New York. She was pregnant with her second son during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the family was living a few blocks from the World Trade Center. “I remember standing outside my older son’s kindergarten moments before it happened, talking with an Israeli man. There had just been a car bombing in Israel, and I remember saying, ‘Oh, you must be so glad to be here!'” she recalled. “And then, boom, we heard an explosion.” After the attacks, Muslim mothers in her son’s kindergarten class told her how they’d been yelled at on the streets. “On top of that, Bush was saying we were going to be in an ongoing war, a forever war. I knew that I was going to be giving birth to a second son. I thought, ‘No. I don’t want to live in a country that’s going to become increasingly militarized and where the future might be war.’ And so we left.”
In Vancouver, Solomon Wood was inspired by Arianna Huffington, who had launched The Huffington Post in 2005. “I understood that I wasn’t Arianna Huffington. I didn’t have her Rolodex. But it was exciting to see a woman do this, to see a new journalism publication just appear online and take the world by storm.” She started publishing her own website. “I liked being able to write and publish and not go through all the bureaucracy of pitching to other publications. Maybe they’re not so interested in women in Africa who are changing their societies, but I am.”
In 2009, Solomon Wood launched Vancouver Observer as a hyperlocal site ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The Olympics would lead to increased interest in Vancouver and higher potential traffic for the site, she figured. Vancouver Observer did a lot of general-interest reporting at first, but it also did environmental investigative reporting. “It,” at that point, was essentially Solomon Wood herself plus a “stream of interns from universities in the Vancouver area who exchanged their work for mentorship and editing… that was how it grew in the early years, it was really all volunteer.”
In 2010, Solomon Wood got a call from a whistleblower in Arizona who tipped her off to archaic Canadian laws that were preventing war brides and their children from becoming citizens. “He said he’d been trying to get an investigative piece done and hadn’t been able to get anybody to pay attention to him,” said Solomon Wood. They talked for more than two hours. “At the end of the call, I said, ‘You know what — I’m intrigued, but I can’t take on a story like that because we don’t have the resources. If I had $10,000’ — or, you know, I probably said $5,000 or less; I was not thinking very big in the beginning — ‘If I had some resources, I could hire some interns from University of British Columbia School of Journalism and I could guide them and we could do this. But you can’t have anything to do with it; you’re gonna have to sign an agreement that says hands off, and I don’t know, we might not find what you’re looking for at all. All I can tell you is we’ll look into it if we have the funding.’
“I never expected to hear from him again. About two months later, a check came in the mail.” Vancouver Observer’s reporting on the “Lost Canadians” began in 2010 and continued for the next four years, leading to awards and changes in the Canadian law.
Money continued to trickle in. Solomon Wood began pitching people, and one invested $25,000. At this point, Vancouver Observer was literally running from Solomon Wood’s dining room table. “Oh, you know, this is all going on in my apartment, my kids were small and running around, there were always interns here,” she said. “And then that spring (of 2012), we were nominated for a really big award” — a Canadian Journalism Foundation award.
“I remember getting the letter and just sitting down and crying,” Solomon Wood said. “There had been so much unbelievably hard work that had been going on for a really long time, and it felt like, oh my God, somebody noticed.” Vancouver Observerended up winning the award.
(At this point in our discussion, I mentioned that it was impressive that Solomon Wood had been able to get so much investigative reporting done with journalism students as her primary staff, and asked if she thought she was a good teacher. “Oh, I think I am really a people person, that is one of my skills,” she said. “And they were smart. And they were dedicated.” Then she began telling me about the time that she and an intern uncovered a stream of money that the Koch brothers were funneling into a conservative Canadian think tank. “Also we uncovered the fact that our spy agency and our national police force were spying on environmental organizations.” These discoveries were made from her dining room table, of course.)
Vancouver Observer was doing well. If investigative reporting was its heart, the bulk of its traffic came from the other kinds of stories it did — back when some of the Twilight vampire movies were being filmed in British Columbia, “we would do really fun, like, paparazzi stories, and then we’d just watch our traffic spiral up on every Twilight story.” For the first time, the site became profitable.
Yet Solomon Wood was attuned to the larger media environment the site was operating in, and she felt something wasn’t quite right. Some of this was only fully recognized in hindsight — “What we were doing, during those days, was going after as much traffic as we could, and we were doing that thinking that we were going to build a business based on advertising dollars. That was still back when that had not been proven to be something that wasn’t going to happen. We know now that that is never going to happen! But we didn’t know that then.”
But other trends were more obvious to her at the time, even as American companies like BuzzFeed expanded into Canada only to withdraw after traffic struggles. “I saw Facebook come in [in 2014],” she said. “I got a notice where they were like, ‘We’re gonna come in and we’re gonna meet with local businesspeople and tell you how to use our platform better!’ They got on the ground, Google was doing the same thing, and it was just like the rug got pulled out from under us. That was the year we stopped getting advertising.”
Local coverage, Solomon Wood decided, wasn’t going to be enough. “It was popular, it was well-read, but people didn’t want to invest in it.” Instead, she decided, she’d go national — but niche. National Observer launched in 2015 (with the help of $80,000 raised in a Kickstarter campaign), and from the start, Solomon Wood knew, its business model would not be based on advertising. (Vancouver Observer is still running as a separate site, but it’s morphed into a community publishing platform whose content comes from Vancouver citizens.) “We had to shift from the idea of ‘We’re a traditional newspaper that covers everything’ to ‘We’re a niche publication that is going to — that can only do things that we have a revenue model for.'”
This meant a continued focus on environmental reporting from a clearly pro-environment angle. “National Observer definitely comes to the story with a point of view,” said Jacques Poitras, provincial affairs reporter for CBC New Brunswick and the author of the upcoming Pipe Dreams: The Fight for Canada’s Energy Future. “But the reporting and the research and their approach to the coverage, to me, is journalistically sound and rigorous and what you would expect from any professional news organization. Where their point of view comes in, I think, is in what they choose to cover, how dogged they are in sticking with the particular story.”
In 2015, it almost seemed as if Solomon Wood had been too cautious; 2015 was an election year in Canada, and National Observer’s traffic boomed even as it added a paywall in mid-2016. Just as quickly, though, that traffic dried up. “People were just exhausted from the news,” Solomon Wood said. “I had a lot of people tell me: ‘I just don’t look at it anymore.'” The site briefly tried micropayments, with no success. The company outgrew the subscription platform it had been using and had to switch to new software, which meant it had to try to get everyone who’d already subscribed to resubscribe. 2016 was a low point: “We hit a big slump.” Solomon Wood’s mother-in-law died. “I was really at a point of not knowing.”
On the advice of her advisory board, she sent a passionate email to National Observer’s subscriber list. From that letter:
For the last six years I’ve spent thousands of hours trying to solve a very difficult problem: weekends creating spread sheets, running numbers, counting how many of you read National Observer, and trying to guess how many of you would see it as a critical public service.
I’ve run these numbers many times and by my calculations, if only one per cent of you champion our reporting, National Observer can spread its wings. You can be part of the remaking of journalism in Canada….
We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars this year alone supporting Bruce and Mike’s investigative series on the Irvings and the National Energy Board. We’ve torn out our hair trying to crunch the numbers that keep our operation sustainable, but during those months, we brought in maybe $700 from banner ads. No, I didn’t drop a zero there — we literally brought in just $700 (Facebook algorithms and Google ads have pretty much eliminated ad revenue for news companies. Sigh).
People responded; the letter resulted in a lot of new subscriptions. “That was the bridge that got us through. We took off from there and went into a strong 2017.”
A National Observer subscription costs $139.99 a year or $12.99 per month. Users can read five articles for free per month before being asked to pay, and any article backed by crowdfunding is also in front of the paywall. “We can’t give away a lot,” said Solomon Wood. “We can’t go, ‘Oh, well, The New York Times gives you 15 free articles, so we should do that.'” (In fact, the Times recently tightened its paywall to five free stories a month.)
National Observer also does group sales to government ministries, universities, and other institutions. Students at University of New Brunswick and Simon Fraser University have free access thanks to those deals, as do many employees of Canada’s federal government. National Observer also runs sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when a subscription is half off. “Those sales are huge for us,” Solomon Wood said. “(Last year), we pulled in $20,000 just in a couple days.” Meanwhile, National Observer asks anyone who wants access to the site but can’t afford it to get in touch, and they’ll figure something out. “We get amazing letters from people who describe themselves as seniors or retired, living on pensions, about how much they value the site,” Solomon Wood said. “They’ll send us a $25 check in the mail, and we’re thrilled to give them access. Ultimately, we don’t want to shut anybody out. On the other hand, it was very clear to me that if we cannot find enough people who want to pay for the reporting that we’re doing, then we’re doing something wrong.”
Solomon Wood wouldn’t share how many paying subscribers National Observer has. But including the group subscriptions, she said, around 250,000 people have access to the site. National Observer now gets 30 per cent of its funding from subscriptions (up from just five per cent before the paywall), and the remaining 70 per cent comes from crowdfunding, events, spontaneous donations, and philanthropic funding. The goal is for National Observer to be 60 per cent reader-funded by the end of 2018, and close to 100 per cent by the end of 2019.
During one of my conversations with Solomon Wood, alerts kept popping up on my phone’s screen about Trump’s plan to privatize large chunks of national parks. This inspired me to ask her whether environmental investigative reporting ever gets her down. Does she actually feel as if National Observer is making a difference?
“I really believe in the power of investigative journalism, and I believe that good investigative reporting is, by its nature, very solutions-oriented,” she said. “The whole point of an investigative series is to bring further attention to a problem so that there can be policy change for the better.”
At the same time, “we have a government that is committed to making progress on climate. It’s amazingly different from Trump taking the EPA apart — amazingly different,” she said, almost joyously.
“Now, are they actually hitting those goals?” she continued. “It’s an imperfect world, so no, they’re not. But they are committed, and they are making steps forward. It’s not all depressing news out of Canada.”