Back in October 2013, just as I launched CANADALAND, this open resignation letter from Rabble.ca contributor Ethan Cox hit the press. In it, Cox wrote that Rabble, the left-wing online magazine and community, had become “corrupted”, had censored some unspecified content, had failed to pay him for his work, and had fired editor Derrick O’Keefe without cause.
I sent interview requests to Cox and O’Keefe, but neither responded.
On this week’s CANADALAND, I finally spoke to Cox, mostly about his new crowdfunded journalism project, Ricochet, which O’Keefe is also involved with. I brought up Cox’s conflict with Rabble, and after a few diplomatic feints about there being “nothing wrong” with Rabble, and how the Ricochet team are “thrilled with Rabble”, Cox repeated the same charges against them.
Soon after posting the episode, I received this email from Rabble’s editor, Meagan Perry:
from: Meagan Perry
to: Jesse Brown
I’m sorry to write to you about this, but there are a few inaccuracies in what Ethan Cox said about rabble.ca on your podcast. I’m most concerned about his statement that rabble.ca does not pay it’s writers, or edit its pieces, neither of which are true. Would you be able to make corrections for the obvious errors? I’ll list the inaccuracies here:
1. At 14:46, in answer to your question about rabble.ca Ethan made a number of statements which are not true or remain unproven:
a) Talking about the publisher and censorship: This is a strong accusation that is not the case and has never been backed up with any documents. Ethan did not answer it when you pressed him on the issue at 16:46.
b) Saying that the previous editor was fired with no cause and a week’s notice: editor received 5 weeks pay after notification of termination which was with cause, and the file was reviewed by an employment law firm to ensure best practices were followed.
c) Saying rabble.ca does not pay its writers: In fact we have a firm pay structure (I know because I had to learn it to talk with our writers about it), which is as follows: For original pieces commissioned from pitches, we pay .05 cents a word. Pieces must be around 800 words. We do not pay for articles which come to us fully written, or for reprints, which are pieces that were first published elsewhere.
2. At 18:15 – says rabble has become a platform for unpaid bloggers, and blog posts are unedited, with very little journalism from staff or beat writers. In fact, while rabble.ca does not focus on investigative journalism for budgetary reasons, we have had a paid labour beat reporter, we have used beat writers to cover certain topics over the years (for instance our parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg), and while we make blog space available for writers, we do copy edit and monitor the blog posts. We also, as noted above, commission pieces from pitches by writers across Canada and abroad.
As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m a big fan of increasing the number of independent media voices online, in print, or on air, but I would like the facts about rabble.ca to be corrected if possible.
I brought up Meagan’s objections on Twitter, and Ethan and Derrick both responded. Among other things, Derrick wrote that “One of our disputes involved a funder threatening & getting content pulled”. I asked him who the funder was and what the content was, but he declined to answer. I also asked Ethan Cox and Meagan Perry. Nobody would say. Ethan suggested I send Meagan’s objections to him and Derrick so they could respond, and I did. Here’s what they wrote back:
from: Ethan Cox
to: Jesse Brown
So I’ll let Derrick respond to a) and b). As we know well the amount of commissioned work (at the insultingly low rate of $0.05/word) is less than 10% of the content. Almost everything they publish is unpaid, the fact that they pay some writers a pittance, on exceedingly rare occasion, does not change that reality.
2. When I was there the vast majority of bloggers at rabble had self-publishing rights. Sometimes an editor will take a look at a piece, but only after it’s been up for 24-48 hours, if that. I doubt that has changed. The only paid reporters I know of are Nerenberg (who is retired, and takes a small stipend, not a salary) and a part-time labour reporter funded directly by Unifor.
Is rabble a platform for unedited blog posts? Yes, in so far as blog posts are the bulk of their content and if they’re reviewed by an editor it isn’t until well after publication.
Does rabble pay its writers? A few, sometimes, and poorly. But the model is based on unpaid work, which comprises around 90% of their content.
I don’t think she has any basis to demand corrections, there are no factual errors. I expressed my opinions in an interview, she’s welcome to express hers on the website she runs.
P.S. You should ask her about their unpaid interns program…
from: Derrick O’Keefe
to: Jesse Brown
a) I have documentation, including a lengthy email in which the Publisher herself describes *and* justifies the censorship. I have no idea why they seem intent on daring me to release this.
b) I was fired with one week’s notice. My final work date was October 3, 2013. Eventually, after repeated appeals, I received payment for the reminder of the month of October (four weeks), but that payment arrived late and only after communications from the Unifor Freelancers Union, who had agreed to represent me in my dispute with rabble.
No cause was given in my notification of termination. I specifically requested it and did not receive an explanation. I also wrote to the Board of Directors appealing the termination repeatedly asking for them to facilitate a process to review this, and they ignored my requests. Three months prior to my termination, my hours and pay were reduced against my objections — this occurred right after my wedding in July, for which I had to argue my right to take two extra vacation days for.
Both 1c) and 2) are obviously within the realm of fair comment by Ethan.
As I said on Twitter, I’m thrilled to be working on Ricochet and don’t wish to make any further comment about rabble at the moment.
Thanks for you work,
Here’s where I’m at with this: accusing a news organization of pulling content at the behest of a funder is a serious allegation. If that happened, I think the public should know about it. Ethan Cox is free to disagree. Had he decided to keep mum, resign from Rabble and start a new project with principles set at his standards, that would have been just fine. But he didn’t. He made a public accusation against Rabble. But he didn’t provide any details or documentation. Now Derrick O’Keefe has repeated these claims, but again, won’t provide specifics or proof.
Rabble isn’t talking either, but I’m not sure it’s their responsibility to do so. Cox and O’Keefe made the allegations, and now it’s on them to back them up.
Failing to do so isn’t just unfair to Rabble, but to readers.
If Ricochet is aiming to inform Canadians about things the rest of the media won’t report on, they should start by coming clean about their own origins. I get that they don’t want to sully the inspirational story of their people-powered news platform with details of some petty dispute, but too bad. Ricochet is obviously born, at least in part, out of their falling out with Rabble.
Starting by hiding the full story is a lousy way to kick things off.