Here’s how Tim Fontaine built an audience for satirical Indigenous journalism

Tim Fontaine was used to peppering his reporting life with jokes. In 20 years working for CBC and APTN, he carried his sense of humour in his back pocket. Then, in 2017, the Winnipeg-based writer moved away from hard news and started Walking Eagle News, a satirical Indigenous journalism website in the same vein as The Onion.

“My family and I always thought that [parodying the news] was really funny,” Fontaine said. “I basically just took that same language that they use in news and used it to tell jokes.” 

So, how does one go from writing articles for the national broadcaster to pieces with headlines like, “Canadian businesses offer ‘Premium’ racial profiling to select Indigenous shoppers” and “Shit’s fucked up: report”?

Like any good joke, the beauty was in the pacing and delivery. 

“I think the timing was right. Because Indigenous people are creating and consuming our own content, right? And appreciating our own content,” Fontaine says. He was trying to add to a landscape that has sites like The Onion, The Beaverton, and shows like This Hour has 22 Minutes and The Kids in the Hall. For him, it was really about “rediscovering something that I wanted to do.”

The other major factor was just how much established media had drained him. 

“I wanted to leave [the] media for a long time,” Fontaine said. “I was really, really tired of it, but it was really the only thing that I was very good at.”

What started as writing for fun has transitioned into a regular side income for Fontaine as he breaks into the world of television and radio writing. Since beginning Walking Eagle, he has been invited to write on The Beaverton’s television show and has appeared on CBC’s Because News radio show and podcast. 

Thousands of readers regularly engage with Walking Eagle’s original, witty pieces. The project is funded through a fan-backed Patreon (currently boasting 127 backers for a total of $1,067 a month), a Ko-fi account and some unique merchandise. The support of fans continues to surprise Walking Eagle’s founder, or as he has labelled himself, Editor-in-Grand-Chief.

“That continues to blow me away — that people, people that I’ve never met and people that I’ve never really interacted with before, just give me money. Like, that really freaks me out.”

With a Twitter account beaming out comedy to over 39,000 accounts and almost 15,000 Instagram followers (plus Fontaine’s personal following), one could be forgiven for thinking that he should focus full-time on Walking Eagle and attempt to scale the project. While he says taking on writers and accepting pitches may be in the site’s not-so-distant future, he has one major reason holding him back: just how much money it would take to expand in an equitable way. 

“I believe in paying people for what they’re worth.” 

Fontaine has chosen at times to pause the Patreon, a decision he says he took because he didn’t want to keep receiving people’s money without offering them any of the rewards typical of the platform’s structure when time didn’t allow for fulfillment. He has since returned to the Patreon and a Ko-Fi tip jar. Fontaine chose to do this, he says, because of the added options it gives people to sustain his work.

“But I brought back all of them, and PayPal as well, because some people don’t want to give all the time — some people don’t want to give in set amounts. It sort of gives people the flexibility to give in the way that they really want to give.”

While Fontaine has advice for satirists looking to start their own ventures — namely “just do it” — he has some tips for the non-satirical in the industry as well. 

“The language of news is funny, because it never directly addresses anything. And so, I think the success of Walking Eagle News has been the ability to sort of cut through that and say, ‘This is what those stories feel like, this is what it feels like when you say that.’ So, I think if anything, it can be sort of a warning to writers to stay away from that language,” he says. “Stay away from the language that puts question marks around the word racism.”

“Don’t be a news writer. Be a writer and tell the truth.”

In the news

Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

In Canada, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and human rights groups are calling on the Canadian government to allow 100 at-risk journalists into the country annually.

“Journalists, writers and filmmakers worldwide have never faced the multitude of challenges that we do today. That’s why we’re asking the government to grant these journalists entry into Canada, so they can continue their critical work in safety.” — Michelle Shephard, chair of the CJFE’s International Committee.

How a Facebook group can bring you closer to readers

It’s Friday night in Plano, Texas. You’re sick of cooking. Tonight, it’s time to eat out — but where do you go?

You might check the Plano Foodies Facebook group. In it, over 4,500 people post about their favourite local restaurants, upcoming specials and their own beloved recipes. You’ll also find posts from the group’s moderator — Plano Magazine co-founder and editor Jennifer Shertzer.

“We thought it would be really fun to see if we could get a big community going where we rallied around our restaurants,” she says.

For publishers, Facebook groups offer a unique opportunity to really get to know their readers on a personal level.

Plano, a city of over 250,000 not far from Dallas, has a thriving restaurant community. Shertzer thought that eventually, someone would try to create a Facebook group aimed at local foodies — so why not the local magazine? Plano Magazine, which she started with her partner and husband Luke in 2014, is focused on arts and life content. It was a natural move for them.

Many media outlets, both large and small, have been using Facebook groups (or similar tools) to connect with users. Conde Nast runs several groups that serve niche interests related to each of their brands — for example, The New Yorker Movie Club, which has over 38,000 members, is a place for cinephiles to chat about film. In the group, members get a chance to directly interact with New Yorker film critics like Richard Brody. “People often post in our group about films they watched years ago, that have stayed with them, but they’re unable to recall who is in it or what it’s called. The members of our group are so diligent that they’re often able to figure out which film it is,” Saira Khan, the director of social media at The New Yorker told the Facebook Journalism Project.

Shertzer quickly noticed that posts that came from Plano Magazine’s business account got little to no engagement. But if she posted in the group using her personal account, a discussion would start. “I think the big learning curve for me there was: people want to interact with other people. They don’t want to interact with brands.”

Indiegraf member The Discourse Cowichan also has a local Facebook group. Originally, the editors there had hoped to generate conversations about issues in their community, but eventually found it was too forced. The group needed to grow organically. “Facebook groups are a really important source of local information for people who live here, particularly with the decline of local newspapers,” says founding reporter Jacqueline Ronson. “But they can get pretty nasty, and lots of people eventually bow out. Our group has, with a couple of exceptions, been a place of reprieve from that, where you can expect good information and respectful engagement. And I think people appreciate the feeling of being part of a group.” 

Shertzer isn’t looking to get clicks or ad revenue from the Foodies Facebook group. (In fact, she only posts content from the magazine about twice a month.) “If someone is going to be in Plano and go to Facebook and search anything about Plano foodies, I want us to be the first thing that comes up,” Shertzer says. “I want Plano Magazine to be seen as the authority on where you should be eating in Plano.” 

She is, however, using the group to help build her newsletter subscription base. Each new member is asked if they want to give their email address. If they do, Shertzer adds it to Plano Magazine’s subscriber list, and notes that they are also a member of the Plano Foodies. Eventually, she may launch a food-focused newsletter. She may also plan special offers for members of the group, such as discounts on culinary events hosted by the magazine. 

Till then, the group is still thriving through COVID-19. Every Wednesday, restaurants are free to promote the takeout or meal kit specials they are offering. And people are still looking to enjoy all the great food in their city. 

“I consider successful engagement if someone can ask for a recommendation for a restaurant and they get multiple meaningful replies, or if someone just gets on there and posts, ‘Hey, we went to this restaurant this weekend, and it was great,’” says Shertzer.

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