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

Be a writer and tell the truth — and have fun

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.

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