Christopher Curtis: Why I’m quitting Postmedia to test a new model of journalism

Award-winning journalist launches new reporting project with Ricochet
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I think about death.

I pedal furiously into the night, until lactic acid burns my quads, until the trailer parks and pizza parlours by the lake give way to the hills outside Oka. I pedal beyond the streetlights and the steel towers sending radio waves across the valley.

I pedal until only stars light the summer sky. And I think about death.

Maybe a sleepy truck driver rounds the bend a bit too wide, clips my front tire and sends me face first into the pavement. No helmet. Instant death.

If it happened now, would I be okay with the life I’ve lived?

I don’t think so.

Eleven years ago, I was a construction worker and college dropout with two letters of rejection from Concordia University’s school of journalism to my name. I wasn’t supposed to leave the job site, never mind work at a newspaper.

“Chris is a one-man riot. He’s the kind of journalist who burns the soles of his shoes, describing what he sees and feels as he exposes injustice.” — Patrick Lagacé, award-winning columnist with La Presse

But I did. And I made a good run of it: 2,000 articles give or take, a Canadian Association of Journalists award, a National Newspaper Award nomination and 13 elections (three provincial, three federal, three municipal and four band council).

How many people can say they punched their member of parliament in the face AND got arrested and those two events weren’t even related? Good times.

But I can’t do it anymore. Not like this.

That’s why I’ve left the Montreal Gazette to join Ricochet Media as a crowdfunded investigative journalist. I’m betting my future on this experimental new model of journalism, and hoping you’ll fund me to do the kind of deep, context-rich stories I can’t really do at the Gazette.

Support in-depth journalism Sign up for The Rover on Substack now.

Substack, a platform that offers a more direct connection between journalist and audience, has allowed several reporters to leave their jobs and earn a living producing newsletter-supported journalism in the United States. I believe I’ll be the first journalist to quit a full-time job to launch a crowdfunded newsletter in Canada.

If the experiment works, I hope it provides a blueprint for how to do meaningful journalism amid the wreckage of a collapsing industry.

Unforgettable experience

The Montreal Gazette has been my home since I walked into the Peel St. newsroom as a summer intern in 2011. I had never worked in an office before. I shook everyone’s hand at the end of the day because that’s what I imagined grown-ups did. It was weird. They asked me to stop. I get it now.

This newspaper made me.

Hiring me wasn’t exactly a safe move. I had no track record, I only came to journalism in my mid-20s and, during my first summer on the job, I busted my arm biking home from intern cocktail night. I went straight from the emergency room back to the office the following morning, covered in bits of pavement, smelling like stale beer and disinfectant.

“Non-Indigenous journalists ... should look to Christopher Curtis for advice and as a role model. His stories and the people in them read true to me as an Indigenous woman.” — Karyn Pugliese, former president of the Canadian Association of Journalists

But management saw something in me. When a job came up and they had to choose between me and some far more polished candidates, they rolled the dice. In return, I gave everything I could to the paper. “Go home, Chris” was a common refrain around 7 p.m. on a weeknight.

But that’s the culture of our newsroom: some of the best, most dedicated journalists, photographers and editors in the game, working each issue to the bone.

Not once did I feel my work was censored or that I was pressured to take a stance I wasn’t comfortable with. In fact, my editors defended me in the face of political pressure, the police and a few credible death threats.

When I was at my lowest — locked in a secure unit of the Douglas Mental Health Institute last summer — my bosses and colleagues gave me the time and support to get my mind right again. Our editor-in-chief, Lucinda Chodan, held me in her arms when I finally got back to work. And this was in the midst of tense contract negotiations between our union and management.

I’ll never forget that.

An industry in free fall

As great as my experience at the Gazette was, I also saw our newsroom whittled down by layoffs. Colleagues took buyouts and some chose to leave the industry to make a go of it in public relations. There were 130 people in the building nine years ago. There may be fewer than half as many today, and it’s looking like there will be a new round of layoffs in December.

I remember the first big purge, in 2013, when I had no idea if I’d still have a job when it was all over. My boss called me into her office and said, “You’re safe. We would move heaven and earth to keep you.” Can you imagine having a boss that said that to you? Imagine being that lucky? I was.

So I survived that round of cost-cutting and the one after that and I eventually became numb to it. At its worst, the culture of constant layoffs dehumanizes you; you look around the office and you wonder which of your colleagues are dead weight and hope they’re the ones to go. You hope they’re the ones to trade in their dream job for a slice of cake, a farewell speech and some severance pay.

“Christopher Curtis is one of Canada’s best reporters — fearless, conscientious, compassionate. It’s no surprise to me that he’s decided to build something new and ambitious.” — Paul Wells, senior writer, Maclean’s magazine

But eventually you stop doing that. And you realize that the industry has killed the part of you that feels solidarity with your fellow union members. These last few rounds of job cuts, I’ve accepted that it might be me that gets shit-canned. Fuck it. I was gambling with house money the whole time.

The Montreal Gazette produces the kind of journalism that pisses off the government or, even better, strikes a bit of fear into their hearts. And its reporters do that by working on their own time, by being on call 24 hours a day and, on their best days, outworking newsrooms with more staff and fancy things like travel budgets and interns.

Their newsroom is worth saving.

But the industry is in free fall; Facebook and Google use the newspaper’s content for free and siphon most of the online ad revenue in return. Fewer businesses see the wisdom of buying space in a physical newspaper and their parent company is leveraged to the gills. When was the last time you saw “Postmedia” in a headline and didn’t cringe?

Putting everything on the line

So here we are: the Gazette can cover day-to-day news and even break stories, but the pressure is mounting. Actually giving reporters time to work their sources and write a story with bones to it is a luxury most days. I don’t see that changing.

Those are just the rules of the game we’re stuck playing. The paper needs content, the website is insatiable and if we can’t keep up with breaking news, we might as well just die and let the creditors chew the meat off our bones.

I’ve worked on stories that helped reopen a homicide investigation and stories that were used as evidence in a coroner’s inquest. Our coverage of the death of homeless folk around Cabot Square helped free up funds to create a homeless shelter on Atwater Ave. Before that — when another homeless shelter was forced to leave Westmount — we pressured the city to get involved in helping it find a new home.

“Christopher Curtis is a leader in bringing awareness of urban Indigenous struggles. His writing has helped me move mountains to create and implement new services.” — Nakuset, executive director, Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal

Those are just my experiences. My colleagues have careers’ worth of these kinds of stories. But how much longer will it be until we have to abandon that mission just to stay alive?

I’m not going to play this game anymore. I’m quitting and, in doing so, shedding the security blanket of a good salary, a generous health benefits package and a pension plan. I’m putting everything I have on the line to do something I’m proud of. If it empties out my savings account and forces me to sell the Toyota Yaris, so be it.

And if I’m forced to beg for my construction job back, I’ll do that too. You can always make more money, but you’re only young and childless once.

Into the golden valley

I’ll be splitting my time between Montreal and Val-d’Or for a while.

That’s right. I’ve left the Gazette to spend time in a gold mining town some 600 kilometres north of Montreal. Why, though?

There are some serious problems in that city and I think they reflect a wider struggle that we — as Quebecers, as Canadians — need to take a much closer look at. Four years ago, Radio-Canada reported that police in Val-d’Or were beating Indigenous women, coercing them into having sex for money and, in the worst cases, sexually assaulting them.

There was outrage from all levels of Quebec’s political class, First Nations across Canada stood in solidarity with the victims and the province launched a parliamentary inquiry into systemic racism.

But when the dust cleared, it didn’t feel like justice was done.

“We need more journalists like Christopher Curtis — brave, truth-seeking, with a dedication to exposing the plight of those too often ignored.” — Linda McQuaig, journalist and author

Out of 37 criminal complaints from 31 victims who spoke out against police in Val-d’Or, not a single one yielded criminal charges. In her report on the investigation, a law professor who reviewed the detectives’ work said the victims’ claims were credible, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. In many cases, the victims were so scared they waited for years to come forward and — by then — the trail of evidence had gone cold.

Even the parliamentary commission was powerless to get anything remotely resembling police reform.

My promise, to the people who feel they never got justice, is to dedicate the next chunk of my life to untangling the system that clearly isn’t working for them. I will do everything I can to see how and where our institutions are failing people. I will visit Quebec’s nine Anishnaabe communities and see what factors are pushing young Indigenous folk off their homeland and into a hostile city.

People in Val-d’Or speak of a place where the bulk of the homeless population is Indigenous, where landlords refuse to rent to Anishnaabe tenants, where police crack down on bylaw infractions with brute force.

There are also people in Val-d’Or — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — fighting for a better way forward. I don’t want this to just be about injustice and victimization because there’s hope out there as well. There are young, vibrant communities yearning for a platform to say their piece. Let’s be a part of that.

Montreal, and beyond

But that’s only half my new job.

I’ll be spending chunks of time in Montreal as well, continuing the kind of work that Gazette readers came to expect from me. For the most part, it’ll be the same job: I run around the city, find out what I can and write about it truthfully. But instead of churning out copy every day, I’ll take a bit more time, dig a little bit deeper to get you stories from the parts of the city most people don’t have access to. That means reporting from the homeless camps under the highway, from factories that employ migrant labour in unsafe working conditions and neighbourhoods where kids grow up fearing the police.

I will occasionally write in the first person. The articles might sometimes feel more like stories than news but the core of what I do will be the same. I’m the same person who cares about the same issues I always have.

“Christopher Curtis is one of the finest journalists of his generation. He’s also very funny and self-deprecating. I hope you’ll support his work.” — Anne Lagacé Dowson, broadcaster, journalist and former radio host with CBC and BellMedia

Here’s where you come in. My articles will be available to everyone on Ricochet’s site, but I’ll only be able to keep writing them if you help pay my salary. I’m happy to take an enormous pay cut up front, but I need your help for the Val-d’Or investigation and the Montreal reporting to work.

Starting at $12 a month, you’ll be subscribing to … well, me. The first $3,000 of that money goes to pay my rent, fill my gas tank and put food in my gullet so I can churn out stories. In exchange, you’ll get a weekly newsletter where I fill you in on what I’ve been working on and tell stories about nearly losing my toe in a camping accident or whatever other adventures I may get up to. It’ll be fun.

You’ll also have direct access to me and input on where to take the story next. It’s a big ask but you’ll be making a huge difference in my life and, together, we’ll see if we can make a dent in this new journalism thing.

Sign up for The Rover on Substack now.

Here’s where the deal gets sweeter: the more money we raise, the better the content becomes. We’ll be able to pay our editors, cover travel expenses and have the means to pay young, up-and-coming freelance journalists from Val-d’Or and Montreal to bolster our coverage. My compensation will be capped at the salary I made at The Gazette, and everything we raise beyond that will go to pay for other reporters. The more people support this project, the more journalism we’ll be able to do.

I choose life

I’m still pedalling. And yeah, the spectre of an early grave will always lurk somewhere in my Catholic brain, but I’m not thinking about death anymore.

Tonight, as I cycle down the hills and along the reeds and bushes by the lake, I choose life. This is the moment I stop drifting and put my hands back on the wheel. My mind is made up: I’m putting everything I have on the table because I believe in journalism and I think we all might be just crazy enough to pull this off.

Stories are medicine. Thomas King said that.

Come along for the ride. It’s going to be scary and I might cry or puke but we’ll have each other to lean on. We can do this. I said that.

Not as catchy as Thomas King but, under the circumstances, it’s the best I can do.

Let’s change the news. Together.

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