Despite the humble online presence it’s had for the past two years, The True North Times, the brainchild of three precocious Montrealers, has surged in popularity after breaking the story of Hamilton federal NDP candidate Alex Johnstone’s 2008 Facebook comment referencing the “phallic” appearance of electric fence posts at Auschwitz and former B.C. Liberal candidate Cheryl Thomas’ anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish comments.
The Canadian political humour site’s original article about Johnstone was published Sept. 22 as part of a special election series featuring blunders by candidates from Canada’s leading political parties.
True North’s editor-in-chief and chief operating officer, Max Seltzer, 21, said his team sent the piece to the Hamilton Spectator, which subsequently interviewed Johnstone and reported her now infamous “I didn’t know what Auschwitz was” response to a question about her original post.
The story, and news of Johnstone temporarily stepping down from her role as vice-chair of the Hamilton-Wenworth District School Board, quickly went viral nationally, and The True North Times was widely credited with first reporting it.
Seltzer told The CJN that he and his colleagues have since been interviewed by outlets such as the CBC, Global News, CTV News and the Guardian.
On Sept. 30, the True North Times exposed Thomas’ reference on Facebook to mosques as “brainwashing stations” and remark that “the oppressed of the Warsaw ghettos and concentration camps have become the oppressors [in Israel-Palestine].”
“It’s been a wild ride thus far,” Seltzer said of the media attention.
In November 2013, True North’s president and CEO Simren Sandhu, now a 19-year-old third-year McGill student, along with chief marketing and strategy officer Daniel Etcovitch, a McGill graduate who just entered his first year at Harvard Law School, and Seltzer, a fourth-year student at McGill, seized on what they saw as a gap in the market for Canadian political satire.
They launched the site with a mandate to combat political apathy and make Canadian politics accessible and funny.
“We use [former Daily Show host’s] Jon Stewart style of satire: taking real content and news and putting a little bit of a spin on it… making it funny, engaging and worth reading about,” Etcovitch, 22, explained.
With a team of a dozen or so freelance contributors who write in a volunteer capacity, True North publishes fresh content daily and bills itself as non-partisan.
Its model includes analysis, opinion articles and features, as well as more creative content such as “The Nine Days of Scandal” election series, which exposed the gaffes of Johnstone and eight other candidates from different parties.
The list also included Stefan Jonasson, the NDP candidate for Manitoba’s Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley riding, who compared haredim to the Taliban on Twitter, and Benjamin Dichter, the Toronto-Danforth Conservative candidate who posted a video on Facebook with the subtitle “Moslems and scums destroying everything in a area in Paris France.”
Etcovitch stressed that True North has a mandate to showcase diverse opinions and “make fun of all parties equally.”
He noted that the site has never called for a candidate to resign, but is just “giving the public information we think they should have.”
As for True North’s track record in unearthing social media slip-ups, Seltzer said the team has a knack for investigative journalism and has put significant effort into digging through Elections Canada records, filing freedom of information requests and scrolling through politicians’ Facebook and Twitter pages.
“Most people don’t do a lot of research on their local candidates. We started doing it ourselves and were shocked at what we found… We quickly realized that [our election coverage] was going to be focused on, ‘Can you believe what your local candidate said?’” Etcovitch said.
The site, which he said doesn’t take much money to operate and is mostly funded through advertising, targets young Canadians.
Etcovitch attributes youth apathy to the fact many young people don’t feel their vote makes a difference, as well as because Canada’s political system doesn’t allow for direct voting for prime minister and youth activism isn’t featured in the media.
“We don’t hear the issues young people care about and they’re not lobbying because they don’t care about [issues] in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle,” he said.
Seltzer emphasized that he and his colleagues at True North have enjoyed the recent attention, but will be getting back to their “bread and butter: making politics interesting.”