The Future of Journalism, According to Brandon Gonez

Toronto journalist Brandon Gonez spoke with Complex Canada about his pivot to independent journalism after leaving CP24 and his upcoming TED Talk.

Journalist Brandon Gonez

Image via Publicist

Journalist Brandon Gonez

“I’ll be honest, I was close to hitting that moment several times,” admits Brandon Gonez, former CP24 anchor and host of the weekly YouTube news and entertainment program, The Brandon Gonez Show. At this particular moment, he’s providing context to an old story; the type of moment journalists of colour often hear about, likely live, and intimately know: 

You enter an industry and you’re excited, everyone is excited—all that freshness and newness—so you do what any aspiring journalist often does: you do the work. You climb that ladder. Or someone’s idea of a ladder. But the impetus behind journalism eventually becomes less impactful next to every taxing thing around it; the micro and macro aggressions; the shortage of recognition; the pay disparities. Gradually, the question of quitting or continuing becomes your moment. 

“There are so few of us and we aren’t actually protected,” says Gonez. “When I look back, I wonder how I made it out of that.” Enter: his moment. In Gonez’s case, it’s the decision that would remove him from his fan-favoured position as the Your Morning on-air, Patois-wielding personality that he was, to a parallel personality of independent success. And a lot has happened since January 17, 2021, when his first episode of The Brandon Gonez Show premiered. The past year for the Rexdale native has contained visible moments of ownership, with him and his team balancing a line between stories grounded in joys and truths—politics, racism, dating, and everything undeniably Toronto-esque. 

His new TED Talk, which premiered this week, on a whole can be seen as a reflection of that work. His refusal to abide by the folklore that journalism can only be done in a singular way. The journey hasn’t been without challenges, but we had a chance to unpack it all with Gonez; his past, present, and future. 

Journalist Brandon Gonez

Firstly, congrats on the TED talk. That’s obviously not a thing that everyone will get invited to. How do you think it reflects on the messages you’re putting out there? 
I know right? I guess we’re doing something right, which is the validation in itself. I’m not gonna lie. I’ve always dreamt of doing a TED talk and it’s really exciting. But I also think it’s just a reflection of the fact that people want to hear the truth. We’re so saturated with edited images, and stories as opposed to someone keeping it real, authentic, and just giving you the raw honest truth. I think it’s what resonated with a lot of people.  

But I also think that the story of not just my journey or come up, but the risks I took to own my own dream has been inspiring to some. And I hope that’s true so others can do the same. We don’t have to live our lives behind the idea of, what if we fail? Why does it have to be that question? Instead, let’s fail and learn from that. 

You’re a year into having your own media space on YouTube. I’d like to know how it may have shaped your ideas about the possibilities of journalism and the industry.
You know, it kind of opened my eyes to the realization that there are so many avenues of how a story can be told. As a society, especially in this country since our media landscape is so small, we’ve been led to think that there are only one or a few outlets that can tell these stories. What’s so amazing is that we can all be independent journalists and news sources. Of course, there are a lot of aspects within the background that you have to do to be trusted, but what’s so cool is that we’re opening this avenue of not having to consume news from the few outlets we’ve been bombarded with during our entire lives that have neglected to tell our stories authentically or wholeheartedly. 

“I look at the state of legacy media as if they’re on their last legs. People are turned off and often tune out before turning them off. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to turn them back on.”

I know you’ve covered this somewhat in other discussions, but can you tell me the exact moment when you thought you had to make the decision to go independent? This was a risky venture for anyone. 
Yeah, for a lot of people, they looked at what I was doing as if it was a dream job. You’re on this platform that’s played on a lot of TV screens nonstop and for many, that’s the dream. Getting there to an extent was a dream of mine as well. But then I developed new dreams and ambitions. I wanted to do more than what I was doing. I felt like there were so many communities that were being underserved and so many stories that were not being told. We were living in an age where people wanted more. They expected more and wanted to give more. 

I came to a realization during COVID. It had a lot of people reflecting and I was reflecting. What do I really want to do? Do I want to work for this news company that’s owned by this corporation that only allows certain stories to be told in a certain way? Or do I take the risk and try to create something for myself and a community that can take pride in something that they know they own a piece of? And that it’s for them?  

Brnadon Gone wearing all black in front of some shrubs and artwork

Elaborate on that, because I gotta imagine that news on a platform with instant feedback is a different beast. What’s the difference been like mentally? You’re no longer representing an organization. It’s all your name. 
Yeah, it’s so much. You take way more onus on the stories that you put out there because like you said, it’s our name. My name is on the post, right on the front door. People are coming to us because of that name and our great team who aim to provide a different kind of news. It’s a lot of pressure because you want to do the best job possible while understanding that you have limited resources at the same time. What our team has also realized is that there are so many stories and so much demand to get the message out there or to expose a given problem. 

The reality is that we have only so much capacity. Because of that, a lot of times I go to bed feeling a bit sad because I wish we could have covered two other stories that were important to people but we didn’t have the means. I try to lean on the fact that what we actually do cover must be done in the best way possible so audiences can know that we’re putting time and effort into good work. 

You’ve spoken about not being able to control the narrative in the past. How has that changed? What are the examples of stories that you couldn’t see yourself telling under an older capacity? 
The stories that we can tell are big, small, positive and unfortunately negative. That’s what’s so exciting. No story is deemed not worthy of telling, unlike the big media outlets who think otherwise. To them, they aren’t worth it, which is so sad because it’s the stories that we think are not worth it that actually resonate the most with people. I think the freedom to take risks with our storytelling, to not just tell a story, but sometimes take a stance on a story. 

That’s one major problem I have with legacy media. There’s this ‘two sides’ mentality that’s embedded within journalism that uploads a white supremacist system. If you’re talking about a story of a disenfranchised group that’s been constantly disenfranchised, there are no two sides to that. The reality is, that’s what they’ve been through. You can’t get someone who’s going to deny or downplay that because the fact is, this is the reality. When you live within the mentality of needing both sides to every story, then you’re undermining someone’s truth. 

You hit the nail on the head. There’s been a loss of trust that keeps being lost. It’s in the avoidance of certain truths under the guise of objectivity or like you said, the both sides argument. What are your thoughts about the state of things from the outside looking in?
I look at the state of legacy media as if they’re on their last legs. People are turned off and often tune out before turning them off. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to turn them back on. That’s the crazy thing. We’re living in a society where people have so much more access to information. We’re no longer getting it from these three channels on TV, we have the Internet, and social media and everyone is way more interconnected. People can literally fact-check reporters now. The power has shifted to the consumer rather than in the hands of the purveyors of information. 

It’s exciting but also detrimental to the old ways of how media was produced and consumed. Personally, I don’t see legacy media being able to revisit the past of its glory days if you want to call it that. It was a glory for only a select few people. I’m a part of the reason why they don’t think it’s a problem. They think the consumer is the problem. It’s the only industry I’ve ever worked in where if people are continually getting dismal trust numbers from trust surveys, rather than look inward at what they’re doing wrong, they’re blaming the outside.

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The positives behind your journey are obvious, but I’m sure there were some challenges over the past year. Can you talk about some of that as far as building the brand?
Oh yeah, not everything smells like roses. It’s probably been one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever had in my life. I threw everything in the air. Everything has been sacrificed, from family time, personal time, friend time, relationship time, you name it, because everything had to go into this. Everything myself and the team put in was also what we outputted. I couldn’t just turn it off at six o’clock and say, you know, that’s the next reporter’s job like at CP24. No, we’re running this thing. It’s been an uphill battle. When we started and I look at our content compared to where we are now, anyone can tell you that we’ve experienced immense growth. We’ve had to change some things and we’ve had to be self-reflective and take constructive feedback. 

We’ve also had to adapt and keep it honest with viewers. I think that’s why they hold onto us. It’s why they’re on this journey because we know we’re not perfect and we aren’t trying to be. We’re only doing our best to serve our audience and as long as we keep it open about what we are and aren’t doing right, they’re going to continue to stick with us.  But yeah, I mean listen, I lost a lot of sleep. I lost a lot of party time. I lost a few of my vacations. But let me tell you, we’re getting that back this year. I’m gonna turn it back up to the next year [laughs] but we’re still going to be working hard, hard, hard. 

“For a lot of us, we grow up thinking that nobody cares. We’ve been told to hush up and take whatever the system throws at us. Why is that the case? Most other cultures don’t have to deal with that so why are we?”

I’m curious about that from a person to person level. Did the lack of life balance while building this brand always feel worth it to you from a mental perspective? 
I mean in the beginning, it was like, well, will people even support this? Is it going to be a fad? They’ll just go back to the old sources, networks, and publications to get their news. I had all of those fears. I also thought to myself that no one had ever done this in this country. There wasn’t a blueprint so I wouldn’t make stupid mistakes. After you realize there isn’t one you just have to lean on yourself and the gift God gave you. There were times when I wondered if I was doing the most here. Am I now the person doing too much? Then I had to go back to my “why.” My biggest advice is whatever you do in life is to have a “why” when you’re doubting yourself. Why did I want to do this? That always gave me that extra push of energy. It allowed me to reach deeper and pull myself out of those negative sides and get back into positivity to re-energize myself and my team. 

Having a good team and some good friends helped as well. It’s so critical to all of this because of the energy around you that can manifest. If I didn’t have good people around that were supportive and who would help me when I was feeling down and who are working just as hard, I don’t know where we’d be today.

Community, man. 

So tell me about this TED talk. What are your plans for it?
A part of my talk comes from giving people an insight into the power of media and how it can frame and skew our perception of the world. Sometimes we don’t even know it. But of course, I’m going to talk about my journey as well which played a part in some of this conversation. I also aim to empower people to know that they can do this too in any small way in their life, there’s a way to apply the lessons that I’ve learned during my short time on this planet. 

You obviously wanted to make sure that the stories you told were authentic, particularly for people of colour who hadn’t had that voice before. What were some instances that come to mind from the past year?
I feel like I get that at least once a month if not once a week, I can’t even lie. There are so many, but I do remember that we did this one very sad story where we talked to a gentleman, Chase Richards, who got beat up by a police officer because they assumed that he didn’t pay his bus fare. My God, after the interview was over it broke me. That’s the thing people don’t realize. I get invested in these stories to the point where I’m right there with them. After that interview was over I had to take half an hour just to go for a walk because I felt that man’s pain. But I think what was so relieving to me was that I could see the relief on his face. 

He could finally tell his story knowing that it wasn’t going to be twisted, turned, or skewed. It was his time to shine and sing his truth. He trusted me knowing that I wasn’t going to alter history. For a lot of us, we grow up thinking that nobody cares. We’ve been told to hush up and take whatever the system throws at us. Why is that the case? Most other cultures don’t have to deal with that so why are we? Beyond that, there were so many stories with so much joy where we’ve spoken to entrepreneurs, Black entrepreneurs, and particularly entrepreneurs of colour who are doing some really exciting things. It all makes me happy. 

I hate to go back to a dark place, but this is a selfish question. A lot of talented BIPOC journalists have given up on this industry. They’ve had their whys, but became drained over time. I can relate myself. From your position, do you have wisdom for those people? I know it’s heavy.
It’s heavy because it’s so true. How many people have written off this industry because of the craziness some of us have to go through? I’ll be honest, I was close to hitting that moment several times. But there are stories that even to this day are so hard for me to say out loud because I get so emotional. There are people in this industry who I would call the devil because they literally are. It’s so wild. There are so few of us and we aren’t actually protected. When I look back, I wonder how I made it out of that. Thank God I had a few good mentors who could unravel what was happening in my life and were able to pick me up. 

I would always say that it doesn’t matter how old or young you are, everybody needs mentorship, even myself. I still continue to need mentorship. And one thing I want to do now is to help mentor other people with the little bit of knowledge that I’ve gained. It’s never too late to step back into your passion. Anyone can reimagine their career in broadcast and media journalism right now. We have access and you can create and gain your own access to an audience. Our show does better than some national shows backed by millions of dollars. It’s crazy and all due to hard, organic work along with the support of the community. If you can find the energy, get back out there and build something for yourself whether it be big or small. 

I don’t know if I should say this, but I left working full time and entered a completely separate career temporarily, and I’m doing this from a bathroom stall. There’s something about journalism that keeps me coming back. When I see people like yourself providing a voice, it refreshes me. It’s dope that you’re still doing your thing. 
Thank you. And I know what you mean, man, when you have a journalist bug within you, it’s one of those bugs that you can’t let go of. I definitely get it. It’s one of those things that will stick with you forever no matter what you do and you’re always going to find a way to tell a story because that’s just a natural passion storytellers have. 

Journalist Brandon Gonez

What are you looking forward to right now?
A lot of things. I’m looking forward to this show becoming a really true national show with significance and impact. We’re going to continue building while keeping our heads down, and we’re not going to be complacent. We know we have some momentum and we plan to work tirelessly to serve our audience and grow. But as a company, we have some big plans to expand beyond what we’re doing right now the BG Show and News You Can Use. All I gotta say is listen, we’re going to be the largest independent media company in this country and we have plans to go North America wide one day, but we’re going to own Canada first and then branch out. 

Anything to add?
Thank you to the community. I know that sounds corny but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them choosing to support us through and through. I know back then the camera wasn’t doing what it needed to do, but they stuck with us, and six months later, we’re able to afford a better camera and improve a great deal. I get teary-eyed thinking about it. Thank you and please just stick with us. Stick with us. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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