If a voice is cut down in a forest, but there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Orato.com was a one-time darling of citizen journalism, launched in 2006, news honouree in the 2008 Webby Awards, ranked #3 in PC Magazine's 2008 list of Top 100 Undiscovered Websites, and host to over 7,000 voices worldwide, including Yoko Ono, A&E’s Dog the Bounty Hunter, the wife of the D.C. sniper, the DEA’s public enemy (a.k.a. “Prince of Pot”) Marc Emery, and Trisha Baptie, a former prostitute whose groundbreaking coverage of the Robert Pickton serial killer trial contributed to her winning Vancouver, Canada’s 2008 Courage To Come Back Award.
Nowadays, Orato.com is a completely different animal, and some who contributed to the site feel the transformation should not slip quietly by.
“Orato,” which means “I speak” in Latin, was originally launched as a platform where, in the words of its founder Sam Yehia, “Every man, woman and child has a voice,” unfiltered by the heavy editorial hand of traditional media. Each man, woman and child who contributed their voice was assured that they would always have the “final editorial cut.”
Orato.com is gearing up to re-launch under the leadership of new Editor-in-Chief Joy Gugeler, formerly wearing the same hat at Suite101.com. Since Gugeler took the helm in January, stories have been cut in half and titles reworked to make Google bots more likely to crawl the site, which, in theory, will increase ad revenue.
Former senior editor of three years Heather Wallace, who resigned in January to pursue a career in a health-related field, and whose 215 bylines now simply read “Orato Staff,” says Gugeler gave the site such a makeover as to make it virtually unrecognizable. Wallace says her Orato.com profile was blocked during the first two weeks after she gave notice because she loudly protested the lack of communication with correspondents and the 180-degree, lightening-speed direction she saw the site taking.
“Ms. Gugeler shaved Orato.com’s head, executing a virtual voice clear cut within the first two weeks of her employ in an ambitious quest to transform the site into a profitable venture. For example, citizen correspondent Harmon Leon 's I Served In Fake Iraq was changed to: Actors Used to Train U.S. Marines in Wadi al Sahara, 29 Palms Base in Mojave Desert . Harmon is the same man to infiltrate (and get shot at) an assault weapon convention, star in an OJ-Simpson reality show, and eat bacon and chicken fingers at a pig-slaughtering/cockfighting party. Tell me where Harmon’s voice is in that new title. While as a former employee I can’t maintain the site’s original vision, as someone who advocated for the integrity and authenticity of each correspondent’s voice for three years and is sad to see one of the world’s only so-called citizen journalism sites bend to Google bots, I can certainly stand up.”
Trisha Baptie, the self-titled former prostitute who covered the trial of serial killer Robert Pickton for Orato.com alongside seasoned journalists says she also feels it’s necessary to publicly acknowledge the recent changes and distance herself from Orato.com. Says Trisha, “Under new management my truth, my heart, my analysis, my lived experiences, and the writings I did on behalf of others have all been changed to something I cannot claim as my own. I do not approve of the changes made to my stories. I have asked for them to be put back to their original form and have been told they would not be. My stories were the building blocks for my reputation and a public record of how I came to my current politics. To have such personal writings tampered with is extremely violating and disrespectful. I have been informed by new management that because they were ‘commissioned pieces’ I ultimately have no say in finalized editorial changes. I was referred to as the ‘voice of the voiceless,’ and it with extreme sorrow I must say I no longer recognize my own voice.”
In response to the controversy, Orato.com founder Sam Yehia says Wallace has undertaken an awkward campaign of asking others to appeal for the reinstatement of her Orato.com portfolio, addressed Orato.com’s audience to declare her dissatisfaction with the decisions he has made, solicited support from ex-employees and writers alike, and attempted to “poison” current staff with an unabated campaign of abusive correspondence.
Says Wallace, “This has never been about my voice; the site was launched and built on the principle of honouring everyone’s voice, and as I was a guardian of that principle, I felt obligated to try to stop the manipulation of voice undertaken to save an otherwise economically-challenged, yet once-worthy, project. Vision is the casualty of the hardships facing all media right now. There’s a new Orato.com on the horizon. It’s not a matter of he-said/she-said. It’s a damn shame, and it’s just news that needs to be told.”