The Shift is three years old.
While that may not seem like much to you, I’ve been involved since the early days, and a year can feel like an eternity in this work.
I remember asking Maltese friends what they thought of this brash new outlet in the spring of 2018.
“It’s irrelevant,” they told me. “No one reads it.”
The data I saw indicated otherwise.
Reader numbers were growing steadily, month by month. But it was The Shift’s major investigations that caused those numbers to spike.
Investigations attracted DDoS attacks, too. It’s a method of knocking a site offline by overwhelming servers with a massive flood of simultaneous requests. Those hacking attempts happen to us far more often than you might think.
At first, I believed I was causing them.
I only had to book a barber’s appointment to bring every hacker from Russia to Azerbaijan to the website. Everything would be fine when I left my flat, but I knew that, without fail, the moment I arrived at the barber’s, a crisis would be waiting on that horrid smartphone chat.
But no, those attacks didn’t revolve around my attempts to look semi-presentable or to get a couple of hours offline. They were all Caroline’s fault.
If she didn’t have the investigative instincts of Sherlock Holmes without the curved pipe, or Columbo with a steam iron, then the team at The Shift could live in peace.
But Caroline doesn’t just crack the office whip. She also has a remarkable ability to convince others — from writers and columnists to foreign journalists in cross-border collaborations — that what’s happening in Malta matters to them.
I was standing next to Caroline in Berlin when The Guardian’s former editor-in-chief, the legendary Alan Rusbridger, came over to praise her resilience and independence. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen her lost for words — just briefly, but still.
Distance keeps me at one remove from much of the newsroom chaos, but I had a glimpse of the pressures The Shift is under on a week-long planning trip to Gozo last year.
I never intended to return to Malta when I packed up and left in 2017. I have to admit, it was an enormous relief to escape the traffic congestion and those awful petards.
You can imagine my chagrin when Caroline insisted on holding an in-person planning meeting.
“I know you don’t want to come back,” she said, “but we could always meet somewhere else.” I agreed that meeting abroad would be better. So she said, “How about Gharb?”
She had me on a technicality. Gozo is another country; they do things differently there.
We didn’t get much planning done during that trip — or not as much as we’d hoped. Three government Ministers had taken exception to The Shift’s reporting of their role in the Vitals Global Healthcare scandal that robbed the country of some €7 billion.
Another ruinous lawsuit was hanging over our heads, threatening to bring down Malta’s youngest slow news experiment — taking many of us with it.
I saw firsthand how the phone never stopped ringing. I saw the rants, the arguments with lawyers, the anxious glances at the cash reserves, and the nervous exhaustion of trying to do an honest job while living under constant threat.
When Caroline ignored frantic calls from one Member of Parliament, the guy tried to pressure her by calling her mother. There’s something I’d never see in Canada.
I spent most of that trip editing articles and trying to come up with fundraising schemes to survive another SLAPP suit.
Even at a bare bones operating budget, it isn’t easy to keep a small newsroom like The Shift alive.
Independent investigative journalism holds the powerful accountable — but it only works when journalism is truly independent.
We can’t accept donations or advertising from government. That’s obvious. No matter how impartial you are, taking money from a political party could imply partisan bias.
Taking money from big business is even worse. Run a story that a sponsor doesn’t like and they can threaten to pull their ads in retaliation. The only way to maintain independence is not to rely on such sponsors at all.
No, we knew it was essential that The Shift be answerable to no one but our readers. We believed you would stand behind us if you saw us standing up for you.
I’ll tell you one thing: no one at The Shift was getting middle of the night phone calls from Muscat’s chief of staff to ‘fix a problem’.
Do you know what unites everyone at The Shift?
A passion for truth, an incredible work ethic, and the sort of stubbornness that refuses to cave in to pressure. When you try to intimidate that sort of person, you only end up pissing them off.
Unfortunately, the admiration of readers and colleagues isn’t enough to keep servers running or pay journalists.
Many faces came and went over the last three years.
Some burned out under the constant pressure. Others were intimidated by threats. That’s understandable. You can imagine how it feels to show up fresh from university, idealistic, eager to report the news, only to be bludgeoned by hate mail and lawsuits from powerful people in government in response to honest reporting.
But why should any of this matter to you? You’re not in their line of fire. Why should you support The Shift with your hard-earned money?
Perhaps it’s better to rephrase that question.
Do you get angry when you see your tax money being drained by yet another government crony padding out their own bloated income or burning public funds on private trips?
Are you outraged when you see corrupt politicians buying votes with publicly funded non-jobs and secret contracts given to completely unqualified people for things no one needs?
Are you disgusted that a private charity has to make up the balance for cancer patients because your government can’t afford their care?
What happened to those formerly-public hospitals they gave away to fraudsters? The Shift tracked down some of your misappropriated funds and took the lid off their plans to run the same Vitals con in other countries.
What happened to the passport-for-pay pipe dream that promised easy money for public projects, but that ended up providing easy money for the very few instead?
Your sovereignty was pimped out by hustlers who made you the shameful black sheep of Europe. We reported on that, too.
We also revealed how your financial services industry was used to launder money by members of government and their dodgy Iranian and Azerbaijani friends.
Thanks to their greed — and the cowardice of those who failed to stop them — Malta’s reputation as a safe jurisdiction is finished. What took decades to build was ruined in seven years.
And we spent months analysing every declaration of assets filed by your MPs over the past seven years. We showed you who managed to live a lavish lifestyle with a magical unchanging bank balance, and who had quietly enriched themselves while you were looking away.
In an environment where everyone is on the take, The Shift became a trusted source for in-depth investigations and thoughtful commentary that sought to simplify the facts behind the headlines and to put those facts into the bigger picture.
We’ve been able to do these things because our readers stood behind us.
You can sleep soundly knowing that we are always watching.
We’d sleep a bit more soundly at night, too, knowing we had enough funds to keep the dream alive.
It’s been especially difficult to make ends meet during the coronavirus pandemic.
Please support The Shift with a donation. We’re grateful for every contribution.