In the lead up to Alberta’s provincial election next year, Albertans will have a new media outlet to get political news from – AB Today.
The paid subscription newsletter will be the third one launched by Allison Smith, the publisher of BC Today and Queen’s Park Today. Her mini-media empire has grown rapidly, with AB Today launching just over a year after the launch of BC Today. And it has been six years since she launched her flagship newsletter, Queen’s Park Today, which is so successful, Smith is now expanding its editorial team. In today’s age of local news disruption and amid closures, it’s a rare Canadian media startup success story.
While working at The Hill Times, Smith had edited a daily magazine called Parliament Now, which tracked the daily business of Parliament. “I really liked journalism, specifically political journalism,” she said. But she wanted to move back to Toronto. At just 25, without the experience or credentials she thought she’d need to get hired as a political reporter in Toronto, Smith decided to create her own outlet. “I knew that The Hill Times had done some market research on a product like this and just were not executing (it),” she said. “So I just figured I could do it myself.”
Across Canada, the number of reporters covering the provincial legislature has shrunk. In 2016, J-Source reported that in five provinces, there were fewer than ten reporters who were dues-paying members of their respective press galleries. A more recent Globe and Mail report found that some of those numbers had decreased further. “It’s super important to have more reporters around, even if you are writing behind a paywall and have a small audience,” said Smith, who still maintains a public Twitter account where she breaks news. “That’s just another reporter asking questions and digging into stuff — that can never be a bad thing.”
The success of the newsletter was not guaranteed, however. “It honestly could have gone so many different ways,” said Smith.
The Queen’s Park Today newsletter is a daily, comprehensive overview of what is happening in Ontario provincial politics, which these days, with Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in power, can be a lot. Each newsletter includes a schedule for the upcoming day at the legislature, news briefs and a detailed description of the previous day’s question period.
While Smith would not provide subscription rates, she did say that the renewal rate for subscriptions to Queen’s Park Today, which start at $650 a year, is about 90 per cent. (Subscription rates increase for institutional subscriptions). “If you look in the States, what Politco Pro and stuff charges it’s monstrous compared to this,” she said. And people are buying it. BC Today became profitable within six months of launch.
Now, Smith is focusing on getting to a place where, if she takes a day off, the company can continue to run. She currently employs two reporters, one at Queen’s Park Today and one at BC Today, a copy editor and a salesperson. She’s hiring a reporter for AB Today, and she wants to bring on a managing editor.
Smith said it would be “amazing” if AB Today could reach profitability in the same amount of time as BC Today did — which happened with just her sweat equity. There were no investments to support the company, and ad sales have thus far been limited, though Smith said they will begin to sell more.
While interest in the provincial election will likely raise interest in the newsletter, as it usually does for Queen’s Park Today, Alberta is also a province with a politically interested population — and resources that the rest of Canada are very interested in. “I think the outcome of the election will have implications nation wide,” said Smith.
And what comes next? A Saskatchewan Today? A Quebec Today? Or even a Parliament Today? “I get asked by people all the time — readers — does this exist? Do you know who does this in this province? Does anyone do this in Ottawa? Everyone wants it,” Smith said. That’s the catalyst for her continued growth. However, in smaller provinces, it’s unlikely her company could achieve the same scale. “I guess after I see how profitable Alberta and B.C. can be, (I will know) if there is space to do it other places.”