Journalists Anita Li, Caitlin Havlak and Jacqueline Ronson attend the Local News Accelerator in Montreal
Journalists Anita Li, Caitlin Havlak and Jacqueline Ronson attend the Local News Accelerator in Montreal. (Josh Fee/Facebook Journalism Project)

Let’s shift the journalism industry in Canada, together

Announcing the Independent News Challenge, a nine-week program to help journalist entrepreneurs and small publishers grow Continue Reading Let’s shift the journalism industry in Canada, together

This post was originally published by The Discourse.

Nearly six years ago, I and two journalist friends had an idea that eventually became The Discourse. If only we knew then what we know now.

We were experienced journalists frustrated with where the Canadian journalism industry was headed. We wanted to report stories that had a positive impact, but we were too often cranking out shallow news just to drive clicks. We wanted to make a decent living, and the insecurity of constant rounds of layoffs was wearing on us. We saw that mainstream media lacked diversity and was failing to represent so many people, leaving big gaps in coverage — but we didn’t feel like we could fix that.

We knew journalism. But we didn’t know the journalism business. By that, I mean more than how to file our corporate taxes. We didn’t know how to build an audience. Or get funding to build a website or pay journalists. Or make money from our stories.

Now, six years later, The Discourse is launching an Independent News Challenge to help Canadian journalists in the position we were in back in 2014. In a nine-week sprint, we will share what we’ve learned, mobilize our resources, and roll up our sleeves to help entrepreneur journalists and small publishers grow their audiences and funding faster.

Are you a journalist with an idea for a project or new outlet but don’t know where to start? Are you a small publisher filling a gap in coverage but feel like you’re not realizing your full potential? We want to hear from you. We are particularly interested in supporting BIPOC journalists and founders.

Why an Independent News Challenge?

We’re doing this because we want a more diverse and sustainable media ecosystem in Canada, and it’s just not going to happen unless we all work together.

The Independent News Challenge is what we wish we had access to when we started The Discourse. Canada lacks support for journalist entrepreneurs. We don’t have the Knight Foundation or Democracy Fund to fund new ideas. There’s no Canadian version of the news accelerator Matter or the engine News Revenue Hub.

The Discourse muddled through. We borrowed some money from family and received support from adjacent programs like the CFC MediaLabSheEO, the McConnell Foundation and Spring. We figured out how to mobilize resources to produce in-depth journalism projects that earned us awards and made an impact. We learned how to run crowdfunding campaigns, raising nearly $350,000 from our audience to build a community-powered news platform. We grew a successful new local outlet — The Discourse Cowichan —  from the ground up, and it’s now growing fast.

We pride ourselves on being lean and scrappy, pivoting in response to data and coming up with creative solutions to the many challenges we’ve faced. But it’s been hard. We’ve learned a lot about the barriers that prevent journalists from launching new outlets. And we know that a lot of would-be journalism founders can’t take the financial risks we did.

For Canada to see a more diverse ecosystem of independent media serving communities, the bar to entry must be lowered. Through the Independent News Challenge, we’ll help others access resources they need to launch and grow, avoid mistakes by learning from others, and generate more funding from their journalism faster.

Why focus on small publishers now?

Dozens of startups and small digital publishers have launched in Canada in the past few years to fill gaps in coverage left as newspapers close or reduce service across the country. The LogicThe NarwhalThe SprawlThe PointerThe Halifax Examiner. The list goes on and on.

Last year, The Discourse published a research report that looked at what is growing in local news markets. We found that during the same period when 260 outlets closed (mostly print newspapers) over 90 new outlets opened. The majority were independent and digital. They are serving growing audiences, generating revenue, improving legacy publications’ coverage through competition, and making an impact on policy.

These outlets are already playing a critical role in the Canadian news ecosystem, and they have the potential to play an even bigger role in future. But, as small independents, they have been overlooked by government programs to help news media. Other programs, like Facebook’s recent Local News Accelerator which The Discourse participated in, also tend to support larger players that have more capacity to benefit than small independents.

Our research also revealed a troubling trend. Women and people of colour were underrepresented among the founders of these journalism upstarts. The Canadian news industry has a long-standing diversity problem. Our research revealed that if access to support and funding was not addressed, the next generation of Canadian media will also fail to represent Canadians in their full diversity. Digital media would replicate the inequities of the legacy system that has left so many people feeling unheard and disconnected.

Small independents offer advantages over the big newspaper chains. Without established mastheads and cultures, they are well-positioned to meaningfully address newsroom equity. Without the cost burden of print production or huge debt liabilities, they are lean and therefore offer a lot of bang for your buck. Being locally-owned, they are accountable to their communities. They also have disadvantages: they don’t benefit from economies of scale, for example, and are so small they often can’t justify hiring marketing or business development staff. And so they represent untapped potential.

Building from industry momentum

As part of that research project, The Discourse gathered small independent digital media in Toronto in November 2018 to discuss our collective needs and how we might collaborate. Many of the outlets there were brand new, and sharing knowledge was really exciting. There seemed to be pent up demand to collaborate and common needs emerged.

A lot has happened in the year since. In January, we were among nine outlets to form a loose coalition called Canadian Journalism Innovators to bring attention to the good things happening in independent media. In June, Journalists for Human Rights, the McConnell Foundation, Luminate and the West End Phoenix gathered dozens of independent media from across Canada to spur collaboration. A burgeoning independent media association is now in its infancy and will soon be announced.

This all feels like the beginnings of a movement. This is where the Independent News Challenge comes in: building from all this industry momentum, we see this as The Discourse’s contribution to a next step toward a stronger news industry.

By working with a small group of entrepreneurial journalists and small publishers, The Discourse wants to learn where we can pool resources to collectively grow faster. The Discourse sought funding from our partners including the Facebook Journalism Project and the Inspirit Foundation so we could offer this support to journalists at no cost.

How can you get involved?

We want to hear from both independent journalists who have an idea they haven’t yet launched and teams that are already publishing. We are particularly interested in connecting with journalists with roots in, or an explicit commitment to serving, underrepresented communities.

Not sure if you qualify? Set up a 30-minute call today or click here to apply by Nov. 14. 

Erin Millar is the founder and CEO of The Discourse and co-founder and CEO of Indiegraf.