“In a city with 700,000 people, roughly, (and) only one (English-language print) media outlet, it leaves a big space for others to come in:” Joel Wittenbel.
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Former Toronto Star reporter San Grewal is attempting to make inroads in the Ontario media landscape with the launch of The Pointer, a digital subscription-based platform for Brampton local news.
Grewal and his small team of six full-time staff and six regular freelancers are striving to bring longform, feature, and investigative work to the municipality, which is now the ninth largest and second-fastest growing in Canada.
“Prior to leaving The Star I had started thinking about opportunities to start my own digital platform, my own company to try to get really good journalism to people in communities … where I didn’t feel the type of information getting out to residents, to taxpayers, to citizens was at the level that they deserved,” Grewal said.
Brampton’s large population is also underserved by existing local media. The municipality once had a daily newspaper, which closed in 1989 after 122 years running —- Brampton is now left with one local print news outlet, Metroland’s Brampton Guardian, which publishes three times per week. There is also Bramptonist.com, which is similar in format to BlogTO, and 4 Corners Brampton, which has not been updated since February.
A number of Canadian municipalities face news poverty, the majority of which studies have shown tend to be low-income and diverse.
Grewal and his team, including former Oshawa Express editor Joel Wittnebel, hope The Pointer’s longform work will complement —- rather than compete with — the existing daily news coverage that the Brampton Guardian provides. As the community gears up for a contentious municipal election in October, Wittnebel anticipates that in-depth articles providing context of daily news events will become increasingly useful to citizens.
“In a city with 700,000 people, roughly, (and) only one (English-language print) media outlet, it leaves a big space for others to come in and essentially build on what the other outlets are doing there,” Wittnebel said. “And for us, we really wanna focus on sort of the in-depth, investigative side of things, and sort of longer features that kind of tell the entire story and really sort of dig into those issues that are going on.”
To Grewal, it is traditional models of daily news coverage that limit local news and constrain publications to shorter pieces and brief coverage. By subverting these conventions through a longform digital platform, he feels The Pointer will continue to serve the needs of Brampton residents like Collins.
“We’re not constrained by convention,” Grewal says. “Daily news or weekly news … a news cycle or a news hole, we don’t have any of that. We can do whatever we want … Let’s break those old conventions, let’s just simply give the readers what they want, what they deserve, in ways that are compelling, in ways that they want it.”
Subscriptions to The Pointer are sold at $10 per month — which Grewal plans to rely upon as the primary revenue stream for the publication. Since launching on Sept. 5, the outlet’s 12 staff have also begun applying for federal and non-profit grants to supplement this income.
According to Grewal, the small team has been approached by prospective advertisers and investors in the two weeks since their creation. But as a publication that prides itself on being “evidence based” and free of bias, he does not plan for the publication to accept funds from either source.
“The big concern with The Pointer is that we’re not influenced by anyone, we are completely independent,” Grewal said. “We just don’t want to have even the perception out there that we might serve some interest or that we might be pushed into some kinda coverage … or a kind of slight slant toward an issue or something because of a partnership or a relationship we have with someone in the private sector.”
What’s more, in an age of digital journalism, Grewal sees online advertising as obsolete — a source of funding that he says would be neither a “viable” nor a “significant revenue source” for The Pointer.
And while Grewal and his team are realistic in knowing that putting content behind a paywall may limit their readership, they’re hopeful that under a traditional subscription-based business model, they can survive solely on the support of a smaller pool of highly engaged readers from the Brampton community.
“There is a large pool of people that would be interested in the stuff we’re writing about,” Wittnebel said. “With a population of like, nearly 700,000, even if you can get a small percentage of people that are interested to subscribe, without a big overhead or anything like that, you can make yourself sustainable pretty quickly if you can get even maybe five, 10 per cent of people.”
Further, the team is currently offering first-time readers a free 30-day trial as a way to attract new readership and eventually build up a subscriber base. Among their existing body of subscribers is Gary Collins, a resident of Brampton for 46 years and the former CEO of the Brampton Board of Trade.
As a self-described “news junkie” and a longtime follower of Grewal’s work, Collins subscribed to The Pointer immediately upon learning of its launch via Twitter. To Collins, investigative and analytical journalism is necessary in a town he feels is often left out of mainstream Canadian media coverage.
“They’re doing lengthy pieces, they’re trying to get lots of different opinions, so I think it’s been well done,” Collins said. “I think it’s really needed, we just don’t get enough coverage from the mainstream media. The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the Post and the Sun, they don’t spend much time, really, in Brampton. If they do, it’s a short story.”
Editor’s note, Oct. 5, 2018, 9:28 a.m.: This post has been updated to better explain the media outlets based in Brampton.
Audrey Carleton is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She recently completed the Globe and Mail's summer staff program, after getting her start at The McGill Tribune. She enjoys going for long runs and tending to her house plants.