Another progress report on the People’s Agenda

We’re halfway through our series of listening sessions on the issues raised by the initial respondents to our People’s Agenda project, so this is a good time to look back at what we’ve learned and look ahead to what’s next.

How we got here

The series of events we’ve been holding throughout March and April are the latest stop in a journey that started last summer with the Election SOS training that I had an opportunity to attend with Elise Stolte. We used that opportunity to imagine what it would look like if Taproot’s municipal election coverage were centred on the issues that are important to Edmontonians, instead of being focused on who’s running or who’s winning or who’s sniping at whom.

In September, we put our question out into the world: What key question do you want the candidates to talk about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election, and why?

Here is Taproot’s roadmap for the People’s Agenda, as depicted by steering committee member Elise Stolte in an April 7 talk for an Election SOS event called Better Journalism: A Roadmap for Engaged Democracy.

We turned the first 150-ish responses into a first draft of the People’s Agenda, which was based on a whole lot of data-crunching from Madeleine Stout and then a fair amount of synthesis by me into eight questions that generally captured what respondents were concerned about.

We then turned those questions into the basis for a series of listening sessions to enable us to hear more about what was on people’s minds and to convey that to a wider audience. We hired Chris Chang-Yen Phillips to plan, program, and run the events, taking advantage of his experience with creating meaningful engagement.

A look at the listening sessions

Chris has brought in a wide variety of guests — such as Christy Morin of Arts on the Ave, Barry Morishita of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Assocation, and Emily Grisé of the University of Alberta’s school of urban planning — to set the scene for each topic and connect the issues to what city council has done and can do.

He has also tapped into his network of civicly minded folks to facilitate the breakout sessions that follow those talks, which has been a great way to nurture a welcoming and productive conversation, while freeing up Taproot staff to capture what has been said.

Our intern, Jackson Spring, has been listening to each session and recapping them on our site.

Here’s where we’re at — Jackson’s recaps are linked to the topics that have already happened, and the registration pages are linked to those that are still to come:

What happens next

These listening sessions will continue through April. We also have a lot of material aside from the recaps to sift through in search of feature ideas, which we’ll assign and publish in the coming months.

We are continuing to collect answers to our initial question. Many thanks to community partners such as Rat Creek Press and SPANN for publishing and sharing our invitation for responses. We have been working with Michelle Bartleman‘s online journalism class at MacEwan University to engage with other communities on this topic, which we hope will lead to some stories. We have more work to do to reach out to people who aren’t already familiar with Taproot, and that will be the focus of our efforts into the summer.

We need to synthesize the answers we’ve received since the first draft, as well as what we’ve heard at the listening sessions and will hear from future engagements. That will allow us to put out a revised People’s Agenda, which will form the basis of the voters’ guide we will publish in the fall, some time between the end of the nomination period and the opening of advanced polls. The voters’ guide will tell you where the candidates stand on the issues that matter to you, so you can make an informed decision.

Many thanks to everyone who has participated so far. This has been an instructive process, and we’re eager to see where it takes us next.

Taproot Edmonton reflects on the weekend everything changed

This weekend marks the anniversary of when everything changed. In addition to that look back, Taproot Edmonton has been documenting milestones throughout the pandemic on our COVID-19 in Edmonton timeline.

In this post, the Taproot Edmonton team reflects on the weekend that everything changed.

Shared by Coun. Aaron Paquette on March 17, 2020 (Twitter)

Emily:

It’s hard to believe it has been one year, and at the same time, it feels like it’s been much longer. While I don’t remember the particular details of the day everything changed in Edmonton, numerous moments over the past year stand out. My life certainly looks very different today than it did in March 2020. I haven’t seen my family, who live across the country, in a year and a half. I’ve talked to Canadians stranded all over the world as borders shut down, interviewed world-class scientists and doctors as they tirelessly worked on a vaccine and warned of caution fatigue, and learned how to produce stories from home, with an inquisitive dog at my side ready to "say hello" mid-interview.

I’m not sure our world, and Edmonton, will ever be the same again. While I would like to one day say goodbye to the copious amounts of hand sanitizer and my collection of leopard and floral face masks, I won’t be as willing to give up the opportunities to reconnect with friends and family, and the slower pace the pandemic has forced us to live by at times. Here’s to hoping we’ll be able to gather as a community like we used to again soon. Take care and stay healthy.

Jackson:

That whole semester of university, I was helping publish a weekly newspaper as a class project. On March 11, the reporters had all of their stories lined up for the next issue: a typical spread of campus issues, restaurant reviews, and problems with the city’s snow clearing efforts. The morning of March 12, the professor walked into class and said "cancel everything — we’re doing a special issue on this virus instead." The university cancelled in-person classes on March 13, and I haven’t been in a classroom since.

Karen:

I remember the last time I shook someone’s hand. I hesitated. He assured me he had washed his hands. I relented. I haven’t done it since.

That was on March 12, 2020, which feels to me like the last normal day, though I guess it wasn’t that normal. The World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic the day before, and that night, I emailed the organizer of a conference I was speaking at to say I understood if she had to cancel. Things were definitely starting to feel strange.

But I went to work as usual at Unit B on March 12. I had meetings, shook hands, rode the bus home, did the regular things. And then things stopped being usual.

An in-person meeting on March 13 became a virtual one. The iMedia conference was indeed postponed. Instead, I called in to Don’t Call Me a Guru. My kids went to school at their school buildings for the last time; as of March 15, they were home.

Everyone who has lived through the last year has a story like this. You should write yours down, too. The historians of the future will thank you.

Mack:

COVID-19 was all over the news that week, but it is Friday, March 13, 2020 that sticks out in my mind as the inflection point. I covered the emergency city council meeting and news conference that day and it became crystal clear that things were about to change in a big way.

My family had gone to West Edmonton Mall the weekend before. We saw the sea lions, explored the kids’ section of the bookstore, and stopped for coffee. The last event I went to, on Tuesday, March 10, was the kickoff for Downtown Dining Week at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Those normal, indoor experiences feel like a lifetime ago now.

Over the course of that week, some of my coffee meetings became virtual while others were cancelled. In every conversation, there was uncertainty, especially after the pandemic was declared and the NHL season was "paused."

The weekend was spent at home, a small preview of the weeks and months to come with daycares also closed as of March 15.

Now a year later, with vaccines rolling out, it feels like we’re at another turning point. A hopeful one this time.

Taproot launches People’s Agenda listening sessions

It’s time to dive deeper into the issues raised so far in our People’s Agenda project.

We invite you to join us for some or all of our weekly listening sessions to further uncover what is important to you as we head towards the municipal election on Oct. 18.

The first one is set for noon March 11, and it will tackle this question that we’ve synthesized from a number of responses: Will our taxes be well-spent? Sign up to attend.

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips will guide the discussion at noon on March 11 with Mack Male’s help. Register to attend.

This isn’t just about property taxes. We’ve heard from people who want the city to spend less, but we also heard from people who want it to spend its resources differently, and others who are concerned about reduced funding from other orders of government. So let’s talk.

The wonderful Chris Chang-Yen Phillips will host this series. Taproot was pleased to support a season of his Let’s Find Out podcast focusing on answering questions about how humans and nature interact with each other in and around our city, and we know him to be a creative and genial facilitator who draws the best out of participants.

We’ve tapped Taproot co-founder Mack Male to be a resource for the March 11 event. He’ll apply his knowledge from years of observing City Hall to explain how the budget works, what kinds of spending decisions city council makes, and what challenges we can anticipate in the 2021-25 term.

Then it will be your turn. Tell us more about what you want city council to care about, and help us make sure Taproot Edmonton’s election coverage is focused on what matters to you.

Save these dates for future sessions. They’ll be at noon:

  • March 18: Will Edmonton be a good place to live?
  • March 25: Will city council have integrity?
  • April 1: Will we be able to move around the city easily?
  • April 8: Will we spend less on police?
  • April 15: Will we house everyone?
  • April 22: Will we act on climate change?
  • April 29: Will we build our city intelligently?

A word about the Digital News Subscription Tax Credit

It’s tax time, which means some of our paying members are wondering about whether they can claim the new digital news subscription tax credit for their Taproot membership.

The answer is no, as we are not deemed to be a qualified Canadian journalism organization (QCJO), notwithstanding our dedication to local journalism. When the tax measures were first introduced, we were too small to apply. We may still be too small, though we have grown since then (it depends on who you count). Also, some of our B2B clients are crown corporations, municipal corporations, or government agencies, which also appears to be disqualifying, even though that’s separate from the journalism side of the business.

Photo by recha oktaviani on Unsplash

In any case, we had qualms about the idea of designating some media outlets as QCJOs, because it risks attaching an air of illegitimacy to those who don’t qualify for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of journalism they produce. The program is really set up to prop up newspaper companies, even though they continue to cut jobs and close newspapers while paying millions to their executives. Erin Millar notes that the program did improve somewhat from what was originally proposed, but it still leaves much to be desired.

That said, we will look into whether we can get QCJO status, for the sake of our members who would appreciate that write-off.

Taproot receives $23.5K to market B2B product

We’re pleased to announce that we’ve received funding from the Investment Readiness Program, administered by the Community Foundations of Canada, to better understand and reach the market for the product that largely funds our social purpose organization.

We now have $23,500 to spend on market research and the development of a marketing plan for our briefings service, the innovation we’ve come up with so we don’t have to rely solely on membership or sponsorship to fund our local journalism operation. We’ve engaged Purppl to help us figure out who needs what we sell and how to connect with them.

How is Taproot a social purpose organization?

A social purpose organization, or SPO, is "a nonprofit, a charity, a co-operative, a social enterprise for-profit, or a hybrid structure with a clear social, environmental, and/or cultural mission at the core of their operation," says Innoweave.

As Futurpreneur puts it, it’s simplistic to imagine a dichotomy between profit-maximizing businesses versus charities that maximize social and environmental returns. Rather, it’s a continuum:

We’re in that blended returns zone as a for-profit company that exists to achieve social benefits, i.e. a more informed and connected community through sustainable local journalism.

What good do we do?

We believe a city works better when its people are informed about what’s going on and feel a sense of connection with each other. Local journalism plays a role in that, and the way we do it is particularly geared towards that.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals have become a guiding principle in the social enterprise space. Certified B Corporations measure themselves against the SDGs, and ventures applying for SheEO indicate the SDGs they are working on, for example.

The SDGs we address are Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. These are big goals, and the impact that any individual organization like ours can have is tiny, but it’s through the accumulation of all of these small actions in the right direction that we will ultimately make a difference.

This is why our journalism is free to read, even though it isn’t free to make. It’s also why we don’t have a business model that relies on traffic (and thus outrage). And it’s why we have embarked on projects like the People’s Agenda, even though there is no direct revenue from such endeavours.

So how do we pay for it?

As we’ve said before, our business model has three streams: membership, sponsorship and advertising, and our briefings service. The first two are pretty conventional in the media business, though even there, we differ from many legacy media outlets in that we don’t put a paywall on our stories and we don’t sell the kind of advertising that follows you around the internet.

Our third revenue stream is this business-to-business service we sell. It is separate from the journalism side, but we apply the same technology and methodology to pay attention to and convey what’s going on. We simply shift our focus to the topics or communities that our clients are curious about, which they then use for internal intelligence or external communications, or both.

This suits us better than other revenue streams that media companies have pursued, such as sponsored content or events. It’s definitely more aligned with our goals than, say, an online casino. And it has made it possible for us to hire journalists and advance our ambitions beyond Edmonton much more quickly than we would have been able to if we relied solely on membership and sponsorship.

We’re grateful to have access to the IRP grant to further develop that side of our business, and we’re pleased to have yet another signal that we’re onto something.

What’s next?

We’re working with Purppl over the next few months to develop a plan to take our briefings service to customers throughout North America. In the meantime, Taproot will continue to provide a daily look at what’s going on in Edmonton, along with weekly deep dives into tech, food, the region, health innovation, the arts, and business.

If you’d like to help, here’s what you can do:

Taproot does some more pruning

Taproot Edmonton is publishing the final edition of the Media Roundup on Feb. 15. From time-to-time you’ll still find coverage of media in Edmonton in The Pulse and on our website.

The evolution of the Media Roundup

We launched the Media Roundup in July 2018 to cover media, public relations, and communications in Edmonton.

I had been writing a blog series called Media Monday Edmonton since early 2011 and it made sense to bring that into Taproot when we started developing our roundups. We expanded the purview of the roundup and added events and job opportunities.

In June 2019, Linda Hoang came on board to take over the Media Roundup and she did a great job. But with her own growing online empire, Linda decided to step away and wrote her final edition last month.

Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash

Why are we making this change?

Linda’s departure accelerated discussions we were already having about how the Media Roundup fits into what we’re building with Taproot Edmonton.

We continue to strive for "less but better" and just as with the end of the Council Roundup, we think this change will help us focus on other efforts, such as The Pulse.

There’s a popular quote in writing circles that "you must kill your darlings." Originally attributed to William Faulkner and popularized by Stephen King, the phrase refers to characters, paragraphs, chapters, or other bits of writing that we’re fond of and want to keep, even if they get in the way of serving the reader.

It has been ten years since I posted the first entry in Media Monday Edmonton. Paying attention to and writing about the media so regularly definitely factored into the creation of Taproot. I’m grateful for that, and I’m ready to let it go.

What’s next?

As appropriate, we’ll include media and communications-related items in The Pulse, the Arts Roundup, Business Roundup, and other publications so please continue to send us your suggestions and tips.

We are always open to opportunities to better serve our community and welcome your feedback.

And if you haven’t already done so, sign up to get The Pulse for free!

Highlight reel: Excerpts from Stories and Strategies

I had the pleasure of speaking to Doug Downs about the success of digital news startups for the Stories and Strategies podcast from JGR Communications. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

We’re journalism nerds

Doug asked about how Taproot came about, so I went all the way back to when Mack Male and I first met, when I was working as the digital editor at the Edmonton Journal, and he was a blogger who had started a podcast company before most people knew what that was.

If you want to know more about how Taproot came about, check out our full origin story.

Something that travels

You’ll often hear me talk about "a thousand flowers blooming" as we try to figure out how to ensure we continue to have local journalism as the legacy media players shrink. No one knows what will work, which means that anything might. We are one of those flowers — one of many startups trying to figure out the future. As I’ve indicated before, we’ve built a business model that allows us to do more than just create jobs for ourselves, which gives us some confidence that we can not only live but grow, and do the same for others.

Many have accepted as orthodoxy that digital news startups are too small to replace what’s being lost in the mainstream. "Hundreds of news outlets have shut down or reduced service, and digital news startups are too small to fill the gap," the Public Policy Forum’s Shattered Mirror report said in 2017. We certainly are small, but we’re growing, and we have the potential to not only fill the gap but do it better. Why be defeatist? Why not build back better, as they say?

A job to be done

Just about every interview like this touches on variations on "what about fake news?" We agree with our colleagues in legacy media that it’s bad to have stories spreading around that have the veneer of journalism but are unmoored from reality. But newspapers and broadcast outlets are not the only ones in the truth business. We are, too.

It’s also our job to sift through the overwhelming amount of information at our disposal and find the most useful, truthful stuff. We spend our days doing that sort of work, for journalism consumers through Taproot Edmonton and for our business clients through the B2B side of Taproot Publishing.

Our printing press moment

Zooming all the way out, it’s important to remember that we are living in revolutionary times when we consider our media, and it is completely understandable that we haven’t figured out how to deal with the fallout of the arrival of the new means of communication. When I say "our printing press moment," I’m thinking of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, written in 1980 but highly applicable to our current situation.

What I do know is that desperately trying to restore things to how they were pre-internet is not only impossible but also undesirable. News Media Canada insists that only newspapers can ensure that local journalism survives. We disagree. And we have risked much more than the executives in those companies to try to make it so.

Would you like to join us on this journey? You can! Sign up for The Pulse for a weekday look at what’s happening in Edmonton. It’s free to read, because communities require reliable information to function, and paywalls stand in the way of that.

Should you wish to help even more, you can become a member, which helps us continue to do this work (it’s free to read, after all, but not free to produce) and makes it available to those who can’t afford to pay.

And, if you run a business or organization, we have other ways to work together that help you get the word out while helping us continue to serve our community.

Many thanks to Stories and Strategies for the opportunity to expound. Mack and I love to talk about these things, so if you’d like to have us on your podcast or at your event, email us at hello@taprootpublishing.ca.

The Council Roundup is moving to The Pulse

Taproot Edmonton is publishing the final edition of the Council Roundup on Jan. 22 as we transition our coverage of the discussions and decisions happening at city hall to The Pulse and our new website. This means you’ll see more coverage of municipal politics from Taproot, and on a more frequent basis.

The evolution of the Council Roundup

We launched the Council Roundup in August 2018. For most of its existence, the roundup included a small summary of every agenda item. While this was a significant reduction from the hundreds of pages of reports that are published each week, it still resulted in a rather lengthy email.

When the pandemic hit last year, council’s schedule was upended, and we changed the Council Roundup accordingly. It became more like our other roundups, with some original writing at the top followed by curated headlines. And instead of including a summary of every agenda item, we included summaries of selected agenda items.

What hasn’t changed is our goal of providing readers with an overview of the items coming up at council and the decisions that were recently made. That’s a public service we’re committed to continuing.

What’s changing?

You’ll now find our coverage of municipal politics every weekday in The Pulse. That includes original reporting, curated headlines, and upcoming agenda items. For example:

We think this is a better way to inform you about municipal politics while also streamlining the efforts of our editorial team.

Our coverage of city hall is moving from the Council Roundup to The Pulse.

Why are we making this change?

One of our core principles at Taproot is that we edit. Of course we edit everything we publish, but this principle extends far beyond our journalism. We strive to make "less but better" part of all of our daily activities, and we give ourselves permission to stop trying to do it all.

With the launch of The Pulse, we evaluated everything else we’re doing and came to the conclusion that we could best achieve the objectives of the Council Roundup and of The Pulse by doing some consolidation.

What about the People’s Agenda?

For those who receive the Council Roundup to receive updates on our People’s Agenda project, we’ll be offering a monthly newsletter instead. It will cover what we’ve done in our quest to provide more citizen-focused coverage of the 2021 civic election, what we’re doing next, and how you can help us hear from more people.

What’s next?

We’ll continue to edit while also being open to opportunities to better serve our community, especially when it comes to understanding our local government and its activities. As always, we welcome and encourage your feedback.

If you haven’t already done so, sign up to get The Pulse for free!

Introducing The Pulse from Taproot Edmonton

We’re excited to introduce The Pulse, a daily news briefing that informs you about what’s going on in Edmonton. It launches on Monday, Jan. 18, and you can sign up now to get it for free.

What is The Pulse?

The Pulse is a one-stop shop for what you need to know before getting on with your day. Every weekday morning, we’ll share original stories from our team, a curated selection of local news from around the web, and other local items of interest that will hopefully provide you with a small dose of daily delight.

The Pulse is free, and it will contain minimal, locally focused advertisements to help us keep it that way. You can also support our work by becoming a member.

To start, we’ll deliver The Pulse via an email newsletter, on the web, and on social media. We know that everyone’s routine is different, and while email works well for many people, it may not for others. We want to meet you wherever you are in order to serve you well. To that end, we will continue to evaluate additional ways to make The Pulse available.

Why is Taproot launching The Pulse?

As readers, we subscribe to some fantastic daily newsletters from media companies elsewhere in the world, such as The Morning Newsletter from The New York Times, Morning Brew, and Axios AM. These and other similar newsletters are a great way to get oriented and provide useful context for the day ahead.

We wanted to subscribe to a local newsletter, too, something focused on our city, but what we were looking for just didn’t exist. Now it does.

Taproot Edmonton is well-positioned to make this happen. Our team pays close attention to Edmonton. We’re constantly gathering information about our city, evaluating those updates, adding context, and sharing them with readers. This effort has helped us keep Edmontonians informed through our roundups as well as an increasing number of original articles. Now it’ll help us produce The Pulse.

What benefits does The Pulse provide?

In December, we piloted The Pulse for two weeks with a few hundred of our existing email subscribers. That gave us an opportunity to gather feedback from readers on what elements of the briefing they liked best, as well as to test and refine the editorial process needed to produce a new edition every day.

We then took some time before the holidays to evaluate all the feedback and data we had collected. We were very encouraged by the response, with a majority of survey respondents indicating they liked The Pulse and wanted something like it to continue. In fact, 83% of respondents told us that The Pulse informed them about things they care about.

Our goal is for The Pulse to inform you, save you time, connect you to Edmonton, and delight you, each and every day.

We’ve made some adjustments since the pilot, and we’ll continue to iterate over the weeks and months ahead. We welcome your feedback!

Sign up to get The Pulse for free

We are launching The Pulse on Monday, Jan. 18, and we’d love for you to sign up to receive it in your email inbox every weekday. It’s free!

Meet Taproot Edmonton’s intern reporter

We’re kicking off the new year with an addition to Taproot Edmonton’s editorial team.

Jackson Spring is in his final year of the Bachelor of Communication Studies program at MacEwan University. He is an assistant editor at the griff, MacEwan’s student-run magazine. He has a particular interest in covering urban planning, public transportation, and climate change, and he really loves writing about trains.

Jackson Spring started an internship at Taproot Edmonton on Jan. 4, 2021.

Over the next few months, Jackson will be working on stories for Taproot Edmonton and helping us with our People’s Agenda election project.

We’re able to bring him on board thanks to the field placement program at MacEwan, which has an ongoing relationship with Taproot to provide real-world experience for journalism students, and the Venture for Canada internship program, which gives Canadian students and recent grads an opportunity to get entrepreneurship training and work experience at startups like ours.

We’re happy to have the opportunity to be a training ground, and we’re looking forward to having Jackson’s help to continue to pay attention to what’s going on in our city.