Meet the newest additions to Taproot Edmonton’s team

We’ve bolstered Taproot Edmonton’s editorial team with the addition of two more interns from local journalism schools.

Sara Gouda and Andy Trussler have joined Taproot Edmonton on field placements from NAIT and MacEwan.

Sara Gouda joins us from NAIT’s Radio and Television program. She was born in Egypt and earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication with a concentration in journalism at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates before coming to Canada to further her studies. She has done work for CNN Abu Dhabi, Sky New Arabia, and Foochia Magazine, in addition to NAIT NewsWatch and the NAIT Nugget.

"I’m excited to work on People’s Agenda to see what audiences are excited about, what they would like to read more on," she said. "Taproot will be a good and challenging fit to grow my strengths and also learn more."

Andy Trussler joins us from MacEwan University’s Bachelor of Communication Studies program, where they are in their fourth year of studies. Before moving to Edmonton, they served as the opinion editor at The Carillon at the University of Regina, and worked as a theatre instructor, a regional director of the Canadian Improv Games, a sexual violence activist, and a public speaker.

"Taproot has graciously provided me with the opportunity to do journalism for the community with the community, and I can’t wait to navigate the curiosities of real Edmontonians," they said. "The media’s future exists online, and I am delighted to pursue that future with the team at Taproot."

We’re grateful to have the opportunity to bring students on board through the field placement programs at NAIT and MacEwan, and we look forward to publishing their work. We’re also pleased to be able to again access funding through Venture for Canada to extend Andy’s stay with us.

More personnel news

Andy and Sara join Jackson Spring, who arrived in our virtual newsroom in January to do his MacEwan field placement and a Venture for Canada internship. Having completed those hours, Jackson is sticking around with us for a few more months.

Among his other duties, he has taken over as curator of the Regional Roundup, now that Stephen Cook has stepped away to pursue other interests. "It’s not rare for a journalist to learn more about their city by covering it — I was lucky to get the chance to learn more about a whole metro region," Stephen wrote in a farewell message to Regional Roundup readers. "As a born and raised Edmontonian, it’s been my pleasure to read about and share the bigger, brighter future that so many local leaders are working towards."

We have also welcomed Michelle Ferguson to the team. She puts The Pulse together and compiles the headlines that we draw to your attention every weekday morning. We’re happy to have her help to keep you informed.

We’re working on a revamped About page on Taproot Edmonton’s site to credit the whole team behind our operation.

How Taproot puts membership fees to work

I’d like to draw your attention to Taproot Edmonton’s latest big feature — Public purchasing power leaves small businesses on the outside looking in — not only because of the journalistic value, but also because of what it says about where we are right now.

First, the journalism. Back in January, there was a brouhaha when The Breakdown and CTV News revealed that the provincial procurement of reusable masks to be used in schools ignored the Alberta-based companies that had participated in a request-for-proposals process and granted the contract instead to a vendor in Education Minister Adriana LaGrange’s riding, in addition to Old Navy.

Plenty of coverage ensued, and we didn’t cover this particular scandal ourselves. But it left us with a question that speaks to the bigger picture of how decisions are made, which is something Taproot likes to dig into: To what extent do governments "shop local" and should they do it more?

The government procurement process, both at the municipal and provincial level, is outdated and opaque, TIQ Software’s Jason Suriano told Taproot’s Ryan Stephens in a recent feature story. (Supplied photo)

So, we assigned Ryan Stephens to look into it. He learned there is a growing interest among governments to take economic growth and social improvement into account when making purchasing decisions, but as Claire Theaker-Brown of Unbelts and Jason Suriano of TIQ Software told him, that process remains opaque and difficult to navigate, which means a lot of opportunities have been lost. Read the whole story to see what they mean.

What does this story say about where Taproot is at?

When we started, all we published was longform features. We couldn’t afford the time or money to do daily coverage, but thanks to our first paying members, we had enough revenue to commission stories based on the curiosity of our community. One such story was Ryan’s piece on the motorcyclists who congregate at the Tim Hortons on Whyte, published in 2017.

This was a good way to start, but the metabolism was a little slow for us to really get traction. Our weekly roundup newsletters helped speed it up, while diversifying our revenue to include not only membership but also sponsorship. Roundups also opened our eyes to the opportunity to create a briefings service for businesses and organizations. This made it possible to hire Emily Rendell-Watson as Taproot Edmonton’s managing editor, and that increased capacity enabled us to speed up our metabolism even more with The Pulse, our daily newsletter.

As we built all of that, those longform features fell by the wayside, mostly for lack of time to think, organize, assign, and edit. But we’ve got our feet under us now, at least somewhat, and we’re able to bring such explanatory work into the world again more regularly.

We’re also getting to a place where we can publish stories pitched by freelancers, as we did with Tom Murray’s recent story, Indigenous entrepreneurs on the rise in Alberta. And we’re in a position to run longer pieces written by staff, too, as with Misleading or helpful: Should city councillors use branded graphics on social media? and Building Innovate Edmonton: The first four months.

Free to read, but not free to make

One thing that has not changed about Taproot, from Day 1, is that our journalism is available for everyone to read, whether they pay us or not. We have never wavered from our belief that for journalism to do its job, it has to be widely accessible.

Many outlets believe that if they can’t sell your attention to advertisers (because advertisers now pay Facebook and Google instead), then they must erect a paywall to force you to pay for their journalism directly. This reveals a lack of imagination. And it risks putting well-researched, well-edited stories out of reach while the market is flooded with free but lousy work, not to mention misinformation and disinformation.

All of the work we publish is high-quality and free to read. But no one works for Taproot for free. Membership fees are part of what allows us to pay our staff and freelancers to do this work.

So, if you are one of our paying members, thank you! And if you are one of our original paying members, please know how eternally grateful we are for your continued support through all of these iterations. We hope you are happy to see us returning to the kind of journalism you originally signed up for, augmented by a whole lot more.

If you read Taproot but have not yet become a paying member, consider hopping on board. It costs $10 a month or $100 a year to help us pay for more local journalism and to send a signal that this kind of work is valuable to you.

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 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:

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.

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.

Why and how we’re pursuing the People’s Agenda

As we all wait for the votes to be counted in the United States, and brace ourselves for whatever comes next, you might not want to hear another single thing about any kind of election anywhere. I hear you.

Tension
We’re feeling the election-related tension these days — how about you? (Photo by Jie Qi)

But we will have a civic election here next October, and the candidates we choose will have more effect on our day-to-day lives than anything that happens south of the border, however overwhelming it may be right now. We really want to make sure Taproot equips voters to make informed decisions and alerts candidates to what is important for them to address.

The point of the People’s Agenda method — which aims to find out what issues Edmontonians want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election — is to act as an antidote to coverage that focuses on who’s ahead and who’s behind, i.e. the infamous “horse race” that relies so heavily on polling. It’s also a way to keep the focus on real things that city council has to make decisions about, rather than sniping or gaffes or “us vs them” appeals.

Here’s an update on the progress we’ve made so far:

Rob Houle has joined Taproot’s People’s Agenda steering committee.
  1. We have welcomed Rob Houle to our steering committee. You may have heard him before on Speaking Municipally — on Episode 92 he spoke about council’s decision not to reduce the police budget, and on Episode 100 he talked about the city’s new Indigenous ward names. He joins Elise Stolte to help us stay accountable on our goals to hear from as wide and diverse a swath of Edmontonians as possible.
  2. We’ve figured out how we’re going to follow up with the respondents who gave us permission to do so. This may seem like a very small step, and it is, but we hadn’t come up with a procedure for that when we launched this thing, and now we have. We expect that these follow-up conversations and calls will lead to story ideas, which we will start assigning and publishing soon. This is how we will make sure we go deeper than superficial surveys and get closer to the kind of deep listening that Elise is doing with her Groundwork project.
  3. It’s clear from the first hundred or so responses that some common themes are coalescing. We still have a lot more people to reach out to and hear from, but there’s enough early consensus on several topics to indicate a preliminary agenda. So we’ll be putting that together and publishing it soon, in hopes that it prompts further responses.
  4. We’re working out a less aggressive timeline. The election is less than a year away, but that’s still pretty far down the road. For various reasons, we were planning to do a lot of response-gathering and listening in the fall, with a view to launching our coverage in January. We’ve since taken a step back to give the outreach process a little more air while altering the rest of the plan so you can see actual stories and not just progress reports sooner.

That may be more information than you require, but transparency is a good policy.

For examples of some of the responses we’ve seen so far, keep an eye on the Council Roundup, where we update the numbers every week.

Here’s how you can help

Taproot Edmonton launches a new podcast

Happy Edmonton Startup Week! We’re marking the occasion with the debut of Taproot Edmonton Presents: Igniting Innovation, a podcast series exploring how startups and investors are coming together in Edmonton’s tech innovation sector.

Here’s the trailer to give you a taste:

Igniting Innovation is the first series under our new imprint, Taproot Edmonton Presents, where we’ll tell stories that suit the podcast medium and take advantage of the tremendous audio talents of managing editor Emily Rendell-Watson.

Keren Tang and Zack Storms at Avenue Edmonton’s Top 40 Under 40 gala in 2017. (Photo from @zjstorms)

Episode 1 sets the scene with power couple Zack Storms, founder and chief organizer of Startup TNT, and Keren Tang, an angel investor with the Startup TNT Investment Summit. They share stories about building and fostering relationships with entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity that more diversity would bring.

You’ll be hearing more from Zack in the coming episodes — he’ll be a bit of a colour commentator for Emily as she learns more about the scene, talking to veterans and newcomers about what it takes to get an idea off the ground, and the challenges involved in connecting entrepreneurs and innovators with investors to help bring the ideas to life.

The series leads up to the Startup TNT Summit on Nov. 19, which is aiming to raise $150,000 for two local tech companies in Edmonton and Calgary, “while also training new investors to become confident angels.”

Taproot Edmonton Presents: Igniting Innovation is available now in most of the places where one subscribes to podcasts, with new episodes on Wednesdays. If you prefer the desktop experience, here’s Episode 1:

Taproot Edmonton Presents joins our other forays into the podcasting realm: Speaking Municipally, where Troy Pavlek and Mack Male conduct a weekly discussion on key stories in municipal politics, and the audio version of the weekly Tech Roundup. Many thanks to Dave Von Bieker for the theme music and to Kirra Kent for the cover art.

Subscribe to Taproot Edmonton Presents, Speaking Municipally, and Taproot Edmonton Tech Roundup.

As alumni of Launch Party 7 in 2016, we’re so pleased to be in a position to mark this year’s Edmonton Startup Week in this way. Startup Edmonton has even more podcast recommendations if you’re looking to fill your queue. Happy listening!