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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Send that link to someone in your circle whose voice should be heard.
If you are putting on an online event involving Edmontonians, please get in touch with me at email@example.com. We have a small budget for sponsorship, as well as some additional opportunities for cross-promotion. In return, we’re looking for a chance to briefly invite your attendees to participate in the People’s Agenda.
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.
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:
Every day, I face a barrage of requests for money for the media I consume. Podcasters ask me to support their Patreon. News sites want me to subscribe, and insist that I pay if I want to read the rest of the story I’ve clicked on. Journalists tweet, “If you value this, pay for it.” Newsletters invite me to upgrade to a higher tier of membership. New ventures seek contributions to their crowdfunding campaigns.
It’s a lot.
I can’t afford to say yes to everyone, much as I want to. So I understand folks like this who feel torn. Most of us are not in a position to support every media organization we value. And in the olden days, we didn’t have to. Many publications were advertising-supported, and their subscription revenue was a nice (and sizeable, to be sure) add-on that also helped reassure businesses that their ads were seen. As Clay Shirky wrote in 2008, the internet broke that model, and it’s not coming back.
We are now well into the “Nothing will work, but everything might” phase of Shirky’s scenario, and that means a whole bunch of experiments, plus the legacy outlets that are still around — hello, National Newspaper Week! — are trying to survive in an environment that tends to rely a lot more on you, the user, to pay the way. That’s a lot to ask at the best of times, never mind in the middle of a pandemic.
We value our paying members highly. Taproot would not even be here without the validation of those early members who believed in us enough to send us money before we even knew what we were going to do with it, and everyone else who has joined since to keep the train moving. Every time someone buys or renews a membership, we get a double dose of happiness — one for the revenue and one for the encouragement, two precious things when you’re a bootstrapped startup.
But for a locally focused outlet like us, the math argues against relying solely on paid memberships. We don’t ever want to find ourselves saying “Pay up or else we’ll die.” As Shirky said of newspapers, “‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model.”
Our first step towards diversification was to open our roundup newsletters to sponsorship. This allowed us to enlist businesses in our effort to inform our community, without getting into the traffic-based ad game that has so many perverse incentives embedded in it. The next was to develop our briefings service to produce roundup-like newsletters for organizations that need them. We’re proud of that innovation, and we think it has tremendous potential to fund the journalism side of our operation in a way that doesn’t compromise it. We’re building a social enterprise with the stability to be here for the long haul.
Maybe it’s not smart to tell you that we never want to rely on your membership fees alone to ensure Taproot’s survival. But I have a bias towards the truth.
That said, we value members’ support a great deal, and we put it to very good use. By joining Taproot, you are investing in a product that we will make better and better, with more convenience and personalization in the future. You are also investing in our commitment to publish more and more high-quality journalism for everyone, freely available and never trapped behind a paywall.
If that sounds like an investment worth making, join us.
Taproot has been named a finalist in the “Business Idea of the Year” category of the 2020 LION Awards, which celebrate the best of independent online media across the U.S. and Canada.
The awards are run by LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, and will be presented on Oct. 22.
We were nominated for Spotlight, our curated newsletter that helps businesses and organizations pay attention to their communities. We submitted it because we think we’ve come up with an innovative way to provide a service that generates revenue for the journalism side of our operation, in addition to the money we get from membership and sponsorship. It’s also built on the same technology and methodology that we use to generate our roundups, so we’ve got a nice circle going.
Many thanks to the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute for sponsoring this award, and to LION Publishers for making this possible. A lot of inspiring work has been recognized in all of the categories, and we look forward to learning from all of the amazing finalists.
Emily first entered our orbit when we brought her on in February of 2019 to curate the Music Roundup. We later made her the editor of most of our roundups, and we soon had designs on putting her talents to even greater use. Now she is Employee No. 1, and we’re so excited about what we’re going to be able to accomplish with her on the team. And she’s excited, too.
“It’s been almost two years since I started doing freelance work for Taproot Edmonton, and it feels incredible to say I’m now joining the team full-time and that Taproot has grown into what it is today,” she writes. “It goes to show that any opportunity or connection can lead to something bigger!
“I believe journalism is part of the connective tissue that makes communities thrive, and what Mack and Karen are creating at Taproot will ensure that happens in a sustainable way. I’m so excited to keep building the future of local journalism with them and hope to meet as many of you as possible over the months to come.”
Emily is originally from Ottawa, and attended the University of King’s College in Halifax. She worked as a reporter, editor and associate producer with CBC Edmonton for three years, and has done work for national CBC programs such as The Current, Now or Never, What on Earth, The World This Hour and World Report, among others. As a multimedia journalist, she has worked in Edmonton, Jasper, Halifax and Yellowknife. In her spare time, she coaches speed skating, and enjoys local music, ski touring, backpacking, mountain biking, and exploring Mill Creek Ravine with her rescue pup, Abby.
Emily will continue to oversee our roundups, and she will help us move the People’s Agenda project forward. She will take over a number of other editorial duties from the co-founders (that’s Mack Male and me) so we can concentrate more on the tech development that empowers a small team to do a lot and the business development that sustains a growing company. And that’s just the start — we have big plans for the coming year, and Emily is going to play a major role in making them come to fruition.
We’ve reached this milestone in part because of the ongoing support of our paying members. If you’re one of them, thank you for your confidence. We hope you’ll join us in celebration, as you helped make this happen. If you’re not a member yet, we’d love to have you aboard to help us keep Taproot growing. Join today.
A week after launching our People’s Agenda project, we’re pleased and relieved to report that we have received responses. As I write this, 45 people have told us what they want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election. That’s a good start!
Here is a very small sample of the answers we’ve received, in no particular order and edited slightly for clarity:
“Affordable, subsidized, and permanent supportive housing. Since we have a 10,000-unit deficit in all 3 kinds of housing, it needs to stay the main topic until things are followed up on. Part of this is funding but part of this is reducing barriers to development.”
“Climate action and economic diversification, because without a plan on those fronts, Edmonton post-oil might be as broken as Newfoundland post-fish or Detroit post-car.”
“The arts. Artists have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. With the closure of most venues, performing artists, filmmakers, visual artists have lost almost all opportunities to display their work. The Edmonton Fringe Festival brings in millions of dollars to our city. That organization needs ongoing support. Our independent theatre venues and concert halls need support.”
“Defunding the police/abolishing the police and how maintaining the status quo infringes on the human rights of marginalized people and in fact all Edmontonians.”
“How can we sustainably and responsibly grow and operate the city without spending so much money? It seems the city budget grows faster than is needed.”
Some people truly have one key issue — e.g. “Climate change. Nothing else is important.” Others shared an omnibus of related issues — e.g. “How will you ensure that the goals of the City Plan are implemented through Council decisions over the next four years? This includes a commitment to climate action, curbing sprawl, smart district-based planning, innovative economic diversification, and increasing multimodal transportation options.” Still others have given us more eclectic responses, expressing, for example, a desire for more social enterprise, protection for the river valley, more people-oriented development and “more common sense and less ‘innovation’ ” in the same breath.
It’s going to be an interesting challenge to synthesize all of this into an agenda that will form the basis for our coverage, but it’s encouraging to see the quantity and quality of the raw materials we have to work with already.
And we’ve only just begun. If you haven’t already responded, here’s your chance to answer the question: