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!

The media consumer’s dilemma

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 are an acorn now, but we are aiming to grow into a mighty oak. What will it really take to get there?

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.

Business idea earns Taproot a LION Award nomination

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 finalists for the 2020 LION Awards for local journalism were announced on Sept. 24, 2020.

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.

We’re thrilled that the jury for the LION Awards saw merit in our idea, alongside Detour Detroit for its Keep Detroit Local initiative, Richland Source for its Source Brand Solutions digital marketing agency, and VT Digger for its press release portal. It looks like we’re the only Canadian finalists, so that’s pretty neat, too.

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.

Taproot Edmonton makes its first hire

We’re thrilled to announce that we have hired Emily Rendell-Watson as managing editor of Taproot Edmonton.

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.

Emily Rendell-Watson, Taproot Edmonton’s managing editor and our first employee!

“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.

If you’d like to connect, she’s at emily@taprootedmonton.ca.

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.

People’s Agenda progress report: Responses!

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!

We send a virtual bouquet to everyone who has answered the People’s Agenda question so far!

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:

What key issue do you want the candidates to talk about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election, and why? (Click the link to answer.)

Many thanks to everyone who has answered so far, and to those who have sent encouraging words. We’re excited to see where this goes!

Help us discover the People’s Agenda in Edmonton

Taproot Edmonton is embarking on a quest to find out what Edmontonians want candidates to be talking about as they campaign for votes in the next municipal election, which will be held Oct. 18, 2021. This will shape our coverage and form the basis of a guide to help you decide who to vote for. 
We are looking for your help to establish a People’s Agenda.

This is our version of Jay Rosen’s citizens’ agenda. The approach is grounded in a desire to make elections about more than the horse race or the spectacle, but rather to listen intently to what voters say is important to them, to deepen our understanding of those issues, and to determine where the candidates stand on them, so people feel empowered and informed when they go to the polls.

Why are we doing this?

From the beginning, Taproot has been interested in learning what people wanted us to find out on their behalf. We have tried various versions of this, to varying degrees of success. The Election SOS Engaged Elections training that we participated in this summer gave us access to the inspiration, tools, and prior experience of journalists and community organizers to help us build a strategic plan for applying this approach to our upcoming municipal election.

A screen shot from our Engaged Elections training session with Jay Rosen

How did this come about?

In June, we received an invitation from Bridget Thoreson of Hearken to attend a webinar with Rosen on the citizens’ agenda. I sent it to my friend Elise Stolte, the Edmonton Journal’s city columnist and a journalist who cares deeply about listening to readers. She was on a leave of absence in Switzerland at the time. We applied to join the next cohort of the Engaged Elections training and together built a strategy for how to apply Rosen’s idea to our local context.

What are we trying to accomplish?

Here is the vision for this project:

Taproot Edmonton will build a robust, accurate, point-in-time summary of the key points on people’s minds heading into the 2021 municipal election in Edmonton, tapping into the full diversity of our community. The People’s Agenda will be shared publicly as widely as possible during and after the listening campaign and will shape Taproot Edmonton’s coverage, grounding it in what people actually care about. The People’s Agenda will help fulfill Taproot’s mission to help our community understand itself better, in a way that is driven by curiosity and a desire to explain rather than to convince.

Here’s what success will look like:

The People’s Agenda will reflect what Edmontonians want candidates to address, and Taproot Edmonton will be better connected to a broader, more diverse, and engaged community.

This will only work if we get input from a large number and wide variety of people. That’s why we’re starting now. We very much want to hear from the existing Taproot community, but we also know that the success of this project depends on hearing from people who don’t yet know who we are or what we do. We want and need the full diversity of Edmonton to be reflected. We’d love your help to achieve this.

Where do we start?

The work starts with a question. Here is our first version:

What key issue do you want the candidates to talk about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election, and why?

I say “first version” because the question may change if it turns out to be hard to answer or confusing. We won’t know until we start, but we need the freedom to iterate.

This isn’t a scientific poll — it’s a listening campaign, an effort to be openly curious. If we change the question, it will be to further get at what is actually important to people. This isn’t a junk poll either — we are not trying to manipulate the question to get an answer that aligns with our own political beliefs. We are just trying to hear you, and we may have to adjust our listening device to do so.

We will also ask you for permission to follow up on your response to ask more questions, and we will ask your permission to send you updates about the project, including the reporting that comes out of it. If you don’t want us to email you, we will also be reporting our progress on this blog until our election coverage begins on Taproot Edmonton.

We are forming a steering committee, on which Elise has agreed to serve. We’ll be announcing additional members in the coming weeks. This committee will help keep us on track and make sure our outreach efforts are sensitive, effective, and as wide-ranging as they need to be.

Elise Stolte
Journalist Elise Stolte will be sitting on our steering committee.

What does this lead to?

Later this fall, we plan to release a preliminary version of the People’s Agenda. We expect that to elicit more responses, which will lead to a more final version of the agenda. We’ll aim to unveil that in January.

We will then assign and publish stories that dive deeper into those issues, to provide a further explanation of city council’s power to address them or make decisions pertaining to them. We will also ask the candidates where they stand on those issues. Between their answers to us and what we glean from other election coverage, we will produce a voters’ guide outlining what the candidates say they’ll do about the issues you say matter. When the election is over, we’ll also have a record of what the mayor and councillors said they’d do, which provides an opportunity to hold them to account over the course of their terms.

Most election coverage yields stories and something like a voters’ guide. Our end products may not look that different from what other media outlets will produce. What is different is the intense focus from the beginning on what a wide swath of people say they want this election to be about. And we think that will make our coverage more meaningful than who’s ahead, who’s behind, and who’s sniping at who.

How can you participate?

  1. Answer the question on this form.
  2. Share the form with others. This post will be linked in it so they can see what we’re up to.
  3. Become a Taproot Member. You don’t have to be a paying member to participate. But paid memberships will help us fund this work.

If you have any questions or any ideas about how to get this in front of more people, please contact us at hello@taprootedmonton.ca.

(Feature image courtesy of Marco Verch Professional Photography)

Introducing Spotlight

As we hinted at when we moved our blog, we’ve been working hard on the business-to-business side of Taproot Publishing over the past few months. It’s time to introduce you to Spotlight, our product that helps an organization pay attention to its community.

Spotlight grew out of our observation that it’s powerful to show the people you serve that you have noticed their efforts, events and successes. It’s the sort of thing that can make people happy to be your members, customers or partners. It can provide useful intelligence for readers as well.

It’s also a lot of work. I’ve been doing this kind of attention-paying for a long time — remember when I used to round up Edmonton blogs and podcasts? — and it can take over your life. I was only able to do that on a regular basis back then because of a rudimentary tool that Mack Male built to make it easier to gather up posts, long before we started Taproot.

Mack has now built more powerful tools, and we can use them for a variety of communities, not just for my particular bent. That early experience also helped us develop a methodology for this kind of thing, which feeds back into the technology that enables it and is grounded in the curatorial expertise that only a skilled human can provide (so far, at least).

After a lot of listening to prospective clients and experiments with our early customers, we’ve developed this product that gives you all of the power of paying attention without having to do any of the work.

Who is Spotlight for?

Spotlight works well if your organization has members or a defined group of partners, stakeholders or clients, and those folks tend to share things on the internet and/or get media coverage for their work. We’re basically harvesting the owned media (blogs, videos, podcasts, social media posts, etc.) and earned media (mentions in the news, guest appearances on podcasts or blogs, any kind of third-party attention) that pertains to the people in your particular community. Then we curate it into a readable summary of the most interesting items.

For some clients, such as the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta, we put this information into a newsletter and send it on their behalf. For others, such as ATB, we compile the items, and they send them out themselves. Our first international client, SheEO, uses our curation to bolster its regular newsletter and shares some of the items separately on social media. There’s a lot of flexibility.

Why are we doing this?

We saw an opportunity to serve business customers by applying the tools we use for the journalistic side of our work, primarily our roundups. Spotlight is part of a suite of such services — we’ll tell you more about the rest in the coming months.

It’s not unusual for media companies to develop B2B services to diversify their revenue streams beyond subscriptions or advertising. Some do that through sponsored content. Others provide graphic design and marketing services to help local businesses with their digital presence. Still others work with clients to put on events for their customers. There are lots of ideas out there to support the kind of work we do.

We think our particular approach is unique, and it’s a key part of our quest to build a robust, sustainable business that supports local journalism. We also sell memberships and sponsorships, and those are very important. We’ve found that this third leg, so to speak, provides significant stability, and it gives us a stronger chance of fulfilling our mission to inform communities about themselves.

Want to hear more?

If you think your business or organization could benefit from our approach, we’d love to talk. Contact us at hello@taprootpublishing.ca.

An update on our editorial vision and election plans

Taproot had the great good fortune to be accepted into the Election SOS Engaged Elections training this month. Three-quarters of the way through the program, I can say it is going to have a profound effect on the way we cover the 2021 municipal election, and will inform much of my thinking for all of Taproot’s editorial work in the future.

Taproot is proud to be in the July cohort of the Election SOS Engaged Elections training.

Taproot was founded on the idea that our work should be grounded in the curiosity of our community. We’ve tried this in various ways in the past:

  • The Story Garden: Taproot Members could ask a question, and if others were curious about the same thing, we would assign a story to answer the question or at least explore the issues raised by it.
  • Supporting Let’s Find Out: Chris Chang-Yen Phillips’s podcast is based on answering people’s questions about Edmonton. We supported a season’s worth of episodes answering questions solicited at a live event about how humans and nature shape each other in our city.
  • The COVID-19 in Edmonton microsite: We gathered questions from the public and tried to answer them, drawing from reliable sources and organizing the information so readers could find out exactly what they wanted to know.

We’ve learned more from those experiments than I have room to list here. Among the lessons:

  • Participation shouldn’t be behind a paywall.
  •  “What do you want to know?” can be a paralyzingly broad question.
  • Deeper engagement yields great questions.
  • If you’re going to ask, you’d better find the resources to answer.

Through a serendipitous series of events, Election SOS came along right when we needed it to put those lessons to good use and to tap into the vast experience of others who are trying to do this kind of work.

We’ll share more in the coming weeks about what that is going to look like, but the short answer is that we’re going to apply Jay Rosen’s concept of The Citizens Agenda to our coverage leading up to Edmonton’s civic election in October of 2021. That means we need to find out what a significant number of people in our community want candidates to address in this election, and apply what we learn to ensure our work is useful and relevant, our electorate is informed, and our candidates are aware of what is important.

What we learn from this experience will no doubt shape our editorial vision outside of and beyond that election. This feels to me like an excellent framework to keep working towards what we have aspired to do since the beginning, and I’m eager to see what we can do with it.

This work has delayed the call for contributors that we promised in June as part of our effort to build more diversity into Taproot, and to create more opportunities for journalists who are Indigenous, Black or people of colour. We haven’t forgotten that promise, and we remain committed to making it happen. The Election SOS methodology is thoroughly grounded in the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, and the need for journalists like us to be collaborative rather than extractive. This work simply cannot be done without widening our circle.

Stay tuned for details and information on how to get involved. Many thanks to Hearken, Trusting News, the American Press Institute and The Democracy Fund for letting a Canadian outfit into this excellent program. By the way, applications close on July 24 for the next intake, so if you are a journalist interested in applying these principles to your own organization, apply here.

Where Taproot stands, and the work ahead

Black Lives Matter. The deaths of George Floyd and too many others at the hands of police make it necessary to say out loud what we believe but have not been sufficiently vocal about.

As two white co-founders, we have a responsibility to use our privilege to contribute to a more just society. As a media organization, here are some actions we have taken or will take:

  1. We’ve made a donation to the Canadian Association of Black Journalists. We were prompted to do so by a thread compiled by Indiegraf Media, which is building a network of indie news entrepreneurs.
  2. We will actively encourage journalists who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour to answer the call for contributors that we’ll be issuing in July. Taproot pays for commissioned work, and we know we will do a better job of paying attention to our community with more diversity among our contributors.
  3. We will work towards answering the seven calls to action issued by the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour. We are as yet too small to do some of these things, but the place where we can start is to create mentorship opportunities for aspiring journalists of colour.

We share this simply to be accountable for backing up our words with action, knowing that we still have more work to do.

We know we have missed opportunities in the past to take similar action in response to racism against Indigenous people in our city. We must at least live up to the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation’s calls for the media to include more Indigenous people and be more aware of Indigenous history. And that too is a very small beginning.