Here’s something city council can do right now to support local journalism

Edmonton’s city council passed a motion on June 7 that we didn’t cover over at Taproot Edmonton, but we certainly took note of as a local media company.

The motion, made by Coun. Ben Henderson and seconded by Coun. Scott McKeen, carried 13-0. Here’s what it says:

The City of Edmonton council recognizes that a healthy, professional news media is essential to the proper functioning of democracy in our city; urges nearby municipal councils and across Canada to recognize that a robust news media is essential to the proper functioning of democracy in their jurisdictions; endorses legislation and regulations to support and rejuvenate news outlets across Canada; and urges the federal government to move quickly to pass legislation to ensure an ecosystem for a healthy news media to serve all Canadians.

Edmonton City Council meeting, June 7, 2021

Henderson said similar motions have been passed by municipalities across the country. This campaign coincides with an effort by News Media Canada to step up pressure on the federal government to pass legislation to "rein in" Google and Facebook before Parliament rises for the summer amid anticipation of a fall election. The newspaper lobby would like something similar to what Australia passed earlier this year requiring Google and Facebook to negotiate compensation agreements with publishers.

Henderson said he didn’t know the specifics of the federal legislation. Nonetheless, the motion passed unanimously. That struck me as odd, but judging from the discussion, councillors were motivated by a desire to get on the record their recognition of the importance of local news coverage and the role that it plays in helping them do their job.

Fair enough. We agree that a healthy news media is essential to the proper functioning of democracy, and it means something for politicians to say that out loud, because they are often criticized by said media.

We should consider, however, whether the proposed cure is worse than the disease. As Joshua Benton pointed out in Nieman Lab, what happened in Australia is not all it’s cracked up to be. A bill in the Senate that aims to force the tech giants to pay royalties to Canadian journalism organizations is similarly flawed, as was eloquently explained by Sen. Paula Simons (a former Edmonton Journal colleague of both mine and McKeen’s) in a piece for The Line. It’s not clear that such a use of Canada’s copyright law would work, and even if it did, it would favour the incumbents. "At what point is it actually unfair to help big companies like Postmedia and Torstar and Bell Globe Media, while making it harder for new start ups and innovative news platforms to get a start?" she wrote. "Is there a point at which we simply have to acknowledge that the era of the big legacy newspaper companies is over?" In Taproot’s view, we have indeed reached that point.

A screenshot from the June 7 meeting where city council called on the federal government “to ensure an ecosystem for a healthy news media to serve all Canadians.”

Council can take action itself

At any rate, there’s not much we can do to influence what the federal government decides to do or not do on this file. However, there is action that our municipal government could take to strengthen the health of local journalism in our city.

The City of Edmonton buys a lot of advertising. Between 2008 and 2018, it spent well over $7 million on ads in the Edmonton Journal, and council’s executive committee agreed to renew an agreement for up to $3.5 million more over three years in November of 2018. We know these figures because the contract is big enough to have to go to council for approval. That agreement ends on Dec. 31, 2021.

A substantial proportion of that amount had been for "legally required advertising" — certain notices that the Municipal Government Act used to require the City to place in the main local newspaper. The act no longer requires this, and in October of 2019, city council passed a bylaw providing "alternative methods for advertising proposed bylaws, resolutions meetings, public hearings, and other things required to be advertised by the City." Now most of that legally required advertising can appear on the City’s website instead of in paid ads in the Edmonton Journal.

While the ostensible reason for advertising in the Journal was to reach a substantial proportion of the population as required by the MGA, the actual outcome was to subsidize Postmedia — a debt-ridden, Toronto-based company that has continually cut local journalism — in a way that has been unavailable to any of its competitors. What Taproot co-founder Mack Male told executive committee in 2018 remains true today: "Paying Postmedia for legally required advertising is effectively a subsidy to a single outlet. The opportunity here is to consider whether that subsidy should be reduced and whether it could be spread across multiple outlets, especially those who will invest the money in building a brighter future for journalism right here in Edmonton."

The City no longer has to spend as much on print ads as it used to, and its current agreement expires at the end of this year. It still has to make sure as many people as possible know what it is up to. And council just passed a motion saying that healthy local media outlets are vital to democracy. So this seems like an excellent time to use that spending power in a way that accomplishes these goals. Even a fraction of what has been allocated for advertising in Postmedia would make a huge difference to local media outlets like Taproot that inform the community and are part of the connective tissue that makes a city work.

To be clear, the City wouldn’t be buying influence with such purchases. Postmedia’s journalists feel free to criticize city council and administration, and so would Taproot’s and those at any other reputable media outlet. If there were strings attached to that money, we wouldn’t take it, and I don’t see any evidence that the City has or wants such strings. Some outlets choose not to sell any advertising at all; we do, with a clear moral compass that directs us to give up revenue if it puts the integrity of our journalism at risk.

And one more thing: With so much of the City’s communications now taking place on its own website and social media channels, it seems plausible that an ever-larger proportion of the advertising budget will go to search engine marketing and social media marketing. This is the advertising world we live in now, and it is why Google and Facebook have eaten newspapers’ lunch. But if council truly believes that something should be done to support local journalism, then it shouldn’t send all of its advertising budget to the tech giants either. Spend some of it here on the local media ecosystem.

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.

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.

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)