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)