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)

We’re merging Music into the Arts Roundup

We have made the decision to merge the Music Roundup into the Arts Roundup. The final edition of the Music Roundup will be published on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 and starting the following week we’ll be including more music-related coverage in the Arts Roundup. All existing Music Roundup subscribers will automatically receive the Arts Roundup instead.

The Music Roundup has actually been a key part of our progress over the last two years, so we haven’t made this decision lightly.

The context

We launched the Music Roundup in July 2018 as our second roundup. It was an important step as it helped further validate the idea behind the roundups and provided another place for us to iterate.

The Music Roundup was originally curated by Sandra Sperounes, a veteran music writer who had a long career at the Edmonton Journal and then as an entertainment columnist on CBC Radio. It was an incredible opportunity for us to learn from her.

When Sandra moved on to new things, we brought Emily Rendell-Watson on board. In addition to her interest in music and curation/writing skills, Emily quickly made herself indispensable by taking on most of the editing work for our other roundups.

In August 2019, the Edmonton Arts Council supported our efforts to offer local arts coverage by launching the Arts Roundup, curated by Fawnda Mithrush. It made sense at the time to add a new roundup rather than rebrand the Music Roundup, even though we knew there’d be some overlap.

Edmonton Kaleido Festival - 2018
While the Music Roundup is going away, our music coverage is not. The Arts Roundup already contains some of our music coverage and now you’ll find even more there. (Photo of the 2018 Kaleido Family Arts Festival by IQRemix)

The decision

As they say, hindsight is 20/20. If we were starting fresh, we likely wouldn’t launch two separate roundups! We’d launch one that covers all aspects of local arts, including music, theatre, dance, visual arts, literary arts, and more. Having one roundup for all of our local arts coverage will help us concentrate our resources.

COVID-19 also contributed to this decision. Arts and entertainment have been significantly impacted by the pandemic, which has in turn affected our coverage. While we hope for a return to "normal" in the near future, we know that the current state of affairs will continue for quite some time. Our approach needs to adapt accordingly.

What’s next

We are still committed to helping Edmontonians better understand the local music scene, and we encourage musicians, venues, promoters, and everyone else in the industry to continue sending news and other updates to us at hello@taprootedmonton.ca.

If you’re not already a subscriber, please check out the Arts Roundup!

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.

Kindness is the key on Giving Tuesday Now

We invite you to join us in marking Giving Tuesday Now, a global day of giving and unity on May 5.

You may be used to hearing about this as part of the cavalcade of “days” surrounding American Thanksgiving, from Black Friday to Cyber Monday to Giving Tuesday. This year, the movement has designated another day as part of the emergency response to COVID-19, and May 5 is it.

Chalk messages of kindness and hope
Messages of love and hope from the sidewalks in Karen’s neighbourhood.

If you have money to give, there are a number of local charities that could use your support. Here are some suggestions from members of our crew:

You can find lots more on Canada Helps, where you can also donate to a special Edmonton Fund that helps 159 local charities. You may also draw inspiration from these good deeds.

If you don’t have money to give right now, the Local Goodness Project offers a number of ways to contribute, and Giving Tuesday Now has suggestions, too.

There’s also a movement afoot to turn May 5 into Giving News Day. The economic disruption surrounding COVID-19 has taken its toll on local journalism at a moment when we need reliable and responsible information more than ever.

Canada doesn’t have the same kind of philanthropic support for journalism that the U.S. has, but you can still make a contribution. If, for example, you wanted to support Taproot, here are a few ways:

  1. Spread the word about Taproot. You could start by sharing this post!
  2. Become a Taproot Member.
  3. Become a Taproot sponsor.

Thanks for your interest. We’ll get through this together.

Meet our new Health Innovation Roundup curator

We’d like to introduce you to Hiba Kamal-Choufi, who started curating the Health Innovation Roundup a few weeks ago.

Hiba has been keeping a close eye on what’s going on in the health innovation space. As you can imagine, the past month has been quite a unique time to take over this particular roundup! Hiba has done a great job of curating the latest COVID-19-related news as well as other updates from the sector.

Hiba Kamal-Choufi, our new Health Innovation Roundup curator

Hiba started her career as a news editor in Beirut, covering stories that involved a range of topics, including the Arab uprisings in 2010 and 2011. After moving to Edmonton, she joined Shaw TV and has since held a number of communications positions. She has a master’s degree in communications and technology (MACT) from the University of Alberta and holds an M.A. in international relations and B.A. in journalism from Beirut, Lebanon. Hiba is currently the Director of Jobline and Email Marketing at IABC Edmonton.

The Health Innovation Roundup launched in the fall of 2018 with Catherine Griwkowsky as curator. We’re grateful to Catherine for all the work she did to keep readers informed and to help grow the roundup, and wish her all the best.

We’re thrilled to have Hiba on our roster of roundup curators who pay attention to what’s going on and distill it to its essence to make sure you are informed. Here’s the whole crew:

Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an edition. You can get up to two of these roundups for free if you join as a Taproot Reader.

If you become a Taproot Member, you can get as many roundups as you like, along with other perks. Plus you’ll be helping us pay for high-calibre local journalism from our curators and the freelancers we commission for original stories. We’re building what comes next — join us.

Answers to local questions about the COVID-19 pandemic

We have launched a COVID-19 microsite containing curated answers to questions about Edmonton’s response to and experience of the pandemic. Our objective is to help the local community understand this complex and quickly evolving topic better.

How the microsite came about

In the latest edition of our newsletter, sent on March 17, Karen wrote:

"In light of COVID-19 and the efforts to control its spread, we’re thinking about what more we can do to inform our community without contributing to the noise and information overload."

Our curators were already (and still are) collecting relevant news for our roundups, but we felt there might be an opportunity to do more. We invited readers to submit questions related to the pandemic. It wasn’t long before the first few questions came in and we’ve since received dozens more. That validated the need for Taproot to offer something more on this topic.

We discussed a number of different approaches for answering those questions. Given our resources, our expertise in curation, and our experience building microsites in the past, we felt that a microsite was the best approach for us.

What the microsite is for

The microsite contains questions posed by our community and answered by Taproot editors, based on primary documents and reliable published sources.

There’s no shortage of important information being shared about COVID-19 right now, but it is difficult to find answers to specific questions. Often the nugget of information you need is buried in the middle of an article or government document. You might also have to look at a large number of sources to get the complete answer.

Those are the problems the microsite aims to solve. You’ll find answers to specific questions, all in one place. Each answer contains links to sources and other information if you want dig deeper.

We don’t intend to publish the news of the day nor are we trying to be the destination for breaking news. The mainstream newsrooms in our city have that covered, and we are grateful to those journalists for their hard work, much of which we are pointing to in our answers and in our roundups. Our contribution is to simply and succinctly deliver what our readers say they want to know.

As Lauren Harris wrote at Columbia Journalism Review:

"In times of crisis, newsrooms ought not stop producing the news. But they can slow down, ask themselves what matters most, and be a calm guide for readers. Signal, not noise."

We strive to be that calm guide here in Edmonton.

What’s next

We have published a handful of entries thus far, and we’re working on many more. Keep your questions coming in, and we’ll keep the site updated with new curated answers. We’ll also update existing answers as new information arises.

As the pandemic evolves, so will the microsite. Send us your suggestions and feedback at hello@taprootedmonton.ca.

A note about Speaking Artistically

At the request of Bottom Line Productions, we have taken down Episode 13 of Speaking Artistically, our podcast about arts in Edmonton.  

Removing published work is a drastic step, so we feel we owe you an explanation.  

We launched Speaking Artistically last November, a few months after launching our Arts Roundup. It was hosted and produced by Bottom Line Productions, and published by Taproot.  

It’s not typical for us to work with companies in this way. Usually, we pay contributors to produce things for us. This was an exchange of value — Bottom Line would produce the podcast, on which it would promote our Arts Roundup, and we would publish the podcast on our platform and draw attention to it on Taproot’s channels.  

We understood the hosts would sometimes talk about shows that Bottom Line was promoting, but not exclusively. The show was meant to be a conversation among people who are immersed in local arts, talking about what’s on or coming up, and that’s what it was.  

Bottom Line has run into a situation where something said on the podcast has landed it in trouble with a client. And so they have asked us to take the episode down. “The intentions of our comments could have been misconstrued and for that we apologize,” writes Darka Tarnawsky, President of Bottom Line Productions. 

We have reluctantly agreed to do so. This demonstrates, however, that the unusual arrangement we made with Bottom Line is not going to work. Our first allegiance has to be to the listener.  

Speaking Artistically will be on hiatus until we decide whether to find new hosts or cease publishing it altogether. We do thank Bottom Line Productions for the opportunity to experiment, and we wish them well.