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 Council Roundup is moving to The Pulse

Taproot Edmonton is publishing the final edition of the Council Roundup on Jan. 22 as we transition our coverage of the discussions and decisions happening at city hall to The Pulse and our new website. This means you’ll see more coverage of municipal politics from Taproot, and on a more frequent basis.

The evolution of the Council Roundup

We launched the Council Roundup in August 2018. For most of its existence, the roundup included a small summary of every agenda item. While this was a significant reduction from the hundreds of pages of reports that are published each week, it still resulted in a rather lengthy email.

When the pandemic hit last year, council’s schedule was upended, and we changed the Council Roundup accordingly. It became more like our other roundups, with some original writing at the top followed by curated headlines. And instead of including a summary of every agenda item, we included summaries of selected agenda items.

What hasn’t changed is our goal of providing readers with an overview of the items coming up at council and the decisions that were recently made. That’s a public service we’re committed to continuing.

What’s changing?

You’ll now find our coverage of municipal politics every weekday in The Pulse. That includes original reporting, curated headlines, and upcoming agenda items. For example:

We think this is a better way to inform you about municipal politics while also streamlining the efforts of our editorial team.

Our coverage of city hall is moving from the Council Roundup to The Pulse.

Why are we making this change?

One of our core principles at Taproot is that we edit. Of course we edit everything we publish, but this principle extends far beyond our journalism. We strive to make "less but better" part of all of our daily activities, and we give ourselves permission to stop trying to do it all.

With the launch of The Pulse, we evaluated everything else we’re doing and came to the conclusion that we could best achieve the objectives of the Council Roundup and of The Pulse by doing some consolidation.

What about the People’s Agenda?

For those who receive the Council Roundup to receive updates on our People’s Agenda project, we’ll be offering a monthly newsletter instead. It will cover what we’ve done in our quest to provide more citizen-focused coverage of the 2021 civic election, what we’re doing next, and how you can help us hear from more people.

What’s next?

We’ll continue to edit while also being open to opportunities to better serve our community, especially when it comes to understanding our local government and its activities. As always, we welcome and encourage your feedback.

If you haven’t already done so, sign up to get The Pulse for free!

Introducing The Pulse from Taproot Edmonton

We’re excited to introduce The Pulse, a daily news briefing that informs you about what’s going on in Edmonton. It launches on Monday, Jan. 18, and you can sign up now to get it for free.

What is The Pulse?

The Pulse is a one-stop shop for what you need to know before getting on with your day. Every weekday morning, we’ll share original stories from our team, a curated selection of local news from around the web, and other local items of interest that will hopefully provide you with a small dose of daily delight.

The Pulse is free, and it will contain minimal, locally focused advertisements to help us keep it that way. You can also support our work by becoming a member.

To start, we’ll deliver The Pulse via an email newsletter, on the web, and on social media. We know that everyone’s routine is different, and while email works well for many people, it may not for others. We want to meet you wherever you are in order to serve you well. To that end, we will continue to evaluate additional ways to make The Pulse available.

Why is Taproot launching The Pulse?

As readers, we subscribe to some fantastic daily newsletters from media companies elsewhere in the world, such as The Morning Newsletter from The New York Times, Morning Brew, and Axios AM. These and other similar newsletters are a great way to get oriented and provide useful context for the day ahead.

We wanted to subscribe to a local newsletter, too, something focused on our city, but what we were looking for just didn’t exist. Now it does.

Taproot Edmonton is well-positioned to make this happen. Our team pays close attention to Edmonton. We’re constantly gathering information about our city, evaluating those updates, adding context, and sharing them with readers. This effort has helped us keep Edmontonians informed through our roundups as well as an increasing number of original articles. Now it’ll help us produce The Pulse.

What benefits does The Pulse provide?

In December, we piloted The Pulse for two weeks with a few hundred of our existing email subscribers. That gave us an opportunity to gather feedback from readers on what elements of the briefing they liked best, as well as to test and refine the editorial process needed to produce a new edition every day.

We then took some time before the holidays to evaluate all the feedback and data we had collected. We were very encouraged by the response, with a majority of survey respondents indicating they liked The Pulse and wanted something like it to continue. In fact, 83% of respondents told us that The Pulse informed them about things they care about.

Our goal is for The Pulse to inform you, save you time, connect you to Edmonton, and delight you, each and every day.

We’ve made some adjustments since the pilot, and we’ll continue to iterate over the weeks and months ahead. We welcome your feedback!

Sign up to get The Pulse for free

We are launching The Pulse on Monday, Jan. 18, and we’d love for you to sign up to receive it in your email inbox every weekday. It’s free!

Meet Taproot Edmonton’s intern reporter

We’re kicking off the new year with an addition to Taproot Edmonton’s editorial team.

Jackson Spring is in his final year of the Bachelor of Communication Studies program at MacEwan University. He is an assistant editor at the griff, MacEwan’s student-run magazine. He has a particular interest in covering urban planning, public transportation, and climate change, and he really loves writing about trains.

Jackson Spring started an internship at Taproot Edmonton on Jan. 4, 2021.

Over the next few months, Jackson will be working on stories for Taproot Edmonton and helping us with our People’s Agenda election project.

We’re able to bring him on board thanks to the field placement program at MacEwan, which has an ongoing relationship with Taproot to provide real-world experience for journalism students, and the Venture for Canada internship program, which gives Canadian students and recent grads an opportunity to get entrepreneurship training and work experience at startups like ours.

We’re happy to have the opportunity to be a training ground, and we’re looking forward to having Jackson’s help to continue to pay attention to what’s going on in our city.

Taproot Edmonton launches revamped website

We’re thrilled to introduce you to the new website for Taproot Edmonton!

You’ll find it at https://edmonton.taproot.news and it includes all of our stories, roundups, podcasts, and other work in one place. The site also includes all of our reader and membership functionality, and is the foundation we’ll be building on for the future.

The new site is another important step in the ongoing evolution of our web presence.

How we got here

When we launched Taproot Edmonton in the spring of 2016, we just had a simple, static landing page, which we replaced with two websites over that summer. At http://www.taprootedmonton.ca, we launched a WordPress-based site to serve as the home for our original journalism and our blog. And at members.taprootedmonton.ca, we launched a custom-built site to serve as the place for our member services — everything from joining to participating in the Story Garden.

That’s essentially how our web presence remained, though what we do at Taproot Edmonton has evolved quite a bit in the years since. We still publish original stories, but we also publish roundups and podcasts, neither of which showed up very well on our two existing sites. For new projects, like the COVID-19 microsite, we had to choose which site to add it to while still connecting both.

Both existing sites had fairly static home pages, which made sense when we were launching four years ago but doesn’t reflect the dynamic nature of our operation today. And having two sites was confusing. It felt very disjointed to go from reading a story on one site to a very different looking website in order to sign up as a reader or member.

We started taking some small steps this past summer to address these and other related challenges. In August, we launched our new blog at taprootpublishing.ca, which meant we removed it from taprootedmonton.ca.

Now, we’ve taken a big step forward.

A screenshot of the new website’s about page, featuring dark mode.

The new site

First and foremost, there’s just one site now, at https://edmonton.taproot.news. The new domain positions us to serve new communities in the future. We’ve redirected our existing domains so all the links already out in the world will just keep working.

Roundups, podcasts, news articles, and features are all integrated, better reflecting all of the work we publish on a daily basis. Also integrated is the ability to sign up as a reader (free) or member (paid), which means there’s no more hopping from one site to another.

The front page now shows our latest work, rather than static information about Taproot itself (that is available on the About page).

The new site has been designed with the expectations that we all have for websites in 2020, such as responsive design and a dark mode. There’s also plenty of behind-the-scenes changes that will enable us to improve the experience even further.

What’s next?

For the next two weeks we’re piloting a new way to keep Edmontonians informed called The Pulse, and the new website is foundational to that effort.

Our website remains a work in progress, and we’ll keep improving it over time. There are probably also some bugs still waiting to be fixed! If you spot any issues or have any suggestions, please let us know.

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.