Taproot shortlisted for journalism innovation award

Here’s some happy news to share with you — Taproot Edmonton is a finalist for the CJF-Meta Journalism Project (MJP) Digital News Innovation Award!

This is an annual award that recognizes news organizations that "power journalism’s future through digital journalism." It was our coverage of the 2021 municipal election that caught the eye of the jury.

The winner will be announced at the Canadian Journalism Foundation Awards on June 7.

We are shortlisted with the CBC for its Black On the Prairies interactive series, and New Canadian Media for its collective membership model, a capacity-building project with the Canadian Association of Journalists and National NewsMedia Council.

I had the pleasure of leading the tremendous team that pulled this project off, with development by Mack Male and Meenakshi Chaudhary; data analysis by Madeleine Stout; editorial work by Emily Rendell-Watson, Jackson Spring, and Troy Pavlek; session facilitation by Chris Chang-Yen Phillips; and advice from Elise Stolte and Rob Houle.

Many thanks to everyone who participated in this project. The real reward was, of course, the knowledge that we sent thousands of Edmontonians into this election with a better understanding of what the issues were and which candidates aligned best with their values. But it’s nice to get some external validation.

Community-driven, audience-funded journalism at NASH81

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at NASH81: Refine, the annual gathering of Canada’s student journalists. This year’s event was hosted by the University of Calgary’s independent student publication The Gauntlet. Organizers put together an exciting schedule with talks on podcasting, visual storytelling, beatwriting, ethics, humour writing, freelancing, photojournalism, and much more.

I participated in a panel discussion that explored the question, is the future of journalism crowd-funded and community-driven? Joining me on the panel were Erin Millar, CEO of The Discourse, and Jeremy Klazsus, founder of The Sprawl. Our moderator was Katrina Ingram, strategic advisor at the Alberta Podcast Network and host of the Back to School Again podcast.

While there are some differences between our organizations, there are far more similarities. Each publication is pursuing an audience-pay model in which a significant proportion of revenue comes directly from members or patrons. The idea is to serve readers rather than advertisers, which the panel agreed is more likely to result in high quality journalism that is better aligned with what the community wants.

Another similarity is that content is accessible to everyone – you won’t find any paywalls here! The panel identified two key drivers behind this. The first is that for a story to have an impact, it needs to be widely consumed. Artificial barriers that get in the way of accessing content hinder our ability to make a difference in the communities we serve. The second is that supporters want our journalism to be available to those who can’t afford it and they’re happy to contribute toward making that possible.

Engagement is also critical to each of our organizations. We seek input from our community to help drive our journalism forward and to make sure we’re adding value with everything we do. The Discourse has a survey they ask members to take upon joining, The Sprawl actively solicits input via social media, and of course at Taproot we have the Story Garden. Everyone on the panel talked about the importance of listening.

We also discussed:

  • The importance of confronting inequity in journalism and how we must seek to avoid recreating legacy media’s lack of diversity
  • How the audience-pay model is built on trust which means sponsored content is a poor fit
  • That in serving our paying audience we tend not to chase the news of the day and instead practice what The Sprawl calls “slow journalism”
  • While the federal government’s funding announcement may have some positive impacts, there’s a risk it will simply prop up the legacy players rather than support badly needed innovation in Canadian media

As is the case with these sorts of discussions, there wasn’t enough time to say everything! The students in attendance asked great questions and I hope they found our approach to the future of journalism informative and inspiring.

For more on the topics we discussed, read “The rise of audience-funded journalism in Canada“, a report published by The Discourse in December 2018 with contributions from The Sprawl, Taproot Edmonton, and other digital independent news outlets across the country.

Help us do better beat reporting in Edmonton

Two weeks ago we published our latest story, a look at EEDC’s proposed Innovation Hub. Written by Eliza Barlow and edited by Therese Kehler, the story was well-received and widely read. Last week, City Council voted to request that EEDC pause work on the project, pending further review and engagement.

We first shared news of the Innovation Hub in an edition of the Tech Roundup in August, not long after we began work on the story. It takes time and effort to do the quality of journalism we strive for, and we wanted to make sure it would have an impact when we published it, so we set Edmonton Startup Week as the deadline. We got lucky that innovation was on the agenda at City Council to start the week too! We followed the story up with an episode of Speaking Municipally in which Troy Pavlek and I spoke with Eliza and Therese in more depth about the story and how they did their reporting. I also live-tweeted City Council meetings on October 15 and on October 23 where the Innovation Hub and related reports were discussed. We did a follow-up in Episode 12 of Speaking Municipally, and this week’s edition of the Tech Roundup. We’ve been on the case for a while, and will continue to provide updates through the Tech Roundup and future stories as appropriate.

We didn’t stumble into the story by accident, nor did we get lucky in the timing of its publication. Both were made possible because of the attention we pay to the tech beat here in Edmonton. We launched the Tech Roundup in early June, and already it has become the must-read publication for anyone interested in Edmonton’s technology sector. Every week we curate the latest local tech headlines & happenings, and that focused attention, alongside engagement with our community, allowed us to recognize there was a potential story on the horizon. It also gave us visibility into when Edmonton Startup Week was happening and when the topic of innovation was scheduled to be discussed by City Council.

We think beat reporting, especially local beat reporting, is critical.

Having fewer reporters on beats leads to “shallower stories, and a public with a shallower understanding of important issues and institutions,” Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale told the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 2013. But in the nearly five years since that article was published things have gotten worse, not better. More than 250 Canadian news outlets have closed since 2008, and countless others have slashed the number of reporters they employ. According to the Canadian Media Guild‘s tracking of layoffs and buyouts for the past few decades, “the total is in the order of 12,000 positions lost.”

The reduction in stories being told reflects this, and it’s newsroom beats that have declined the most. According to the Public Policy Forum, the number of newspaper articles produced over the last 10 years has shrunk by almost half. Their report suggests that newsrooms may be “concentrating limited resources on covering civic affairs at the expense of other topics.”

The shrinking coverage of other topics is alarming and we’re working hard to do something about it.

Our work on the Innovation Hub story is illustrative of what we can do, even with limited resources. We’re optimistic about the future and the great local storytelling we’ll produce. But we need your help to do it. To be clear, we’re not a charity, and we’re not looking for a handout. We’re focused on delivering value to you, and we’re asking for you to invest in us so we can do even more great work. We hope you’ll join us.

Use the code INNOVATION before November 30 and save 10% on your first year of membership!