That’s a wrap on our People’s Agenda project

The votes are counted, the new city council is about to get to work, and we’re putting a bow on our People’s Agenda project.

We set out to cover Edmonton’s 2021 municipal election in a way that was better than and different from traditional election coverage. We wanted to ground our stories in the issues that mattered to people, rather than the horse race or the sniping between candidates. We could see the value of approaching our election through the lens of The Citizens Agenda, which we explored in the summer of 2020 at a series of Election SOS training sessions.

We came out of that training with this vision:

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.

And we defined success like this:

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.

Our efforts would lead to 21,000+ responses from voters seeking to know which candidates best aligned with their values, and many comments like this:

  • "I love the contexts provided, it taught me a lot on current city initiatives that I never looked into. It’s awesome that there’s something like this, and I appreciate the candidates who took the time to respond." (danger-boi on Reddit)
  • "The survey was very well done. The context was short, but well referenced and made for solid opportunities to explore topics in greater detail. And then at the end, you can see how each candidate responded? ::chef’s kiss::" (@ganpachi on Reddit)
  • "It’s actually pretty cool: it seems that the prospective councillors and mayoral candidates answered the same questionnaire. You’re comparing the answer you gave to the answer they gave—not somebody’s interpretation of their platform. thanks @taprootyeg" (@kongaloosh on Twitter)
  • "Very useful and thought provoking. I recommend for all YEGers who find municipal elections a bit confusing." (@Bjwrz on Twitter)

That’s just a tiny sample of the positive feedback we received. We did not imagine that this is where the People’s Agenda would take us when we launched it. But we ended up in a very good place, with lessons we can apply to future efforts to listen and be useful to our community.

The winding path to better and different election coverage

So how did we get here anyway? Here are some of the high points of the timeline:

Some of the key facts and figures for the People’s Agenda project.

Lessons and challenges

This project took at least 500 hours of staff time and another 100+ hours from paid contributors, in addition to the time spent by steering committee members Elise Stolte and Rob Houle, as well as volunteer facilitators at our listening sessions.

It was at times overwhelming, but part of what made it so was not quite knowing where we were headed. There was a bit of wheel-spinning after our listening sessions, for example, when it wasn’t at all clear what our tiny team was going to be able to do with all of this input. The breakthrough was coming across The City’s Meet Your Mayor app, which inspired our own version.

It’s also worth noting that our startup changed significantly during the course of this project. In the summer of 2020, when we started the Election SOS training, our journalistic output consisted of several weekly newsletters on specific topics, a weekly podcast, and semi-regular stories that we shared on social media but didn’t have a very accessible home on our website.

In January 2021, we launched The Pulse, a weekday newsletter focused more generally on what goes on in our city. We had also revamped our home page to better display our journalism. That was vital to ensuring the project had impact. But The Pulse and the People’s Agenda weren’t as integrated as they could have been. Future engagement efforts will have to be fully part of what we do instead of happening in parallel as this project sometimes did.

While all of this was happening, we were also developing and delivering on the business-to-business product that helps to fund all of this work. That was vital, too, for while the project did sell some more memberships and increased our readership, which helps sell sponsorships and advertising, it did not pay for itself. Our model is such that the journalism is subsidized by the B2B side of our operation, and the growth we achieved earlier this year certainly made such an ambitious project possible. It would be fair to say, however, that the effort to bring the project to a strong conclusion ate into the time that we intended to put into business development in the last quarter.

We are coming out of this project with a reusable matching engine that we intend to employ not only for the next municipal election in 2025 but also in the interim, perhaps for elections at other levels or as a regular check-in on the current council. It may even be a product we could sell to others.

We have also developed a bit of a listening methodology that we’ll be able to streamline for future elections as well as ongoing check-ins on what matters to our community and what people want to better understand. We’re working on what that looks like. What we know for sure is that democracy is not just for election time, and neither is engaged, community-focused journalism. The People’s Agenda has taught us a lot about that. We’re eager to continue to apply those lessons as we go on.

What’s next

We encourage you to subscribe to The Pulse. You’ll receive our ongoing coverage of Edmonton and you’ll be among the first to participate in any new engagement opportunities. If you’d like to help ensure this work remains free for everyone, become a member.

If you’d like to know more about how we inform and connect communities, get in touch. We’d love to serve your community through our B2B offerings.

Finally, if you run a digital news site, work in journalism, or simply have ideas for how to make use of our matching engine, we’d love to hear from you.

By the numbers

  • 1 key question
  • 204 answers
  • 8 listening sessions
  • 10 topics
  • 30 survey questions
  • 67 candidate responses
  • 21,000+ voter responses
  • 500+ hours of staff time
  • 100+ hours of paid contributor time

Taproot does some more pruning

Taproot Edmonton is publishing the final edition of the Media Roundup on Feb. 15. From time-to-time you’ll still find coverage of media in Edmonton in The Pulse and on our website.

The evolution of the Media Roundup

We launched the Media Roundup in July 2018 to cover media, public relations, and communications in Edmonton.

I had been writing a blog series called Media Monday Edmonton since early 2011 and it made sense to bring that into Taproot when we started developing our roundups. We expanded the purview of the roundup and added events and job opportunities.

In June 2019, Linda Hoang came on board to take over the Media Roundup and she did a great job. But with her own growing online empire, Linda decided to step away and wrote her final edition last month.

Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash

Why are we making this change?

Linda’s departure accelerated discussions we were already having about how the Media Roundup fits into what we’re building with Taproot Edmonton.

We continue to strive for "less but better" and just as with the end of the Council Roundup, we think this change will help us focus on other efforts, such as The Pulse.

There’s a popular quote in writing circles that "you must kill your darlings." Originally attributed to William Faulkner and popularized by Stephen King, the phrase refers to characters, paragraphs, chapters, or other bits of writing that we’re fond of and want to keep, even if they get in the way of serving the reader.

It has been ten years since I posted the first entry in Media Monday Edmonton. Paying attention to and writing about the media so regularly definitely factored into the creation of Taproot. I’m grateful for that, and I’m ready to let it go.

What’s next?

As appropriate, we’ll include media and communications-related items in The Pulse, the Arts Roundup, Business Roundup, and other publications so please continue to send us your suggestions and tips.

We are always open to opportunities to better serve our community and welcome your feedback.

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

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!