Meet the new participants in the Indie News Challenge

Indiegraf is thrilled to announce the new cohort of the Indie News Challenge. 

From political reporting in Newfoundland and Labrador, to education reporting in British Columbia, to investigative journalism in Saskatchewan, this cohort of INC represents a diverse group of journalists from across Canada.

What is the Indie News Challenge?   

Over nine weeks starting in August, a group of journalist-entrepreneurs from across North America will work together to build and grow their outlets. Through weekly Zoom seminars, exercises, one-on-one feedback with experts in the field and a community of like-minded peers, they’ll develop an idea into a clear plan with early traction that they can present to funders.  

The first cohort of INC accomplished so much. Ayesha Barmania and Will Pearson expanded Peterborough Currents from 20 to nearly 2,000 email subscribers. Brandi Schier launched a reader-support campaign that saved Sun Peaks Independent News after advertising revenues collapsed due to COVID-19. We developed and launched IndigiNews Okanagan through this process, which is now expanding to Vancouver Island. Hannah Sung created her fast-growing newsletter At The End Of The Day. Melissa Villeneuve launched Lethbridge’s first independent news outlet, Spark YQL. And Martin Lukacs developed a new project yet to launch with an incredibly exciting and diverse team.

The application and selection process  

In total, 52 people applied for the second cohort of INC. That group was then whittled down to 49, based on our qualifications criteria.  

Of those applicants, 36 per cent self-identified as a person of colour or another group underrepresented by mainstream media. We’re buoyed by that response, but we also recognize that we need to do better. When we announce our next call for INC applications, we’ll be focused on increasing the number of applicants from underrepresented groups.

A panel of six Indiegraf staff members ranked all of the applications. Among the five criteria used for ranking was:

  • If the project identified a genuine reporting gap
  • If the project had a defined audience
  • If the founders had potential to make an impact
  • How likely the project was to succeed
  • And how much impact Indiegraf could have on the project’s success

In the end, 15 projects were selected for the shortlist. Indiegraf’s CEO Erin Millar and CTO Caitlin Havlak met with many of these applicants one-on-one to discuss more specifics of their project to decide on the final projects that would join the second INC cohort.

Introducing the second INC cohort  

We’re excited to welcome these eight projects to INC and the Indiegraf network. 

Of these projects, half are led by people of colour and five are led by people who identify as women. Only two of our cohort members are based in Ontario, and both of their projects represent underrepresented communities that can be found across the country. 

Sask Dispatch, Sask.

The Dispatch is a new investigative outlet spun out of Briarpatch magazine, led by Saima Desai and Sara Birrell. They want to bring more attention to grassroots social justice movements happening on the ground in the province that often go un- or undercovered in local media. 

The Independent, N.L.

Drew Brown is a former PhD candidate in political science who quit to pursue a career in journalism. Since 2019, he has been the St. John’s-based editor-in-chief of The Newfoundland and Labrador Independent, originally founded in 2003. “I’m working to build the Independent into a viable, progressive journalism outlet for 21st-century Newfoundland and Labrador,” he says. “As local legacy outlets continue to shed jobs and cut coverage, thoughtful independent media has never been more necessary.”

Muslim Link, Ont.

Chelby Marie Daigle is the editor-in-chief of, the online information hub for Muslims in Canada. “I am looking to find ways to make more sustainable as an entrepreneurial community journalism project,”  she says.

La Converse, Que.

La Converse is community-powered media serving francophone Canadians, especially underserved communities in Quebec. “We want to change the face of Canadian journalism, we want to establish a media that is based on trust, community, and solutions,” says Lela Savić, founding editor.

Committee Trawler, N.S.

Matt Stickland is a 10-year Navy veteran and recent journalism graduate from the University of King’s College based in Halifax. He’s launching the Committee Trawler to cover Halifax regional council and committee meetings as if they were as important as sports. “We just don’t have enough journalists to go to all the committee meetings to report on how we are being governed day to day,” he says.

Education Matters, B.C.

Tracy Sherlock is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and journalism instructor who was previously an education reporter at the Vancouver Sun and education columnist at the Vancouver Courier. She started Education Matters to continue writing about education, a subject she believes is crucial to our success as a human race. “Education touches nearly every aspect of our lives and yet mainstream media coverage of education is shrinking,” she says.

National publication for BIPOC (TBA)

This project will develop independent Canadian journalism that centres, elevates and celebrates Black, Indigenous and POC voices and stories. “Reimagining the traditional narrative, we are bringing more than just surface change to journalism,” says its founder, who will be announced in a few short weeks. “Our voices and our stories have the power to change the world.”

Hyper-local site, Red Deer, Alta. (TBA)

This new site will root solid local reporting in Red Deer. “As traditional media has pulled out of the city, social media has filled a vacuum but also fuelled rumours, misinformation and division in the community,” says its founder, who will also be announced in a few short weeks. “It has also allowed newsrooms in Calgary and Edmonton to ‘report’ on Red Deer without actually having reporters on this ground.”

The key takeaways

Because of the phenomenal response to our call for applications, we wanted to share a little bit about what made a successful response.
The projects we selected had a focus and clarity on who they were serving and what gaps they were filling.

Commitment to the project was a key factor — in our first cohort, we found success with people who could dedicate the time to executing their vision.

Cohort dynamics also played a role. While we did have a number of international applicants, in the end, we decided to focus on Canadian publishers since that’s where the cohort had the most synergy.

A crucial criteria was both the potential for impact and the need of the local community for journalism.

In the news


Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include, or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… 

I’ll be closely following this important project from Resolve Philly, which is giving people a chance to publicly mourn those they’ve lost because of COVID-19.

Tweet thread from Resolve Philly about "The Last Goodbye" project

How two alt-weeklies are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic

One of the things I miss most about “the before times” is sitting at a bar by myself, killing time before a friend showed up. To while away the minutes, I’d usually grab a copy of Now, Toronto’s alt-weekly, and read the feature, check out the food and drink reviews and look at the events listings to see if there was anything I could convince my friend to go to.

Those days are gone, at least for now — and it has put many alt-weeklies in dire straits. “Alt-weeklies have been in some version of crisis mode for the better part of a decade, as smartphones, online events listings, and social media have each moved against their core offerings. It’s entirely unclear whether ‘normal’ is two weeks away, two months away, or two years away,” Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote in March. At that point, a number of alt-weeklies announced they were stopping print publication, among them the San Diego Reader, Eugene Weekly and Oklahoma Gazette. Chatter on Twitter predicted “total annihilation.”

Five months later, however, armageddon hasn’t arrived yet. In fact, some alt-weeklies are pivoting to new models of funding.

For a few years, Christine Oreskovich and Kyle Shaw had dabbled with the idea of doing a donation campaign for The Coast, the Halifax alt-weekly they co-founded. “We were nervous what the reaction might be,” said Oreskovich. Print publishers don’t often get feedback, she notes — and if they do, it’s often angry. 

But COVID-19 left them with few other options. As the pandemic worsened in Nova Scotia, in March, The Coast’s advertising revenue dropped out, making running a print edition financially unviable. Oreskovich and Shaw let almost 20 staff go and stalled print.

In April, they began asking readers for donations.

Most alt-weeklies have always been free. Historically, it’s not just a good financial position — because of their ubiquity, alt-weeklies have largely been supported by advertising, with heavy reliance on cultural coverage and events, and classifieds — it’s also a good editorial one. These outlets serve people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t access or afford newspapers or paid online sites. 

“It’s important to realize that a lot of people pick up print publications still because they don’t have ready access to the online world,” says Jimmy Boegle, the editor and publisher of the Coachella Valley Independent, a monthly paper published in Palm Springs, Calif., and the surrounding area. “There isn’t a lot of reliable broadband access because some people are poor.” For some, print really is the only option. 

Alt-weeklies also hold a unique place in the news ecosystem. “[People] want the detritus of what a city is — and I think an alt-weekly paper, personally, is part of that,” says Oreskovich. To lose them would be to lose part of what makes cities fun, cool places to live.

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, the Coachella Valley Independent lost 80 per cent of its ad revenue. Boegle decided to ramp up a donation campaign he had always wanted to pursue more vigorously – he’d just never had the time. He started putting an ask in every daily newsletter the Independent sent. 

The results were “gangbusters.” 

“It was not, obviously, enough to make up for all of the lost advertising revenue, but enough to make a dent in the loss,” he says. While donations have slowed a bit, some ad revenue has also returned, and the paper got $5,000 grants from both Facebook and Google. Boegle isn’t taking a salary, but he hasn’t cut any staffers or stopped any print editions.  

Oreskovich’s worries about asking her readers for money turned out to be unfounded. “It was sort of overwhelming, the nice notes [we received],” she says. With the revenue from donations, The Coast’s smaller staff could continue to report on a relentless news cycle in Nova Scotia. They also hired two summer students to bolster their newsroom. Both she and Boegle expect they will continue to make donations a part of their business model going forward.

The Coast’s donation campaign was not based on providing any kind of perks or gifts for supporting the paper — it was just based on offering good journalism. “I think people want to see their community reflected back to them,” says Oreskovich. 

Nova Scotia’s success at keeping COVID-19 numbers low also turned out to be a boon for The Coast. Once it became clear that the province was reopening and encouraging some local tourism, a local ad agency mustered enough support to ensure The Coast could return to print — its annual summer guide was released in early July. 

In the news


Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… Just in case you didn’t see it the first time, I’d like to remind you of this example of headline goals.

The Local was born in a hospital network

I’ve been thinking a lot about an interview Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently did with the Local News Initiative. Her new book, Ghosting the News, is an examination of the growing news deserts across America. 

In the last question of the interview, Mark Jacob notes that some research has found that digital news startups aren’t closing the local reporting gap. To this, Sullivan responds: 

“Anytime you can get real reporting done, it’s a positive. Maybe it doesn’t completely fill the gap, but it makes a difference. I want to be clear that my message isn’t just: “We have to save newspapers.” It’s really: “We have to save journalism in whatever form that is,” which may have nothing to do with the printed page or the way we did it in the 1990s.”

Whatever form that is. It’s made me think about where journalism can spring from. It would be easy to assume media companies are the be-all end-all of news, but really, anyone can start a media outlet — and that can be a beautiful thing. Unlikely journalists and publishers bring new perspectives, new stories and, potentially, new funding sources.

This week, I’d like you to meet one new magazine that was born in the most unlikely place.

The Local is a Toronto web-magazine covering urban health and social issues. It’s beautifully designed, features long, magazine-length stories that might not appear in other publications and has been nominated for and won awards.

And it was developed in a hospital system. University Health Network’s (UHN) OpenLab comes up with solutions to address how healthcare is delivered and experienced. The Local was one.

“The Local was really an attempt on our part to use storytelling as a tool to really bring voices from the community that would otherwise be missing from planning and policy discussions,” says Tai Huynh, the editor-in-chief of The Local and creative director of OpenLab. 

Huynh says that his team is trying to bring a hyper-local lens to their storytelling approach. In a recent issue, it took readers through seven days in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many of the neighbourhoods The Local has covered, the media coverage has focused on violence — Huynh wants to tell a different story. “Being able to offer something that goes inside the community and develop a story in collaboration with people who live there, who have something to say that’s more in depth than what’s in the headline is I think part of the attraction.”

It’s an interesting example of journalism springing from a non-traditional source. OpenLab’s goal is to find untraditional ways to solve problems. “It’s just a matter of thinking creatively,” says Huynh.

However, being born from a healthcare setting also came with pitfalls. The hospital network’s procurement procedures meant some freelancers were waiting up to six months to be paid. And, reporting on health meant that there could be potential conflicts of interest to navigate.

That’s why, in 2019, The Local went independent of UHN. (Huynh is still creative director of the lab.) As a result, it can report freely and pay people quicker — writers and artists get their paycheques within 24 hours. Huynh hopes to publish more investigative journalism in the future. 

The next step for the outlet is diversifying its funding sources. Right now, it is totally supported by philanthropic giving. “We know that we need a revenue mix that is more than just philanthropy,” he says. 

But he’s hopeful given that the outlet’s dedication to hyper-local reporting has already attracted donors, including the Wellesley Institute, YMCA of Greater Toronto, United Way of Greater Toronto, Toronto Foundation, and Metcalf Foundation. “It resonated with missions they had already established,” he says. 

Infographic explaining the key takeaways from the story, including: 
Journalism can come from anywhere. What organizations do you know that might be poised to make the leap?
When fundraising, look to people and organizations whose missions align with your own.
Creativity is key!

In the news

  • new survey of editors in five countries has confirmed what we all know: newsroom leadership is very white.
  • From Poynter, here’s how to follow a Pulitzer Prize winning story.
  • A group of Canadian students looked around, saw how few journalism job opportunities there were — and made their own
  • Here’s how one LGBTQ2 publication is staying relevant in the “digital queerscape.”


Have a tip, pitch, question to ask, link to include or opportunity you want to promote? Send it to me!

And one more thing… It’s a big week for Indiegraf network member Peterborough Currents, who officially launched its crowdfunding campaign! If you’re able, consider becoming a Founding Member. Canada needs local news success stories!

The homepage of Peterborough Currents website, soliciting memberships.

Here’s how disabled editors and writers are building outlets and audiences

By John Loeppky

Alice Wong was at a StoryCorps event in 2014 when she had a realization. She had planned to continue working in academia, but saw a gap in the media landscape — and a way to fill it. 

“I thought I could form a community partnership and encourage disabled people to tell their stories about the everyday experience of being disabled in America as a way to capture disability history in the present,” she says.

Influenced by the discussions happening in the disability community at the time around the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a hardfought flagship piece of legislation for American disabled people, she founded the Disability Visibility Project (DVP). Working with StoryCorps, an American non-profit dedicated to recording oral histories, it has since turned into a long-running podcast, a site with guest hosts, a recording app, and two book anthologies — including the newly-released Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, an anthology of renowned disabled writers which is currently ranked number seven in Amazon’s literary essays category and number one in their disability studies section. In June, the podcast reached over 7,000 downloads and the website had over 54,000 views. 

There is an often repeated refrain in the disabled community: Nothing About Us Without Us. It’s an ethos that is rarely reflected in leadership positions at legacy media organizations. With physical, educational, and financial barriers to access the media industry, disabled people are more likely to see an op-ed labelling us burdens worth discarding or a headline announcing us as inspirational for merely existing than we are the authentic representation we crave as an audience. 

But because of the work of disabled independent media creators, and a plethora of freelancers from a variety of backgrounds, this is beginning to shift. 

The homepage for the Disabled Writers website, displaying its homepage text.

One of the projects that has been financially supported by the DVP is Disabled Writers, a database co-founded by Wong, s.e. smith, and Vilissa Thompson, fellow disabled writer and founder of Ramp Your Voice. The database connects media outlets with disabled writers and writers with disabled sources. Disabled Writers uses the same model as the database Editors of Color, highlighting and facilitating diversity in media via submissions of profiles that are then posted publicly. Disabled Writers supports diversity in media by removing the excuse often given in media discourse that finding disabled talent is too hard.  

The project started because of frustration with a lack of disability representation in the media, according to smith, particularly around coverage of the enactment of the Affordable Care Act and disabled people’s protests against its attempted dismantlement by the GOP. 

Early in their career, they were often met with offers of exposure, a continuing concern for those from diverse backgrounds looking to work in media. 

“Certainly, especially early in my career, I got a lot of like, ‘Well, you should be happy for whatever you can get,’ or, ‘Well, we just want to have diverse representation on our site.’”

According to smith there are around 150 active profiles on Disabled Writers. 

One of those active profiles is Ace Tilton Ratcliff. They have published bylines with outlets such as Huffington Post and Bustle. Their advice as a business owner and disabled artist to disabled people who are looking to start their own business is to be persistent. 

“I would say you are going to have to be one of the loudest people in the room. Because of the way everything is set up, your voice is frequently going to be left on read. And so, you kind of have to be a pain in the ass. You have to be the person who is yelling and saying, ‘No, we have to do things differently.”

Ratcliff says the key is for accessibility and inclusivity to be part of “structural design,” what smith calls the need to “build accessibility from day one.”

Wong increased the audience of the Disability Voices Project by making it a platform for all kinds of people: accepting guest posts from various creators, including A.H Reaume, Laura Dorwart, Zipporah Arielle, and making a podcast with titans of the disability space like blogger Carly Findlay and comedian Maysoon Zayid. 

Wong has also heightened her own profile. She’s an award-winning writer and editor of two anthologies. Outside of her work with the DVP, Wong was a consultant on the Netflix film Crip Camp, an unapologetic look at the history of the disability rights movement from the vantage point of those who were there from its modern American beginnings. 

Wong has a list of questions new independent media creators should be thinking about when they are starting an outlet.

“Seriously ask yourself what your capacity is and what your timeline looks like in the next year, five years, and beyond,” she says. “How long do you think you want to do this? Ask yourself if your idea is unique and needed. Is someone else doing this better? Are you the right person to be working in this area? Who can you support or collaborate with instead of starting something from scratch?”

In the news


And one more thing… 

From Popula, a necessary reminder that being a young journalist in the middle of a pandemic is no easy thing. 

“All of our documentaries are like time capsules, reminders of what it was like for all of us to be sequestered and separated. Maybe in the future, people can use them to learn about this surreal moment in history. The country’s unending traumas—the coronavirus and racism and police brutality and every other problem—aren’t going anywhere. But we can still try to communicate with people who can teach us about their lives, despite a system that seems to want to see us fail.”

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