How The Discourse Nanaimo ran a successful campaign without asking for money

For more than three years, The Discourse has been innovating a new model for local, community-powered news, building from successes in the Cowichan Valley. So when people kept telling Cowichan reporter Jacqueline Ronson that another Vancouver Island community, Nanaimo, could use The Discourse, the team decided to test interest first. 

Here’s how the team gauged interest for a model of journalism that didn’t exist in that community yet:

They delivered pop-up coverage

Over a series of months, the team surveyed people in Nanaimo through Facebook ads to learn about what was missing from local news coverage. They narrowed down responses to two story ideas and put them to a community vote. As they delivered a series of in-depth stories, they encouraged readers to sign up for updates with Facebook lead ads and grew the Nanaimo audience to a base level of about 1,300.

They launched a petition 

At this point, The Discourse was ready to launch an official go-to-market campaign. But they were concerned they didn’t quite have the level of trust and community awareness to make a strictly financial ask. On Nov. 23, they launched a campaign to get 5,000 people to sign up to say they wanted in-depth journalism in Nanaimo by Dec. 4. Indiegraf developers created a petition page with the deadline and the goal. Lower down on the page, The Discourse communicated its vision for Nanaimo, some background on the outlet and community testimonials. 

They connected with the community 

Community awareness and audience growth were a key part of the strategy. In the lead up to the campaign, the lead reporter and producers hosted an online event with more than a dozen stakeholders in the community, from business to education, to find out how local news coverage could be improved and what stories should be investigated. At the end of the event, they shared the petition idea and asked for feedback. These core supporters turned out to be important champions of The Discourse’s efforts when they launched the in-depth news petition a week later.

At the same time, the editorial team helped produce a PDF summary of findings from their second in-depth investigation into homelessness in Nanaimo, which the Indiegraf team used as a lead magnet for Facebook. That single lead magnet brought in 1,285 leads.

Additional Facebook leads were pulled in from stories and petition posts, for an overall cost of $3 per person.

What worked?

At the heart of this campaign was the content itself. In the last week of the campaign, reporter Julie Chadwick’s abandoned building story performed as the top story on The Discourse website, while her reporting on homelessness informed the successful lead magnet. 

Subscribers were encouraged to share the petition on social media and via email — and a surprising number did. A number of dedicated readers wrote about what they loved about The Discourse on social media and forwarded the petition to friends. And while a financial ask was not core to the campaign, almost 40 individuals stepped up to financially support The Discourse Nanaimo

Community business partnerships were also solicited through a Founding Supporter campaign, with contributions matched using grant funding from Vancouver Foundation. After this announcement, a local campus radio host stepped up to launch a Founding Supporter campaign through their own website.

In the end, The Discourse Nanaimo reached 3,420 sign-ups out of the overall target of 5,000. While they fell short of their goal, the overall interest and feedback was so strong, they decided to make it official. They’d surpassed their internal goal, and recognized that a smaller, engaged audience is more important than a large, unengaged audience.

What didn’t work?

With lead magnets running at the same time as the campaign, there were a few instances of subscribers getting too many emails all at once. For this reason, content needs to be spaced out to ensure readers still receive valuable reporting as a preview of what’s possible, and aren’t overwhelmed with campaign asks.

Also, the decision to promote the founding supporter and petition campaigns concurrently may have been confusing to some audience members. If they did it again, the team would focus on making calls to local businesses directly to get the word out, rather than sharing this news about the campaign with individual supporters. In addition, they would lower the sign-up goal slightly — to 4,000 instead of 5,000 — to make it a slam dunk.

In the news


And one more thing… 

I’ve been having a lot of fun making Bernie Sanders visit some famous newsrooms.

How this Paper Plane supports student journalism

Dexter McMillan has made a paper plane carrying original stories from journalism students across Canada, and is throwing it right into people’s inboxes every other Saturday morning. 

Paper Plane, a twice-monthly newsletter, was founded after McMillan realized he felt unprepared to enter the freelancing world after graduating from Carleton University’s master of journalism program last summer. 

The recent graduate wanted to create a platform where students felt more comfortable pitching their ideas. 

Within a few days of submitting a pitch, the student receives feedback on how to refine it — something McMillan said was lacking from his experience with freelancing. 

Paying students is also a vital part of McMillan’s vision. He said he was one of the privileged students in journalism school who was able to take on unpaid internships for work experience. 

“That influences the kind of journalists that end up working in the field,” he said. “My perspective is not the only perspective that needs to be out there.” 

He said paying the students $100 per article is not going to put them through an expensive journalism program, but he hopes it changes the conversation about the kind of opportunities students have. 

To be able to pay his freelancers, McMillan is asking subscribers to pay $8 per month, which he admits is slightly high for two articles.

How was he successful in getting 30 subscribers — so far — to pay that amount for student work? 

McMillan said it was branding Paper Plane’s subscription not only as a payment for the actual journalism work, but as a donation  “to make journalism a better field, a more equitable field.” 

The first wave of subscribers were largely former student journalists that understand the value of investing in this profession. 

So far, subscribers have received a personal essay about hockey being a coping mechanism during cancer treatment, a story about the pandemic clearing the runway for an electric plane startup and recently, Paper Plane introduced podcasts to the mix. 

For potential subscribers who might be hesitant to pay for student journalism, McMillan had another strategy: for a short period, he made previously published articles available to non-subscribers. 

“I think the best way to dispel any fear that student journalism isn’t good is to just have people read it,” McMillan said. 

For Jensen Edwards, a freelance journalist in Montreal, it was seeing the return on his investment that made him subscribe to Paper Plane. 

According to Edwards, when he subscribes to a mainstream news publication, he knows he’s contributing to something, but doesn’t necessarily know what it is. 

“I can see where those $8 are going,” Edwards said. “I can spend $8 a month on a variety of subscriptions, but I think I am essentially supporting one of my own communities.” 

The newsletter’s lack of niche theme was also a selling point for Edwards, who’s always excited to see what kind of article is sitting in his inbox. 

“I genuinely don’t know what’s coming and that’s what I love most.” 

For McMillan, the transparency and excitement of mystery are just the start. He wants to build a community. 

If there’s extra money from the reader subscriptions, he said he would go back to his subscribers for direction on how to spend it, whether it be an additional article that month or paying for graphics.  

“Building the audience for Paper Plane is also just building a community of people, or at least that’s what I want it to be like,” said McMillan. 

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… 

This story from the Columbia Journalism Review shows how reporters develop skill sets in one beat that transfer to another in surprising ways.

Introducing The Resolve: a powerful new platform for Black, Indigenous and people of colour voices and stories in Canada

As a Black queer journalist, I’ve dealt with racism and homophobia in newsrooms across Canada. I’ve experienced everything from endless micro-aggressions to blatant discrimination. 

That’s why I was excited to become the first Black person to be acting editor-in-chief of the progressive news site, 20 months ago. I thought this would be an opportunity to centre, elevate and celebrate Black, Indigenous and people of colour voices and stories. 

Unfortunately, it was not. 

After completing a review of nearly 20 years of reporting at rabble from 2001 to 2020, I found that, of columnists published five times or more, approximately 91.8 per cent of columns were written by white authors. The vast majority of stories published on issues that are often life or death for Black, Indigenous and people of colour, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, were written by white journalists.

Even though I was put in a position to oversee all content published on the website and invited to participate on hiring committees, I was never given the authority or the resources to implement any meaningful progress. 

When I pushed for changes that would have allowed us to engage more Black, Indigenous and people of colour writers, I was met with delays and resistance from senior management. When I and some of my colleagues challenged our board and demanded accountability, we received a public apology that was more insincere PR and crisis management than an actual commitment to systemic and organizational change.

The systemic racism and labour practices within the organization made it clear that there was no future there for me, or for people like me. 

That was the last time I will fight for change within an organization unwilling to change. 

This year, I’m ready to launch a platform that truly empowers Black, Indigenous and people of colour voices. 

A rising tide of BIPOC writers and journalists in Canada

I’ve heard from so many other Black journalists, Indigenous journalists and journalists of colour with similar stories who continue to struggle against racism and tokenization, or who have been pushed out or who have quit the industry altogether. 

People of colour represent at least 20 per cent of Canada’s population, yet the lack of racial equity in newsrooms across Canada is glaring. There hasn’t been research on Canadian newsroom demographics since the mid-2000s, which is a testament to how much we hold our industry accountable when it comes to diversity and inclusion. 

Back then, the typical Canadian journalist was found to be white 97 per cent of the time, and visible minorities and Indigenous persons were significantly under-represented compared to reading audiences (3.4 per cent versus 16.7 per cent). Emerging research shows that these circumstances have not improved much since then.

The Resolve: A powerful new platform for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour voices

The Resolve will be launching later this year. We are currently fundraising to be able to build a strong and vibrant freelance roster of Black, Indigenous and people of colour writers and editors across the country. 

In the meantime, we are engaging our early audience via a weekly email newsletter that is sent out every Monday. As The Resolve’s audience grows, we will be asking our community what stories and issues need to be explored on our platform. 

The Resolve is not a vanity project for myself and other disappointed Black, Indigenous and writers of colour to vent frustrations with Canadian journalism. This will be a space for you to stay on top of important stories that matter to Black, Indigenous and people of colour communities beyond the fickle attention of the 24-hour news cycle. 

We’ll dive deeper, explain complex issues and look to solutions. We’ll reflect the real-life experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of colour communities — the highs and the lows, the challenges and the successes, the sorrows and the joys.

The Resolve and I are just getting started, and I appreciate you being here. You can help us out by subscribing to our newsletter, following us on social media and sharing our website with your networks. 

Together, we can challenge the traditional narrative and reimagine Canadian journalism.

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