Open Letter: Canada’s Online News Act must be transparent, fair, and include news innovators

When the Liberal government announced its intention to support Canada’s news industry, the reasons given were to sustain local journalism, support innovation in news, and ensure diversity in the news industry. Bill C-18, the Online News Act currently before Parliament, guarantees none of these things.

Four key changes are needed if Canada is to have the vibrant journalism citizens need for a healthy democracy. 

We are a coalition of independent Canadian news publishers, pushing for amendments to C-18 to ensure the bill lives up to its promise to strengthen Canadian journalism. We represent over 100 outlets serving communities coast to coast to coast and employing over one thousand journalists. Taken together, our readers and listeners number in the many millions. Many of us have risked personal capital, fundraised from our communities, and built newsrooms from scratch to reach underserved audiences, many at the local level. 

Collectively, we represent Canada’s most innovative digital news media, local news outlets, both French and English language media, and BIPOC-led news media — we are the innovative news organizations that are rebuilding the local news ecosystem. The Online News Act represents an opportunity to accelerate this innovation and progress.

We have come together to ask for basic fairness in Bill C-18.

The centrepiece of Bill C-18 is a funding model aimed at mandating large web platforms like Facebook and Google to compensate Canadian news organizations for posting content on their platforms. Unfortunately, as it is currently structured, Bill C-18 does not specifically direct funding towards supporting the critical work of journalists. The bill also lacks robust transparency mechanisms and, most importantly, it risks leaving out small, medium size and independent publishers.

Even before it was tabled, Bill C-18 has resulted in winners and losers in the news industry. There have been a series of secret, backroom deals between Big Tech and the largest newspapers in Canada, along with a handful of small- to medium-sized publishers. An unintended but likely consequence of Bill C-18 as currently structured may be to cement these inequities and this secrecy, which threatens the public’s already-frayed trust in journalism.

To be clear, we support the goal of creating a sustainable news industry. It is not too late for the current legislation to address the needs of the Canadian news media ecosystem. We want it to be amended to ensure the following: 

  • A transparent, fair funding formula
    A universal funding formula should be applied consistently to all qualifying news organizations. This funding formula should be disclosed, and the public must know which news organizations are receiving money from tech companies.
  • Support for journalists
    Compensation from tech platforms should be based on a percentage of editorial expenditures or the number of journalists that work for an organization, inclusive of freelancers.
  • Inclusion
    Bill C-18 may exclude dozens of important news innovators by demanding employee thresholds that news startups often don’t reach until their 3rd or 4th year of operation. 
  • No loopholes
    Bill C-18 currently includes vague and poorly-defined criteria allowing for “Exemption Orders” that could let Big Tech off the hook, benefitting a few large news organizations and shutting out hundreds of legitimate small to medium size newsrooms. 

While we recognize the reality of the wider news crisis, our organizations represent rays of hope, and are proving that there is a future for a dynamic, inclusive news ecosystem in Canada.

Bill C-18 is modeled after Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code. It must not repeat the mistakes of that legislation. In Australia, an estimated 90 per cent of negotiated revenues flowed to the three largest media companies.

We encourage the government to revisit and improve Bill C-18.

As small, medium size, and independent news publishers, this new legislation is too big, and too important, to fumble. Bill C-18 will have a massive impact on the future of journalism and news in Canada.

Let’s make sure we get it right.

Arsenal Media
Canada’s National Observer
Constellation Media Society
Discourse Community Publishing
Metro Media
Narcity Media
Overstory Media Group
Politics Today
Village Media
Alberta Today
BC Today
Burnaby Beacon
Calgary Citizen
Canada’s National Observer
Capital Daily
Fraser Valley Current
Guelph Politico
Harbinger Media 
Journal Metro
La Converse
Metro Ahuntsic-Cartierville
Metro Beauport
Metro Charlesbourg
Metro Cote des Neiges & NDG
Metro Hochelaga Maisonneuve
Metro IDS-Verdun
Metro L’Actuel
Metro L’Appel
Metro L’Autre Voix
Metro Lachine & Dorval
Metro Lasalle
Metro Le Jacques Cartier
Metro Le Plateau Mont-Royal
Metro Mercier & Anjou
Metro Montreal-Nord
Metro Ouest-de-L’ile
Metro Outremont & Mont-Royal
Metro Pointe-aux-Trembles et Montreal-est
Metro Quebec
Metro Riviere-des-Prairies
Metro Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie
Metro Saint-Laurent
Metro Saint-Leonard
Metro Sud-Ouest
Metro Ville Marie
Metro Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension
MTL Blog
Neomedia Chambly
Neomedia Joliette
Neomedia Laval
Neomedia Rimouski
Neomedia Rive-Nord
Neomedia Saguenay
Neomedia Sorel-Tracy
Neomedia Trois-Rivières
Neomedia Vallée du Richelieu
Neomedia Valleyfield
Neomedia Vaudreuil
New West Anchor
Northern Ontario Business
Nouvelles d’Ici
Oak Bay Local
Ottawa Sports Pages
Parliament Today
Peterborough Currents
Queen’s Park Today
Ricochet Media
Sun Peaks Independent News
Taproot Edmonton
The Breach
The Coast
The Discourse Cowichan
The Discourse Nanaimo
The Flatlander
The Green Line
The Home Pitch
The Hoser
The Independent
The Line
The Local
The Peak
The Resolve
The Ridge
The Rover
The Sprawl
The Tyee
The Westshore
The Wren
Tri-Cities Dispatch
Tribe Magazine
Vancouver Tech Journal
Vocal Fry Studios
Women’s eNews

Want to add your outlet to this letter? Fill out this form to express your interest.

How independent outlets are building up their communities

Many independent news outlets launched in response to their founder’s desire to better serve their community. Because news deserts leave people behind, independent outlets must find a way to lift up readers in a direct, responsible and relatable way.

For many publishers, creative reader engagement efforts help build trust through reporting initiatives that add value to the communities they serve. This week, we gathered a couple examples of active Indiegraf partner outlets that are empowering readers and using their platforms as a means for community building.

Meeting readers where they are | The Kansas City Defender

The Kansas City Defender covers news for a particularly underserved community: millennials and Gen Z in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Keeping that audience in mind, social media has been central to the outlet’s journalistic process since its start. 

And Instagram is much more than a marketing tool for sharing long-form stories, interviews and investigations, it is an open channel for The Defender’s readers — particularly students — to reach out and share their stories, raise alerts and demand accountability. The publication uses this platform to amplify the voices of Kansas City students and young residents as they report on instances of racism, harassment and abuse. 

Using social media to engage with their audience allows the outlet to switch the power dynamics at play in most media outlets, a stated goal of founder Ryan Sorrell upon recently receiving an Indie Capital grant: “A lot of people didn’t (and still don’t) understand how a real news platform can exist primarily on social media. They didn’t see the value in our influence and ability to communicate with Gen Z and capture a Black audience that has forever been neglected in mainstream media outlets.”

Covering the local basics | The Independent

What Odds At City Hall is a briefing series by The Independent that provides hyperlocal government reporting in Newfoundland and Labrador. In order to keep citizens informed about their local government’s decision-making process, the outlet regularly reports on what was discussed and decided at recent City Hall meetings. The reports include details of each agenda item covered at the meeting along with input shared by council members and attending citizens.

By simplifying the basics of their local government, The Independent gives some agency back to N&L readers, allowing them to stay informed on each decision made and propose follow-ups on local issues that may be at odds with the community.

Keeping transparent mid-reporting | Shasta Scout

Open Notebooks is an initiative by Shasta Scout that bets on a more open, vulnerable and relatable journalism. Through it, the Redding, California-based outlet shares its journalism process with readers: what motivates them to write, what questions they ask, what they learn in the process of digging into stories. They also include where they’re coming from, what paradigms are shaping their understanding.

“We want to be honest with our readers that, like everyone, we have a worldview, opinions and perspectives that influence our work. We also want to be clear that our personal perspectives won’t keep us from fairly and accurately reporting the news in a way you can trust,” says Shasta Scout about the initiative.

Open Notebooks rewards Shasta Scout’s supporting members by providing a behind-the-scenes peek while opening the space to provide feedback and converse with the journalists covering their local news. “We believe this kind of collaboration between reporters and readers leads to stronger journalism and a stronger democracy.”

Turning readers into writers | The Land and IndigiNews

To build new models for journalism, we need to change not only what stories get to be told but also who gets to tell them. That is why opening up the writer roster is a basic practice for many independent news outlets: it allows for a greater variety of opinions, voices and perspectives, and levels the playing field for representation. Some outlets, however, take it one step further by equipping citizens for storytelling. 

Wanting to “tap into the deep knowledge people already have about their own communities,” The Land offers a Community Journalism Course for Cleveland residents with a desire to write about their neighborhoods, civic issues, local politics and more. This capacity-building exercise intends to improve representation of Cleveland neighborhoods, as well as to encourage community involvement in their local news coverage. 

And as part of their efforts for decolonizing media, IndigiNews continually offers training on decolonial journalistic practices for journalists and citizens alike. The latest learning circle, for example, included training on land-connected storytelling and trauma-informed reporting.

Behind the Story: Birth Alerts Investigation by IndigiNews

Birth alerts ended in September 2019 when the British Columbia’s Ministry of Children and Family Development announced an end to the practice in which social workers could flag expectant parents who they deemed unfit to hospital staff. Under the system, hospital staff would then alert the social worker when the parent gave birth, giving the social worker the opportunity to intervene and possibly apprehend the child. 

But these birth alerts were already deemed “illegal and unconstitutional” by the B.C. attorney general months before the practice was barred, according to internal government correspondence received after the fact by IndigiNews. Conscious of the implications for thousands of Indigenous families — who are disproportionately impacted by birth alerts — members of the IndigiNews team spent much of 2021 informing the public about the implications of the information it had received through public records requests.

Timeline of the Birth Alerts investigation, courtesy of IndigiNews.

After breaking the story in January 2021, IndigiNews continued reporting on the issue by providing context on birth alerts throughout the country, sharing reactions and calls for accountability from Indigenous community leaders, and amplifying the experience of a Cree Métis mother. Seeking to expand awareness on the issue, the IndigiNews team went deep into the systematic discrimination involved in birth alerts and the long-term impacts not only for individuals but for entire Indigenous communities. The interview with Anishinaabe social work professor Billie Allan, for example, meticulously analyzed how practices such as birth alerts impact reproductive health choices and overall trust in the healthcare system.

IndigiNews’ reporting on birth alerts has already received a Canadian Online Publishing Award, and is nominated for two others. Most recently, the series was nominated for a Freedom of Information CAJ Award. We asked three of the journalists behind the IndigiNews coverage (Anna McKenzie, Brielle Morgan, and Tessa Vikander) how the stories were built and what lessons other publishers could learn from this editorial and journalistic experience.

How did you first learn about this issue?

McKenzie: I knew about birth alerts before I became a journalist because of stories I had heard from other Indigenous women.

Morgan: I learned about birth alerts and their impacts through media coverage, families and communities advocates. 

Vikander: One of our reporters, Bayleigh Marelj, filed a Freedom of Information Request. The documents they received back contained information we were surprised to see. As a team, we built a reporting plan and then got to work quickly. The government tried to retract the documents and stop us from publishing, but we knew we had a right to publish the story and affected communities had a right to the information, so we went ahead.

Why was it important for IndigiNews to cover this story?

McKenzie: I felt a lot of fear delivering my first child because of the threat of birth alerts and the overrepresentation of Indigenous families involved in the child welfare system. I wanted to draw attention to and question the issue to protect Indigenous families from losing their babies.

Morgan: In B.C., birth alerts have resulted in child apprehension “approximately 28% of the time,” according to an MCFD record from 2019. These alerts disproportionately impact Indigenous children and families in Canada — 58% of parents impacted by birth alerts in B.C. in 2018 were Indigenous, according to the B.C. government’s data. These alerts have been called “racist and discriminatory” and “a gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother, and the community” by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. IndigiNews is one of few media outlets with reporters dedicated to covering the child-welfare system. It’s a sensitive space, requiring trauma-informed reporting practices, and there is much at stake for Indigenous children and families.

Vikander: There are many Indigenous families who may have been subjected to birth alerts without even knowing it, so it was important to get the issue back on peoples’ radar. Furthermore, what we learned from the FOI documents was new and hadn’t been reported before. We saw that it was significant, and we were right as evidenced by the proposed class action lawsuit that was later filed on behalf of parents — a direct result of the reporting. The impact of a birth alert, when it leads to a baby being taken away from its parents in hospital, can haunt a family for the rest of their lives.

How did you advance the story after breaking the news?

McKenzie: We have spoken on many platforms, including CBC Radio and APTN National News. We also held reporting workshops through IndigiNews.

Morgan: After this breaking news story, IndigiNews followed up by providing context from across the country, including reactions and calls for accountability from Indigenous community leaders and B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth.

Vikander: After reporting on the status of birth alerts in B.C., we looked at what was happening in other provinces. We also followed up with families who’ve been affected by birth alerts and with lawyers who helped put together a proposal for a class-action lawsuit on behalf of impacted parents in B.C.

How did your reporting divert from mainstream coverage?

McKenzie: This story was born out of a personal experience and was not a traditionally “objective” journalism piece. It also required a lot of trauma-informed care, both for the interviewees and the writers.

Morgan: We uncovered new information, refused to give into attempts by the government to silence us and consistently centered the perspectives of Indigenous people in our coverage. We worked collaboratively with a mother who experienced a birth alert to get her story out there in a good, trauma-informed way.

Vikander: We decided it was an issue that we wanted to pursue for in-depth coverage, and were able to put a lot of resources towards it, both in terms of reporters and editors.

What lesson could other journalists gain from this coverage?

McKenzie: To be brave, have courage and look at the injustice in the eyes. Use the power and privilege of being a writer with reach to draw attention to issues that are negatively impacting BIPOC folks, and to injustices that are occurring that the public may not be paying attention to.

Morgan: There are so many stories to tell about the child-welfare system. We need more journalists in this space who are trained in trauma-informed practices and committed to working slowly and collaboratively with community members.

Vikander: When it comes to what others can learn from our coverage, I think first and foremost of what those with the power to build and fund in-depth community reporting can learn. When a team of reporters and editors is given the resources it needs to shed light on an issue, the time to fact-check and do in-depth interviews and the time to build relationships with those they are reporting on, then their work can have a tangible impact. To do so, they need to not be saddled with the demands of daily story-writing. Without those resources, it’s very hard to do justice to a story such as this.

Strong journalism inspires strong journalism. Through the Behind the story series, we intend to give you a peek behind the scenes of quality journalism: what makes great stories? How are they built? What impact do they have? We will try to answer these and more questions about the work and the processes that go behind strong journalism.

Indie outlets lead on abortion coverage

Independent media proved its importance this past week by providing community-centered Roe v. Wade coverage. While national news focused on the Supreme Court leak or pointed fingers internally for the inevitable demise of U.S. federal abortion access, indie outlets never waved the white flag.

Instead, these news orgs published perspectives specific to their communities while sharing important context and solutions-oriented next steps. In doing so, these outlets validated the important role they play in the larger news ecosystem, even when vital breaking news comes from mainstream sources.

The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) recently compiled a great summary of abortion reaction stories from its news partners. This rundown only scratches the surface of inspirational independent journalism since last week’s bombshell Politico story, so here are more examples — from the Indiegraf network and beyond.

The immediate aftermath 

In the days after the story broke, many indie outlets joined their readers on the streets. 

  • For example, The Kansas City Defender covered a rally led by Reale Justice Network, a local group of Black women, trans and non-binary community organizers who advocate on behalf of those most likely to be impacted by this looming change. The article includes actions readers can take to help and get involved.
  • Local women’s advocacy groups sounded the alarm on other human rights now under threat. The Palm Springs Post reported on this “code red moment” and what local organizers are doing to prepare for a “long, hot summer.”
  • Numerous local outlets also used protest and rally visuals to convey local reactions over the past week, including the Tucson Sentinel, This Is Reno and Block Club Chicago.

Maintaining fundamental rights

Once abortions are no longer protected at the U.S. federal level, many states risk losing significant or complete access. 

Reactions beyond the states

The rest of North America also reacted to the Roe v. Wade probable appeal, shedding light on the lack of quality abortion access in other countries.

Hopefully this sampling of related coverage inspires your own work. We invite you to respond with more examples of quality coverage from local independent news sources, and we’ll be sure to share the work across the Indiegraf network.

The Green Line takes a community-based approach to solutions journalism

On a Thursday evening in April, a group of strangers met over Zoom to discuss an issue that connected them all: COVID re-entry in Toronto, their home city. The event was hosted by Toronto journalism startup The Green Line, the brainchild of Scarborough-born journalist Anita Li, and is a key part of the publication’s community-driven solutions journalism. 

The Green Line, which launched this April, offers reporting that both informs the local community and is responsive to its needs. “I’m very passionate about democracy and media as a pillar of democracy,” said Li, who laments that journalism has shifted from a “public service” to “the latest hot take or how to get eyeballs.” To her, The Green Line’s editorial model is a way to reinvigorate “civic action and democracy in journalism.”

Every two or so months, The Green Line tackles a different systemic issue faced by underrepresented Torontonians through a month-long, four-part “action journey.” During week one of the action journey, The Green Line publishes an explainer that breaks down the problem. This coverage expands in week two through a long-form feature unpacking existing solutions. Week three is a live event, which includes a panel of industry leaders followed by a “story circle” in which community members can suggest solutions based on their lived experiences. In week four, The Green Line publishes a follow-up story outlining solutions crowd-sourced during the week-three event. 

“It’s about reporting on existing solutions to systemic problems and … on how the community wants to take action,” Li said. “Nobody knows their community better than community members.” For Li, it’s important to provide readers with “different pathways for engaging with the issue. I want to meet people where they are,” she said. 

Most Torontonians will recognize The Green Line’s namesake: the TTC’s Bloor–Danforth line, which spans the length of Toronto, from Etobicoke to Scarborough. The publication’s website explains that for many, the green line is “their only way to feel connected to the rest of the city.” Li hopes that local media outlets, such as The Green Line, can work in the same way: “If you ground [journalism] in a geographic area, like Toronto, you’re able to serve those people way more,” she said.

Li, 34, started working as a freelance journalist two decades earlier before landing her first job in legacy Canadian media at age 16. She went on to work at many other legacy publications including the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and CBC, but quickly became disenchanted. 

“It’s very top-down,” she said. “I remember pitching stories about equity and justice issues, which I was really interested in, and having editors say, ‘That’s not for our audience,’ which is code for audiences that they’re familiar with.” Li also couldn’t help but notice that almost everyone in a top position was a white man. “They weren’t doing the kind of journalism that I’m really interested in.”

Legacy journalism also failed to engage with the community it claimed to serve. “It wasn’t remotely audience-centric,” Li said, adding that when she left in 2011, there was “zero interest in analytics.” With The Green Line, Li aimed to take the “rigorous best practices” of legacy journalism and combine them with the “nimbleness and fun and irreverence” that allow modern digital media outlets to thrive. 

Li is uniquely suited to this challenge. Before launching The Green Line, she pivoted to American digital media before returning to work at Canadian community-driven journalism startup The Discourse. Now she works as a media consultant and teacher, and on the side Li publishes The Other Wave, a newsletter that critiques the Canadian media landscape. “At that point, I had a lot of experience running newsrooms. I also knew a lot about the business side of journalism,” she said. “I wanted to build my own thing, and I wanted to do it on my own terms.” 

The Green Line’s first action journey focused on Covid re-entry in Toronto, using the city’s response to the Spanish Flu in 1918 as a frame of reference. Going forward, Li hopes to select action journey topics based on community responses, which will be gathered through surveys, a newsletter, and an open Discord. In this way, Li hopes to centre communities that are traditionally underserved by media, and to report on their stories with thoughtfulness and nuance. “It isn’t just looking at the negative or just the positive––it’s all of it,” she said. 

The Green Line reporter Alex Varoutas moderates a breakout room at the action journey event. Photo by Aloysius Wong, The Green Line.

The Green Line has already mapped out the issues it plans to tackle in 2022. In May, the publication will explore how MuchMusic shaped Toronto’s identity and geography; in July, it will take a look at how underrepresented women shifted Toronto’s culture from a hockey town to a basketball city; and in November, it will dig into Black films’ foundational role in Toronto’s rich film scene. The Green Line is also planning a collaboration with independent Canadian publications The Hoser and Rabble in September, focusing on labour issues in Toronto. 

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