Six lessons from a year of supporting independent local news startups

A year ago, Indiegraf made a big bet on a new model of community news publishing, based on being small, digital, cost-efficient and independently owned. We believed that with support, entrepreneurial journalists could provide valuable news that their local community would pay for.

Today, we know that it wasn’t a bet at all. It was a guarantee.

Since Indiegraf launched in May 2020, we’ve helped 37 news outlets across North America grow their audience and revenue. Collectively, our current publishers are making quality community news accessible to over 25 million people. When we launched early in the pandemic, we had no idea how many independent outlets needed support. It’s now very clear that entrepreneurial journalists are eager to collaborate and fill gaps in community news.

In November 2020, we announced investment backing from New Media Ventures and Marigold Capital. With that capital, we expanded from Canada into the United States with three new exciting publishing partners. And just last month, we announced our BIPOC Media Growth Program and Indie Capital, our new initiative to fund the future of independent media. 

It’s been a year of growth and evolution. Here are six things we learned about the rise of independent community news in our first year:

  1. Writers and journalists are going independent because they want to own their reader relationships directly.

In 2019, Ayesha Barmania was commuting from Peterborough, Ont., to Toronto to work at a large media organization — a 270 km round trip. They wanted to work where they lived, but since the options for doing journalism were so limited in the town of 84,000, Barmania was left with few alternatives.

Barmania started a podcast with their colleague, Will Pearson, on the local community radio station. They did the kind of slow journalism they had always dreamed of doing, digging into municipal stories with nuance and tenacity. And an audience who was desperate for this kind of storytelling grew with them.

Journalists across North America shared Barmania’s commitment to reporting for their own communities and not only in the major metropolitan areas. A recent report commissioned by LION found that over the last five years, there has been a 50 per cent rise in the number of independent media outlets across North America. This growth has sparked a flurry of new organizations to serve these publishers. A number of companies and organizations —  among them Substack, Tiny News Collective, Newpack, Lede, LION Publishers, Google News Initiative and Facebook Journalism Project — are investing in local news and are working to make it easier for publishers to start their own outlet.

For Indiegraf’s part, we’ve been overwhelmed by demand from journalist-entrepreneurs around the world. Over the past year, we’ve heard from more than 500 journalists motivated to launch or grow their own independent media through programs like the Indie News Challenge, our flagship accelerator. More than 800 journalist-entrepreneurs have signed up to receive our how-to guides and case studies published by Indie Publisher, our weekly newsletter. 

And we’ve seen our publishers successfully build the reader relationships they want.

Last summer, after completing the Indie News Challenge, Peterborough Currents launched its first fundraising campaign. They raised $20,000 from readers in a few short weeks. Since then, they’ve expanded their journalism and launched a website, secured grants to grow their work and doubled their audience. 

As of just this month, Barmania only has one full-time job: running Peterborough Currents.

  1. Independent media are earning trust from audiences and credibility in the industry.

The Discourse Nanaimo, which Indiegraf helped launch in the fall of 2020, recently surveyed its audience for feedback on its journalism. Here’s just a sample of what they heard from readers:

  • “What you do is informative, factual and balanced. I enjoy it when you are reporting real people and experiences.”
  • “It’s creating a sense of community conversation and animation that is so needed and important right now.”
  • “Thank you so much for the work you are doing. It’s exactly the kind of engaged journalism that Nanaimo has been missing.”

It wasn’t long ago that the title of your media organization had to be scrawled on top of a printed newspaper to be taken seriously. But as more traditional media sources are hollowed out (or in some cases, disappear entirely), independent media are gaining trust with audiences hungry for strong accountability and investigative journalism.

Indiegraf’s partner publishers are dedicated to high quality, in-depth journalism that directly responds to their audiences’ needs — and people are responding to them. Over the past year, Indiegraf publishers have seen 700 per cent growth in subscribers.

Our publishers have won or been nominated for almost every award program offered in Canada, including Canadian Association of Journalism Awards, Atlantic Journalism Awards, the Canadian Online Publishing Awards, Jack Webster Awards, Digital Publishing Awards and RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Awards. 

Our work has also been recognized as amongst the best in Canada. Indiegraf is the inaugural recipient of the Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF)-Facebook Journalism Project Digital News Innovation Award

Our publishers aren’t the only ones who have been busy growing. Indiegraf started with just two team members — now we have 14.

But awards aren’t why we do this. It’s feedback like the kind we get at The Discourse Nanaimo that keeps our team and partners motivated. 

  1. Email newsletters are finding success providing community news directly to audiences.

The IndigiNews weekly newsletter was established in November 2020. It started with a subscriber list of 726 readers. The IndigiNews team, supported by Indiegraf’s audience strategists, worked on a marketing campaign that included Facebook ads, as well advertising on the IndigiNews website. As of June 2021, it has a subscriber list of  9,161 readers. 

“The thing about newsletters is that you have control over the relationship with your audience,” Dan Oshinsky, founder of Inbox Collective, told Wired UK last year. The number of users on both Substack and Mailchimp have risen dramatically since the pandemic started. 

Newsletters are an essential part of the Indiegraf approach to reaching audiences. Together, we’ve grown our audiences to more than 120,000 subscribers. 

The massive growth of IndigiNews’ newsletter helped the outlet when it needed it the most. Earlier this month, IndigiNews reporters and other journalists were denied full access to report on the ongoing police action against old growth logging protests in Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territories on Vancouver Island, known as the “Fairy Creek Blockades.” 

They asked their readers to help them challenge the RCMP injunction to prevent further harassment and obstruction of their reporters’ ability to do their jobs. 

In less than two weeks, IndigiNews raised $17,000. “This kind of rapid and responsive fundraising is only possible with a growing newsletter list and of course, stellar journalism,” says Trevor Jang, one of Indiegraf’s audience strategists.

  1. People are willing to pay for community news that provides real value.

If you want proof that people are willing to financially support independent news, look no further than The Breach. This new outlet launched a membership campaign just a few months ago on the promise that it would provide Canadians with journalism that was adversarial, action-oriented and critically optimistic. The response was massive. In just 12 days, before they had even published a single story, The Breach raised over $100,000.

You can find success stories like The Breach’s worldwide. According to the Reuters Institute 2020 Digital News Report, 2020 brought a big uptick in people paying for online news: 13 per cent of people in Canada now pay for online news, up from nine per cent from last year. The United States also saw a big jump — now 20 per cent of people pay for online news, up from 16 per cent. Annually, Americans spend $7.2 billion on digital news products. 

“The number one path for financial sustainability is a simple one: asking people to pay for their news,” states a 2019 report by the Medill News Leaders Project. “A user revenue model means turning content consumers into loyal customers, providing stability in a frighteningly fluid industry.”

For 53 per cent of our publishers, audience members are the largest source of revenue. That strong base of reader support means these journalists can focus on creating the highest quality journalism for their audiences rather than chase clicks. Indiegraf is currently building new products to drive other aligned revenue sources, like newsletter advertising, licensing revenue and sponsorships. But our publishers’ most important customers will always remain their readers.

When The Breach hit its goal so quickly, it went back to its supporters and asked: if we keep fundraising, what kind of journalism do you want to see? The answer was clear — they wanted more investigations, podcasts and videos, and a focus on marginalized communities. So The Breach team went back and set a new goal: $150,000. 

In just a few weeks, they raised more than $190,000. 

  1. Persistent diversity and inclusion shortcomings in the news industry are driving BIPOC journalists to media entrepreneurship.

As a Black and queer journalist, Matthew DiMera dealt with racism and homophobia in newsrooms across Canada, experiencing everything from endless micro-aggressions to blatant discrimination. He grew tired of fighting for change within other media organizations. He was ready to launch a platform of his own

DiMera’s experience is, sadly, not unusual. That’s why many journalists of colour have decided that it is time to build better media outlets. 

So far, independent news has lagged behind as much as mainstream media. According to the Oasis Report, only 25 per cent of journalists employed by independent media outlets identify as people of colour, on par with the lack of diversity in established newsrooms and way behind the 40 per cent of the general workforce that identify as a person of colour. However, the same survey found that racially and ethnically diverse organizations’ median revenue was 1.5 times higher than the baseline.

Indiegraf sees the rise of independent community news as an opportunity to change not only the stories told and communities served by the news industry, but also change media ownership to be more representative.

Over the last year, 67 per cent of the publishers we served are owned or led by Black, Indigenous or people of colour, and 60 per cent are focused on primarily underserved audiences. A partnership between the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada and Indiegraf, funded by Facebook, supports news services providing coverage to Bengali, Greek, Iranian, Chinese, Sri Lankan and Tamil communities in Canada. And our BIPOC Media Growth Program will provide $25,000 grants to six Canadian media projects owned or led by BIPOC journalists.

“This last year has been really hard for everyone,” Emilee Gilpin, the managing editor of IndigiNews, recently told Canadaland. “It’s really necessary to have relationships and spaces that are safe and you feel like you can be honest, and what sets us apart is that everybody just cares, that everyone has a big heart.”

DiMera is currently in the early stages of launching a new outlet called The Resolve. Within the first few weeks, he signed up 2,000 newsletter subscribers and added 2,000 new Instagram followers

“We added a lot of new followers, but the real inspiration was all of the people who saw our social media campaign and then wrote to tell us how excited they are to support a project like The Resolve and how desperately Canada needs more media that centres our Black, Indigenous and racialized communities,” says DiMera.

  1. A lack of seed stage capital is a barrier to growth.

Indiegraf is removing barriers to entry to news entrepreneurship by providing founders with the technology, training, services and the support they need to grow. Other organizations have emerged to support growth in independent digital news media, too.

But while our first year has shown us there is a wealth of talented journalists who want to launch their own media outlet to fill community news gaps, we have also seen that they need more support to reach sustainability.

Specifically, a lack of access to appropriate seed stage capital prevents many from launching or realizing their full growth potential, especially those from diverse and low-income backgrounds. The majority rely on personal savings and have to take on significant financial risk before their outlet can reach sustainability.

For funders, supporting the startup stage for local news is difficult: not only is the risk high, but the relatively small funding needed (compared to funding strategies of large non-profits like The 19th, for example) makes the transaction cost high. There’s also a sufficiency problem; while there are more grants for local news than ever before, available grant funding isn’t enough to respond to the crisis of 2,000+ local news deserts across North America.

That’s why Indiegraf developed Indie Capital, our initiative that provides grants and flexible financing to promising independent news outlets to help fund their growth. Since we established the program, Indie Capital has invested in Bushwick Daily, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Peterborough Currents, in Peterborough, Ont. We will soon provide $150,000 in new grants to BIPOC-owned or led media in Canada, via the BIPOC Media Growth Program.

In our second year, we’ll be expanding these programs and developing new initiatives designed to enable anyone with talent and passion, no matter their income or who they know, to participate in media entrepreneurship. Our goal is to empower our decentralized network of community news outlets to be, together, the largest network providing original community news in the world.

Our reason for doing this is much the same as it was when we first started: because we believe that right now, obscured by headlines about a local news apocalypse, there is a generational opportunity to transform the news industry and serve our communities better.

Party in the USA: What Indiegraf’s expansion into America means

Hi there,

We’re Erin Millar and Caitlin Havlak, the co-founders of Indiegraf. H.G. Watson let us take over the Indie Publisher this week to share some big news: Indiegraf is coming Stateside!

We are honoured that New Media Ventures, a leading United States-based investment fund focused on progressive innovation, announced an investment in Indiegraf this week. Read our press release here

So what does this mean for us? NMV is co-leading our seed round of investment along with Toronto-based Marigold Capital. This investment will fund Indiegraf’s expansion into the American market and fill gaps in community journalism in some of the more than 2,000 news deserts there.

We’ll be focusing on supporting existing and new outlets that are not only filling gaps in community news, but also committed to providing more equitable news. We know communities that have long been underrepresented in the news are disproportionately impacted by the collapse of traditional local newspapers. We believe that a lack of access to quality community journalism is a form of political disenfranchisement. We want to support journalist entrepreneurs dedicated to serving underserved communities and changing the traditional power dynamics of news to better serve everyone.

Indiegraf is one of 14 early stage startups selected to join NMV’s 2020 investment portfolio from a record-breaking 1,400 applications. Here’s what NMV President Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman had to say: “In 2020, we’re investing in a new cohort of world-changing leaders, the majority of them women and people of color, who are responding directly to our country’s oppressive institutions, policies, and culture.” Read NMV’s full announcement here.

We’re proud. We’re grateful to NMV and Marigold for believing in us. And we can’t think of a more relevant mission to dedicate ourselves to at this moment than growing media pioneered by diverse local journalists.

But as fellow news entrepreneur David Skok once told us: “Being proud of raising investment is like patting yourself on the back for going grocery shopping. You might have your ingredients but you’ve still got to do all the cooking.”

We’ve got our work cut out for us, and that’s why we’re glad to be part of this growing community of fellow travellers, including you. In the coming weeks, we’ll be getting started and we would love to hear from you if you want to get involved. Here are a few connections we’re looking for:

  • We’re searching for a U.S.-based executive to join our team. Do you know of aligned leaders in this space who can help us connect with the right journalists and publishers, build strong relationships with U.S. partners in the local news ecosystem and obsess over Indiegraf’s publisher experience?
  • We’re still seeking a few more angel investors to invest alongside New Media Ventures and push our seed round over the finish line. We’re just over 80 per cent of the way to our goal.
  • We’re eager to hear about communities that need independent local news! Which publishers should be on our radar? Are you a local journalist interested in launching a news outlet?

With optimism,

Erin and Caitlin

P.S. And because we’ve taken over this newsletter to boast, we better leave this off with some tips about fundraising that we learned from our seed round.

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… 

Poynter is now accepting applications for its Leadership Academies for Women in Media. 

Here’s how Peterborough Currents raised $20,000 from readers

When COVID-19 hit Peterborough, journalists Ayesha Barmania and Will Pearson saw their community was searching for information and connection. They knew that vulnerable communities would be disproportionately impacted by COVID, and that local media wouldn’t cover many of their stories. 

So they launched an email newsletter.

With Indiegraf’s help, they quickly attracted more than 1,700 subscribers to the Peterborough Currents newsletter, which they produce weekly off the side of their desks. As the pandemic dragged on, and they received grateful feedback from their readers, they realized there was a need to expand Peterborough Currents into a full-fledged, permanent digital news outlet for their community.

In summer 2020, without even having launched a website, Peterborough Currents asked their readers to help make their vision a reality by becoming Founding Members. They raised more than $20,000 in a few short weeks.

This week, Peterborough Currents launched the website that their community helped them build. To celebrate their milestone, we wanted to share lessons from their successful Founding Member campaign.

How did they know when to ask their readers for money?

The first indication was that Peterborough Currents reached a sufficient number of email subscribers to drive revenue. 

Not only did they have over 1,700 subscribers, but there was a clear need for their journalism. The cost of attracting each new subscriber from paid advertising was low, which indicated there was demand in Peterborough for in-depth journalism. And once subscribed, readers were very engaged. Their average email open rate was at 40 per cent and over half of their subscribers had five-star ratings on MailChimp, meaning they were highly engaged readers.

The Peterborough Currents team also circulated a survey to their subscribers before the campaign, asking whether they’d be willing to pay. The response was very positive.

All of these signals suggested that they genuinely had that community connection they needed to succeed. 

How did we set a campaign goal? What did we learn?

Based on these metrics, we predicted we could convert 200 subscribers to Founding Members, an 11.5 per cent conversion rate. If each paying supporter kicked in $100 on average, Peterborough Currents would raise $20,000. So that became our campaign goal.

In the end the campaign converted 169 supporters. The actual conversion of email subscribers to Founding Members was 9.75 per cent, which is more in line with industry norms of 10 per cent.

Despite overreaching on our estimated conversion rate, Founding Members contributed more than we anticipated: an average of $128. The campaign raised $21,645 in total, exceeding our goal. By inviting Founding Members to choose from a variety of pricing choices and set their own contribution amount, Peterborough Currents readers stepped up.

How did they tell their campaign story without a website?

All Peterborough Currents had, in terms of digital presence for its newsletter, was a landing page. They worked with the Indiegraf team to evolve the landing page to invite people to contribute financially. 

Through surveys and interviews with their readers, Will and Ayesha had developed an understanding of why their audience valued their work. This helped them craft campaign messaging that emphasized the quality of their writing, community connection and journalistic independence. 

They were also sure to be very concrete about what their Founding Members were paying for: expanding their journalism, building a website, pursuing longer term investigations on specific topics and hiring local freelancers to diversify the voices they publish.

How did people find out about the campaign?

Will and Ayesha then worked with Indiegraf to tell their campaign story in other formats, including email and social media. Campaign emails drove more traffic to the payment page than any other source. It was important that they published strong editorial content during the campaign period so they continued to deliver value to their audience while asking for support.

Founding Members who came to the payment page from email also contributed more on average ($134) than those who came from social media ($48). This is likely because email subscribers knew and valued Will and Ayesha’s work from receiving their newsletters.

Facebook and Twitter were also important drivers, and we ensured people saw their Facebook posts by spending about $500 boosting their campaign posts. 

They also held a virtual event, inviting a well-known local podcaster to host questions from readers. This event showed their readers that they were serious about being accountable and transparent to their community.

Interestingly, although people found out about the campaign almost entirely online, only 60 percent of the transactions were made via the digital payment page. The other 40 percent came via cash, cheque or email money transfer. This suggests that many people are uncomfortable with credit card security, and so it was important to provide alternative ways for people to contribute on the payment page.

What we learned for next time

For the Indiegraf team, we learned that clear communication with our partner publishers is key. Going forward, we plan to consistently have kickoff meetings and a dedicated project manager for every campaign.

The Peterborough Currents team wished that they had better anticipated some of the questions their readers would ask. They recommend preparing a FAQ document in advance.

Finally, in order to maintain momentum over a 3-4 week period via social media and email, campaigns need lots of high-quality visual assets to keep the campaign fresh.

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… 

Here’s one creative way to make use of your local obituaries section.

Apply by June 19 for the Indie News Challenge!

Have you ever wanted to start your own news outlet? Applications are open until June 19 for the second cohort of the Indie News Challenge, our accelerator to help independent digital media launch and grow. 

What is the Indie News Challenge? Over nine weeks starting in July, a group of journalist entrepreneurs from across North America will work together to build an outlet from the idea stage to actually attracting subscribers and readers. Through weekly Zoom seminars, exercises, one-on-one feedback and a community of like-minded peers, you’ll develop your idea into a clear plan with early traction you can present to funders.

The new cohort of the INC is being offered through Indiegraf, a network of journalist-entrepreneurs and independently-owned digital publishers sharing resources to serve their local communities sustainably. If you missed the announcement, read how Indiegraf helped launch six new outlets during COVID-19.

We’re so proud of what the first cohort of INC accomplished. 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 as a result of 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.

“We launched our newsletter, attracted a large audience of email subscribers, gained motivation and energy for our product, secured some funding, learned how to think strategically about our product and revenue streams and received lots of encouragement,” Pearson told us after completing the program.

We especially encourage BIPOC journalists to apply for the next cohort of INC. The need for more Black, Indigenous and POC-owned media was extra clear in the last couple of weeks, as mainstream media fumbled covering police brutality protests.

The cost to participants is $500. The rest of the cost has been subsidized by the Facebook Journalism Project and Google News Initiative. We’re committed to making the program accessible to everyone regardless of their ability to pay, so we will waive the participant fee for those who need it.

With more than 50 newspapers in Canada shuttering during COVID-19, entrepreneurship and innovation are urgently needed to fill gaps. But media ownership can’t only be for people who can code or have buckets of money — it’s for anyone who believes in the mission of journalism.

Register for a webinar next Tuesday to learn more about Indiegraf and ask your questions. Or submit an expression of interest for the Indie News Challenge now!

How Indiegraf helped launch six local news outlets during COVID-19’s first wave

The reality sank in for Brandi Schier, owner, publisher and managing editor of Sun Peaks Independent News, on March 16. Sun Peaks Resort, the pillar of the town’s local economy, announced it would close for the season 48 hours later.

Sun Peaks is a small but fast-growing mountain town in B.C.’s interior that is economically reliant on skiers and summer vacationers. With tourism suddenly halted, its local businesses were in big trouble.

The first ad cancellation came the next day. A regional university, which had been in the midst of a major fundraising campaign, emailed to cancel a deal Brandi had closed just one week earlier after months of work. “I knew that if a big organization like a university was putting a halt on their promotion budget, I could expect similar from all my advertisers,” she said.

Sure enough, April’s advertising revenues fell 46 per cent. By May, ads were down 90 per cent. Like almost all independently-owned local newspapers, SPIN wasn’t sitting on a sufficient cash reserve to keep operating for more than a few weeks. But as the only local news source in her community, it was more needed than ever.

If SPIN was going to survive, Brandi needed a new business model. And she needed to launch it fast.

A new network of independent publishers

SPIN is one of six new local digital media we helped launch — or, in SPIN’s case, pivot to a new business model — during COVID-19.

And we’re just getting started. Today, we’re announcing Indiegraf, a new organization with a big goal: to give entrepreneurial journalists what they need to grow their own digital media and serve their local communities sustainably. 

Indiegraf is a network of independent journalist-entrepreneurs and small, community-owned publishers sharing the resources they need to launch, grow and fill local news gaps. Built by news entrepreneurs for news entrepreneurs, we want Indiegraf to offer journalists starting their own news businesses the advantages of being part of a larger chain — access to capital, a proven model, technology, infrastructure to support their growth — without the burden of the big chains’ debt obligations, executive compensation, legacy business models and editorial directives.

Smack in the middle of a global pandemic may seem like a terrible time to give birth to a new local news company. But we think now is the perfect time for a new model of local news publishing, based on being small, digital, cost-efficient and independent, to take hold — and that’s why we accelerated Indiegraf’s plans to respond to the urgent need for local news innovation during COVID-19.

Small is beautiful

The challenges COVID-19 created for SPIN are hardly unique. As of May 13, 52 outlets in Canada temporarily or permanently closed as a result of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, according to the COVID-19 Media Impact Mapping Project. Of those, 50 are community newspapers. Another 29 outlets have cancelled some or all print editions. More than 2,000 workers have been laid off.

For context, in the 12 years before the coronavirus, 215 local news outlets closed in Canada. That means nearly 25 per cent of the closures that occured during a decade the news industry regularly decried as a “crisis” happened in just eight weeks.

But COVID-19 didn’t create the problems that contributed to this collapse — it just hastened trends that were already well underway. The decline of ad revenues is an obvious and major contributing factor. But traditional newspapers’ cost structure also puts them at a huge disadvantage in today’s economic circumstances, especially when compared to independently-owned digital outlets.

Newspaper chains were built in another time, when print advertising revenue made for thick profit margins that justified big corporations with departments upon departments and highly paid executives. “The print-based daily model — with presses, newsprint, trucks, big office buildings, and more to pay for — can only afford 12 to 20 per cent on content,” Ken Doctor wrote in the Nieman Lab last October. As the big chains cut expenses to respond to falling advertising revenues, that high-cost infrastructure delivered less and less of the part of the business with actual value: journalism.

But we should be able to provide better local news than ever. The technology at our disposal has dramatically lowered the barriers to entry and cost of delivering journalism to readers. 

The model that Indiegraf supports flips the traditional cost structure on its head: by pooling resources to reduce the cost of the technology and marketing needed to distribute content, our partner publishers spend around 75 per cent of their funding on journalism. For example, our publishers share marketing staff so they can add top-notch talent to their team without paying the full cost. They share a common technology stack and developer so they can cost-efficiently access and maintain the tools they need.

Here’s the bottom line: in the traditional model, taking Doctor’s numbers, every dollar spent on producing journalism costs an extra $5 to $8.33 in infrastructure costs to get it to readers. In our model, every dollar spent on journalism costs only 33 cents on other stuff.

What’s with these zombie newspapers?

There’s a common refrain in the Canadian news industry that digital upstarts could never replace the essential journalism done by traditional players. This argument justified a series of government policies designed to save the old model at the expense of local news innovation.

Yet despite significant barriers, they are taking hold. The Discourse, the award-winning, community-funded outlet where we’ve worked for the past six years, published a report in late 2018 that revealed that the majority of the 93 outlets that launched in local markets during the same period when 260 closed were independent and digital. Since then many more digital startups have launched in Canada, in spite of being locked out of hundreds of millions of dollars committed to save local journalism by the Canadian government since 2018.

Moreover, in many cases traditional local outlets that still exist no longer provide quality journalism. According to the Public Policy Report report Mind The Gaps, the quality of civic coverage has declined even in communities that still have a local newspaper. The research found that articles were less likely to acknowledge opposing perspectives, provide illustrative examples, contain statistics or provide historical context.

In an extreme example, it appears that some community newspapers haven’t employed any actual journalists for some time. In preparing for Indiegraf’s launch, we contracted freelance journalist Tessa Vikander to track down community journalists who’d been laid off due to COVID-19. (I should note that Tessa, a talented local reporter herself, was available for hire after being laid off two times in as many years.)

Tessa searched community websites and e-editions. “So far I have identified seven apparent ghost papers,” she says, noting that we haven’t verified our findings with the owners of these newspapers. 

“These small community newspapers contain local ads and classifieds, but all of the news stories come from reporters who work at newspapers in other towns but work for the same parent company. In other words, although it appears a small town may have had a newspaper, there were no journalists assigned to cover that town uniquely.”

Given that Tessa only analyzed about half of the several dozen newspapers that recently stopped publication, we believe there are more ghost papers out there.

We must stop pretending that “saving” newspapers like these is anything other than preserving zombie businesses that extract local advertising revenue to serve debt obligations without producing any value to their local community.

The promise of a new model

The great irony in all of this is that demand for local journalism has skyrocketed. There’s nothing broken about the product of local journalism; the public understands its value in the era of COVID-19, as is evidenced by huge increases in traffic and subscriptions.

Indiegraf is about empowering entrepreneurial journalists to cost-efficiently provide news valuable enough that their local community will pay for it. This model is based on our research, experimentation, failures and hard-earned successes at The Discourse. After many fits and starts over six years, and with support from Facebook’s Local News Accelerator, we’ve finally developed a promising and replicable approach to delivering quality local journalism sustainably.

Led by reporter Jacqueline Ronson, The Discourse Cowichan provides the Cowichan Valley, a rural area on Vancouver Island with a population of 85,000, with in-depth stories distributed via email and social media. Its revenue model works like this: The Discourse Cowichan provides its journalism for free and invites its most engaged readers to become financial supporters. In the past eight months, its audience and reader-revenue has grown by over 500 per cent. That growth, combined with small grants and sponsorships, enabled us to grow it to two full-time reporters, a part-time writer and occasional interns and freelancers, supported by our Vancouver-based team.

Here’s the secret to how Jacqueline’s team delivers journalism valuable enough people will pay for it: they ask their community what to cover. They don’t report on everything (no local sports and little crime reporting). They don’t crank out surface-level stories in pursuit of traffic. They only dig into stories their community really needs and they don’t waste money on anything else.

As it turns out, people will pay for that.

A big idea to nurture small media

Last fall we started working on the big idea that led to Indiegraf. We wondered: What would it take to provide the engine for other Jacqueline Ronsons to serve their communities? 

Here’s our back-of-the-envelope math: if we help a journalist-entrepreneur grow to 5,000 email subscribers and convert 10 per cent to paying $150 per year ($12.50 per month), that generates $75,000 in annual revenue, enough to support one full-time reporter and some technology and marketing support. By connecting the publisher to additional funding opportunities, it can grow from there.

As a beta test to kick the tires on our idea to develop a network of independent digital outlets sharing resources, we created the Indie News Challenge. With funding from the Facebook Journalism Project and Inspirit Foundation, the nine-week program aimed to help journalist-entrepreneurs and small publishers launch new products and grow.

That’s how we met Brandi Schier and SPIN.

SPIN’s story represents so much of this moment in local news. When she purchased the ad-based print newspaper five years ago with a journalism degree and more than a decade in tourism marketing experience under her belt, she was admittedly naive about how much work it would take to keep it afloat. Since then, she’d come to understand just how difficult it was to sustain a publication completely reliant on local advertising in a small town.

Brandi was one of 40 applicants to the Indie News Challenge. Along with six other selected projects, she started doing market research to prepare to launch a reader-supported digital model. She didn’t know whether her community was willing to pay for SPIN’s work. But after surveying community members, she found out that 70 per cent of SPIN readers said they’d directly financially support the outlet. That was a lightbulb moment for Schier.

As a next step we developed a small test campaign inviting SPIN’s audience to support an investigation into problems with the local water utility. We planned to launch it March 17. We were nervous. Would we be able to replicate the results of The Discourse Cowichan?

Then COVID-19 arrived.

A generational opportunity to transform the news industry

On March 27, ten days after that first ad cancellation, we helped SPIN launch a very different campaign than planned.

“The reality is that the local advertising business model we relied on before COVID-19 is unlikely to return any time soon, or ever,” Brandi wrote to her readers

Brandi Schier is the owner, publisher and managing editor of Sun Peaks Independent News. Photo credit: Sun Peaks Independent News

Brandi asked them to commit to a one-year membership, paid up front. In just over two weeks, she raised nearly $30,000 from her readers.

When you compare $30,000 to the scope of the economic challenges facing local news, it may seem paltry. But when your newsroom spends most of its money on producing journalism, $30,000 goes a long way — it’s enough to keep Brandi’s small team employed through 2020 when combined with emergency grants.

What’s remarkable about SPIN’s story is that Brandi pulled this off in a tiny town. Sun Peaks has 2,000 full-time residents and SPIN boasts 1,100 email subscribers.

Now, imagine all of the communities across North America where tiny newsrooms like SPIN could be providing urgently-needed local news. That’s the future we’re imagining.

In the weeks since March 16, when the world ground to a halt even in little Sun Peaks, we’ve helped launch five other digital media: 

  • IndigiNews, a new platform serving local First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, soon expanding to Vancouver Island
  • Peterborough Currents, in-depth journalism with deep community roots in Peterborough Ontario
  • La Converse, community-powered media serving francophone Canadians, especially underserved communities in Quebec
  • Spark YQL, Lethbridge Alberta’s first independent news outlet
  • The Discourse Nanaimo, where The Discourse has just begun expanding from the Cowichan Valley

And we’re doing this because we believe, obscured by headlines about a local news apocalypse, now presents a generational opportunity to transform the news industry to serve our communities better.

With files from Tessa Vikander

Indiegraf Media

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