Thanks for all the fish: Lessons from two years of Indie Publisher

Two years ago, Indiegraf CEO Erin Millar sent me an email asking me if I wanted to chat about an idea for a new newsletter. Indiegraf was quietly getting started behind the scenes, and she wanted to get the word out about her new plan to help build financially sustainable media outlets.

70 issues of Indie Publisher later, we’ve supported 58 independent publishers across North America. I got to see this happen from day one. (I was Indiegraf’s second employee — now there are 18 of us!)

I’m moving on from Indiegraf to focus on writing and teaching. But before I head out, I wanted to look back on some of what I’ve learned during the past two years.

Building organic connections

Since early 2020, we built an Indie Publisher newsletter audience that exceeds 1,000 subscribers with mostly organic marketing beyond word of mouth.

How did we do it? We started with a good product idea. Over the past few years, it’s become clear that more journalists want to make it on their own. But at the time we started Indie Publisher, there weren’t a ton of resources explaining how people could actually do it.

Our newsletter has always been focused on advice anyone can implement. Some of my favourite pieces include stories about small publishers who figured it out on their own as well as our how-to guides around essential topics, such as leading a revenue campaign.

One of the biggest success signals is that many of our active publisher partners started as Indie Publisher subscribers before they even considered participating in one of our programs.

What marketing teaches journalists

Before I joined Indiegraf, I had no idea what a lead generator was and barely knew anything about marketing funnels. For me, there was a hard line between marketing and journalism.

But learning how to use tools that originated from the marketing world have made me better at my job. All journalists want their work to find readers and make an impact. The promotion of that piece can make a huge difference in whether that happens.

I’m currently advising another journalism project. The other day on a call, I found myself talking about how we needed to think about lead generation enticement — clearly, something has rubbed off!

Feedback is love

Our CEO Erin Millar often says: Feedback is love. I’ve always taken this to mean that being honest and kind while giving constructive criticism can help us grow.

While I’ve always promoted my own work, I never worked as a “marketer” until this job. My learning curve was steep. But I didn’t mind — I took it as an opportunity to learn more and challenge myself in new ways. Every time I received feedback, it felt like I got a little better at what I do.

Had I not received that input from Erin and my colleagues, I don’t know if I’d be leaving Indiegraf with the skills I have today.

Find a good team

“Team work makes the dream work” is a cliche for a reason. At Indiegraf, we’re surrounded by people who are intensely passionate about growing startup media outlets. Most of us worked in journalism for stints, and even if we’re not writing or editing all the time, we care very much about where this industry is heading. It’s been a pleasure to not only work with these folks, but to share journalism stories and talk about our own dreams for the future.

Say hi!

It probably won’t be long before you see me in this newsletter again — I am a freelancer now! But if you’d like to say hi, please do. I’d love to hear from you again.

I pass over the editing of Indie Publisher to the capable hands of Joe Lanane, our publisher success manager, who will manage the newsletter until Indiegraf hires our next digital marketer. Is that you? You can apply here!

Here are seven resources for covering climate change for indie publishers

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report dropped, I found myself feeling discouraged. What can I do? What can any of us do? (Note: if you happen to be the CEO of an oil or car company, you can actually do a lot. Please go do that RIGHT NOW.)

But documenting the effects of climate change is an important part of ensuring change happens — as does telling stories about the solutions. In this edition of the Indie Publisher, I’m giving you a couple of resources and examples on how to report on climate in your community.

The Earth Journalism Network has a guide on how local journalists can report on the UN Climate Report.

Climate Central was launched in 2019 to provide tips and tools for local reporters aiming to tell more stories about climate change and solutions. Here, you’ll find plenty of resources and story ideas to pursue.

Need to get caught up on the science side? Your team can take a climate reporting masterclass offered by Climate Matters in the Newsroom.

Climate Communications, a U.S.-based organization, also offers fact sheets on a variety of topics relating to climate change and offers one-on-one assistance to journalists.

The Society of Environmental Journalists has an excellent list of media organizations’ climate beats, as well as award-winning coverage — definitely a place your team can draw inspiration from.

Covering Climate Now is another organization that brings together journalists working on environmental stories from across the globe. It has tip sheets, reporting and regional guides. You can also apply to join as a partner publisher and share your content.

The Global Investigative Journalism Network has compiled an amazing list of resources and ideas for enterprising journalists.

Do you have another great resource other indie publishers should know about? Email it to me, and I’ll tweet it out

In the news

Opportunities and education

And one more thing… 

Indiegraf CEO Erin Millar joined The Walrus and Facebook to discuss the future of the internet. You can watch the event replay here

Take a break with Indiegraf’s summer reading list

Today is all about breaks.

This week, in anticipation of summer vacation, we’re taking a break from our regular content to bring you some of the Indiegraf staff’s favourite reads from indie publishers. Whether you read it on the beach or stuck in the office, we hope you enjoy this work from some of our amazing peers.

The Markup consistently knocks ambitious, interactive journalism projects out of the park. This tool, called Split Screen, is my fav. It allows you to compare the Facebook feeds of seemingly opposing psychographic audiences. Like, for example, what Biden and Trump supporters saw on the days leading up to the election. Or what millennials and boomers see in real time. It’s brilliant.

-Amy Van Es, audience strategist

Living through COVID-19 continues to be horrific, but the way we’ve seen communities come together to take care of each other is really moving. Fatima Syed honours those who have passed and talks to real members of the community, highlighting organizations and people watching out for their city — all while holding power to account. 

-Rachel Chen, audience strategist

The news that the remains of 215 children were found at a residential school in Kamloops made headlines worldwide. As a person who has little in common with the victims and the family, it would be difficult to fully understand what they are going through. But Helen Knott’s words, as described to IndigiNews reporter Kelsie Kilawna, reflected how this impacted the community and deeply touched my heart.

-Kay Watanabe, developer

As a former labour reporter, I’m always eager to read more news digging into workplace conditions. Since it launched earlier this year, The Breach has been breaking labour news. I thought this piece about Tim Hortons’ parent company fighting attempts to ensure a living wage for workers was very illuminating. 

-H.G. Watson, marketing manager

Many people wonder what the land back movement really means. Briarpatch’s Sept./Oct. 2020 Land Back issue dives head first into that question. In it, you’ll learn how on-the-ground movements use tools like rent programs, land trusts and permits to assert inherent rights to the land. You’ll learn how Indigenous hunters who identify as women, and sex workers, are fundamental to the movement. You’ll hear how Molly Swain and Chelsea Vowel of the podcast Métis in Space made their land back vision a reality, and lots more. It’s educational, imaginative storytelling at its finest.

-Lauren Kaljur, Indie Publisher contributor

Newfoundland and Labrador is a beautiful province. In 2019, I drove over 1,500 kilometres in five days, traveling from St. John’s to Deer Lake and getting to know the locals in the small towns in between. But there are many untold stories on the island, and this investigative piece by The Independent into an online troll was captivating. For years, an anonymous Twitter account was harassing the citizens of Newfoundland. Then The Independent’s Drew Brown revealed who was behind the mask.

-Shelby Blackley, audience strategist

In the news

We need to complicate the “save local news” mantra


And one more thing…

How a Facebook group can bring you closer to readers

It’s Friday night in Plano, Texas. You’re sick of cooking. Tonight, it’s time to eat out — but where do you go?

You might check the Plano Foodies Facebook group. In it, over 4,500 people post about their favourite local restaurants, upcoming specials and their own beloved recipes. You’ll also find posts from the group’s moderator — Plano Magazine co-founder and editor Jennifer Shertzer.

“We thought it would be really fun to see if we could get a big community going where we rallied around our restaurants,” she says.

For publishers, Facebook groups offer a unique opportunity to really get to know their readers on a personal level.

Plano, a city of over 250,000 not far from Dallas, has a thriving restaurant community. Shertzer thought that eventually, someone would try to create a Facebook group aimed at local foodies — so why not the local magazine? Plano Magazine, which she started with her partner and husband Luke in 2014, is focused on arts and life content. It was a natural move for them.

Many media outlets, both large and small, have been using Facebook groups (or similar tools) to connect with users. Conde Nast runs several groups that serve niche interests related to each of their brands — for example, The New Yorker Movie Club, which has over 38,000 members, is a place for cinephiles to chat about film. In the group, members get a chance to directly interact with New Yorker film critics like Richard Brody. “People often post in our group about films they watched years ago, that have stayed with them, but they’re unable to recall who is in it or what it’s called. The members of our group are so diligent that they’re often able to figure out which film it is,” Saira Khan, the director of social media at The New Yorker told the Facebook Journalism Project.

Shertzer quickly noticed that posts that came from Plano Magazine’s business account got little to no engagement. But if she posted in the group using her personal account, a discussion would start. “I think the big learning curve for me there was: people want to interact with other people. They don’t want to interact with brands.”

Indiegraf member The Discourse Cowichan also has a local Facebook group. Originally, the editors there had hoped to generate conversations about issues in their community, but eventually found it was too forced. The group needed to grow organically. “Facebook groups are a really important source of local information for people who live here, particularly with the decline of local newspapers,” says founding reporter Jacqueline Ronson. “But they can get pretty nasty, and lots of people eventually bow out. Our group has, with a couple of exceptions, been a place of reprieve from that, where you can expect good information and respectful engagement. And I think people appreciate the feeling of being part of a group.” 

Shertzer isn’t looking to get clicks or ad revenue from the Foodies Facebook group. (In fact, she only posts content from the magazine about twice a month.) “If someone is going to be in Plano and go to Facebook and search anything about Plano foodies, I want us to be the first thing that comes up,” Shertzer says. “I want Plano Magazine to be seen as the authority on where you should be eating in Plano.” 

She is, however, using the group to help build her newsletter subscription base. Each new member is asked if they want to give their email address. If they do, Shertzer adds it to Plano Magazine’s subscriber list, and notes that they are also a member of the Plano Foodies. Eventually, she may launch a food-focused newsletter. She may also plan special offers for members of the group, such as discounts on culinary events hosted by the magazine. 

Till then, the group is still thriving through COVID-19. Every Wednesday, restaurants are free to promote the takeout or meal kit specials they are offering. And people are still looking to enjoy all the great food in their city. 

“I consider successful engagement if someone can ask for a recommendation for a restaurant and they get multiple meaningful replies, or if someone just gets on there and posts, ‘Hey, we went to this restaurant this weekend, and it was great,’” says Shertzer.

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… 

Indiegraf member La Converse has launched its first fundraising campaign! You can support them here.

Journalists striking out on their own give me hope for the future

This story was published to mark World News Day. At a time when credible journalism has the power to save lives, build trust, and inform the public’s understanding of an increasingly complex and uncertain world, World News Day is a powerful reminder that journalism can be a force for good — a message that 150 news organizations from around the world intend to celebrate on Monday, September 28. World News Day is presented by The Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) and the World Editors Forum (WEF)  — with support from the Google News Initiative.

Recently, a young journalist asked me what the biggest threats are facing the media industry.

I admit, I found myself flummoxed at how to answer. Where to begin? Should I start with the hedge funds that have sunk their claws into newspapers to bleed them dry? That it is an industry that increasingly relies on the precarious labour of young, racialized creative workers, while the full-time jobs and senior roles disproprotionately go to men and white folks? How about the fact that there just aren’t that many jobs left even for those who still have the will to fight for them?

Or, should I have responded to the young journalist with what is in my heart of hearts, that despite all the threats, I still believe in the future of journalism?

I know, I know. It’s cool to be a cynic. But the uncool truth about me is that I am a hopeless optimist. I love telling stories. I love reading stories. And I love the joy other people find in stories. That, at its root, is what drives me to journalism and what will keep me here even if, one day, all that means is I am the person weaving a tale around the campfires lighting our way in the post-apocalyptic future.

But even I cannot deny that things are dire. Even before COVID-19, I have watched my talented colleagues, peers with reporting skills beyond my wildest dreams, drop out, struggle with anxieties, and question their own talents because of work environments that did not let them thrive. I know this because I too have lived it: most of my career has been marked by precarity. It’s hard to thrive when you are wondering where the next contract will come from, or whether this freelance cheque will pay the rent.

And yet.

When I was a media reporter, I gathered stories of people fighting to keep journalism alive close to me, like the embers keeping a fire alive. In these, I found stories of resilience and perseverance, of hope. 

Early in 2020, Erin Millar, a compulsive optimist herself, emailed me and asked if I’d like to help launch a new newsletter to promote her new project Indiegraf, a startup that supports the growth and development of new digital news media outlets. She and her partner and sister, Caitlin Havlak, were taking what they learned about building independent media from their successes and failures founding The Discourse, a media outlet that provides in-depth journalism to communities that have lost or been excluded from local news coverage— in some cases, training journalists from the ground up.

The newsletter would highlight those who were nurturing new models for news in their own communities.

Since delivering Indiegraf’s Indie Publisher newsletter, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people like Brandi Schier, a millennial who bought the Sun Peaks Independent News, and transformed it into a reader-funded digital and print outlet and Lela Savić, a journalist who has fought to bring La Converse, community-powered Francophone journalism, to Quebec.

I’ve learned there is a tightly-knit community of journalist-turned-entrepreneurs who are taking their reporting dreams into their own hands  and building futures for their journalism so that getting a layoff slip doesn’t mean it’s the end of their career. (More than 2,000 journalists have been laid off across Canada as the pandemic hit.) I look at places like LION Publishers, who, like Indiegraf, are fostering new generations of independent media outlets.

There are people fighting for journalism. You can find them all over the world, adapting and changing newsrooms. Some work remotely, or practice slow journalism or maintain open communication with their readers. Some do it despite bad bosses or owners; others are striking out on their own and becoming the bosses and owners.

What many of those people believe — and what I believe — is that if you listen to communities and offer them information they need, you can build something that is valuable: a news outlet that reflects peoples’ lived realities back to them, and holds to account the most powerful. And many are increasingly proving you can build something sustainable too.

Here’s how the Texas Tribune took a key fundraising event digital

It was April when Stacy-Marie Ishmael realized that The Texas Tribune was going to have to make a big decision.

Every year in September, the non-profit, independent newsroom hosts a pair of events that raise funds to support reporting for the rest of the year: The Texas Tribune Festival, a live conference on current affairs that normally takes place over a weekend in Austin, and TribFeast, a gala for major donors that brings in “a small but meaningful percentage” of the Tribune’s annual revenue. “It’s very much a moment to gather people who are financially — but I also think emotionally — invested in the success of The Texas Tribune and the success of local statewide nonprofit journalism to network with each other,” says Ishmael, the editorial director of the Tribune.

Both events take months to plan. But with COVID-19 forcing shutdowns, it became clear the Tribune team was going to have to decide whether to proceed as planned. The closer they got to the event dates in September, the more expensive it would be to cancel — and they’d lose precious time to pull off a complex digital event. 

“Within a couple of weeks, it seemed very clear to me at least that we should make a decision early to move everything to a virtual format, even if by fall everything was in a better spot,” says Ishmael. 

The Tribune is among many newsrooms that has grown to rely on events as part of its revenue stream — one that, it goes without saying, is impossible to do safely in the midst of a global pandemic. But its team was determined to find a new way to connect with their donors. 

A totally online TribFeast debuted in June, five months ahead of schedule. It gave the Tribune just two months to plan the entire online gala.  

“In-person things have a dynamic that digital-only things can’t, and that’s okay,” says Ishmael. Instead, they tried to play to the strengths of being virtual — the chance to have intimate conversations with industry leaders. “What we really wanted to do was identify: How do we make people feel special? How do we make them feel welcomed? How do we help them understand and appreciate the value of journalism that we create as a news organization?”

Attendees who registered at the VIP threshold got gift bags in the mail ahead of time including yellow roses, the signature colour and flower of the TribFeast event, along with a note featuring a quote from the guest speaker — a physical touchpoint. 

Once they logged in on Zoom, guests had the option to join breakout rooms with special guests like director Richard Linklater and musician Shawn Colvin, as well as reporters and editors from the Tribune. It was a way of giving people a unique experience — it’s not every day you get to have face time with the man that brought the world Dazed and Confused. But it also gave them real insight into what kind of work the reporters do.

Part of the planning was also recognizing what could go wrong — as things often do when you are dealing with technology. The Tribune team decided to have digital ushers; people who could help attendees if their camera stopped working or if they didn’t know how to use a Zoom breakout room. They also helped stimulate conversation by dropping links to works cited by speakers directly into the chat, or making sure certain questions were answered. “Having all of that architecture…was us understanding the platform deeply and not just trying to overlay the previous Feast experience to this one,” says Millie Tran, chief product officer at the Tribune. 

Their efforts, combined with the decreased budget for the event itself, helped TribFeast meet 99.6 per cent of its fundraising targets. “The most gratifying parts of it was people saying, ‘Oh I felt so nourished [by it],’” says Ishmael. 

Their next challenge is taking some of the lessons learned from TribFeast and applying them to Tribune Festival, which will take place online over the month of September. It’s a different kind of event — unlike TribFeast, which provides intimacy, TribFest has always been for a bigger crowd. 

“You cannot have too many moderators,” says Ishmael — especially at an event that will draw hundreds of potentially global viewers, a far wider audience than the Austin-based festival normally allows for. Communication is another key. You need people to understand how to sign up, how to watch the event and how to ask questions.

“Our responsibility to them is to make that experience as great as possible once they’re there,” says Ishmael.

List of key takeaways from the story. 

The key takeaways: Don’t fight the medium. You can’t replicate an in-person event, so don’t.
Use the digital tools to your advantage. Zoom features like breakout rooms and on-screen text provide opportunities to connect in different ways.
To double quote Ishmael: You can’t have too many moderators!

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… 

File this under stories I wish I had written: an oral history of the Weekly World News.

The cover of an edition of the Weekly World News, featuring Bat Boy, a bat-human hybrid.

Editor’s note, Aug 27, 2020: An earlier version of this story stated attendees at TribFeast got a handwritten note from guest speakers. It was actually a quote from the guest speaker. We apologize for the error.

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