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

While it’s hard to stay positive with huge threats to the industry, these people are forging a new future for news.

H.G. Watson  - September 28, 2020

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.

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