The homepage of The Local, showing a swingset with caution tape across it.

The Local was born in a hospital network

The web-magazine is bringing longform urban health and social issues journalism to Toronto

A headshot of H.G. Watson. H.G. Watson  - July 22, 2020

I’ve been thinking a lot about an interview Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently did with the Local News Initiative. Her new book, Ghosting the News, is an examination of the growing news deserts across America. 

In the last question of the interview, Mark Jacob notes that some research has found that digital news startups aren’t closing the local reporting gap. To this, Sullivan responds: 

“Anytime you can get real reporting done, it’s a positive. Maybe it doesn’t completely fill the gap, but it makes a difference. I want to be clear that my message isn’t just: “We have to save newspapers.” It’s really: “We have to save journalism in whatever form that is,” which may have nothing to do with the printed page or the way we did it in the 1990s.”

Whatever form that is. It’s made me think about where journalism can spring from. It would be easy to assume media companies are the be-all end-all of news, but really, anyone can start a media outlet — and that can be a beautiful thing. Unlikely journalists and publishers bring new perspectives, new stories and, potentially, new funding sources.

This week, I’d like you to meet one new magazine that was born in the most unlikely place.

The Local is a Toronto web-magazine covering urban health and social issues. It’s beautifully designed, features long, magazine-length stories that might not appear in other publications and has been nominated for and won awards.

And it was developed in a hospital system. University Health Network’s (UHN) OpenLab comes up with solutions to address how healthcare is delivered and experienced. The Local was one.

“The Local was really an attempt on our part to use storytelling as a tool to really bring voices from the community that would otherwise be missing from planning and policy discussions,” says Tai Huynh, the editor-in-chief of The Local and creative director of OpenLab. 

Huynh says that his team is trying to bring a hyper-local lens to their storytelling approach. In a recent issue, it took readers through seven days in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many of the neighbourhoods The Local has covered, the media coverage has focused on violence — Huynh wants to tell a different story. “Being able to offer something that goes inside the community and develop a story in collaboration with people who live there, who have something to say that’s more in depth than what’s in the headline is I think part of the attraction.”

It’s an interesting example of journalism springing from a non-traditional source. OpenLab’s goal is to find untraditional ways to solve problems. “It’s just a matter of thinking creatively,” says Huynh.

However, being born from a healthcare setting also came with pitfalls. The hospital network’s procurement procedures meant some freelancers were waiting up to six months to be paid. And, reporting on health meant that there could be potential conflicts of interest to navigate.

That’s why, in 2019, The Local went independent of UHN. (Huynh is still creative director of the lab.) As a result, it can report freely and pay people quicker — writers and artists get their paycheques within 24 hours. Huynh hopes to publish more investigative journalism in the future. 

The next step for the outlet is diversifying its funding sources. Right now, it is totally supported by philanthropic giving. “We know that we need a revenue mix that is more than just philanthropy,” he says. 

But he’s hopeful given that the outlet’s dedication to hyper-local reporting has already attracted donors, including the Wellesley Institute, YMCA of Greater Toronto, United Way of Greater Toronto, Toronto Foundation, and Metcalf Foundation. “It resonated with missions they had already established,” he says. 

Infographic explaining the key takeaways from the story, including: 
Journalism can come from anywhere. What organizations do you know that might be poised to make the leap?
When fundraising, look to people and organizations whose missions align with your own.
Creativity is key!

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… It’s a big week for Indiegraf network member Peterborough Currents, who officially launched its crowdfunding campaign! If you’re able, consider becoming a Founding Member. Canada needs local news success stories!

The homepage of Peterborough Currents website, soliciting memberships.
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