Is Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative effectively addressing news deserts?

Some critics say it does not support new startups or existing digital outlets.

The Tyee, a Vancouver-based online magazine founded in 2003, hired two journalists through the federal Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) in 2020: one to cover health, which is an underserved beat in Canada, and another to cover Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area of Vancouver overwhelmed with the pressures of gentrification, homelessness, COVID-19 and the opioid crisis. 

Robyn Smith, editor-in-chief of The Tyee, said both of the reporters they were able to hire have filled an important gap. 

“In a community like the Downtown Eastside, being present can make change; and even if those changes are small, they do affect people’s lives,” Smith said. 

In just five weeks, their new reporter, Jen St. Denis, has covered Vancouver City Council’s motion to decriminalize poverty and the motion to ban street checks — two issues that are hugely important to the community. 

But The Tyee, as a digital outlet that goes deeper than traditional newspaper stories, is an exception. Most outlets like it did not get approved for funding. The LJI was started to support the creation of original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada by providing funding to hire journalists. However, the LJI has been under scrutiny for subsidizing print traditional media over new, innovative models. Established digital news publications have come up against challenges in applying, even if local news has been declining in their area.

“When I first heard about the Local Journalism Initiative I was excited because it was specifically geared toward civic journalism and that jives very much with what The Sprawl was doing,” said Jeremy Klaszus, the founder and editor of the Calgary-based online publication that launched in 2017.

After applying and being rejected for funding, Klaszus chose to dig a bit deeper. 

He noticed that most of the funding had gone to newspapers instead of digital outlets. Of 105 reporting positions awarded in the first round of funding announced late 2019, 93 went to newspapers and only 12 to digital media in the first round of funding.

Digital outlets are on the rise. According to a 2018 report by The Discourse, the majority of outlets launching in local news markets are independent and digital. The report also revealed that “small digital players can have a disproportionate impact on the broader media ecosystem, dialogue about issues, and policy, with few resources — and some could challenge current industry leaders for digital market share in future.” (Disclosure: The Discourse is Indiegraf’s parent company. The Discourse has received funding from the LJI to support Indigenous reporters in B.C.)

When you look a bit closer at the criteria for applying, there are some clear points that put digital outlets, and The Sprawl in particular, at a disadvantage. 

First, a recent change to the application criteria made “pop-up journalism organizations” ineligible to apply. According to Klaszus, this change was made after Klaszus inquired about the funding decisions, and was the exact term that The Sprawl previously used to describe themselves. 

“Because of the nature of the program … we were really looking at people who were in the communities providing journalism who could get [an additional journalist] up and running quickly and had a regular publishing schedule,” John Hinds, president and CEO at News Media Canada, a primary administrator of the funds, said.

As per the criteria, reporters are expected to produce, on average, five to seven stories per week consisting of a combination of standard news stories and long-form features, or a minimum of eight standard news stories per week.

“Part of it is that it makes it easy to measure and easy to be accountable for the use of public funds when you have those very prescribed metrics,” Hinds said. 

However, these criteria eliminated many publications like The Sprawl that explore community issues on a deeper level, and at a slower pace.

“Why are you keeping people out based on the format, especially when these formats are exactly what should be happening at a time when the world is changing and we know the future is not newspapers?” Klaszus questioned. 

Mack Male, the co-founder and CEO of Taproot Edmonton, a membership-based online publication serving Alberta’s second largest city, said they’ve “had a discouraging time looking at grants.” Taproot did not even apply to the LJI. 

“It very much does not seem like it is set up to do anything to support innovation and new ways of solving problems based in journalism,” Male said.

But Edmonton is one city that needs more reporters. Male said that the news coverage in the city is a shadow of what it used to be. 

In early 2016, the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun merged newsrooms, leading to mass layoffs and cuts to local content. Then in late 2019 the free daily StarMetro newspaper stopped print publication, and in mid-March 2020 CBC News cut back its local news broadcasts, leaving many citizens all over Canada without local coverage during the coronavirus pandemic. This decision was reversed with coverage rolled back out over time, with some coverage reduced. 

Male was also concerned that the decision-makers who were on the News Media Canada panel were traditional news publishers and editors who wouldn’t want to introduce new competition, even if it was serving the community. 

“There’s not going to be one solution to what ails media and what ails journalism,” he said. 

Klaszus would agree. 

“Different people in different communities are going to have different solutions based on their community’s needs,” he said. 

Hinds understands the criticism of the design of the program. 

“We have committed to the funder and to the industry that we are going to take forward our lessons learned from the exercise and review some of the criticisms and comments that we have heard,” he said. 

For digital news outlets like The Sprawl, there’s a straightforward way to improve the program.

“Don’t force [digital] news outlets to stick to the old model,” Klaszus said.

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