Six lessons from a year of supporting independent local news startups

How Indiegraf is making an impact in news deserts across North America.

Erin Millar  - June 11, 2021

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:

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.

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