Indiegraf’s latest addition brings community into independent journalism
Not many kids think their local newspaper is cool, but Rachel Chen is one of them. From her early interest in the Peace Arch News in Surrey B.C., which her friends delivered to doorsteps, to her role as editor of her highschool newspaper in Texas— she’s “very consistent if anything,” she says, chuckling.
Chen went on to study at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, where she served as managing editor of The Varsity, the independent student paper. She cut her teeth as an intern at Chatelaine. It was there she also witnessed an experience too many journalists go through — mass layoffs in the Rogers magazine division during 2018.
Needless to say, she was not dissuaded. “I wanted to write, I wanted to edit, but I was also starting to get really interested in making the journalism industry last,” she says.
Chen joins Indiegraf as audience strategist where she’ll help journalist-entrepreneurs improve their core product, journalism, by engaging with the people they serve. “Everything should be community driven when possible,” she says.
We asked her how her experiences inform where she is today, and why audience engagement, in particular, is so important.
What was your big aha moment through your trajectory in journalism?
The Canadian media scene is small in comparison to the U.S., and that’s partially just because we have a smaller population of people who can read our content. But at the same time, it does feel very much limited to just a few major news organizations. And as we keep seeing mergers and buyouts, it just gets smaller and smaller. Like, when I was at Chatelaine it was owned by Rogers, when I left St. Joseph Communications had bought it. And then St. Joseph’s already owned about half the major magazines in Canada.
So when I saw Indiegraf was launched, it was really exciting to see that people were trying to make the news industry in Canada more interesting — to fight news deserts and to encourage journalism entrepreneurship.
How do you define journalism entrepreneurship?
I would define it as anybody that has an idea of how we can do journalism better and how to reach people in new and different ways than what mainstream, traditional journalism does. I think entrepreneurs, in every industry, they’re making it simpler, they’re making it easier to access. And when it comes to journalism as a public service, access is so important.
Fill in the blanks: indie news is _________
I want to say indie news is better news. I really like zine culture and zines, and I think that’s why I’m probably so drawn to indie news. But I just feel like there’s also a lot of communities that get ignored if there aren’t independent media. The best example I tell everyone is the summer that I was in Toronto and they had the serial killer in the LGBTQ2 village. All of my queer friends were deleting Grindr and stuff, freaking out because they were like, ‘there’s definitely a serial killer in this community.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, it kind of seems like it, people are going missing.’
The mainstream media outlets all didn’t want to report on it. Then a few small indie news outlets, Torontoist and Xtra, reported on the disappearances and everyone else waited until the police were like, ‘there’s no evidence of a serial killer,’ and reported that. It was not widely picked up in mainstream media outlets until the police arrested someone and charged them with multiple murders. All of my friends already knew. All of my friends were already scared for their lives. So it was like: if you have more indie newspapers who are willing to actually listen to marginalized communities the reporting is more accurate.
How do you define audience engagement?
I think the phrase that captures it all is meeting your audience where they are. If you want to make sure people have access to news, writing good journalism isn’t enough. You have to make sure people are actually reading and able to read said good journalism. That means increasing accessibility in many forms. I know some companies are able to get their articles told in an audio format, which is more accessible. Or if your audience doesn’t have the internet then you’re going to need print publications, which is why alt-weeklies are so significant.
If a person wanted to up their engagement game, where should they start?
I think you have to try a lot of things in order to figure out where your audience is. So the first step I would usually do is like, get on all of the social media. If you don’t exist on it, then you might as well not exist to a lot of people. Claim your handles!
What’s the biggest myth about audience engagement?
I think the biggest myth about audience engagement is that it’s all about page views and advertisement views. I think it’s much more than that and it should always be more than that, when possible. So like, are people talking about you? Are people sharing the articles? Have you made an impact in terms of changing something? I know the Toronto Star often touts the change that comes as a result of their stories, and I think that’s really big.