How to use swag to meet your audience goals

At The Discourse, we used to be weary of swag. We’re a small team and didn’t want to get into the retail biz. But having followed the ever-successful Black Friday membership drive from our friends at The Narwhal, centered on their signature red toques, we decided to give it a try last year.  

With The Narwhal’s permission, we copied the Black Friday campaign. In a matter of days, we reached our fundraising goal. Wanting to share some of The Narwhal’s knowledge, I caught up with Editor in chief Emma Gilchrist to find out what other indie outlets need to know to run their own stellar swag-driven fundraising campaign.

Let your swag speak for itself

Each type of swag tells a story. Fun garments like toques and T-shirts with logos or slogans can boost brand visibility. If a person wears a toque everyday, Emma explains, they’re engaging with The Narwhal daily.

Each new hire at The Narwhal is photographed outdoors wearing company swag that resembles something from a lifestyle-brand, which Emma laughingly describes as “ProPublica Patagonia.” But awareness advertising isn’t the primary goal of The Narwhal’s famous toques. “I kind of see that as gravy on top of it,” says Emma. The core objective is to drive new members to sign up. (More on that later.)

The swag you choose, and how you go about it, can also communicate values behind your brand

The Narwhal produces a yearly print edition featuring its top visual stories. The campaign around this piece of swag is cleverly timed to coincide with journalism award nominations, which are often featured in the magazine. In this way, the print edition serves to celebrate the best stories of the year.

Swag like this centers what The Narwhal is all about: high-quality investigative journalism you can’t find anywhere else. 

As a community-driven local news outlet, The Discourse decided to center its values by commissioning a local artist to design our tote. We then shared the story of Qwiyahwult-hw (Stuart Pagaduan)’s design with readers. Similarly, IndigiNews shared the story of Lauren Marchand’s art featured on its stickers, titled “coyote goes viral,” where senk’lip (coyote) is shown sitting in front of a computer sipping mountain medicine tea.

Build a sense of urgency 

Once you’ve chosen your swag and put production in motion, it’s time to build a campaign around it. As you know from reading this newsletter, every good campaign involves a sense of urgency. That can look like a deadline or a scarcity of the swag itself. 

“Become a monthly member by midnight tonight, and we’ll send you a sweet Narwhal toque,” The Narwhal’s campaign email reads. This works because it’s only offered for a limited time period, which encourages people who might be on the fence about giving to go ahead and fill out the form.

“We all know how many emails we get, how many things we might want to do on the internet,” Emma says. “But what makes you actually complete an action on any given day? A deadline.” 

Use it as a premium 

The Narwhal also uses swag as a premium to upsell people, Emma explains. During most of the year, supporters have to pay a premium amount to get a Narwhal toque, boosting the average donation. “A certain percentage of people really want the swag, so they’ll want to make sure to give $20 a month to get it.”
You can also use your swag for special contests, like Instagram giveaways that encourage people to follow your account or sign up for your newsletter. It’s an easy prize that circles back to the value of your brand.

Screenshot of an Instagram post by The Narwhal.

Be practical

Operationally, you’ll need to make sure you have a way to gather people’s mailing addresses when they sign up to become a supporter. This can be done with support of the team at Indiegraf. A possible work around it is to follow up asking people for their address via email, but that’s a pain for both parties.

Also, T-shirts and other clothing items are fun, but consider the fact that you’ll need to gather sizing information. If it’s not inclusive of a wide range of sizes, consider what this communicates to readers. A tote bag, especially on the thinner side, stickers or a thin toque will be cheapest to mail. Anything that you can’t fit into a mail slot will be more expensive. Be wary of heavy items like books or bulky items like sweatshirts. 

Something like a print edition magazine is nice and easy to fulfill. Just keep in mind that shipping costs have to be factored into your return on investment. 

Lastly, don’t underestimate the amount of work it will take to package and label orders, and consider the impacts of a long delay before eager readers get their swag. To speed things up and make the process less agonizing, consider locking in a day for a team mailing party, Emma advises.

To store or not to store?

Like many outlets, The Narwhal team has gone back and forth about opening an online store, says Emma. They’ve decided to go for it, but it will only be available to members. That way, people still need to be part of a club to get their hands on it, Emma explains, and the relationship with readers doesn’t become too transactional. 

“I think some people might be allured by the idea that they can maybe make a little bit of money off of selling swag — but you’re not going to make very much,” Emma warns, especially once you factor in your full costs including the time it takes to build the campaign, fulfill orders, etc.

“For us, the swag is more valuable in driving membership and engagement.”


Here are some of our favorite pieces of swag, from the network and beyond:

Waiting to be told: Behind the Resort Harassment story by Sun Peaks Independent News

A controversial comment made during a tourism conference in March made national Canadian headlines. After asking all the women in the room to stand in honour of International Women’s Day, a man said ‘Now go clean rooms and do dishes’ — a bad joke, bad enough to turn heads and land him in the spotlight. For the reporting team at Sun Peaks Independent News (SPIN), however, this was more than a poorly chosen joke: it was a red flag. 

That man was former general manager of Sun Peaks Grand Hotel & Conference Centre, Vivek Sharma. Aware of the role Sharma had once held within the community, the SPIN team decided to dig a bit deeper. Sadly, as their research eventually found, it’s never “just a joke.” 

Looking into Sharma’s history at Sun Peaks Resort (SPR), a new, even more troubling remark came to light. A former resort employee shared the story with SPIN: While trying to “motivate the staff” at a meeting in 2016, Sharma said “Sometimes you get raped. You just have to lay down, take it and enjoy it.” This particular comment was then made public by CBC, following the 2022 comment. And yet, the SPIN team knew that’s not where the story ended. In fact, it raised an even bigger red flag: why had Sharma continued to work at the resort for three more years after that comment?

Indeed, as Sharma’s comments became part of the national news cycle, former and current SPR employees started reaching out to SPIN. They had stories to tell. Not only had there been no reprimand for Sharma’s comment in 2016: this was just one of the many instances of discrimination and harassment that were swept under the rug by the resort’s management. Eager to open an important discussion about harassment and power in their community’s tourism industry, the SPIN team got to work.

Indie Publisher reached out to Kayla Empey, community reporter at Sun Peaks Independent News who led this coverage, for the story behind the story.

How did you first learn about this issue?

Empey: The story began with a post we saw on LinkedIn explaining how Vivek Sharma told women at the B.C. Tourism and Hospitality Conference to ‘clean rooms and do dishes’ while speaking at the podium.

When SPIN’s publisher Brandi Schier saw the post, it caught her attention because Sharma used to work at the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel & Conference Centre, and there were allegations of other offensive comments he made at the time.

I began investigating the story, but CBC ended up breaking the news before us. However, once Sharma’s name made national headlines, more sources began reaching out to SPIN wanting to share their experiences.

Through my interviews, our team realized the big ‘issue’ might not be Sharma’s behaviour, but the fact he continued to work at the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel for years after formal complaints were put in against him, and staff said he didn’t seem to be reprimanded.

The issue then became more clear when I spoke to other employees who said it wasn’t just Sharma who has gotten away with harassment at SPR.

Why was it important for the Sun Peaks Independent News team to cover this story?

Empey: It was important for SPIN to cover this story because we wanted to begin valuable conversations about how SPR and the tourism industry as a whole can move forward towards change. We wanted to give a voice to those who have felt like they weren’t able to speak up.

Covering this story also helped show the community we are truly independent. SPR has a lot of influence in Sun Peaks and some residents might have thought we wouldn’t publish a story like this. However, what matters most to SPIN is telling stories that impact the community.

What made you decide to go deeper after Sharma’s comments made national news, considering he no longer worked at the resort?

Empey: We wanted to dig deeper into the story because even though Sharma no longer worked at SPR, it’s still relevant to current and former employees because of the lasting impact his comments had on them. Also, it highlighted the overarching issue of how it was addressed by resort leadership and how staff said issues continued to be brushed aside after he left. 

In addition, we heard directly from our readers and the community that the story was much larger than Sharma’s actions, and that many people felt the issue deserved a closer look in the community.

When covering difficult topics, how do you establish trust with your sources so they feel safe to speak openly?

Empey: I think since this issue had not been publicly spoken about for so long, the sources trusted SPIN because we were the ones finally bringing it to light. Most of our sources reached out to us wanting to tell their stories, and I was ready to listen.

I also made sure to communicate with the sources frequently throughout the process to ensure they were comfortable with what we were publishing and that nothing identified current employees who wanted to remain anonymous to protect their jobs.

What lesson could other journalists gain from this coverage?

Empey: A lesson journalists could gain from this coverage is to not be afraid to speak up against those with strong influence and use your platform to give others a voice. The positive feedback I received was overwhelming and showed how long the community was waiting for this story to be told properly.

Another takeaway is how important community-based independent journalism is. This story wouldn’t have been possible without a local reporter who was dedicated to digging deep into the wider management issues, and a great team for support.

Strong journalism inspires strong journalism. Through the Behind the story series, we intend to give you a peek behind the scenes of quality journalism: what makes great stories? How are they built? What impact do they have? We will try to answer these and more questions about the work and the processes that go behind strong journalism.

This is what a youth-led editorial agenda looks like

Since launching in July 2021, The Kansas City Defender has surfaced stories by and for Black youth that would not have been told otherwise. The independent non-profit news outlet has built trust with youth across Kansas and Missouri high schools by centering their voices and inviting them to produce content.

Indie Publisher’s Lauren Kaljur caught up with founding editor Ryan Sorrell to learn more about what’s possible when youth lead the news direction of an online outlet.

They speak to youth, and youth speak to them

Social media is central to The Kansas City Defender’s content and editorial strategy because their audience is predominantly Gen Z. The Defender’s Instagram feed is filled with hyper-shareable videos and bright yellow text over images, which relay everything from student walkouts to sports wins to youth profiles. The effort clearly resonates, with nearly 12,000 followers helping to fill each post with lively comments.

Instagram post from The Kansas City Defender that reads "A Lincoln Prep HS Male Teacher Sent Explicit Images of Himself to Girl Students. Today the Students Wlaked Out in Protest."

The page’s popularity is not by accident. As a news outlet in service of Black youth, they’re often reporting on racism in schools, Sorrell explains. “That’s really how we were able to garner such a large Gen Z audience, because a lot of other media outlets weren’t covering these things.” 

When legacy media outlets such as The Kansas City Star cover these incidents — if they cover them at all — they often describe the story using headlines like: “Olathe South principal vows to ‘immediately address’ student’s racist homecoming sign,” Sorrell said. “Whereas we would say something like, ‘Racism exposed.’”

Instagram post from The Kansas City Defender that reads "RACISM EXPOSED: 'If I was Black I  would be picking cotton, but I'm white so I'm picking you for homecoming.'"

After confirming facts and gathering information on the ground, Sorrell said the publication goes on to describe why the incident is not okay and contextualize the reaction with information about the school district’s history of racism.

“We’ve gotten a lot more tips, I think, than other media outlets do just because more and more students are trusting those outlets less and less, because of how those outlets report on these situations,” he said. “It’s like a cyclical kind of thing, where we continue to get more and more tips as people continue to trust us more.”

They earn trust through collaboration

“We don’t consider ourselves to be an objective media outlet. We consider ourselves to be advocates. We’re unapologetically a pro-Black organization, pro-marginalized people, and pro-LGBTQ. And so that has garnered us a lot of trust with young people,” Sorrell said.

With trust comes deeper engagement, and The Defender connects with students throughout the district to see how they can support them to tell their stories collaboratively.

Because they’re a small team of four main reporters and editors, The Kansas City Defender relies on students to share information from about 12 or 15 schools in the surrounding area. If something happens at any of these schools, they can ask students to film or send pictures, Sorrell explains. “So it’s almost like having reporters in the school in a way.”

These on-the-ground sources were doing such a great job that the team asked if they would be interested in an internship last fall. Five student interns are now working voluntarily for the outlet. 

“They’re just as much a part of the team as anybody else,” Sorrell said. They produce stories and content for the Defender’s Instagram and TikTok. “They know a lot more and are living with social media. And so they have a very good understanding of, number one, what interests other students.”

A recent story about student mobilization in response to the presence of a white extremist group in their school was written entirely by a student intern. In February, the interns led a Twitter space that included journalists from The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post.

By embracing the interns as community organizers, The Defender was able to establish more relationships with students across Missouri and Kansas, resulting in an ad hoc group called The Black Futures Coalition. There, students share coping strategies in the wake of racist incidents or in one case, a school shooting. They also share strategies for protests or walkouts.

A piece the student interns collectively wrote for Martin Luther King Jr. Day outlined the way Black history is censored and white-washed in schools. The coverage resulted in a feature on the local NPR station.

“I pretty much give them full creative reign to produce the type of content, stories and media they think will best resonate with our audience,” Sorrell said. “I’m just a guiding person. I ask them what they’re interested in, and how can I help them.”

What’s next?

“We are following in the tradition of the radical Black press,” says Sorrell, pointing to the resurgence of Black media organizations in the United States — particularly outlets in Detroit, Dallas and Chicago’s The Triibe. “I think it’s necessary, especially with the state of what’s happening in the United States right now,” he adds. “We are very much trying to challenge people’s understandings of journalism, and to try to move it into the future.”

With support from Indiegraf, The Defender is also expanding its newsletter audience. In the span of three weeks, the publication drastically increased subscribers from about 300 to 1,500. “We have figured out the strategy to reach young people, so we have wanted to reach older people. And that will ultimately also help us by bringing in more audience revenue.”

Open Letter: Canada’s Online News Act must be transparent, fair, and include news innovators

When the Liberal government announced its intention to support Canada’s news industry, the reasons given were to sustain local journalism, support innovation in news, and ensure diversity in the news industry. Bill C-18, the Online News Act currently before Parliament, guarantees none of these things.

Four key changes are needed if Canada is to have the vibrant journalism citizens need for a healthy democracy. 

We are a coalition of independent Canadian news publishers, pushing for amendments to C-18 to ensure the bill lives up to its promise to strengthen Canadian journalism. We represent over 100 outlets serving communities coast to coast to coast and employing over one thousand journalists. Taken together, our readers and listeners number in the many millions. Many of us have risked personal capital, fundraised from our communities, and built newsrooms from scratch to reach underserved audiences, many at the local level. 

Collectively, we represent Canada’s most innovative digital news media, local news outlets, both French and English language media, and BIPOC-led news media — we are the innovative news organizations that are rebuilding the local news ecosystem. The Online News Act represents an opportunity to accelerate this innovation and progress.

We have come together to ask for basic fairness in Bill C-18.

The centrepiece of Bill C-18 is a funding model aimed at mandating large web platforms like Facebook and Google to compensate Canadian news organizations for posting content on their platforms. Unfortunately, as it is currently structured, Bill C-18 does not specifically direct funding towards supporting the critical work of journalists. The bill also lacks robust transparency mechanisms and, most importantly, it risks leaving out small, medium size and independent publishers.

Even before it was tabled, Bill C-18 has resulted in winners and losers in the news industry. There have been a series of secret, backroom deals between Big Tech and the largest newspapers in Canada, along with a handful of small- to medium-sized publishers. An unintended but likely consequence of Bill C-18 as currently structured may be to cement these inequities and this secrecy, which threatens the public’s already-frayed trust in journalism.

To be clear, we support the goal of creating a sustainable news industry. It is not too late for the current legislation to address the needs of the Canadian news media ecosystem. We want it to be amended to ensure the following: 

  • A transparent, fair funding formula
    A universal funding formula should be applied consistently to all qualifying news organizations. This funding formula should be disclosed, and the public must know which news organizations are receiving money from tech companies.
  • Support for journalists
    Compensation from tech platforms should be based on a percentage of editorial expenditures or the number of journalists that work for an organization, inclusive of freelancers.
  • Inclusion
    Bill C-18 may exclude dozens of important news innovators by demanding employee thresholds that news startups often don’t reach until their 3rd or 4th year of operation. 
  • No loopholes
    Bill C-18 currently includes vague and poorly-defined criteria allowing for “Exemption Orders” that could let Big Tech off the hook, benefitting a few large news organizations and shutting out hundreds of legitimate small to medium size newsrooms. 

While we recognize the reality of the wider news crisis, our organizations represent rays of hope, and are proving that there is a future for a dynamic, inclusive news ecosystem in Canada.

Bill C-18 is modeled after Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code. It must not repeat the mistakes of that legislation. In Australia, an estimated 90 per cent of negotiated revenues flowed to the three largest media companies.

We encourage the government to revisit and improve Bill C-18.

As small, medium size, and independent news publishers, this new legislation is too big, and too important, to fumble. Bill C-18 will have a massive impact on the future of journalism and news in Canada.

Let’s make sure we get it right.

Arsenal Media
Canada’s National Observer
Constellation Media Society
Discourse Community Publishing
Metro Media
Narcity Media
Overstory Media Group
Politics Today
Village Media
Alberta Today
BC Today
Burnaby Beacon
Calgary Citizen
Canada’s National Observer
Capital Daily
Fraser Valley Current
Guelph Politico
Harbinger Media 
Journal Metro
La Converse
Metro Ahuntsic-Cartierville
Metro Beauport
Metro Charlesbourg
Metro Cote des Neiges & NDG
Metro Hochelaga Maisonneuve
Metro IDS-Verdun
Metro L’Actuel
Metro L’Appel
Metro L’Autre Voix
Metro Lachine & Dorval
Metro Lasalle
Metro Le Jacques Cartier
Metro Le Plateau Mont-Royal
Metro Mercier & Anjou
Metro Montreal-Nord
Metro Ouest-de-L’ile
Metro Outremont & Mont-Royal
Metro Pointe-aux-Trembles et Montreal-est
Metro Quebec
Metro Riviere-des-Prairies
Metro Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie
Metro Saint-Laurent
Metro Saint-Leonard
Metro Sud-Ouest
Metro Ville Marie
Metro Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension
MTL Blog
Neomedia Chambly
Neomedia Joliette
Neomedia Laval
Neomedia Rimouski
Neomedia Rive-Nord
Neomedia Saguenay
Neomedia Sorel-Tracy
Neomedia Trois-Rivières
Neomedia Vallée du Richelieu
Neomedia Valleyfield
Neomedia Vaudreuil
New West Anchor
Northern Ontario Business
Nouvelles d’Ici
Oak Bay Local
Ottawa Sports Pages
Parliament Today
Peterborough Currents
Queen’s Park Today
Ricochet Media
Sun Peaks Independent News
Taproot Edmonton
The Breach
The Coast
The Discourse Cowichan
The Discourse Nanaimo
The Flatlander
The Green Line
The Home Pitch
The Hoser
The Independent
The Line
The Local
The Peak
The Resolve
The Ridge
The Rover
The Sprawl
The Tyee
The Westshore
The Wren
Tri-Cities Dispatch
Tribe Magazine
Vancouver Tech Journal
Vocal Fry Studios
Women’s eNews

Want to add your outlet to this letter? Fill out this form to express your interest.

How independent outlets are building up their communities

Many independent news outlets launched in response to their founder’s desire to better serve their community. Because news deserts leave people behind, independent outlets must find a way to lift up readers in a direct, responsible and relatable way.

For many publishers, creative reader engagement efforts help build trust through reporting initiatives that add value to the communities they serve. This week, we gathered a couple examples of active Indiegraf partner outlets that are empowering readers and using their platforms as a means for community building.

Meeting readers where they are | The Kansas City Defender

The Kansas City Defender covers news for a particularly underserved community: millennials and Gen Z in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Keeping that audience in mind, social media has been central to the outlet’s journalistic process since its start. 

And Instagram is much more than a marketing tool for sharing long-form stories, interviews and investigations, it is an open channel for The Defender’s readers — particularly students — to reach out and share their stories, raise alerts and demand accountability. The publication uses this platform to amplify the voices of Kansas City students and young residents as they report on instances of racism, harassment and abuse. 

Using social media to engage with their audience allows the outlet to switch the power dynamics at play in most media outlets, a stated goal of founder Ryan Sorrell upon recently receiving an Indie Capital grant: “A lot of people didn’t (and still don’t) understand how a real news platform can exist primarily on social media. They didn’t see the value in our influence and ability to communicate with Gen Z and capture a Black audience that has forever been neglected in mainstream media outlets.”

Covering the local basics | The Independent

What Odds At City Hall is a briefing series by The Independent that provides hyperlocal government reporting in Newfoundland and Labrador. In order to keep citizens informed about their local government’s decision-making process, the outlet regularly reports on what was discussed and decided at recent City Hall meetings. The reports include details of each agenda item covered at the meeting along with input shared by council members and attending citizens.

By simplifying the basics of their local government, The Independent gives some agency back to N&L readers, allowing them to stay informed on each decision made and propose follow-ups on local issues that may be at odds with the community.

Keeping transparent mid-reporting | Shasta Scout

Open Notebooks is an initiative by Shasta Scout that bets on a more open, vulnerable and relatable journalism. Through it, the Redding, California-based outlet shares its journalism process with readers: what motivates them to write, what questions they ask, what they learn in the process of digging into stories. They also include where they’re coming from, what paradigms are shaping their understanding.

“We want to be honest with our readers that, like everyone, we have a worldview, opinions and perspectives that influence our work. We also want to be clear that our personal perspectives won’t keep us from fairly and accurately reporting the news in a way you can trust,” says Shasta Scout about the initiative.

Open Notebooks rewards Shasta Scout’s supporting members by providing a behind-the-scenes peek while opening the space to provide feedback and converse with the journalists covering their local news. “We believe this kind of collaboration between reporters and readers leads to stronger journalism and a stronger democracy.”

Turning readers into writers | The Land and IndigiNews

To build new models for journalism, we need to change not only what stories get to be told but also who gets to tell them. That is why opening up the writer roster is a basic practice for many independent news outlets: it allows for a greater variety of opinions, voices and perspectives, and levels the playing field for representation. Some outlets, however, take it one step further by equipping citizens for storytelling. 

Wanting to “tap into the deep knowledge people already have about their own communities,” The Land offers a Community Journalism Course for Cleveland residents with a desire to write about their neighborhoods, civic issues, local politics and more. This capacity-building exercise intends to improve representation of Cleveland neighborhoods, as well as to encourage community involvement in their local news coverage. 

And as part of their efforts for decolonizing media, IndigiNews continually offers training on decolonial journalistic practices for journalists and citizens alike. The latest learning circle, for example, included training on land-connected storytelling and trauma-informed reporting.

Behind the Story: Birth Alerts Investigation by IndigiNews

Birth alerts ended in September 2019 when the British Columbia’s Ministry of Children and Family Development announced an end to the practice in which social workers could flag expectant parents who they deemed unfit to hospital staff. Under the system, hospital staff would then alert the social worker when the parent gave birth, giving the social worker the opportunity to intervene and possibly apprehend the child. 

But these birth alerts were already deemed “illegal and unconstitutional” by the B.C. attorney general months before the practice was barred, according to internal government correspondence received after the fact by IndigiNews. Conscious of the implications for thousands of Indigenous families — who are disproportionately impacted by birth alerts — members of the IndigiNews team spent much of 2021 informing the public about the implications of the information it had received through public records requests.

Timeline of the Birth Alerts investigation, courtesy of IndigiNews.

After breaking the story in January 2021, IndigiNews continued reporting on the issue by providing context on birth alerts throughout the country, sharing reactions and calls for accountability from Indigenous community leaders, and amplifying the experience of a Cree Métis mother. Seeking to expand awareness on the issue, the IndigiNews team went deep into the systematic discrimination involved in birth alerts and the long-term impacts not only for individuals but for entire Indigenous communities. The interview with Anishinaabe social work professor Billie Allan, for example, meticulously analyzed how practices such as birth alerts impact reproductive health choices and overall trust in the healthcare system.

IndigiNews’ reporting on birth alerts has already received a Canadian Online Publishing Award, and is nominated for two others. Most recently, the series was nominated for a Freedom of Information CAJ Award. We asked three of the journalists behind the IndigiNews coverage (Anna McKenzie, Brielle Morgan, and Tessa Vikander) how the stories were built and what lessons other publishers could learn from this editorial and journalistic experience.

How did you first learn about this issue?

McKenzie: I knew about birth alerts before I became a journalist because of stories I had heard from other Indigenous women.

Morgan: I learned about birth alerts and their impacts through media coverage, families and communities advocates. 

Vikander: One of our reporters, Bayleigh Marelj, filed a Freedom of Information Request. The documents they received back contained information we were surprised to see. As a team, we built a reporting plan and then got to work quickly. The government tried to retract the documents and stop us from publishing, but we knew we had a right to publish the story and affected communities had a right to the information, so we went ahead.

Why was it important for IndigiNews to cover this story?

McKenzie: I felt a lot of fear delivering my first child because of the threat of birth alerts and the overrepresentation of Indigenous families involved in the child welfare system. I wanted to draw attention to and question the issue to protect Indigenous families from losing their babies.

Morgan: In B.C., birth alerts have resulted in child apprehension “approximately 28% of the time,” according to an MCFD record from 2019. These alerts disproportionately impact Indigenous children and families in Canada — 58% of parents impacted by birth alerts in B.C. in 2018 were Indigenous, according to the B.C. government’s data. These alerts have been called “racist and discriminatory” and “a gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother, and the community” by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. IndigiNews is one of few media outlets with reporters dedicated to covering the child-welfare system. It’s a sensitive space, requiring trauma-informed reporting practices, and there is much at stake for Indigenous children and families.

Vikander: There are many Indigenous families who may have been subjected to birth alerts without even knowing it, so it was important to get the issue back on peoples’ radar. Furthermore, what we learned from the FOI documents was new and hadn’t been reported before. We saw that it was significant, and we were right as evidenced by the proposed class action lawsuit that was later filed on behalf of parents — a direct result of the reporting. The impact of a birth alert, when it leads to a baby being taken away from its parents in hospital, can haunt a family for the rest of their lives.

How did you advance the story after breaking the news?

McKenzie: We have spoken on many platforms, including CBC Radio and APTN National News. We also held reporting workshops through IndigiNews.

Morgan: After this breaking news story, IndigiNews followed up by providing context from across the country, including reactions and calls for accountability from Indigenous community leaders and B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth.

Vikander: After reporting on the status of birth alerts in B.C., we looked at what was happening in other provinces. We also followed up with families who’ve been affected by birth alerts and with lawyers who helped put together a proposal for a class-action lawsuit on behalf of impacted parents in B.C.

How did your reporting divert from mainstream coverage?

McKenzie: This story was born out of a personal experience and was not a traditionally “objective” journalism piece. It also required a lot of trauma-informed care, both for the interviewees and the writers.

Morgan: We uncovered new information, refused to give into attempts by the government to silence us and consistently centered the perspectives of Indigenous people in our coverage. We worked collaboratively with a mother who experienced a birth alert to get her story out there in a good, trauma-informed way.

Vikander: We decided it was an issue that we wanted to pursue for in-depth coverage, and were able to put a lot of resources towards it, both in terms of reporters and editors.

What lesson could other journalists gain from this coverage?

McKenzie: To be brave, have courage and look at the injustice in the eyes. Use the power and privilege of being a writer with reach to draw attention to issues that are negatively impacting BIPOC folks, and to injustices that are occurring that the public may not be paying attention to.

Morgan: There are so many stories to tell about the child-welfare system. We need more journalists in this space who are trained in trauma-informed practices and committed to working slowly and collaboratively with community members.

Vikander: When it comes to what others can learn from our coverage, I think first and foremost of what those with the power to build and fund in-depth community reporting can learn. When a team of reporters and editors is given the resources it needs to shed light on an issue, the time to fact-check and do in-depth interviews and the time to build relationships with those they are reporting on, then their work can have a tangible impact. To do so, they need to not be saddled with the demands of daily story-writing. Without those resources, it’s very hard to do justice to a story such as this.

Strong journalism inspires strong journalism. Through the Behind the story series, we intend to give you a peek behind the scenes of quality journalism: what makes great stories? How are they built? What impact do they have? We will try to answer these and more questions about the work and the processes that go behind strong journalism.

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