On a Thursday evening in April, a group of strangers met over Zoom to discuss an issue that connected them all: COVID re-entry in Toronto, their home city. The event was hosted by Toronto journalism startup The Green Line, the brainchild of Scarborough-born journalist Anita Li, and is a key part of the publication’s community-driven solutions journalism.
The Green Line, which launched this April, offers reporting that both informs the local community and is responsive to its needs. “I’m very passionate about democracy and media as a pillar of democracy,” said Li, who laments that journalism has shifted from a “public service” to “the latest hot take or how to get eyeballs.” To her, The Green Line’s editorial model is a way to reinvigorate “civic action and democracy in journalism.”
Every two or so months, The Green Line tackles a different systemic issue faced by underrepresented Torontonians through a month-long, four-part “action journey.” During week one of the action journey, The Green Line publishes an explainer that breaks down the problem. This coverage expands in week two through a long-form feature unpacking existing solutions. Week three is a live event, which includes a panel of industry leaders followed by a “story circle” in which community members can suggest solutions based on their lived experiences. In week four, The Green Line publishes a follow-up story outlining solutions crowd-sourced during the week-three event.
“It’s about reporting on existing solutions to systemic problems and … on how the community wants to take action,” Li said. “Nobody knows their community better than community members.” For Li, it’s important to provide readers with “different pathways for engaging with the issue. I want to meet people where they are,” she said.
Most Torontonians will recognize The Green Line’s namesake: the TTC’s Bloor–Danforth line, which spans the length of Toronto, from Etobicoke to Scarborough. The publication’s website explains that for many, the green line is “their only way to feel connected to the rest of the city.” Li hopes that local media outlets, such as The Green Line, can work in the same way: “If you ground [journalism] in a geographic area, like Toronto, you’re able to serve those people way more,” she said.
Li, 34, started working as a freelance journalist two decades earlier before landing her first job in legacy Canadian media at age 16. She went on to work at many other legacy publications including the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and CBC, but quickly became disenchanted.
“It’s very top-down,” she said. “I remember pitching stories about equity and justice issues, which I was really interested in, and having editors say, ‘That’s not for our audience,’ which is code for audiences that they’re familiar with.” Li also couldn’t help but notice that almost everyone in a top position was a white man. “They weren’t doing the kind of journalism that I’m really interested in.”
Legacy journalism also failed to engage with the community it claimed to serve. “It wasn’t remotely audience-centric,” Li said, adding that when she left in 2011, there was “zero interest in analytics.” With The Green Line, Li aimed to take the “rigorous best practices” of legacy journalism and combine them with the “nimbleness and fun and irreverence” that allow modern digital media outlets to thrive.
Li is uniquely suited to this challenge. Before launching The Green Line, she pivoted to American digital media before returning to work at Canadian community-driven journalism startup The Discourse. Now she works as a media consultant and teacher, and on the side Li publishes The Other Wave, a newsletter that critiques the Canadian media landscape. “At that point, I had a lot of experience running newsrooms. I also knew a lot about the business side of journalism,” she said. “I wanted to build my own thing, and I wanted to do it on my own terms.”
The Green Line’s first action journey focused on Covid re-entry in Toronto, using the city’s response to the Spanish Flu in 1918 as a frame of reference. Going forward, Li hopes to select action journey topics based on community responses, which will be gathered through surveys, a newsletter, and an open Discord. In this way, Li hopes to centre communities that are traditionally underserved by media, and to report on their stories with thoughtfulness and nuance. “It isn’t just looking at the negative or just the positive––it’s all of it,” she said.
The Green Line has already mapped out the issues it plans to tackle in 2022. In May, the publication will explore how MuchMusic shaped Toronto’s identity and geography; in July, it will take a look at how underrepresented women shifted Toronto’s culture from a hockey town to a basketball city; and in November, it will dig into Black films’ foundational role in Toronto’s rich film scene. The Green Line is also planning a collaboration with independent Canadian publications The Hoser and Rabble in September, focusing on labour issues in Toronto.