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I recently found myself stuck at home for enough dreary nights in a row that I rewatched all five seasons of The Wire (thank you, COVID-19!)
Each season of the HBO crime drama portrays the city of Baltimore through the lens of a different institution: the gangs, the port, the city council, the schools and the media.
In the final season, which originally aired in 2008, haggard newspaper editors bemoan the advent of the internet, declining ad sales, the shrinking “news hole” (the space around ads where news is placed) and endless newsroom layoffs. The scenes left me with a looming sense of déjà vu: they stirred a wistful reminiscence of my time as a reporter and copy editor at the Calgary Herald between 2007 and 2009. They also, much to my surprise, mirrored sentiments I had heard on a panel on the future of Canadian journalism just this fall.
My COVID-inspired trip down memory lane served as a jarring reminder of how, over the past decade, discussions about journalism’s business models have been skewed toward how to recapture lost glories of the past rather than how to address the realities of the future.
There’s no denying that the rise of the internet and social media has caused a catastrophic loss of advertising dollars and imperiled the traditional business model for journalism. In just the first six weeks of the pandemic, for example, more than 100 media outlets in Canada made cuts, with nearly 50 community newspapers shuttering and upward of 2,000 workers being laid off, according to the Local News Research Project.
In their 2012 Nieman Report Be The Disruptor, Clayton Christensen, a late Harvard Business School professor, David Skok, now CEO of The Logic, and James Allworth, now head of innovation at Cloudflare, put forward a framework for how disruptive innovation can be employed by the news industry. Some of the key lessons l took away from reading this report were that more needs to be done to promote innovative thinking in newsrooms and that fresh thinking needs to be applied to provide a more sustainable future for public service journalism in Canada.
Over the past several years, a quiet revolution has been taking place in Canadian media. Dozens of new outlets, largely online, are innovating to build new business models for journalism by doubling down on their relationships with their audiences.
Take The Narwhal for instance: freed from the confines of selling advertisements, the cost of printing and high overhead, we’ve been able to focus almost exclusively on producing high-quality journalism and deepening our relationship with our growing audience. As a result, our membership program is thriving, our budget has nearly tripled since launching in 2018 and we now employ 11 journalists, dedicated exclusively to covering Canada’s natural world.
We are far from alone.
In Vancouver, The Tyee has been leading innovation in the digital news space since 2003 and now counts more than 4,000 monthly members. In Calgary, The Sprawl is just three years old and has rapidly built a base of nearly 2,000 monthly members. This spring, a new community-powered media outlet called La Converse launched to serve francophone Canadians, especially in underserved communities. Founded in 2015, the National Observer became the first all-digital publication to win a National Newspaper Award and a Michener Award citation. Meanwhile, Village Media has 45 local news sites on its platform, including 17 that they own and operate. The Discourse provides community-powered journalism to underserved communities on Vancouver Island and to Indigenous communities in partnership with IndigiNews. In Toronto, the non-profit West End Phoenix is reimagining the community newspaper model and in Halifax, The Coast has been run by independent, local owners since 1993.
Until now, our sector has been fragmented, each of us hustling to innovate in our own corners of Canada. But today marks the birth of a new association of independent media, Press Forward, which will unite our sector and advocate to strengthen innovation, inclusivity and diversity in newsrooms across the country.
Press Forward grew out of a three-day gathering of journalists and media development professionals in June 2019 that I attended on behalf of The Narwhal. The conference — organized by Journalists for Human Rights — attracted 45 individuals from media outlets, academia, foundations and non-profits. Together these stakeholders represented an audience of more than 1.5 million people in Canada. The goal: to brainstorm a way forward in Canadian journalism, based on the needs identified by diverse, independent media themselves.
Following the gathering, I was asked to be part of a steering committee representing independent publishers across Canada, which was tasked with creating an association to represent Canada’s independent media.
After more than a year of meetings, I’m thrilled to see Press Forward launch publicly today. The Narwhal is proud to be a founding member of Press Forward because we believe all Canadians need quality journalism as part of a healthy democracy, and we believe new ways of thinking are required to solve the challenges facing journalism in this moment.
When I think about all that has changed since I left the newspaper world in 2009, I realize there aren’t many sectors of our economy that haven’t been dramatically transformed in some way by the internet. Why should the media sector be any different?
Press Forward represents the independent innovators of Canadian media and gives them a strong voice in discussions about the future of journalism in Canada. From our vantage point, that future is a bright one.
Emma Gilchrist is the editor-in-chief of The Narwhal and the chair of Press Forward.
And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).
As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired five journalists over the past year.
Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 3,500 members.
The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.
We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.
If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.
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