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How The Narwhal is dismantling myths about the future of journalism

As we approach our third birthday, our readers have emerged as the key to overcoming many of the obstacles newsrooms face

Without hesitation I can say this past year has been the most challenging stretch of The Narwhal’s existence. It has also been our most rewarding and, dare I say, our most impressive.

Exactly one year ago today our small team of just four full-time staff was busy supporting photographer Amber Bracken while she was embedded for The Narwhal within Wet’suwet’en territory. There, RCMP officers in tactical gear were raiding land defender encampments to enforce a Coastal GasLink pipeline injunction.

Bracken was one of just a handful of journalists on the ground, ready to document the arrests of Wet’suwet’en matriarchs. The RCMP threatened Bracken and other journalists with arrest for being inside a police-mandated exclusion zone, a position the RCMP softened after pushback from The Narwhal, the Canadian Association of Journalists and other news organizations. As Bracken hunkered down through long winter nights, capturing one of the most important Indigenous Rights stories in the country, our team wrote appeals to the RCMP, urging them to respect press freedom, and sought legal counsel all while publishing breaking news, photo essays, investigations and in-depth features to give readers a deeper understanding of the ongoing crisis.

Bracken spent close to a month on the ground, documenting this major news event. Our reporting on the crisis was read by hundreds of thousands of Canadians. Along with a small cadre of other journalists on the ground, Bracken was awarded the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Charles Bury President’s Award for her moral courage and outstanding contributions to journalism.

Freda Huson arrest Unist'ot'en camp

Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en spokesperson and founder of the Unist’ot’en healing centre, sings in ceremony as RCMP approach to arrest her during their enforcement of a Coastal GasLink court-ordered injunction against those blocking work on a gas pipeline on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

What a way to start the year. 

Then the global pandemic hit. 

When COVID-19 arrived and became the only story worth reporting on, our team wondered aloud what role our publication could and should play in the emergence of a deadly global health crisis. It wasn’t long before we realized the environment and stories about humanity’s relationship with the natural world are deeply entwined with this viral outbreak. And we soon discovered the importance of keeping a close eye on Canada’s major industries as companies took advantage of extraordinary circumstances to advance their interests and put workers’ safety at risk.

“Crises and disasters have long been used to benefit private interests and at The Narwhal we believe our responsibility to our readership means remembering this, even as we brace for the worst impact of the pandemic,” we wrote at the beginning of the pandemic.

At that time, as people around the world braced for social and economic uncertainty, something extraordinary happened: more of our readers than ever before took the step of becoming monthly members of The Narwhal.

There are many important ways we measure success at The Narwhal. Incredibly, none of these have to do with how we generate ad revenue (we don’t run ads) or how we please shareholders (we don’t have any). Instead, our success is entirely measured by the impact of our journalism, the growth of our audience and the depth of our relationship with our readers. 

The key to The Narwhal’s ability to function as an independent, non-profit newsroom is our membership program, which in 2020 grew by a staggering 129 per cent.

chart of the narwhal's monthly membership growth, 2018-2021

The Narwhal now counts 2,500 monthly members who give whatever they can afford to help make our journalism possible. Chart: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

That growth means our pod has blossomed to 11 full-time staff, at the same time as many newsrooms have cut operations and hemorrhaged reporters. 

Our membership growth points to this incredible fact: more and more of our readers are finding our work and mission so valuable, they want to sustain it. Our members don’t join to get exclusive access behind a paywall — the value comes  in knowing they’re the force behind one of Canada’s fastest-growing publications, one that exists solely to serve the public interest.

The Narwhal’s readers are young and they value longform, in-depth reporting

There are a lot of other exciting ways we can measure our growing success: over the last year our website audience grew by 65 per cent, our newsletter audience grew by 127 per cent and our Instagram following grew by more than 100 per cent.

We make special efforts to reach audiences where they are, on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and, yes, Zoom, where our last event drew 1,000 people.

And we’re proud to report that the 25 to 34-year-old demographic comprises the largest segment of our audience. About 50 per cent of The Narwhal’s readers in 2020 were under the age of 45. 

We find that particularly encouraging because it dispels another common myth: that millennials and gen-Zers are consumed by trivial matters, apathetic or simply tuned out. 

This support from our readership has given us a clear mandate to continue to do what we do best by providing in-depth, context-rich reporting on Canada’s natural world that readers won’t find anywhere else.

Case in point: a year-long investigation by Alberta reporter Sharon J. Riley into faulty reclamation of oil and gas wells in Alberta. Drawing on inside government sources and freedom of information requests, Riley revealed a hidden government report that indicated oil and gas well sites weren’t actually being reclaimed in the long run. Her reporting was cited by CBC, The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star and was raised in the Alberta Legislature on multiple occasions.

A tip from a member was actually behind our most ambitious investigation of the year, which looked at workplace abuse of fisheries observers — the people who are responsible for monitoring the West Coast trawl fleet. Whistleblowers in the industry revealed how their company fails to protect them, resulting in the waste of millions of dollars of fish.

Jon Eis Fisheries observer The Narwhal

Fisheries observers are responsible for monitoring bycatch on industrial trawlers off the B.C. coast. Many of these individuals feel not enough is being done to protect them from intimidation and harassment while at sea. “It’s a very dangerous thing for observers to be out there,” one whistleblower told The Narwhal. “You’re out there alone, often without cell service or contact.” Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Our readers’ support of investigative reporting also helped inspire B.C. reporter Sarah Cox’s explosive investigation into the Site C dam, which revealed senior officials in the B.C. government knew about deepening geotechnical and financial problems at the project more than a year before the public was informed. Through dogged efforts to acquire documents via freedom of information requests, Cox broke this major story, which has been referenced by The Globe and Mail, CBC and Vancouver Sun. 

But we do more than just report on what’s going wrong. In 2020, we managed to publish more solutions-oriented and good news stories about the environment, Indigenous Rights, clean energy initiatives and conservation efforts than in any preceding year. 

One of our crowning achievements was the publication of an eight-part series, Carbon Cache, which explores the remarkable role Canada’s carbon-rich landscapes have to play in the fight against climate change. This ambitious solutions-oriented series, entirely conceived and executed during the pandemic, was read by nearly 100,000 Canadians.

The Narwhal’s positive ripple effect

The impact The Narwhal is having isn’t just being felt here, at our own publication. 

Our longform, photo-rich features piqued the interest of The Big Story podcast, which dedicated an entire week to featuring our reporting on the front lines of the environmental crisis.

We also teamed up for an international collaboration with the U.S.-based non-profit publication Environmental Health News to tell the story of legacy industrial pollution in two cities that straddle not just a river but the Canada-U.S. border.

In August, the Ryerson Review of Journalism recognized The Narwhal’s unique business model and surprising success story by publishing a longform feature documenting how our combination of investigative journalism and investment in photography is re-energizing environment coverage. 

Ryerson Review of Journalism Narwhal article

The Ryerson Review of Journalism’s feature on The Narwhal included the voices of several experts who praised our publication for filling a void in media coverage.

“I think mainstream journalism often underestimates its readers or listeners or viewers. One of the great things about The Narwhal is that it does not do that,” retired Mount Royal University journalism chair Ron MacDonald told the Ryerson Review. “It regards its readers as intelligent, concerned, committed, engaged people and it writes to them.”

Even as a fledgling magazine, The Narwhal received the third-largest number of nominations for excellence in the 2020 Digital Publishing Awards, alongside legacy media heavyweights like The Globe and Mail and CBC-Radio Canada.

Although we’re still a young organization, our early success is pushing us to look farther afield to see how we might have a meaningful impact on the journalism landscape as a whole. The Narwhal doesn’t want to simply fend for itself. 

In 2020, we made a special effort to help young journalists by participating in the Canadian Association of Journalists’ mentorship program. We offered three student practicums and created an Indigenous Journalism Fellowship. Already this year we’ve launched three fellowships for photojournalists who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour in partnership with Room Up Front.

We’ve also invested significant time and energy into helping other digital startups. In particular, our editor-in-chief and executive director Emma Gilchrist helped found Press Forward, a new association that provides a unified voice for independent media.

We were just reminded of the stark reality many journalists in Canada face as Bell Media laid off droves of reporters. The news of reporters being given 30 minutes to clear their desks came with a particular sting because Bell Media had recently received $122 million in COVID relief funds through the federal government’s wage subsidy program. Maybe it stings a little more to know that Bell Canada Enterprises reported a quarterly profit of $889 million one week prior to the layoffs.

News like this is disenchanting to all Canadians worried about the state of Canada’s media. It’s also a reminder of why The Narwhal’s success — built on a renewed relationship between journalists and the public they serve — is so important to hold on to.

New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

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 eight 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 2,500 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.

We’ve drafted a plan to make 2021 our biggest year yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

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.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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