When The Narwhal was just an apple in my eye back in 2017, I spent a lot of time dreaming about what Canada’s news landscape might look like five or 10 years into the future.
A big part of my dream was for Canada to become home to a thriving non-profit news sector. I’d been watching the explosion of non-profit news in the U.S., where more than 2,000 journalists were working for organizations such as ProPublica and The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The innovation and growth south of the border was enabled by U.S. charitable law, which treated journalism as a charitable activity. Meanwhile, in Canada, support for journalism didn’t qualify for a charitable tax receipt — a stifling barrier that meant I could count our country’s non-profit news organizations on one hand.
Despite the lack of tax incentives, we decided to launch The Narwhal as an ad-free non-profit.
Why? We fundamentally believed that the best model for public interest journalism is one that doesn’t need to answer to shareholders or advertisers. And if we were going to ask our readers to support us, we wanted them to know that every dollar would go straight to journalism, not to private profit. The choice felt clear to us, but it was definitely the path less travelled, even among Canada’s media innovators.
Once, after I gave a talk in Ottawa arguing for the federal government to allow non-profit news organizations to issue charitable tax receipts, a senior leader in the charitable sector told me I’d never see journalism qualify for a charitable tax deduction in my lifetime.
Thankfully, he was wrong. In the 2019 federal budget, Ottawa announced the creation of a new registered journalism organization status for non-profit newsrooms.
And in late March, The Narwhal learned it is the first English-language news organization in Canada to receive this new status.
Being a registered journalism organization means our existing 2,600 monthly members will now receive tax receipts, and any donation to The Narwhal, large or small, from here on in will also earn a donation receipt, which entitles donors to receive up to half of their money back when they file their Canadian taxes.
It also means that The Narwhal is now a “qualified donee” and can receive gifts from registered charities, such as community foundations. This paves the way forward for increased philanthropic support for public interest news in Canada and is a crucial development at a time when old business models for news are failing.
“Journalism is a public good, and it has become clear that the private sector is unable to on its own provide for that public good,” April Lindgren, the Velma Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, said in a recent press release.
Lindgren’s Local News Research project found that in 2020 a total of 48 community newspapers in Canada closed permanently, and 179 news media organizations reported layoffs or job losses. The loss of local news outlets has led to pockets of “local news poverty,” according to Lindgren.
This means “communities don’t have access to the timely, relevant, independently produced, verified news they need to navigate daily life,” Lindgren says.
Against this backdrop, The Narwhal’s non-profit model provides a light on the horizon for Canada’s news industry. In 2020, our newsroom nearly tripled in size and our membership grew by 130 per cent, making The Narwhal’s readers our single largest source of revenue.
Most of our early success has been driven by our coverage in B.C., Alberta and Yukon, where we stepped in to fill significant gaps in coverage of environmental issues. But nearly every day we hear about stories that are flying under the radar in every corner of this country — and we know this is a detriment to democracy. That’s why our long-term vision is to build on our significant success in western Canada by expanding across Canada. Now that we can issue tax receipts, this vision is coming more clearly into view.
We’d never have reached this watershed moment without the dedicated support of thousands of donors who put their faith in us when we were a lone voice in the wilderness. Each and every one of you has been a crucial part of building The Narwhal to where it is today — at the forefront of Canada’s non-profit news sector.
As we move forward into this bright new era, we’ve found ourselves reflecting on why we started The Narwhal in the first place: fundamentally, we believed Canadians deserved better coverage of the pressing issues impacting the natural world. And we dared to dream that if we produced high-quality environmental journalism, people would be willing to pay for it. Thank you for daring to dream with us.
You’re used to us breaking stories. Now, we’re breaking new ground as one of the first news organizations in Canada that can issue charitable tax receipts. Will you join the 2,600 readers who power our non-profit journalism?