Reader funded journalism
By Emma Gilchrist, editor-in-chief, and Carol Linnitt, managing editor of The Narwhal.

Last summer, activity at The Narwhal was thrumming.

Having just launched a few months prior, we were experiencing rapid growth in our readership, in the number of pitches and tips we were receiving and interest from new writers, photojournalists and filmmakers.

It was an exhilarating time, made all the more exciting by the fact that during those few months we had reporters in the Arctic tundra to report on climate change, at a caribou maternity pen in northeastern B.C., trekking out of cell-range in the backcountry of Tahltan territory to learn about local Indigenous perspectives on mining and yet another on a boat witnessing changes to Canada’s largest (and most endangered) national park.

In-depth investigative journalism on energy and the environment requires witnessing the effects of policies on the real world, first-hand. But it also involves research — a lot of research.

So, we were spending plenty of time digging into spreadsheets and freedom of information requests during those early months, too: tracing the influence of corporate money from the coal industry on air-quality research at the University of Alberta, tracking the environmental liabilities taxpayers could face from mining in B.C. and surfacing documents that showed how energy giants were getting breaks from fines levied in response to environmental violations.

Our tiny staff (which, at the time, amounted to about three full-time employee equivalents) was tearing at the seams.

Which is why it felt like an outsized commitment of our resources to send two of our team members — legislative reporter Sarah Cox and our managing editor, Carol Linnitt — out to Langley, B.C., to learn about some ugly baby owls.

These ugly babies are at the centre of the world’s only captive breeding program for the critically endangered spotted owl. Working around the clock with the exhaustion and commitment of new parents, young scientists are trying to stem the tide of extinction in those meagre labs and aviaries.

All the while, a lingering, uncomfortable reality is gnawing away at the important gains being made there.

While hundreds of thousands of public dollars are being channeled into the recovery of this once-prolific species, their habitat continues to be destroyed — primarily through logging that has continued in British Columbia for as long as the province has been around.

What would happen if no reporter was there to investigate the connections between those dots?

A million species face extinction

A report released by the UN this week found the natural world is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. Up to a million species are facing extinction worldwide.

The spotted owl’s habitat extends up the western United States and ends in British Columbia, where only an estimated handful of the birds exist in the wild.

A similar fate is shared by the southern mountain caribou whose B.C. habitat extends south past the border, dipping down into Montana. In January 2019, the last caribou herds to share that cross-border habitat were declared extirpated — locally extinct — heralding the end of the last wild caribou in the contiguous United States.

Although these species are localized, the grief at their loss is not.

While creatures like spotted owls and caribou rely on specific habitat for their survival, the contributing causes of that habitat’s loss — like climate change or deforestation — are often non-specific and widely distributed.

These challenges are huge, they’re shared — and they’re inherently global.

As we step further into a future contoured by human activity and sure to be marred by further loss of animal and plant species, the underlying connections between the policy, industries, and environmental impacts that lead to these outcomes are increasingly obfuscated.

In other words: it’s more important than ever to make sure someone is there to connect the dots.

Report locally. Be read (and valued) globally

The Narwhal exists, fundamentally, to be a dot connector.

We work to report on Canadian stories in a way that investigates the connections between cause and effect, that digs deeper to understand root challenges.

Our reporting recognizes that climate change is a global concern, that watersheds cross borders and that species don’t recognize international boundaries. Reporting on the environment, we’re faced with an everyday reminder that the local is global in all sorts of surprising, ecologically reverberating ways.

The more we recognize that interconnectivity, the less we feel the impulse to recognize the boundaries that, in other frames of mind, might feel absolute.

Are we building walls? Or are we recognizing a greater integration with humanity and the creatures with which we share this planet?

It’s the latter feeling that might lead one to donate to refugee aid efforts at the United Nations, to support clean water initiatives in developing nations or to pitch in for that quirky Kickstarter for some filmmaker or boat-builder whose life is seemingly quite distant from our own.

We can understand these efforts as important, as worthy of our attention and our dollars, even if their impacts are being felt by others miles away and even if they’re on the other side of a border (or many).

Just as Canadians are connecting with meaningful endeavours all over the planet, so too are people from around the world connecting to efforts here in Canada.

The Narwhal — we’re delighted to say — is one of these efforts.

How is The Narwhal funded?

Much fuss is being made these days about Canadian non-profit organizations that receive funding from abroad.

We’ve written on that subject before, but we want to explain further what this looks like for The Narwhal, a Canadian non-profit that receives support from Canada and around the world.

For starters, let us state: transparency is one of the pillars of our news organization. In 2017, when we were operating under our old name DeSmog Canada, we instituted a donor transparency policy and were awarded a five-star rating by Transparify, an initiative that promotes financial transparency at NGOs.

In the spring of 2019, The Narwhal became the sole Canadian member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a network of more than 200 non-profit news organizations. We were accepted as a member because we meet the institute’s rigorous standards for editorial independence and financial transparency.

Our editorial independence policy outlines clearly that while we’re happy to receive support from individuals and organizations alike, we maintain all control of editorial coverage. That means no one — no funder, no imaginary billionaire, no government, no company, no potential donor — has any say in how we tell a story, who we interview or the facts we uncover.

Each year, we publish a disclosure of all donors who give more than $5,000. For the financial year that ended Sept. 30, 2018, our total budget was $423,065.

Our largest source of support, as in the previous two years, was the Seattle-based Wilburforce Foundation. Wilburforce was founded by Rose Letwin in 1991 and supports Letwin’s vision of sustaining wild places by investing in science-based solutions. This includes supporting thriving, interconnected ecosystems — ecosystems that often cross borders.

The second largest source of support for The Narwhal in 2018 was reader donations, which totalled $82,432 from 711 readers who gave either monthly or one-time donations. Our readers are our fastest-growing source of revenue and we expect (hope!) revenue from reader donations will double in 2019. (Pssst, join the party.)

Our third-largest source of support was the Oak Foundation, which got its start in the 1980s provinding funds for torture victims, single mothers and vulnerable children in Europe and Africa. Today, the Switzerland-based foundation funds issues of social and environmental concern around the world with special projects on democracy and grassroots organizing in Brazil, India and Zimbabwe.

We also received support from the Victoria-based Salal Foundation, the European Climate Foundation and funding through LUSH Cosmetics’ charity pot program.

All of these individuals and organizations value the work that we do here at The Narwhal.

It’s also important to note that, because of this support, The Narwhal doesn’t advertise diet pills or allow flashing ads for shoes or cars to flood your screen when you visit our site. We get hundreds of requests to publish paid content, written by marketers, every month — but we have never needed to lower the quality of our publication this way, thanks to the people who support our mission of providing high-quality, public interest journalism.

But how does The Narwhal use that money?

The funding we receive from these individuals and organizations directly supports our independent reporting on Canadian issues that matter.

It supports our incredible team of writers, editors, photographers and videographers who cover Canada’s natural environment in a fresh and in-depth way few traditional publications do these days.

One thing that money does not do is line shareholders’ pockets.

Our non-profit model is relatively rare in Canada, but very common south of the border, where well-established investigative journalism outlets such as ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Mother Jones and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting operate as non-profit organizations and receive philanthropic funding.

The Narwhal is a part of this new breed of news outlets that are able to put reader engagement and the public interest ahead of private interests and advertising dollars.

While some people like to cast aspersions about funding crossing borders in the non-profit world, the reality is we live in a global society with global problems and global financial systems.

We can’t help but look at the fact that many of our major corporations, public institutions and, heck, major newspapers rely on non-Canadian funds.

Just like many Canadians contribute to causes abroad, it should come as no surprise that philanthropists interested in slowing global climate change and saving wild places are contributing to work happening in Canada — where some of the world’s last contiguous tracts of wilderness persist.

Right now we need to be telling bigger and more challenging stories that draw deeper and harder connections about our place in this world. Journalists are at the frontlines of that work and yet many newspapers in Canada have eliminated the positions of their environment reporters.

We’re working to fill that void.

We’re working to provide in-depth reporting on some of the most pressing issues of our time.

We’re proud that The Narwhal’s journalism has been recognized across the country, through awards and nominations from the Canadian Association of Journalists, the National Magazine Awards and the Digital Publishing Awards.

And we’re incredibly grateful to our supporters both in Canada and from around the world who help make this work possible.  

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