Hidden amid gloomy tales of the decline of Canada’s news media is a success story in southwestern British Columbia.
Here, a cluster of digital outlets have flowered by paying for top-notch investigative and solutions-focused reporting. They are forging new business models and training the next wave of journalists.
Taken together, they form a news media ecosystem in which surviving means competing yet also collaborating. Yes, each vies to break stories and attract money. But they also sometimes republish each other’s pieces, pool resources or team up.
“Coopetition” is one way to describe this ecology. Some day we may look back and see this was the beginning of Canada’s media landscape shifting from being dominated by a few giants – CBC, Postmedia, Bell – to one dotted with hundreds of smaller, diverse outlets more responsive to their audiences.
I founded one of these “coopetitors,” The Tyee, and I still advise and occasionally write for the publication. As an adjunct professor in communication at Simon Fraser University, and in journalism at the University of British Columbia, I’m also co-organizing Vancouver Media Democracy Day 2017.
Consider this a memo, then, to the federal government as it ponders whether to cut that big cheque to save Postmedia or pour $200 million more into the CBC. As someone with a long history in independent media, read this first!
Who are B.C.’s coopetition creatures?
They include: The Tyee, founded in 2003 in Vancouver; Megaphone Magazine, Vancouver’s street paper and website founded in 2006; DeSmog Canada, founded in 2013 in Victoria; Discourse Media, founded in 2013 in Vancouver; Hakai Magazine founded in 2015 in Victoria; the National Observer, founded in 2015 as an arm of the 2006 Vancouver Observer; The Global Reporting Centre, founded in 2016, a non-profit growing out of the International Reporting Program at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.
It’s a remarkable list, representing millions of dollars in journalism budgets, a combined staff larger than the Vancouver Sun-Province reporter pool, numerous major awards, a steady stream of high-impact work and millions of page views per month.
Some of the big ground broken in this little region:
The Tyee launched the 100-Mile Diet, helping spark the local food movement, and has reported early and continuously on fixing the housing affordability crisis. With no paywall, it’s supported almost entirely by readers, with some philanthropic funding plus investment from a labour-tied fund.
The National Observer’s energy sector investigations have rocked Ottawa and forced resignations. It mixes revenues from paywall subscribers, philanthropies and other sources.
Discourse Media, which specializes in deeply reported projects it terms “collaborative,” is now offering its readers a chance to co-own the company as it aggressively pursues growth.
The non-profit Global Reporting Centre, with its mission to innovate how global journalism is practised and to cover neglected issues worldwide, has crowd-sourced storytellers to document the rise of xenophobia.
Hakai Magazine, backed by the Tula Foundation and tied to the Hakai Institute, covers coastal science, ecology and communities. It pays top rates for stories from around the world, and has an in-house team producing frequently viral videos.
A single video interview about Site C Dam published by non-profit DeSmog Canada drew 1.6 million views. It mixes funding from readers and philanthropies.
While these organizations aren’t muscling aside B.C. megafauna like the CBC, the Globe and Mail, Postmedia and Huffington Post, they serve as “tip sheets” for those newsrooms, which often pick up their stories and run their own versions. In this way, the smaller fry contribute to the public conversation by means rarely highlighted.
Collaboration with traditional media
Increasingly, too, B.C.’s small independents are collaborating directly with traditional media.
The Tyee has partnered with the CBC on a series about Indigenous education best practices and affordable homes.
The National Observer is producing a major project with the Toronto Star, Global News and others — tracking oil industry influence in partnership with investigative journalism students from across the country.
Discourse Media helped research a Maclean’s magazine feature on Indigenous over-representation in prisons.
DeSmog Canada worked closely with the Aboriginal People’s Television Network Investigates on a Site C piece, and Megaphone is joining with the CBC on a series about preventing overdoses.
What is emerging here is a good news story about the future of news, one worth paying attention to across Canada and beyond.
Less clickbait means a healthier democracy
As the collapse of advertising revenues is threatening to kill Canada’s major newspaper chains, B.C.’s indies are far less dependent on ad dollars for their survival. And at a moment when trivial click-bait is said to rule, experiments in B.C. are instead pumping out in-depth, public interest journalism.
The net result is a more fully informed citizenry and a healthier democracy.
Why did B.C. become home to Canada’s most vibrant news ecosystem? Credit the wellspring of creativity here — the province’s beauty and potential has long attracted change-makers.
Credit, as well, a backlash empowered by digital tech. For decades, corporations headquartered in central Canada have owned this province’s news giants and their content reflected it. The pent-up appetite for home-grown media spawned upstarts rooted in B.C. culture and interests.
That can irritate some outsiders. Alberta Oil magazine fretted that the so-called “Vancouver School” of journalism was too effectively making the case against pipelines connecting the oilsands to B.C.’s coast.
But feds pondering how to “save” journalism in Canada ignore at their peril the sentiment that motivates thousands of people to not just read but financially support “Vancouver School” media. Their readers are demonstrating real loyalty to media rooted in their place and their values. They distrust big media run from boardrooms half a continent away.
So don’t confuse saving journalism with rescuing dinosaurs that thrived during a different era, when survival sometimes meant ruthlessly assembling a national chain of media outlets sharing the same content and advertisers regardless of local sensibilities.
Those days are gone.
Interested in better understanding B.C.’s news ecosystem? Attend Vancouver Media Democracy Day on Nov. 18 at the public library’s central branch downtown.
Most of the entities mentioned above, and more, will showcase their work. There will also be workshops, roundtables, networking and something rarely found these days at news media get togethers — reasons for optimism.