Can Reader-Funded News Save Canadian Journalism?

DeSmog Canada staff

Some newspapers dig. Some newspapers are a constant embarrassment to the powerful. Some manage to be entertaining, provocative, and fair at the same time. There are a few such newspapers in Canada.”

That statement probably doesn’t come as a shock to many Canadians in 2017.

What may come as a surprise is that the quote is actually drawn from a report published in 1970 by the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media. If Canada’s media landscape was stifled by mediocrity nearly 50 years, it’s positively suffocated by it now.

Canada has one of the most monopolized media landscape in the world. And since 2008, the Canadian Media Guild reports that more than 10,000 media jobs have been lost. There are now four public relations people for every journalist in this country — a figured that has doubled since 1990.

Sparks of Hope From Around the World

Yet, while there’s much doom and gloom about the state of the news industry worldwide, there are reasons to be hopeful as well.

In the UK, The Guardian just reported a 15 per cent boost in digital revenues, with more people paying for its journalism than ever before. That includes 230,000 paying “members,” who choose to pay $6.99 a month to support quality, independent journalism.

In The Netherlands, De Correspondent raised $1.7 million in 30 days to launch in 2013 and boasts 56,000 members who pay 60 euros a year in a country of just 17 million people. Its mission is to be the “antidote to the daily news grind.”

We have a different perspective on what is newsworthy. It’s not sensational but foundational. To uncover the foundation, though, you have to work with the people who read you and who are members,” publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth said in an interview with NiemanLab.

De Correspondent has its eyes on a U.S. expansion next. There, it’ll join the digital frontier with the likes of ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest — and which has won several Pulitzer Prizes in the process.

Meantime, here in Canada a handful of plucky start-ups concentrated in British Columbia are at the forefront of the new digital frontier. DeSmog Canada is one of them.

Imagine if there was an ‘Environment’ section of your newspaper — we’re that, but fully digital. Our goal is to make complex energy and environment news accessible to Canadians and to shine a light on critical, under-reported stories.

Part Newsroom, Part Non-Profit, Part Tech Start-Up

Like De Correspondent, we strive to go beyond the headlines and help people make sense of the world by looking at the foundational issues.

For instance, instead of reporting on the twists and turn of every pipeline controversy, we look closely at the environmental assessment process and how reforms would decrease the dysfunction. While reporting on a controversial hydro dam in B.C., we zoomed out and spoke to experts in Labrador and Newfoundland about their experience with a similar project. Long after most media have moved on from B.C.’s Mount Polley mine disaster, one of the largest environmental disasters in Canadian history, we continue to shine a spotlight on the need for reform of B.C.’s mining regulations.

The success of DeSmog Canada relies upon a willingness to take risks and experiment. We think of our culture as part newsroom, part non-profit and part tech start-up.

While completing my journalism degree at Mount Royal University, I spent a year working at a newspaper in England. I was inspired by the fearless journalism I saw there by the likes of The Independent, The Guardian, the BBC and Which? Magazine. If an energy company was found to be overcharging customers, the media would go on a full-out campaign to right the wrong. They didn’t feign objectivity where the public interest was concerned.

Back in Canada, I find all too often that journalists lean on a sanguine notion of “objectivity” to excuse a blasé approach to matters of the public interest.

At DeSmog Canada, like De Correspondent, we reject conventional journalism’s ideal of objectivity. We serve the public interest fiercely and put the needs of our readers at the forefront of our newsgathering decisions. Our journalists are fair and independent and operate according to the highest journalistic standards, yet they’re also explicitly subjective.

Proving the Non-Profit Journalism Model In Canada

While there are plenty of people who say non-profit media can’t be successful in Canada, we work every day to prove them wrong.

In 2015, we were named as a finalist for a Canadian Online Publishing Award for “Best News Coverage” alongside the CBC, Globe and Mail and Maclean's Magazine. And this year Canada's Clean50 called DeSmog Canada a “powerhouse investigative environmental journalism outlet” while naming me as an “Emerging Leader.”

Our reporting has sparked coverage by virtually every major news outlet in the country, including the New York Times, the Globe and Mail and CBC and has been cited several times in the House of Commons and the B.C. Legislature.

In 2015, we uncovered a secrecy scandal regarding Canada’s oil spill response plans, which created so much public outrage it resulted in regulatory changes. In British Columbia, we’ve spent years doggedly covering the issue of the Site C hydroelectric dam, because it skipped a review of costs and demand by the B.C. Utilities Commission. We tracked down high-profile critics of the project, like the former CEO of BC Hydro, and spent time on the ground with those facing its biggest impacts.

We’ve launched multi-year Freedom of Information research projects to track fossil fuel funding of university research and political interference by energy companies. We’ve also acted as a watchdog for Canada’s track record on climate change and covered environmental appeals cases in remote communities — all at a time that few journalists have been willing or, more importantly, able to track such issues.

Filling Canada's Void for Public Interest Journalism

For all of this, we are sometimes called “advocacy journalism” or worse, but looking around the world, it's clear we are filling a void in Canada for hard-hitting public interest journalism.

Many people wonder how we fund our operation. The answer is three-fold:
1) We’re incredibly lean with just two full-time staff and a handful of key freelancers.
2) We’ve been lucky to receive core support from two foundations concerned about the environment and climate change. (We disclose our donors on our website in line with the Institute for Non-Profit News' policy on donor transparency.)
3) Small donations from readers comprise an increasing portion of our revenue.

This year, our readers really stepped up and we doubled the amount of revenue we received in small individual donations. Our readers have funded photo essays of remote resource projects, independent polling and, increasingly, they are becoming members and giving $10 or $20 a month to support independent journalism. Our readers make us who we are.

As we look to the future, we see this ad-free, member-funded model as the way to sustain in-depth journalism.

Membership Allows Readers To Become Part of Community

While non-profit news outlets have proliferated south of the border, the same trend hasn’t been repeated in Canada.

Why not? It’s largely a matter of charitable law. In the U.S., journalism qualifies as a charitable activity, but in Canada it currently does not. That makes earning foundation grants harder and further points to reader-funded models being the way of the future in Canada.

Times of crisis represent an opportunity for quality journalism. This year, U.S. news outlets have benefitted from what’s being called the “Trump bump.”

In January, ProPublica received $104,000 in donations, up from just $4,500 in October. Meanwhile, Slate generated 1,000 new members per week, passing the 30,000-member mark — a 66 per cent increase from pre-election.

We believe people don’t become members for ‘access to the content,’ ” De Correspondent’s Pfauth told NiemanLab. “They become members because they want to be part of a movement/community.”

That sentiment bodes well for specialized websites like DeSmog Canada, which give citizens a meaningful way to make a difference and be part of a community.

How to Join DeSmog Canada

While traditional outlets are blurring the line between editorial and advertising more each day, we’ve turned away from an ad-driven model and toward focusing on the reader. Because we don’t have to chase clicks, we can focus on in-depth, sense-making journalism that helps readers be better citizens.

At a time that beat reporters are on the decline, our team works the environment beat with an in-depth knowledge and commitment to investigative reporting not found in most traditional publications.

Times like these require new efforts to build trust and community in an increasingly unstable, fractured world. And the role media plays in shaping and informing public conversations has never been more apparent.

We built DeSmog Canada to jump into the fray, to re-engage Canadians in an increasingly noisy, urgent conversation about energy and the environment. What we’ve learned is that not only do Canadians want and deserve better news — it’s something they’re willing to step in and support.

We are currently on a membership drive. Please become a member today

Image from left to right: DeSmog Canada Editor-in-Chief Emma Gilchrist; photographer Garth Lenz; Managing Editor Carol Linnitt; and contributors Ben Parfitt, Sarah Cox, James Wilt and Judith Lavoie.

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