Community-powered journalism, the francophone way

A conversation with La Converse’s editor-in-chief, Lela Savić
May 13, 2020

It’s a big week for newsreaders in Quebec. An entirely new kind of media outlet, dubbed the francophone sister of The Discourse, has officially launched. La Converse is a community-powered media pop-up in service of francophone Canadians made by and for people who want to change the world. And yes, they mean change the world.

So, what does community-powered journalism look like, the francophone way? Well, to understand La Converse, you have to understand a little bit about the person behind it. So I caught up with La Converse’s lead innovator and editor, Lela Savić — running on very little sleep — to learn why she’s so excited for this moment, how La Converse flips journalism on its head, and what news readers in Quebec can look forward to.

LK: Where did this all begin?

I am the Quebec chapter leader of Canadian Journalists of Colour, CJOC, a co-created network by and for journalists of colour It’s quite a challenge working in Canadian Quebec media as a person of colour because there’s not that many, so the support that you get in CJOC is just really, really, really different than anything I would be able to find here.

In January, we wrote our calls to action, and Erin Millar of The Discourse shared it on Twitter saying: “The Discourse commits to this.” And I was like, ‘“Whoa, OK, that’s pretty bold.” I didn’t see many other people doing that, and I didn’t expect it. So I reached out to her to find more about The Discourse and how she started it. I told her that I always wanted to do an initiative that was similar to The Discourse, and she told me they were looking to expand in Quebec. So it was just a natural thing for us to develop this project.

LK: So how would you describe La Converse?

La Converse is a place to bridge divides and serve society. First of all, it’s very human. And it’s based on dialogue. The vision is inspired by my culture, which is built on relationships.  I’m of Romani background, and in our culture you can’t just show up at somebody’s house and ask questions. You have to sit down, ask them about them, talk to them and then we can get to business. That’s how I was brought up. It’s so simple. And I’m able to get to a very different place for the very simple reason that I listen. 

In Quebec, I find that if you’re a reporter you almost become a public figure. There is that sense of stardom. And I’m like, I didn’t become a reporter to see my face in the newspapers and get exclusives. I became a reporter because I want to change the world. I know that’s really tacky but it’s true. 

So, La Converse allows us to step down from our pedestals to be at the level of society. As a journalist, you’re not a superior moral guide that knows everything, you’re listening to people, fact checking, questioning power, and really it’s an informed conversation. 

LK: What can readers expect? 

All of the content is delivered through a newsletter, weekly or biweekly depending on depth of stories. It’s delivered in French because that’s where the gap is, but I think that definitely if we have more resources to make all of our content bilingual in future, we will. 

It’s the reporter who delivers the newsletter, not me — which is really cool. We open every single article with a transparency note from the journalist who tells you, “Here’s what I learned, here’s why we did it, here are my mistakes, here’s my positionality.” We’re really transparent about where we’re coming from so we create a relationship with our audience.

At conferences I’ve spoken at, I’ve advised audience members to ask: What does this journalist represent? How does that impact the kind of stories you get, the kind of answers you get? I think once people know that, it allows them to trust journalism. It’s awesome to be now putting this into action.

LK: Why now?

These times are showing us that news really is an essential public service for everyone. We’re trying to serve people’s needs by being community-powered, just like we have at The Discourse. We answer the community’s questions, not our questions. Because if you’re only serving your own curiosity, then you’re capitalizing on people’s miseries. When people join, we ask them: How can we better serve you? It’s so revolutionary but yet it’s so simple.

Right now, the media industry is serving economic needs at the expense of the public’s needs. With the layoffs in the current media crisis, I think we’ve been stripped of our duty as journalists even more. It’s forced us to give instant news without developing these relationships. There’s a huge surge of fake news in recent years and I’m not sure the journalism industry is doing the work to investigate its own role in this by disappointing people for so long. 

LK: How does your experience as a journalist of colour inform your work? 

Roma  are one of the most marginalized groups of people in Europe. We were always deceived about how we were represented. We are constantly dehumanized. Unfortunately, our communities always have to do an extra effort to assert their humanity. I grew up watching this injustice and wanted to become a reporter to change the narrative and reclaim it. Today, I report on various issues but coming from a community that has been so misrepresented, I am very conscious of the impact my work can have on people’s daily lives. I believe that approaching news with that sensitive lens and relationship-based approach gets me to different places but also serves people better. I’m trying to create a place where we don’t have to filter and we’re really honest with each other.

LK: What does this look like in practice?

I’ve worked with La Presse, Radio Canada, and now with Journal Métro, and I’ve developed trust within racialized communities in a way that they feel comfortable to speak to me. Last year, I reported a story about a young francophone Moroccan girl who suffered a racist incident while she was working at Walmart, where a woman threw a case of water at her, yelling slurs. She wasn’t able to get her story covered by French media, but anglophone reporters covered it. She let me tell her story because I spent time with her, developed a relationship, followed up. I want to see more stories like that by more journalists than just me.

LK: How can people get involved?

Subscribe at laconverse.ca. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

We can’t do this if people don’t tell us what their needs are. Fill out our survey and tell us what you need. Reach out to us by email.

La Converse is a pop up, so we’re testing this out for four weeks, hoping it’s going to last longer. We decided we’re not going to wait 25 years to get the media we want. We need to give people the journalism they deserve.