the discourse funding model
Photo by Asher Isbrucker/The Discourse
Media Nanaimo

How The Discourse funds our in-depth local journalism

Our work is driven by the community, and funded by it too.
Terri Potratz November 20, 2020

One of the most common questions we’re asked about The Discourse is how we’re funded, and is that funding sustainable for the long term? 

The short answer is, we rely on a combination of audience revenue, partnership contributions, and grants. But what does that really mean, especially as we embark upon a campaign to launch in Nanaimo?

The long answer is that we are driven by our core values in everything that we do, including how we are funded. We’re constantly thinking about what’s of most benefit to the communities we serve, and looking to other media for case-studies and best practices that we can model as we brainstorm ways to diversify our revenue for long-term sustainability.

The Discourse was launched in 2014 as an independent, for-profit media outlet (with the goal of modest profitability). Our hope was to prove that there is a new way forward and a market for good journalism — and we have. 

Our local news outlets rely primarily on community members, both individuals and local businesses or organizations, supporting our work because they believe in the importance of meaningful local news for the health of our communities.

Whether it’s through a one-time or monthly contribution, or support for a specific deep-dive journalism project, we invite supporters to contribute at whatever level they are comfortable with.

Individual people support us 

The most important part of our business model is audience support. It’s a simple concept used by everyone from podcasters, to magazines to major news outlets like The New York Times: you enjoy our work and think it matters, so you support us.

The big difference with The Discourse is we don’t put our content behind a paywall. We want our journalism to be accessible to everyone in the community, not just people who can pay for it, and we know that our supporters want that too. Journalism is such an important part of democracy and community so keeping it open for everyone matters. 

So far in 2020, The Discourse Cowichan has had more than 500 people chip in to make our work possible. For our work in Nanaimo too, we know that audience support will be essential to our success. We strive for audience support to account for the largest portion of our funding. Why? Because that keeps us accountable to the community over any other stakeholder.

Founding supporters 

When we launch in a new community, we recognize the opportunity to not just seek support from individual contributors, but also to reach out to leading community organizations with an option to become Founding Supporters. What does that mean?

If individuals, organizations, or businesses contribute $5,000 (more details here) we will acknowledge them as a Founding Supporter. These folks contribute because they believe that the community needs in-depth news and they want to help us make it happen.

To recognize their support, we acknowledge our Founding Supporters on our website and within our newsletter for the first year. These supporters, like all of our supporters at The Discourse, believe in independent journalism, and their support does not mean they have influence over any content produced. 

Value-aligned partnerships 

One of the unique offerings that we’ve developed here at The Discourse is our approach to deep dive journalism projects. 

These are story series about issues that are either under-covered or poorly covered by other media outlets because of the topic’s systemic nature or complexity. Based on engagement with community members, our editorial team identifies topics that need deeper digging. We then reach out to value-aligned partners to help fund the work. 

Depending on their contribution level, funding partners are recognized on our dedicated project landing page, at the footer of our series stories, in our newsletters and at project-related events. It’s important to us to be clear and transparent with our audience about these partnerships.

Partners on our deep-dive project series are assessed based on alignment of values and their commitment to not influencing the content that we produce. 

Do we worry about potential real or perceived conflicts of interest? Of course. That’s why we follow best practices pioneered by the non-profit news sector to safeguard against potential conflicts of interest:

  • In our contracts, funding partners sign a clause committing to respecting journalistic independence.
  • Our project ideas are surfaced by our editorial team.
  • We are transparent with our audiences about our funding sources. In fact, we go a step further than most by acknowledging which funders are connected to specific projects, rather than lumping them all together in a pooled funding disclosure.
  • We strive to separate development and partnership management from editorial production. 
  • We are prepared to walk away, and have in the past walked away, from any funding arrangement that violates our journalistic values. If we’re not in a position to say no, then we’re not truly independent.

We’re constantly evolving

In the words of The Discourse CEO and founder Erin Millar, “The more diverse our revenue, the more independent our journalism.”

As we continue to work to provide local communities with in-depth journalism, we are constantly learning and evolving as an organization. That means our funding model is always evolving, too. 

Beyond our core audience and partnership revenue, we are constantly seeking out other funding opportunities from government grants through the Local Journalism Initiative, to funding from community foundations and new ways for value-aligned local businesses to get involved. In all of this work, the one thing that doesn’t change is our commitment to accountability, transparency and producing content that matters to our communities. 

Today more than ever journalists are challenged to maintain principles of ethics and good practice. As we explore new business models in an industry dominated by massive change and shifting revenue streams, we are committed to maintaining the highest level of journalistic integrity.

Questions, comments? Feel free to reach out to me anytime at terri@thediscourse.ca