Opinion: Are journalism’s problems unfixable? Heck no!

How The Discourse started a revolution in independent local news.

It will take serious industry collaboration to reverse the decades-long decline of journalism in Canada, concludes a recent essay published by The Walrus. But such collaboration is unlikely, because media companies are so used to seeing each other as rivals. 

Ultimately, the outlook is bleak, the author writes. “Senior media executives talked to me off the record or on background because they didn’t want their personal pessimism attached to their professional titles. Everyone who had left the media altogether said they were so glad to be out of this terrible business.”

The problems in the journalism industry are real, but these deeply pessimistic conclusions just don’t resonate with me. 

That’s likely because I’m part of a network of vibrant, independent media outlets founded on the idea that when we lift each other up, everybody wins. 

Maybe outlets like ours are still somewhat marginal in the industry today, but I firmly believe in the power of a really good idea and its ability to catch on. It’s already happening.

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What collaboration looks like

The Discourse has been through a few transformations since it was founded in Vancouver in 2014. But collaboration is in its DNA. 

It started with three reporters, fed up that too much of their time was spent on feeding the content machine and not enough on truly serving the public with useful information. 

They found creative partnerships to fund that sort of public-interest journalism, and then partnered with media outlets to get it out to audiences. 

The Discourse was also founded on an idea that was so groundbreaking at the time that the company wouldn’t, at first, publicly claim it: Journalists should collaborate with people in the communities they serve.

In the traditional news model, it’s the journalists and editors who know best. They make the decisions about what’s newsworthy, whose voices should be heard and what stories are worth telling. 

Although that dogma often goes unquestioned in newsrooms, it’s absurd. 

Of course the collective wisdom of our communities will inform better editorial decisions. Of course leaving the decisions about what’s newsworthy to a small group of people with similar backgrounds and perspectives will fail to reflect and serve an audience.

The Discourse comes to the Cowichan Valley

I didn’t exactly want to write the story of a conflict between some Cowichan Valley residents and a racetrack development that they said was ruining their lives. 

But in 2018, I landed a contract with The Discourse to provide ongoing coverage of an under-covered issue where I live. My editor told me to go out and ask people what that might be. 

So I did, and we narrowed down the top story ideas to put to a public vote. 

“If I put the racetrack issue in the vote it will win,” I said to my editor, somewhat begrudgingly. That story, though certainly underreported and of public interest, would be hard and complicated. There would be lawyers involved. I might face personal retaliation in a community I was still just getting to know. 

But the story had merit, so we included it in the vote and it won.

Through deep investigation, my reporting revealed that the local newspaper was avoiding any critical coverage of the racetrack, apparently to avoid upsetting advertising clients. 

That story demonstrated how much it means to have real, trustworthy local news. And I’d earned a small army of supporters — people willing to pay to keep me and The Discourse around.

Now, four years later, The Discourse has just beat out every other outlet at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards, earning six medals, including gold for Best Community News Website. 

We’ve expanded and are now serving the Nanaimo region, and beyond.

Much of our revenue is in small, voluntary contributions from community members who value our work. We’re not yet financially comfortable, but we’re no longer fighting just to stay afloat.

Collaborating for the win

When I think back on how we got to where we are, it almost feels like an accident. As if we just threw a bunch of stuff at a wall and got lucky that something stuck. 

But if I think a little harder, I can see how we survived — we believed in collaboration. 

From that belief, we partnered with APTN in 2020 to launch IndigiNews. That outlet offers sensitive, in-depth coverage of Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island and in the Okanagan Valley, led by Indigenous reporters, editors and managers. 

The Discourse understood that it’s much better to have a healthy ecosystem of diverse outlets, rather than trying to own everything ourselves, forever expanding and gobbling up anything in our path.

That’s why, in 2020, The Discourse spun out another company, called Indiegraf, with a mission of supporting journalist entrepreneurs to launch their own outlets. Indiegraf offers support with technology, marketing, capital, consulting and more so journalists can focus on serving their communities. 

Hard-won lessons from building The Discourse now ease the path for others to follow. Since its launch, Indiegraf has raised more than $2 million for community journalism and supported 58 publishers who make local news accessible to 25 million people in Canada and the United States. 

And last month The Discourse announced a new partnership with Sun Peaks Independent News. Together we’ve just launched The Wren, bringing independent community news to Kamloops, B.C.

A brighter future

Good ideas like to spread. And it’s not so hard to find journalists who can imagine a better kind of journalism. 

When Annelise Pierce, a journalist in northern California, was thinking about launching an independent local news outlet, The Discourse caught her eye. 

The Discourse’s work to include local Indigenous communities into the coverage inspired Pierce’s journalism at the publication she would go on to call the Shasta Scout

“That was tremendously inspiring for what we could do, and really opened my vision to the idea that this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. And that has been probably the single most important thing we’ve done at Shasta Scout, is to center the voices of the Indigenous community,” she says.

The Discourse has a tone that says, “We’re with the community and for the community, not just about the community,” Pierce says.

“In journalism, I think there’s sort of this white-coat thing that happens a lot, where the journalist is distanced from the audience in the same way the doctor is distanced from the patient. And I really saw that The Discourse is breaking down that barrier and saying, ‘We’re just right here next to you. And our job is to be with you and tell the stories that you need to hear and you want to hear.’ And that was really what excited me about it.”

Shasta Scout launched in 2021, with Indiegraf’s support, and is now telling stories that build democracy, rooted in rural California. 

At the end of The Walrus essay on journalism’s future, the author writes, “I can’t promise young journalists the career this industry has given me.”

I work with some amazing, bright young journalists, and I agree they won’t have the same career opportunities offered to previous generations. Many of them will have better ones. 

They just need to believe that better is possible, and have the audacity to start building it. I know a lot of young people like that. [end]

Jacqueline Ronson is the managing editor of The Discourse and a local reporter serving the Cowichan Valley region.

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