Back in October 2019, I was really stuck. The Peachland Phoenix had a name, and very clear reason to be – even a logo. But there was something I was approaching with dread. I’m not a salesperson, and the traditional media model of advertising-generated revenue made me really uncomfortable. I didn’t want to replicate something that’s the crux of the challenges facing newspapers today. I just want to do good journalism for my community.
Thinking about this kept me up at night. That’s when I read The Rise of Audience-Funded Journalism in Canada. Written in December 2018, it’s research completed by BC-based the Discourse, an online news outlet supported through memberships, partners and investment. They found there’s an emerging sector of the industry: Independent digital media outlets. Out of the 77 new (non-merger) outlets launched in Canada since 2008, more than half were categorized as independent, and 26 of those were online news outlets.
To quote the report directly, “many of these new independent digital startups were started by journalists frustrated by the lack of sustained and meaningful coverage happening on issues that matter to them.”
For me, seeing stories that are single-sourced, written to incite or written exclusively from press releases and sometimes, with a complete lack of interaction with community residents, make it clear a local news alternative is needed in our town. The Discourse report says, “The tragedy of the decline of journalism is not that thousands of journalism jobs have been lost – it’s the impact of the loss of journalism on communities.”
As mentioned before, the report found that an emerging part of the journalism industry are independent, digital media outlets using audience-pay models to deliver public service journalism in underserved communities. The report also says the vast majority of Canadians who access online news are accessing website versions of traditional, established media outlets, as opposed to digital-only publications.
However: the independent, digital media outlets mentioned in the Discourse report “are innovative, dynamic, fast growing and positioned to have a disproportionate impact on the renewal of the Canadian news ecosystem with a relatively modest investment.”
These small outlets report on stories that are missing from mainstream media coverage, “which not only builds their audience but also drives the editorial agenda of larger publications.” In the future, the report says, those that succeed have the potential to challenge established industry leaders.
I want to be clear: There’s room for traditional news and a print newspaper in our community. What The Peachland Phoenix is offering is more of a niche: super local journalism focussed only on our town and its people. As the report says, “instead of being optimized to generate as many clicks as possible to sell to advertisers, these outlets are incentivized to directly serve the public. Many new independent online outlets are prioritizing this approach early in their development.”
The report also adds instead of chasing the traditional news cycle and being dependent on ad/website clicks, the audience-pay model has journalists working more in-depth, and on stories that are of public service.
I especially like this quote that’s in the Discourse report from James Breiner, a professor and journalism consultant:
“The future of journalism lies with the nimble, agile business models that are emerging based on low-cost digital production and distribution technologies, highly focused niche content, and a focus on users rather than advertisers.”
There’s more to this report, if you care to read. Basically, learning all this was a huge step in realizing that yes, dammit, I can ask people to pay for my work, it does provide a service, and this is what’s most butterfly-inducing and exciting: It’s part of an emerging way for journalism to get back to where it should be. I think Peachland is a place for this to happen.