Local journalism has cut jobs faster than the coal industry, leaving parts of North America as news deserts with little or no regular coverage.
But the grim prospects of a declining industry did not deter Canadian tech entrepreneur Andrew Wilkinson, who in 2019 hired a reporter and launched a daily newsletter in his hometown, Victoria.
Emailed to subscribers early each morning, Capital Daily provided residents with city news highlights. Wilkinson bought ads on Facebook and Google and subscribers started pouring in.
A year later, the company had more than 40,000 readers, and within two years the Capital Daily has grown from a morning summary of the city’s news to an enterprising medium that publishes investigative feature films. .
Now, building on the success of the newsletter, a startup media group has unveiled ambitious plans to replicate the model across the country.
Overstory Media Group, which operates newsletter-based journalism sites in British Columbia including the Burnaby Beacon, Decomplicated and the Capital Daily, has announced plans to hire 250 new journalists and launch 50 new media by 2023 .
“I always believed that community media were always going to survive,” said CEO Farhan Mohamed, who co-founded the company with Wilkinson. “But it just has to be done the right way.”
The announcement comes at a difficult time for Canadian media, which has seen the same massive layoffs and newspaper closures as in the United States.
In 2017, 36 community newspapers were closed – the largest mass shutdown in Canadian history – and hundreds of journalists were fired after the country’s largest media companies, TorStar and PostMedia, announced an agreement to exchange 41 community newspapers with each other as a cost. saving measure.
And despite the government’s efforts, the coronavirus pandemic has caused more losses in the sector: in the past year, 52 community newspapers have closed.
“You often hear it said that journalism is a vocation, that people are willing to make less money to do something they are passionate about. This is absolute nonsense. It’s a broken system, ”Mohamed said. “There is so much talent out there and you have to harness it and give it opportunities.”
While Overstory plans to donate resources to each of the publications, Mohamed envisions the brands operating independently. Funded by Wilkinson along with growing advertising revenue, the group’s current titles have shown to be sustainable and profitable, Mohamed says.
The idea of expanding across the country reflects both the success of current outlets and deeply underserved markets outside major urban centers, he said.
Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal dominate much of the country’s attention, but residents of small towns have an equally strong thirst for local news.
“When we look at these communities, our goal is to be there for the next 30 or 40 years. We think in a generational way, ”he said.
Capital Daily, Overstory’s flagship brand, quickly became one of Victoria’s most widely read outlets.
“Local journalism has this reputation for being heavy, boring and low stakes. People think he’s covering the small championship game and going too far in a Walmart parking lot dispute, ”editor-in-chief Jimmy Thomson said. “But local journalism has always been an extremely important tool in empowering those who make the decisions closest to us.”
Much of the daily news is handled by larger mainstream media in Victoria, giving Capital Daily the opportunity to tell stories from different angles.
“We benefit greatly from the reporting that others are doing in the city,” he said. “But I hope our readers get something from us that they don’t get from anyone else.”
He points to a recent investigation into a famous hotel in the area which took the reporter nearly four months to complete and which has garnered praise from reporters at major outlets.
The region is “incredibly lucky” to have the Capital Daily, tweeted Ian Young, Vancouver correspondent for the South China Morning Post. “This is a far cry from your typical ‘local’ journalism, which is not at all a reproach to typical local journalists.”
While other mainstream newspapers struggle to maintain circulation figures, media startups like Capital Daily lack physical office space and don’t have to worry about printing a physical newspaper.
Overstory’s expansion is the most ambitious in the country, but it’s not the only one trying to reinvent local news.
In 2014, investigative journalist Tim Bousquet founded the Halifax Examiner, which has since grown into a medium in its own right. During a mass shooting in the province last year, the Examiner’s report on the police response was praised by the much more resourced media.
Indiegraf strives to give enterprising journalists the tools to start a digital publication serving community readership.
While a number of journalism startups have found success in recent years targeting a national market, including Narwhal, Canadaland (which also received funding from the Tiny Foundation) and Logic, the Overstory is that communities crave locally driven stories.
“People care about what is going on around them, not just what is happening across the country,” Mohamed said. “So why don’t we spend enough time talking about it?”
Many have tried.
Since 2008, 165 new local media have been launched in 120 communities across the country, according to recent data from the Local News Project.
But during the same period, a total of 448 news operations were closed in 323 communities, most of which were local newspapers.
Despite the initial success, Thomson says the business is still largely an experiment.
“A lot of people are trying different ways of doing journalism in Canada. We’re just one of them. I don’t know if we are right, ”he said. “I hope we are. I hope we solve a problem in journalism and can make it work. But ultimately, we don’t know yet.