Community-driven, audience-funded journalism at NASH81

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at NASH81: Refine, the annual gathering of Canada’s student journalists. This year’s event was hosted by the University of Calgary’s independent student publication The Gauntlet. Organizers put together an exciting schedule with talks on podcasting, visual storytelling, beatwriting, ethics, humour writing, freelancing, photojournalism, and much more.

I participated in a panel discussion that explored the question, is the future of journalism crowd-funded and community-driven? Joining me on the panel were Erin Millar, CEO of The Discourse, and Jeremy Klazsus, founder of The Sprawl. Our moderator was Katrina Ingram, strategic advisor at the Alberta Podcast Network and host of the Back to School Again podcast.

While there are some differences between our organizations, there are far more similarities. Each publication is pursuing an audience-pay model in which a significant proportion of revenue comes directly from members or patrons. The idea is to serve readers rather than advertisers, which the panel agreed is more likely to result in high quality journalism that is better aligned with what the community wants.

Another similarity is that content is accessible to everyone – you won’t find any paywalls here! The panel identified two key drivers behind this. The first is that for a story to have an impact, it needs to be widely consumed. Artificial barriers that get in the way of accessing content hinder our ability to make a difference in the communities we serve. The second is that supporters want our journalism to be available to those who can’t afford it and they’re happy to contribute toward making that possible.

Engagement is also critical to each of our organizations. We seek input from our community to help drive our journalism forward and to make sure we’re adding value with everything we do. The Discourse has a survey they ask members to take upon joining, The Sprawl actively solicits input via social media, and of course at Taproot we have the Story Garden. Everyone on the panel talked about the importance of listening.

We also discussed:

  • The importance of confronting inequity in journalism and how we must seek to avoid recreating legacy media’s lack of diversity
  • How the audience-pay model is built on trust which means sponsored content is a poor fit
  • That in serving our paying audience we tend not to chase the news of the day and instead practice what The Sprawl calls “slow journalism”
  • While the federal government’s funding announcement may have some positive impacts, there’s a risk it will simply prop up the legacy players rather than support badly needed innovation in Canadian media

As is the case with these sorts of discussions, there wasn’t enough time to say everything! The students in attendance asked great questions and I hope they found our approach to the future of journalism informative and inspiring.

For more on the topics we discussed, read “The rise of audience-funded journalism in Canada“, a report published by The Discourse in December 2018 with contributions from The Sprawl, Taproot Edmonton, and other digital independent news outlets across the country.