In partnership with SFU's school of communication

In British Columbia, There’s a Good News Story about the News

A digital news ecology is flowering through ‘coopetition’ — as Media Democracy Day will showcase November 18.

By David Beers

Hidden by gloomy tales of the decline of North America’s news media is a success story in southwestern British Columbia.

Here, a cluster of digital outlets have flowered by paying for top notch investigative and solutions-focused reporting. They are forging new business models and training the next wave of journalists.

Taken together, they form a news media ecosystem in which surviving means competing but also collaborating. Yes, each vies to break stories and attract money. But they also sometimes republish each other’s pieces, pool resources or team up.

“Coopetition” is one way to describe this style of ecology.

Who are its creatures? They include: The Tyee founded in 2003 in Vancouver. Megaphone Magazine, Vancouver’s street paper and website founded in 2006. DeSmog Canada, founded in 2013 in Victoria. Discourse Media, founded in 2013 in Vancouver. Hakai Magazine, founded in 2015 in Victoria. TheNational Observer founded in 2015 as an arm of the 2006 Vancouver ObserverThe Global Reporting Centre founded in 2016, a non-profit growing out of the International Reporting Program at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.

It’s a remarkable list, representing millions of dollars in journalism budgets, a combined staff larger than the Vancouver Sun-Province reporter pool, numerous major awards, a steady stream of high-impact work, and millions of page views per month.

Some of the big ground broken in this little region:

  • The Tyee launched the 100-Mile Diet, helping spark the local food movement, and has reported early and continuously on fixing the housing affordability crisis. With no paywall, it’s nearly majority reader supported, with some philanthropic funding plus investment from a labour-tied fund.
  • The National Observer’s energy sector investigations have rocked Ottawa and forced resignations. It mixes revenues from paywall subscribers, philanthropies and other sources.
  • Discourse Media, which specializes in deeply reported projects it terms “collaborative”, is now offering its readers a chance to co-own the company as it aggressively pursues growth.
  • The non-profit Global Reporting Centre, whose mission is to innovate how global journalism is practiced and cover neglected issues worldwide, has crowdsourced storytellers to document the rise of xenophobia.
  • Hakai Magazine, backed by the Tula Foundation and tied to Hakai Institute, covers coastal science, ecology and communities. It pays top rates for stories from around the world, and has an in-house team producing frequently viral videos.
  • A single video interview about Site C dam published by non-profit DeSmog Canada drew 1.6 million views. It mixes funding from readers and philanthropies.

While these orgs aren’t muscling aside B.C. megafauna like the CBC, Globe and Mail, Postmedia and Huffington Post, they serve as “tip sheets” for those newsrooms, who often pick up their stories and run their own versions. In this way the smaller fry contribute to the public conversation by means rarely highlighted.

Increasingly, too, B.C.’s small independents are collaborating directly with traditional media:

  • The Tyee has partnered with the CBC on series about Indigenous education best practices, and affordable homes,
  • The National Observer is producing with the Toronto Star, Global News and others a major project tracking oil industry influence, in partnership with investigative journalism students from across the country,
  • Discourse Media helped research a Maclean’s feature on Indigenous overrepresentation in prisons,
  • DeSmog Canada worked closely with Aboriginal People’s Television Network Investigates on a Site C piece,
  • And Megaphone is joining with the CBC on a series about preventing overdoses.

What is emerging here is a good news story about the future of news, one worth paying attention to across Canada and beyond.

As the collapse of advertising revenues is threatening to kill Canada’s major newspaper chain, B.C.’s indies are far less dependent on ad dollars for their survival.

At a moment when trivial click-bait is said to rule, experiments in BC are instead pumping out in-depth, public interest journalism.

And the net result is a more fully informed citizenry, a healthier democracy.

Why did B.C. become home to Canada’s most vibrant news ecosystem? Credit the wellspring of creativity here — the province’s beauty and potential has long attracted change makers.

Credit, as well, a backlash empowered by digital tech. For decades, corporations headquartered in Central Canada have owned this province’s news giants and their content reflected it. The pent-up appetite for home grown media spawned upstarts rooted in B.C. culture and interests. That can irritate some outsiders. Alberta Oil magazine fretted that the “The Vancouver School” of journalism was too effectively making the case against pipelines connecting the oil sands to B.C.’s coast.

A more detailed map of media innovators in this province could include people behind many projects based elsewhere. British Columbians helped start, for example, the political site Ricochet, the foreign policy site OpenCanada,and The Conversation Canada, where academics share their findings in opinion pieces.

Fold in, too, B.C.’s advocates using media to mobilize and educate, groups including The Dogwood Initiative (environment), Karmik Opioid Crisis Response (drug harm reduction), Affinity Bridge (digital democracy), Fresh Voices (vulnerable youth), OpenMedia (Internet freedom) and many more.

For anyone interested in diving into this region’s dynamic scene, Vancouver Media Democracy Day offers a perfect opportunity on November 18 at the public library’s central branch downtown. Most of the entities mentioned above, and many more, will be on hand. Some will showcase their work. There will be workshops, roundtables, networking.

B.C. is home to an expanding media sector needing people to help it grow. If that’s news to you, Media Democracy Day is the place to plug in.

David Beers, an adjunct professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University and of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, is a co-organizer of Media Democracy Day 2017, and founding editor of The Tyee.

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