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Cowichan Valley reporter Jacqueline Ronson works with Chief Data Officer Caitlin Havlak, Director Communities Anita Li, and CEO Erin Millar at the Facebook Local News Accelerator in Toronto. Credit: Facebook Journalism Project

Our campaign fell short. Here are our next steps

Why we think slowing down for the summer is our best bet for speeding up our new model for local news for the long-term — and how you can help

Our spring campaign asking you to support local news that connects communities came to an end two weeks ago. We’ve been conspicuously quiet since as we dug through the data grappling with what the results mean for our next steps.

I’ll start with the good news: Over 500 people are now supporters. That, plus heaps of positive feedback and help we received from community members, is super validating. We’re more convinced than ever that there is a demand for new approaches to local news that better represent our country’s full diversity. 

But the reality is that we didn’t meet our goal. That means, at least in the short-term, we can’t do everything we planned. And so we’ve been struggling through some tough decisions about focusing our resources to make the biggest impact toward our ultimate goal: developing a replicable business model for in-depth local journalism. (Read about where our money comes from and how we spend it here.)

The bottom line: The Discourse is taking this chance during the summer to slow down, listen, learn and readjust, by focusing on a single community. (Skip to “What changes we’re making” below for specifics.)

At the heart of how we’re trying to build a different kind of media outlet is our commitment to being radically transparent with our community members. And so, below I share what we’ve learned so far from the campaign, what specific changes we’re making this summer as a result, and how you can help.

What we’ve learned so far

In many ways, the campaign was incredibly encouraging. In Cowichan Valley, the community valued truly local reporting so much that one person contributed $5,000 before the campaign even started, 2 people overcame the barrier of never before having made an internet purchase to join, and one person sweetened the deal with homemade preserves. Residents of Scarborough told us how important it was to them to reflect the neighbourhood’s unique voice. Urban Nation community members said The Discourse is contributing to reconciliation. Stories published during the campaign went viral and drove support. When it looked like the campaign was in trouble in its final days, a group of community members stepped up.

Entrepreneurship is the process of taking an idea and giving it form, experimenting and putting it out into the world. And then: asking for feedback, listening deeply and adjusting, recalibrating, challenging assumptions, improving, building, and putting it out there again until the idea takes on a life of its own. 

It’s a vulnerable and humbling process. The times when we’ve managed to embrace our challenges and what we’re learning transparently, we’ve emerged with more focus and traction. In that spirit, here are the lessons from the campaign so far:

    1. Earning trust is essential. We were most successful where we have been delivering our unique model of community-powered journalism for a longer period of time. Especially when serving audiences that have been underrepresented or harmed by media, such as racialized and Indigenous communities, earning trust is critical.
    2. Cutting through the noise of social media to build audience and relationships is a challenge. There’s no magic bullet to grow an audience. And as a journalism company devoted to producing high-quality, investigative journalism, building brand recognition without publishing frequent content with less depth poses a challenge we will need to address.
    3. When we reach people with journalism that matters to them, they will pay. We saw really high conversion among members of The Discourse community who engage regularly with our content (meaning they actively follow our newsletters and read articles frequently). If that’s you, thank you! Now we need to find out how to build trust with more of you.

Changes we’re making this summer

That’s all nice, you may be thinking if you’re a supporter, but what’s my money going to? The Discourse remains 100% committed to our mission of building a new model for in-depth local journalism that better represents Canada in its full diversity. Over the past two weeks, we’ve been asking how we can contribute to that mission differently over the summer, within the resources we have, to set us on a strong footing to fulfill our promise to you in the long-term. 

Here’s our next steps this summer:

    1. Slow down to learn and adjust. We know to grow sustainably we need to make The Discourse more valuable to you. Inspired by our friends at The Sprawl, our bet is that the best way to do that is to take pause: “No one needs another incessant torrent of fragmented information flying at them,” journalist entrepreneur Jeremy Klaszus writes. “We go quiet so we can return with journalism that’s worth your time.” We’ll be publishing less during the summer while we get our ducks in a row for impactful content this fall. Give us your input on how here.
    2. Focus on a single community: the Cowichan Valley. We’re putting our work in Urban Nation and Scarborough on hold during the summer to devote our limited resources to one place where we will try to figure out the strategies needed to succeed. Based on the data from last month’s campaign, we have a list of hypotheses about how we can better serve you.
      Why Cowichan? First, the results of the campaign were strongest there. We want to figure out what worked and how we can grow and replicate those results. Second, as a rural place that lost a local newspaper, is home to a strong Indigenous community, and is experiencing a local economic transition that sometimes divides residents, there’s a lot to learn there about how a media outlet can connect community and thrive.
      We don’t yet know what the future will hold for our work in Urban Nation and Scarborough. Our intention is to seek solutions for our community-powered model in Cowichan and then replicate those lessons in other communities. The conclusions to draw from the campaign aren’t black and white, and more time is needed to make thoughtful decisions. We hope you’ll extend us the patience to afford us that time.
    3. Seek new funding opportunities. Our goal to be primarily audience-funded remains, but it’s going to take more to build the trust and audience to get us there. We are developing new opportunities to fuel the next phase of development of our model of in-depth local news for underserved communities. There is a lot of opportunity — from the Google News Initiative to value-aligned investors like our partner Marigold Capital to our participation in the Facebook Local News Accelerator to new funding sources like the Social Finance Fund.

How you can help

As community-powered media, our community members are our lifeblood. Here are three things you can do:

    1. If you’re a supporter, stick with us. Starting something new is hard, and we expect to hit hurdles. We’re resilient and committed, but also anxious about letting you down. We realize that, for some of you, this means your money not going to what you thought it would. We hope you’ll trust us to spend your support responsibly in the short-term so we can fulfil our promise to you for the long-term. (Read about where our money comes from and how we spend it here.)
    2. If you’re not yet a supporter, you can make a big impact on our future if you support now. 
    3. Tell us how we can make The Discourse more valuable to you by filling out this survey. If you didn’t become a supporter, what would it take to bring you on board? If you did, tell us what you hope to see next.

Here’s our commitment to you: starting this week, we’re resuming our weekly newsletter that shares journalism innovations and perspectives overlooked by media. We’ll keep you posted on what we’re learning and The Discourse’s next steps. Cowichan’s regular coverage will also resume soon. If you want to follow our experiments in Cowichan Valley, subscribe to our newsletter here. Finally, we will make an announcement about the future of our work in Urban Nation and Scarborough by the end of summer.

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