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New media ventures continue to pop up in Canada — and they're helping fill gaps

TORONTO — Anita Li is gearing up to launch her own media outlet in just a few weeks. The Green Line is an independent news venture that aims to engage the community through interactive journalism.
Anita Li, seen in an undated handout photo, is gearing up to officially launch her own media outlet called The Green Line in just a few weeks. It is a Toronto-focused independent news venture that aims to engage the community through interactive journalism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Michael Cooper, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

TORONTO — Anita Li is gearing up to launch her own media outlet in just a few weeks. The Green Line is an independent news venture that aims to engage the community through interactive journalism. 

"I wanted to do journalism in a different way, with a community-driven approach to news gathering," she says. 

The Green Line plans to dive into issues that affect Toronto, while allowing residents to play a role in tackling those issues. Its mission is to include that input in its reporting along with additional insight and analysis. 

That brings reporters, sources and residents together to have discussions and share different perspectives. Ideally, the approachenables the community to shape its own narrative and effect change on matters it cares about.

"We want to report on solutions from community members and reflect it back on to them so they can feel empowered to take action on the solutions they come up with," Li explains.

More and more journalists are starting their own media ventures, largely online, because the barriers to entry in the digital world are lower than ever before and because it's where readers hungry for specific content are increasingly willing to donate or subscribe financially for access to it.

While Li's project supports a new kind of journalism, it simultaneously seeks to address and combat problems the industry has been facing for years: the collapse in traditional advertising revenue; the rise of social media, the spread of misinformation and disinformation; and the challenge of captivating and informing a younger audience that doesn’t engage with traditional newspapers, television or radio. 

"It’s about meeting people where they are," she says. 

Li has worked at several traditional media organizations in Canada throughout her journalism career. She has also worked in the U.S., where she witnessed a more diverse media ecosystem. She wants to help push Canadian media in that direction.

The appetite is there for deeper, more extensive and hyperlocal journalism, Li says.

The Green Line will join a growing number of Canadian names in the "digital startup" space: British Columbia's the Tyee, which recently became a non-profit news organization; the magazine Local, which delves into urban health and social issues in Toronto; Calgary pop-up journalism outlet the Sprawl; community-oriented digital media outlet the Hoser in Toronto; and subscription-based the Logic, which does in-depth reporting on tech and the innovation economy.

These independent outlets are increasingly helping fill the gaps left by legacy media, whose funding model has changed drastically over the past 25 years as the digital era disrupted its traditional advertising revenue. 

Almost 300 local Canadian papers either shuttered or merged with other publications from 2011 to 2020, according to News Media Canada data. 

In the latest example, Postmedia Network Canada Corp. last month announced a dealto buy the Irving family’s New Brunswick newspaper chain, Brunswick News Inc. for $16.1 million in cash and shares, further consolidating local outlets within a national company. 

A recent report from the Public Policy Forum calls for "urgent" action from the Canadian government to support public-interest, fact-based journalism through policies and initiatives. One recommendation put forward is the enhancement of the $50 million program launched by the federal government in 2019 to help news outlets hire reporters to cover underserved communities, known as the Local Journalism Initiative. (The Canadian Press has a contract with News Media Canada to provide editorial oversight and distribution of LJI content, but CP does not assign or edit the stories).

Readersare the largest source of revenue for the Narwhal, a non-profit online investigative journalism outlet launched by Emma Gilchrist in 2018. Its coverage is focused on climate change and the environment, and its readers are willing to pay for that content. It doesn’t have investors or run advertising. In addition, Gilchrist and her team have been able to secure philanthropic grants to support the work. 

"We kind of took the whole rulebook for traditional media and threw it out the window," she says.

And the Narwhal is growing. Gilchrist has increased her staff to 22 from two.

"There’s a real frustration amongst people around not being able to get in-depth, context-rich coverage," she says. "They’re just so thankful that we’re covering the stories that we are and are pleased to support the work and help make it happen."

Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says that there is room for traditional media organizations and newer media ventures to collaborate, currently a more common occurrence south of the border. It could provide Canadians with a more diverse, well-rounded media landscape.

"A legacy media outlet has, for example, established distribution channels, brand recognition, and other resources, such as legal services, that can be a huge asset when undertaking a major public service journalism project," he says. 

A successful example of that is New York-based ProPublica, an independent, non-profit investigative journalism organization that has partnered since 2008 with a number of legacy outlets, including The New York Times.

Jolly believes there is the potential for a huge degree of reciprocity, not just in the reporting process, but also when it comes to sharing knowledge on how the digital transformation will influence journalism's future.

"Newer media ventures bring new skills, such as audience engagement and a targeted and segmented audience, to the table."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2022.

Adena Ali, The Canadian Press