Reader-funded news outlets show resilience during pandemic

by Jillian van der Geest | Press Forward

As borders began to close and business were forced to shutter in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Narwhal’s executive director Emma Gilchrist found herself feeling anxious. 


“I’d always been confident that our revenues were diverse enough that we could weather any storm,” Gilchrist said. “But I hadn’t exactly imagined a global pandemic that shuts down the world economy.”


The Narwhal, an online magazine that publishes in-depth and investigative journalism about Canada’s natural world, had a membership appeal planned for late March that suddenly felt dubious. Gilchrist debated whether to go ahead with it or not, but given unprecedented readership numbers as people turned toward trusted sources of news, she decided to go ahead. 


What happened next exceeded her wildest expectations. The Narwhal’s membership grew by 45 per cent within six weeks, a trend reflected at many other independent news organizations that rely heavily on readers for revenue. 


At The Sprawl in Calgary, founder Jeremy Klaszus was going through a similar thought process as readers turned toward his publication more than ever before. 

“The pandemic sent Canadians looking for news sources they could trust, organizations that could provide a sense of connection at a time of profound physical disconnection,” Klaszus said. 

The Sprawl’s membership numbers back that story up. In the first 10 months of 2020, The Sprawl’s membership nearly doubled.


Meanwhile at The Tyee in Vancouver, membership is on track to grow by 56 per cent in 2020. 


“We’ve seen strong year-over-year growth of the Tyee Builders program but this year was exceptional,” said publisher Jeanette Ageson.  


The impressive growth at these independent online news outlets bucks the broader industry trend of cuts and layoffs. In just the first six weeks of the pandemic, more than 100 media outlets in Canada made cuts, with nearly 50 community newspapers shuttering and upwards of 2,000 workers being laid off, according to the Local News Research Project


But as the bottom fell out of the advertising market and the traditional media sector bled jobs, some online news outlets like Sun Peaks Independent News began pivoting to reader funding to fill the gap. 


“The reality is that the local advertising business model we relied on before COVID-19 is unlikely to return any time soon, or ever,” Brandi Schier, owner, publisher and managing editor, wrote to her readers.


In just over two weeks, Schier raised nearly $30,000 from her readers. And she wasn’t alone. 


In the same time period, several other new digital outlets launched: Peterborough Currents, offering in-depth journalism with deep community roots in Peterborough, Ont.; La Converse, a community-powered media outlet serving francophone Canadians, especially in underserved communities in Quebec; Spark YQL, Lethbridge, Alberta’s, first independent news outlet; and The Discourse Nanaimo, an expansion of The Discourse from the Cowichan Valley.


Still, the picture isn’t all rosy for independent news outlets. Other sources of revenue, from rental income and events to major donors and foundation grants, are all taking a hit from the pandemic. 


“The takeaway for me is that strong relationships with our readers and revenue diversification is the key,” Gilchrist of The Narwhal said. “That way, in hard times, one source of revenue that’s flourishing can help make up for another source that’s suffering.”

Press Forward works to ensure people in Canada have strong independent and community-focused journalism. We unify, elevate and advocate for media organizations in Canada to strengthen innovation, inclusivity and diversity in media across the country.

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