We set out to build a new media company for Canada. Here's what we learned.
Our audacious goals were very nearly achieved.
Well, I missed a deadline. This article was scheduled to be published on Jan. 8. Clearly, that didn’t happen. The plan back in October was that I’d pen something about the roaring success of our equity crowdfunding campaign, describing how Canadians stepped up to help us take our successful model of community-based investigative journalism national.
But in the past week, every time I sat down to write my first newsletter of 2018, I hit a block. How do you write about audacious goals nearly achieved? How do you report on a campaign that was almost — but not — as successful as we ambitiously dreamed?
Still, our story is a remarkable success. Discourse was the first media outlet in Canada to ask its community to invest in its future by buying shares through a relatively new legal framework that enables small investments in private companies from people who aren’t accredited investors.
And we did it. Close to 300 investors said yes, contributing a whopping $350,000. The most exciting part, to me, is how diverse the new owners of Discourse are — from court judges, students and Indigenous leaders to tech startup founders, David Suzuki and media innovators.
When was the last time something like that happened in Canada?
The problem is that we set out to raise $500,000 from our community, which is half of the $1 million Discourse needs to fund our growth, so we missed our target. Between our community investment and the $250,000 our lead investor put in, we have 60 per cent of that cool million. I believe we’re talking to the right people to finish the job — visionary investors who are passionate about journalism and see the opportunity. But we’re not there yet. How do I write about that?
Over the last few days, I’ve come to realize that Discourse’s story is typical of many startups. 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, putting it out there again, and trying, trying, trying, until the idea takes on a life of its own.
It’s a vulnerable and humbling process.
And it was only when I decided to own my vulnerability that the words for this newsletter finally started to flow. Being radically transparent is one of Discourse’s core principles. Our hypothesis is that if our journalists acknowledge their vulnerability — what they don’t know, what they’re struggling with in their investigations, where they are in their journey of expertise — and ask for help from their respective communities, the resulting work will be stronger. So, it just makes sense to apply that to my leadership and to our business practices.
Here it goes: In 2017, Discourse set out with a huge goal: based on our years of experimenting and body of work, develop a plan and gather the resources to create a new, national media organization that could have a big impact. This is what we learned.
- Discourse’s analysis of the media industry and vision for our company is right. Period. The solution to the weakening advertising market and resulting contraction of news media is simple: Rather than eroding trust with audience members by chasing clicks in service of advertisers, let’s create a journalism product that’s so valuable to readers that they’ll pay for it. In 2018, Discourse is committed to building a better, more relevant, more compelling journalism product that’s so good, our community will pay for it. Every development in the industry — from new research about our online consumption habits to the 2017 performance of other media outlets — validates our approach.
- Raising investment capital in Canada is hard. Harder and slower than I imagined. So. Damn. Hard. I entered this process fully aware that it’d be a challenge to make the case that there is opportunity in Canada’s contracting media industry. I knew that as a female founder, I’d be further handicapped by the fact that only 4 per cent of venture capital goes to female-led companies. I knew that crowdfunding campaigns are a huge amount of work. But what a mountain to scale. Thank goodness for visionary investors who are behind us. While I had hoped to have finished our round of financing in 2017, I’m confident that we’ll get there. If you can help, please get in touch.
- No one will solve our journalism problem for us. In 2017, the conversation about the future of journalism in Canada was dominated by inquiries (from the government and Ottawa-based think tank Public Policy Forum) probing what government can do to address the decline of the industry. It’s clear that there is no political appetite to bail us out. There’s been some discussion about how reforms to Canadian Revenue Agency regulations could enable philanthropy to support journalism, as has led to the thriving nonprofit news sector in the U.S. But with little tradition of charitable giving to journalism and a much smaller foundation market in Canada, philanthropy can help — but ultimately won’t save us, either. This brings me back to point No. 1: The only way forward, as I see it, is to create a product so valuable that people will pay for it.
- We in the industry — Discourse included — must improve our culture to succeed. The last couple of years have exposed some of the worst of Canadian journalism work culture. Jian Ghomeshi. Raveena Aulakh. This bizarre story about the corporate culture of CBC. #MeToo. Discourse has always considered its commitment to creating a better work culture as part of our competitive advantage. But I’m not going to lie — this fall was an extremely stressful time for everyone at the company. If we’re going to create an environment in which we can collaborate, innovate, safely question our practice, reflect on the quality of our work and build a top-notch journalism product, we need to intentionally create a balanced and supportive culture for that.
- There’s no magic bullet for attracting audience. 2017 will go down as the year of “pivot to video” for digital media startups. This isn’t the result of a sudden skyrocketing demand from people for short social media videos; rather, it happened because Facebook privileged short video through its algorithm. “Pivot to video” is the latest in a long series of platform-driven trends that aren’t in service of audiences. The larger lesson here is that there’s no hack that’ll deliver a large audience while also supporting the brand values and audience loyalty needed to thrive in this environment in the long-term. The only strategy is to consistently invest in relevant, engaging, useful journalism that readers won’t find anywhere else. (Are you spotting a theme here?)
- Our community is our biggest asset. For me, the main takeaway from our crowdfinancing campaign is that asking our community to help is how we will succeed. I never could’ve predicted who ultimately stepped up to support us and where that support took us. Here’s but one example: During our funding campaign, amazing and powerful women kept getting in touch to become investors and make connections — an inspiring demonstration of women supporting women. One of these networks is SheEO, and through that I was connected with Mirjam van Tiel, a Dutch woman leading efforts to bring the SheEO model to The Netherlands. Mirjam is a member of the Dutch media outlet De Correspondent, the world’s most successful membership-based media outlet. When she read about our ambitions, which are very inspired by De Correspondent’s work, she immediately got it and invested. But more excitingly, Mirjam organized a group of De Correspondent members to provide feedback on our membership product before we launch it publically this spring.
So, here’s our strategy for 2018: Discourse will invest every resource we have into creating the most valuable, highest-quality journalism product we can. Something so good, Canadians will pay for it. We’ll achieve that by building from our strongest asset: our community.
This is where you come in. Can you help? Will you provide valuable feedback by becoming a beta tester of our new product (and being among the first to see Canada’s newest media outlet)? Can you help us reach our fundraising goal? (Even though our equity crowdfunding campaign is over, we will continue accepting community investors until we reach our goal.) Can you help in some way I can’t even anticipate? Get in touch.