When it comes to collaborations, Canadian publication, The Discourse, stands out with its unique approach to collaborating with community members. Launched in Vancouver in 2014, Discourse Media focuses on investigative storytelling and solutions journalism.
Erin Millar, founder and CEO of The Discourse, worked as an education reporter for a decade before starting the company. “I was in a traditional newsroom and we are trained that we should keep everyone at an arm's length,” she explains. After her stories were published, she was routinely inundated with responses from the public. “I’d get all these emails from teachers and parents saying ‘You got this wrong,’ or ‘Did you hear about this school working on a solution?’” she says. “If I had a way to have that knowledge and experience and use those connections on the ground before I publish, it would be better work.”
Inspired by the emergence of GroundSource — an engagement tool for journalists — Millar built a model that relies on collaboration with community members to determine which stories are covered and to help shape the stories themselves.
The Discourse was initially organized around beats like child welfare, Indigenous reconciliation and sexual violence against women. However, the staff realized their audience wasn’t necessarily interested in specific topics as much as they were in reading in-depth stories about particular communities. In 2015, The Discourse changed its focus to report on communities that are underserved.
As of 2018, they’re currently reporting on three communities: Cowichan Valley in British Columbia, the urban Indigenous community in the Greater Vancouver Region and the diverse community of Scarborough in Toronto. The 20-person team at Discourse is developing a model of community engagement and collaborative reporting through these communities that it hopes to replicate across Canada.
Selecting a topic
When Discourse reporters begin covering a community, they follow a specific process to ensure adequate community consultation. They’re required to interview at least 20 community members using a list of questions, including where they get information from and what topics of interest or concern aren’t being covered in the mainstream media.
The interviews are recorded and responses are transcribed and put into a spreadsheet. The community reporter works with a data journalist and producer to analyze the data and assess it for recurring keywords and themes, which form a shortlist.
Then, Discourse shares this list and puts out a call for votes so community members can weigh in on themes they want the reporter to focus on. During this process, Franchesca Fionda, a data journalist with Discourse, says they share their process with the community.
Following the vote, the reporter (one per community) prepares to center their coverage around the themes that the community demands.
Millar says this process is “probably too rigid, but we are trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work and we are limiting the variables.” Discourse doesn’t use any special software to manage all this data and she says it can be tiresome. They eventually plan to build technology to streamline and scale this process.
Themes that have emerged from the community interviews have all been different. In the urban Indigenous community in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, for example, themes include barriers to celebrating culture and access and affordability of housing. In Scarborough, the community was interested in challenging stereotypes and struggles with public transit.
These initial talks are just the beginning of how Discourse reporters engage their communities. Jacqueline Ronson, who reports on Cowichan Valley, estimates that she spends at least half of her work day directly engaging with community members. Whether it be online or in person, she makes an effort to both listen to their perspectives and explain create content that examines or explains community issues to them.
Leading up to Cowichan Valley’s referendum this year, Ronson spent weeks online breaking down what the referendum was about, fact-checking, and directly responding to people who had comments or questions.
Each of Discourse’s three community reporters runs a Facebook group to engage community members in dialogue. They also actively participate in existing local Facebook groups.
Reporters are required to attend one community event each week, which they say helps with relationship-building and trust. Reporters also host their own events. Brielle Morgan, a journalist who reported extensively on child welfare in Vancouver, hosted sessions to help parents navigate the child welfare system.
Impact of public consultations on reporting
Consultations with community members have been helpful in setting Discourse reporters’ agenda. After sharing the themes she intended to report on with the community and attending several events, Ronson was approached by numerous community members who weighed in, ultimately leading her to a different story.
She says Discourse’s model is drastically different from her previous experience as a community reporter. “The main thing that's different is the engagement work, for sure, and insisting that all of our stories come from a demand from the community,” Ronson says. “I’ve worked for community newspapers and it’s just a different model [where] you decide what’s newsworthy based on your intuition."
And her effort to engage community members hasn’t gone unnoticed. At a recent farmers market in Cowichan Valley, someone recognized Ronson and commended her for the work she was doing in their community’s Facebook group to educate people about the upcoming election and referendum.
Discourse reporters don’t report on stories that are being covered by other community journalists. They focus on in-depth reporting and are expected to provide something of value to the community every couple of weeks. Typically, this looks like a piece of reporting every two weeks and a newsletter every week.
Although collaborating with community members is key at The Discourse, Millar explains that more than any formula they have, it’s the commitment to public engagement that matters. “It’s not like we have a checklist of how we collaborate. It’s a culture and an openness.”
Expanding into new communities
Before expanding nationally, Discourse needed to raise CAD1 million in capital and ran a crowd equity funding campaign. For a minimum of CAD250 to a maximum of CAD50,000, members of the public could invest and have ownership in Discourse Media. Over 300 people responded to the call, raising CAD350,000.
“It’s been very expensive — from legal and accounting — but we felt there was something super-aligned about a community-driven outlet that’s also owned by our community,” Millar says. The remainder of Discourse’s funding came from a combination of private and angel investors and impact funds.
Finally, Discourse is building a membership base which operates on monthly donations. Unlike a subscription service, members don’t pay to access content, but rather to support Discourse’s work at-large. Millar says they haven’t been marketing it aggressively as it’s still in beta, but they already have 850 members.
Additional Reading from The Discourse
- Why Journalists Need to Listen to Communities
- Call out for community votes for stories to explore in Scarborough
- Announcement of winning theme in Cowichan Valley
- Explainer on the result of their community poll in the Lower Mainland Indigenous community
- Overview of themes reporters heard in the Lower Mainland Indigenous Community
- Invitation to Join a Story Circle
- Example of Discourse’s weekly newsletter
Jacky Habib is a freelance journalist reporting on global development, social justice, and impact. You can read more of her work on her website.